The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games and life converge

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown- At the Halfway Point

“Don’t pretend like you deserve any better! Continue with the operation!” –AWACS Bandog

After successfully defending the 444th’s airbase from attack, Trigger is deployed to act as a decoy for Osean forces that are mounting an offensive on Erusean facilities. After drones arrive, Spare Squadron is forced to retreat, and one of the pilots are shot down by the drones. The 444th are subsequently deployed to deal with Erusean radar stations. When nearby allied fighters require assistance amidst a thunderstorm, Spare Squadron is sent to help. They are able to shoot down a number of drones, but an Su-30M appears and destroys several aircraft. Trigger is ordered to engage this unknown pilot and buys enough time for the others to escape. The Su-30M and its escorts eventually retreat as the weather worsens. With the drones becoming increasingly problematic, Spare Squadron is assigned to attack an Erusean oil refinery and storage site. Some tankers manage to escape into a sandstorm, but on Bandog’s orders, Trigger manages to eliminate them before they can deliver their cargo. In a later operation, Trigger is assigned to destroy additional Erusean radar sites, although a flight of F/A-18s ambush Spare Squadron. Bandog tags these as hostile, and despite fire from the Helios missiles, Spare Squadron eliminates the hostile aircraft. Full Band is also shot down in a friendly fire incident. The 444th’s actions in combat have earned them a full pardon, and Osean moves to merge the 444th with their regular forces. Colonel D. McKinsey is reassigned, and Spare Squadron escorts his craft over Erusean airspace. After destroying multiple surface-to-air missile sites, an unidentified drone appears. Trigger engages the drone and after a fierce battle, manages to shoot it down. Ace Combat 7‘s halfway point sees Trigger engage in a variety of missions in different environments, and over the course of these levels, players begin accumulating the in-game currency needed to upgrade their aircraft.

Ace Combat 7 utilises the Aircraft Tree system that was first seen in Ace Combat: Infinity. Earlier Ace Combat titles required that players score a certain number of points and complete missions, or else accomplish specific tasks, to unlock aircraft. However, from Infinity onwards, aircraft and upgrade parts could also be unlocked using a tree-like schema. This system was entirely absent in Assault Horizon, which gave players a pre-set selection of aircraft to use during a mission, and as such, Ace Combat 7‘s progression system can be seen as a vast improvement over its predecessor. With the ability to fine-tune aircraft, older aircraft can be made to perform much more reliably in increasingly complex missions, and players can pick the specific parts that accommodate their play-styles. The tree also forces players to choose their aircraft and parts carefully: on the first play-through, players will not be able to unlock everything outright, and instead, it is a wiser decision to invest in one branch of the Aircraft Tree until they hit the end. Besides allowing for a degree of customisation not seen in earlier Ace Combat titles, the Aircraft Tree also encourages replay: completing missions at different difficulties, gunning for the S-ranks and playing multiplayer matches will yield in-game currency that can be used to buy parts. Over time, players will be able to complete the tree by playing the game. The Aircraft Tree speaks to the replay value of Ace Combat 7 with its design, and I’m presently working my way through the American line of aircraft with the goal of unlocking the F-22 Raptor for its performance and cool factor.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • The sixth mission reminds me a great deal of settings in Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy, an iOS game I played more than six years ago. Of course, being a full-fledged game with desktop hardware powering it means that Ace Combat 7 is superior in every way except in the department of pricing: I got Air Supremacy for a mere five dollars. Having said this, the Sky Gamblers series of games were very impressive for their time and platform, rivalling a PlayStation 2 in terms of visual fidelity.

  • For this annihilation mission, I ended up going with the MiG-21 and its machine-gun pods again. The point of an annihilation mission, a direct translation of the Japanese 殲滅 (senmetsujyutping cim1 mit6), is to destroy a quota of targets such that one can reach a certain score under a time limit. These missions are probably old hat for anyone who’s played an Ace Combat game previously, but for new players, it can be a little tricky to decide which targets to prioritise – Assault Horizon had Air Strike Mode which gave players a much easier time of engaging ground targets, and in Ace Combat 7, it’s up to the players and their judgement to decide how to approach the mission.

  • Having the Eight Target Air-to-Ground Missile (8AGM) would make annihilation missions trivally easy, but at this point in the game, I only have the MiG-21 and its machine gun pods. The challenge that one is thus faced with is the prioritisation of targets: strafing ground targets from a bad angle means the need to circle around and then attack again, consuming precious time. If one has powerful anti-ground munitions, this becomes much easier, but things are still doable in their absence: slowing down and concentrating fire on targets will allow one to take out several ground targets in one run.

