“Stick with Trigger and you’ll make it.” ―Tabloid
Impressed with Trigger’s performance, the General Staff Office reopen the case on his involvement with Harling’s death, and Trigger is transferred into the Long Range Strategic Strike Group. Taking on the call-sign Strider 1 and adapting the sin lines on his aircraft into claw marks, Trigger’s first operation is to engage the Erusean fleet. He then participates in the defense of Stonehenge, allowing the Osean forces to reactivate one of there derelict rail guns at the Stonehenge installation and destroy the Arsenal Bird Liberty. With the Erusean military growing desperate, Strider Squadron is sent to destroy Erusean ICBM silos, before taking on a night mission to capture a Erusean air base and free prisoners of war. Osean forces prepare to capture Farbanti, the Erusean capital. After aiding ground forces in the operation, Sol Squadron and Mihaly appear. As Trigger dogfights with Mihaly and Sol Squadron, his aircraft’s electronic systems malfunction, and Mihaly orders his forces to withdraw, citing the dangers of flying in unknown conditions. It turns out that the Eruseans destroyed the Osean communications satellites in retaliation for the destruction of their own satellites, creating a debris field in orbit that have since damaged other satellites, causing surface communications to become unreliable. While ground forces successfully capture Farbanti, the loss of communications forces the Oseans to regroup and consider their next action. Pushing through Ace Combat 7‘s third quarter, the intensity and urgency of each mission has increased, creating momentum that compels players to keep going to see what happens next. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with Ace Combat 7 thus far, but the later missions are in a league of their own, allowing players to test their skills as they unlock more aircraft and upgrade components.
Ace Combat 7 has succeeded in putting the “ace” back in Ace Combat; previous titles similarly had rookie pilots ascend to fame as their exploits become the stuff of legends. In Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, Blaze of Razgriz began as a green pilot assigned to Sand Island, but becomes increasingly well-known after participating in various operations. This feeling was largely absent in Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. While William Bishop was a capable pilot in his own right, players never feel as though Bishop has advanced through the ranks to become a legend because he already entered the story as a capable pilot. Instead, his doubts and fears are a part of the narrative; while not the worst thing to experience, Assault Horizon’s story was also far removed from the more introspective and engaging approach older Ace Combat games had. However, in Ace Combat 7, the design elements from earlier titles make a triumphant return, and for me, nothing was comparable to watching Trigger become a fearsome legend that struck fear into those who saw the Three Strikes. I’ve long known that Mister-X, Mihaly, was a pilot of legendary skill, so to hear other pilots speak of Trigger as though he were a saviour (for allies) or dæmon (for enemies) was a clear sign that Trigger was fast advancing as a pilot. From taking down experimental drones to fighting Sol Squadron and Mihaly to a standstill on his own, players feel very much a part of the Ace Combat universe, immersing them into the game and making every successful mission a rewarding experience that encourages players to continue onto later levels with a sense of excitement.
Screenshots and Commentary
- While the F/A-18F is on an alternative branch to unlocking the F-22, I figured that its payload of anti-ship missiles (the AGM-84 Harpoon) would make the aircraft a potent choice against the ships encountered in the tenth mission. As the mission begins, the new AWACS operator, Longcaster, remarks that he’s going to be eating lunch while operating. The pilots have their hands full and an irate Count wonders why Longcaster’s mind is on sandwiches while they’re in the middle of battle.
- The eleventh mission is an annihilation mission, and the name of the game will be to destroy as much stuff as possible before the timer drops to zero. There are two platforms in the mission area, and they are covered with targets. Some missions in Ace Combat 7 are total and utter chaos, making them immensely fun to go through. Attacking ground targets without Assault Horizon‘s air strike mode means that one must determine their own angle of attack to maximise damage dealt per run.
- The worth of having the LASM as a special weapon mean that most frigates and destroyers can be wiped in one shot. These missiles are exceptionally effective against ships, but lack splash damage, making them less effective in other functions. Their flight path is also limited, so the ships protected between concrete walls are much harder to hit with the LASMs – I typically used them against ships that were in open water, and instead, used a combination of guns and missiles to engage the ships that were protected.
- Being a direct upgrade to the F/A-18, the F/A-18F Super Hornet has a longer flight range, improved handling and better electronics. The Canadian government is struggling to replace its aging inventory of Hornets, and the Super Hornet has been one aircraft up for consideration, going up against the F-35. While the F-35 is considerably more expensive than a Super Hornet, its performance is superior overall. This subject has been the point of contention, and at this point in time, we ended up picking up F/A-18s from Australia as an interim solution, although personally, I’m not sure if this was the best decision.
- The platforms have a central support structure within that is designated as a core, and these will cause entire platforms to crumble once they sustain enough damage. I suspect that experienced players with a mastery over their aircraft will be able to hit these targets with relative ease, although for me, I ended up taking more than a few passes to hit the cores and destroy the entire platform.
- A large platform off the coast has a small segment that players can fly into, and with the right skills, one can make short work of the cores here to bring the platform down. I’ve found that my scores for Annihilation missions are weaker than standard missions, but on the whole, Ace Combat 7‘s scoring system has been much more consistent than Assault Horizon‘s. I know that there are coveted S-ranks to gun for, but scoring A-ranks on missions I’m seeing for the first time isn’t too shabby.