  • Destruction is more impressive in Ace Combat 7 than it ever was in Assault Horizon: being able to destroy bridges connecting the plateaus of two mesas together is one example of the sort of stunts one can pull off in a true Ace Combat game, and the feeling of accomplishment from taking on ground targets without Air Strike Mode is more pronounced. After a set amount of time has elapsed, drones will appear in this mission, and they fill the sky with missiles. Careless players will be destroyed in seconds, and I found that keeping an eye on the radar was the best way to determine how to evade a missile.

  • There’s a return line in the sixth mission: these are intended for players to resupply should they run low on munitions, and while Bandog will tell players this isn’t for them, players will be able to utilise it should their stores run dry. Using it does not affect the story, but can cost precious time. I ended up finishing the mission without making use of it: the lower score requirement on easy difficulty means that things are a bit more lenient. Once I become more versed with the levels and their objectives, I am going to return the game on normal difficulty to unlock the Wyvern.

  • The seventh mission is set in Yinshi Valley, a beautiful valley resembling Hunan’s Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Zhangjiajie resembles karst formations, but the area is not composed of limestone: instead, the quartz-sandstone formations were formed from countless years of physical erosion. It stands to reason that Yinshi Valley has a similar history. The narrow formations make flight here tricky; it takes patience to get through the rock pillars and target the ground forces. Ace Combat missions are rarely straightforwards, and midway through the mission, drones appear.

  • One of my favourite aspect about the Spare Squadron missions is the banter that goes on between Bandog and the 444th’s convicts. Bandog comes across as someone who takes himself too seriously and enjoys his job a little too much; the exchanges between him and the sharp-tongued Count are hilarious and give the missions a light-hearted feel. It’s a far cry from the all-serious dialogue of Assault Horizon, and adds humour into the game, humanising the characters as effectively as heartfelt speeches could.

  • After learning that the seventh mission was going to involve some of the most serious anti-air combat I’d seen, I decided to field the F-14D, which was the most powerful aircraft I had at the time for anti-air combat. Its main advantage is a larger missile payload, which would allow me to handle the drones and surprise of this mission more effectively than guns alone.

  • As the mission progresses, lightning strikes become more frequent and intense. If the player is hit by lightning, their HUD malfunctions and targetting goes offline for a few moments. Manoeuvrability is also reduced, leaving players at risk of crashing into the rocks. Whether one gets hit by lightning or not is a matter of chance, and while players do not incur damage from being hit, the attendant immobilisation can cause certain death amidst the rock pillars.

  • I don’t claim to be an expert in all things Ace Combat, but I have no qualms with sharing my experiences in the game. This is far removed from the antics that some, such as Tango-Victor-Tango’s “Imca”, claim to have had extensive “practise” doing, such as “only [taking] damage in the campaign twice, and [flying] though the wires of suspension bridges for fun”. While they claim “the secret is that [they] play way more video games then[sic] westerners do and have more practice”, I find that anyone who speaks in this manner is probably being untruthful about their station: the last time I saw someone with such a lofty attitude, they were attempting to convince others that they were an instrumental member of the World of Tanks staff.

  • After most of the drones are eliminated, I fly above the clouds and turn to face a new opponent that has remained hitherto unseen. The atmospherics here are spectacular, and definitely show just how far Ace Combat has come from its beginnings – even Infinity and Assault Horizon seem drab in comparison compared to Ace Combat 7, where lighting effects and volumetric clouds add considerable depth to the look and feel of the game.

  • Mihaly A. Shilage is the enemy ace of Ace Combat 7, being the counterpart to Assault Horizon‘s Markov. Up until now, he’s terrorised the player by being an unseen threat who downs several named characters, and his skills are legendary. When players finally have a chance to confront him, he’s a very skilled pilot who can evade and surprise players. However, Mihaly’s moves are still within the realm of what players can keep up with, and other pilots comment on Trigger’s skill in being able to hold off Mihaly long enough for allied forces to escape. After sustaining enough damage, Mihaly will order a retreat, ending the mission.

  • The eighth mission is another annihilation mission in its first segment: the goal is to destroy as much stuff as possible before the timer runs to zero. I ended up picking the MiG-21 because it was equipped with rocket pods: a combination of large clusters of stationary targets and insufficient funds to buy aircraft equipped with the 8AGM, coupled with my familiarity with rocket pods, meant that this aircraft was satisfactory for the job at hand.

  • Being able to fly around and destroy highly explosive, combustible materials is the sort of thing that every kid imagines doing. Strafing ground targets and making stuff go boom made the first part of this mission superbly fun. In reality, doing this to a refinery and port of this size would create an ecological disaster rivalling the Gulf War’s effects, where retreating Iraqi forces lit Kuwait’s oil fields on fire to deny other parties from accessing the resources.

  • Of course, since it’s a video game, we don’t have quite the ramifications, and so, players can torch oil processing plants, storage sites, tankers and refining units without any guilt. I’ve noticed that the overpressure waves in Ace Combat 7 are much more distinct than those of Assault Horizon: the latter actually has a more realistic overpressure wave, being a subtle lens of air formed by the explosion that is just barely visible.

  • The second half to the mission is a little less entertaining, involving flying around in a sandstorm to locate tanker trucks. It took me a few attempts to get this right, and I found myself flying into the ground more often than I liked while hunting down the tanker trucks. The disruptive effects of the sandstorm made it difficult to track down everything, and UAVs later arrive to make things more tricky. Besides affecting visibility and steering, the sandstorm also makes for uninteresting screenshots.

  • Mission nine takes players high into the mountains as Trigger continues to engage ground radar installations ahead of Osea’s counterattack. Bandog will advise players on how to avoid setting off the missiles, but for some reason or another, I interpreted this as the game prohibiting players from using missiles, lest the operation failed. While English is technically not my first language (that honour belongs to Cantonese), I have native fluency in English, so for something like this to happen is actually quite atypical. I would rate my Cantonese as intermediate: while I have native fluency when speaking, I can’t read or write anywhere nearly as effectively.

  • I ended up using only my guns to destroy the radar stations and their surrounding defenses anyways, and in retrospect, using my missiles would have made the mission considerably easier. Still, I got the job done, and it was fairly entertaining to roast ground targets with naught more than the F-15C’s M61 Vulcan. The F-15C is my latest purchase at this point: in reality, the F-15C is a single-seat, twin-engine air superiority fighter with an excellent combat record and despite its age, is a formidable fighter.

  • During the mission, anti-air missiles will lock onto and track players if they gain too much altitude. Flying lower to the ground or into the clouds will mitigate the risk, but inside the clouds, players run into a different set of challenges. Missiles take longer to lock on, and staying in cloud cover for prolonged periods will cause ice to build up. I equipped a de-icer to help with this as a part of my upgrade setup, allowing me to fly through clouds for longer. No longer a cosmetic entity, clouds offer a tactical means of escaping multiple missiles without expending countermeasures.

  • After the radar stations are destroyed, “friendly” F/A-18s appear. They turn out to be hostile, using a spoofed IFF signals to masquerade as allied fighters. The Identification, Friend or Foe system identifies friendly aircraft by emitting a signal that aircraft listen for. A friendly aircraft will recognise that signal and send a response back to the emitter. These systems can only positively identify friendly aircraft – enemy aircraft or friendly aircraft with an inactive or malfunctioning transponder will not be distinguishable. This confusion is rectified when Bandog manually tags the aircraft, allowing Spare Squadron to finally engage them.

  • The F/A-18 is a solid multi-role aircraft, and fighting against them was a thrilling experience. As if this was not enough, one of the Arsenal Birds begins slamming the area with Helios missiles. These long-range ballistic missiles have a powerful airburst effect and emit an unearthly blue light upon detonation. Bandog will advise players the impact zone, and should players be hit, they will sustain massive damage. The Helios was first seen during the second mission, being carried by a land vehicle, and at that point, unsuspecting players may be surprised by an unexpected weapon.

  • In Ace Combat 7, the consequences of death are more unforgiving than Assault Horizon, which, in retrospect, was too easy in that players had regenerating health and checkpoints were more common. Ace Combat 7, on the other hand, has a few checkpoints, and damage is cumulative, forcing players with fly with more caution and skill. This added challenge makes Ace Combat 7 a superbly engaging game, although upgrade parts allow players to reduce ground damage or else automatically repair some damage.

  • Here, I fly near a Helios explosion: surprises like these are what make each mission in Ace Combat 7 entertaining: like a classic Ace Combat title, Skies Unknown does not need to change the gameplay or perspective away from one character, and as such, has much more focus. In conjunction with the aircraft tree, Ace Combat 7 has a very high replay value, and I can see myself going through missions again in the future to unlock everything. Assault Horizon did not have this feeling, and while some missions are worth replaying, the game as a whole lacks the same replay value.

  • The biggest surprise in mission nine is when Bandog deliberately tags Full Band as hostile, causing one of Count’s missiles to shoot him down in a friendly fire incident. While Bandog passes it off as an accident, dialogue suggests that Full Band knew something that might have been compromising, foreshadowing a future mission.

  • Overall, I was very pleased with the F-15C, and its performance as a fighter in Ace Combat 7 makes it a worthy plane of using into later missions for its power in the skies. Its missile payload also gives it versatility, and it can deal with ground targets without too much trouble: when players defend Colonel McKinsey, his aircraft is targetted by surface-to-air missiles launched from unknown positions. Smoke trails allow players to easily find the launch sites and destroy the launchers.

  • If McKinsey’s aircraft is destroyed, the tenth mission will fail, so it is imperative to eliminate as many SAM sites and aircraft as possible. During the whole of the mission, McKinsey expresses open displeasure at Spare Squadron, but this is idle chatter, and focusing on the mission at hand will allow McKinsey’s aircraft to reach its destination without too much trouble. During this escort mission, enemy fighters will also appear, but in small enough numbers so that they’re not a serious problem to deal with.

  • Even though I’m halfway into Ace Combat 7, the satisfaction of being able to destroy enemies without Dogfight Mode is immense. Ace Combat 7 has been an excellent game well worth the price of admissions, bringing the PlayStation 2 experience over into a modern title. It appears that this trend is returning in games: games of old with solid gameplay are fondly remembered, and save their dated graphics, can handle comparably, or even better than modern titles. Returning Ace Combat to their fundamentals, while introducing improved visuals and handling has resulted in an excellent title, and this concept is now being applied to Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which is coming to PC on Steam.

  • An unknown drone appears as the final enemy, and Trigger is tasked with dealing with it while McKinsey’s aircraft returns into Osean territory. This drone is far more sophisticated than anything players will have faced before, but there is only a single drone to deal with. Because it is a machine and therefore immune to high G-forces, it can turn very sharply and surprise players. I ended up making distance and then hammering it with the F-15C’s Short-Range Aerial Suppression Missiles (SASM), airburst missiles that can deal some damage to an enemy even if it’s not a direct hit.

  • The drone is eventually downed, and the tenth mission comes to an end. I am aiming to wrap up Ace Combat 7 by April so I can get a start on Valkyria Chronicles 4, and with news of The Master Chief Collection coming to PC (this will include fully remastered versions of Halo: ReachHalo: Combat EvolvedHalo 2Halo 3Halo 3: ODST and Halo 4), I have every intent of getting the full Halo experience. The Halo games are legendary, and I had almost given up the hope of continuing the Halo experience on PC after finishing Halo 2: Vista and becoming a legend in my own right in the multiplayer. However, with this dream now a reality, I foresee myself playing more Halo and less of everything else, even Battlefield, so it is prudent to at least finish the titles that I have remaining.

While Ace Combat 7 is limited in what it can do with its gameplay owing to its genre, the game has been surprisingly refreshing and varied. While the objectives invariably end up being very similar (defend something, destroy a certain amount of stuff under a time limit, etc), the varied settings of Ace Combat 7 keep things fresh. From deserts, to rocky valleys resembling those of China, and more temperate surroundings, the missions are each unique and distinct in their own right – the locations players have passed through in earlier Ace Combat games are brought to life in the Unreal 4 Engine. The gameplay may be repetitive, but the combination of beautiful settings and surprisingly entertaining characters, plus the fact that some missions have a surprise (such as the chance to fight Mihaly one-on-one in mission seven, or the appearance of the Helios missiles in mission nine), allows the game to remain fresh. I’m looking very much forwards to continuing: having seen some of the upcoming missions, I know the second half of Ace Combat 7 is going to be spectacular. In the meantime, with the accrued in-game currency I’ve currently got, I’m able to begin improving my planes in a slow but steady manner: the American tree offers some solid upgrades to acceleration, manoeuvrability and missile power that has certainly made many missions more straightforward – as entertaining as the MiG-21’s basic loadout is, newer aircraft have proven more effective for missions involving a great deal of air combat.

2 responses to “Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown- At the Halfway Point

  1. ernietheracefan March 14, 2019 at 10:40

    If McKinsey’s aircraft is destroyed, the tenth mission will fail

    Amusingly, Bandog would say that it wasn’t worth protecting though..

    If you noticed, Bandog is only nice to Trigger, and not really agree with McKinsey decisions..

    Like

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