- Being able to fight at Stonehenge and defend the facility is the ultimate form of fanservice in Ace Combat 7: Stonehenge was a railgun system that first appeared in Ace Combat 4 and returned in Infinity. With Unreal Engine 4 driving things, Stonehenge looks as good as it ever has, and it is a thrill to finally fly here for the first time on PC. I felt that, since I would be in a mission involving railguns, I wanted a railgun of my own. I thus equipped the F/A-18F’s Electromagnetic Launcher (EML), a highly powerful single-shot weapon that accelerates heavy slugs at hypersonic velocities towards their targets for massive damage.
- This twelfth mission involves fending off ground and air targets from Stonehenge while Osean technicians work towards restoring the eighth railgun’s functionality. There are three sites to defend from ground assault, and occasionally, bombers will appear. The mission can seem daunting, but fortunately, it can be thought of as a highly visceral tower defense mission – bombers are the first priority, and when the AWACs announces bombers are approaching, one should drop whatever they’re doing and take them out first.
- When there are no bombers in the skies, ground targets should be dealt with. There are three groups, each attacking a support site; each group consists of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, anti-air guns and surface-to-air missile launchers. Tanks should be destroyed first (there are both standard and AD Tanks that deal massive damage to ground facilities), followed by APCs. Anti-air weapons can be engaged last. In this manner, players can effectively take down forces engaging Stonehenge. Once all targets are eliminated, rocket artillery and helicopters carrying soldiers will appear.
- I ended up taking on the helicopters, leaving the other aircraft to deal with the rocket artillery. The radio chatter in Ace Combat should not be ignored, as it offers insights on which areas are sustaining more damage and when enemies are incoming. As players clear the ground and skies, the Osean crews prepare Stonehenge for firing, but encounter issues with using a decades-old weapon. When it was first constructed, Stonehenge was an incredibly sophisticated weapon – chatter on the ground shows that disrepair has fallen upon the weapon. As the weapon reaches full charge, the Arsenal Bird appears.
- Using the EML is typically reserved for hitting slow-moving or distant targets for massive damage: the EML can one-shot almost anything, and bombers go down with ease. However, I ended up saving my slugs for the Arsenal Bird’s propellers. Ignoring the MQ-101 drones in the air, I made a beeline for the Arsenal Bird, lowered my airspeed and positioned myself behind it to fire. Using what is essentially a miniature Stonehedge bolted onto my aircraft, I blasted at the propellers to slow this leviathan down.
- On the ground, the crew operating the automated targetting systems for Stonehenge have been destroyed, forcing the ground crews to aim manually using range tables. Major Deanna McOnie is in charge of this operation, and while a calm, collected leader throughout, traces of desperation can be heard in her voice. Despite the lack of faces during gameplay, the voice acting in Ace Combat 7 is solid, and for me, marks the first time in a Strangereal Ace Combat game where the English dialogue sounds appropriate, without being too corny in nature.
- Once both propellers are destroyed (made easy by the EML’s sheer damage per shot), the Arsenal Bird will slow down, and the mission comes to an end. Even after the Arsenal Bird deploys its active protection system, an energy shield that can repel conventional weaponry with ease, the shot from Stonehenge cuts through the shield and tears the Arsenal Bird in half. The burning remains land in the desert below, and the Eruseans are suddenly down a powerful air-denial weapon.
- Mission thirteen has Strider Squadron attacking Erusean ICBM sites to prevent them from using these as a response to the loss of an Arsenal Bird. Players must switch out their special weapons for a laser targetting pod that designates ground targets for bunker-buster bombs. After a target is painted with a laser, players must keep their aircraft on their intended target until the bomb strikes. There are five real silos, but a large number of fake ones. The first silo is always guaranteed to be real.
- It is worth locating a silo and softening its defenses up before attempting to laser a target for the bombs: silos are often placed in unwieldy locations, and placing too much faith in the HUD can result in a bomb missing its mark. By flying over a suspected silo, one can ascertain where it is located, and then designate the target with enough certainty that a bomb will strike it. If one misses, there is a bit of a reloading time while players must wait for the allied bomber to prepare its next bomb.
- Using a targetting pod to designate targets is Ace Combat 7‘s answer to Assault Horizon‘s Launch mission, which allowed players to fly a B-1B Lancer or B2 Spirit through a radar-covered valley before using air strike mode to pound ground targets to pieces. While players cannot pilot bombers, using a targetting pod gives players plenty of freedom, showing that even without the scripted cinematics of Assault Horizon, Ace Combat 7‘s traditional gameplay mechanics are superior in terms of player choice and correspondingly, enjoyment.
- Having only played the mission once so far, I’m not too sure if the ICBM sites are fixed, or if the genuine ones will rotate around at random to truly test player skills. An experienced pilot will likely determine an optimal flight path that will allow them to hit each site in the minimum time, so that knowing which sites house real ICBMs is irrelevant. Once all of the silos are destroyed, players are given a new challenge: intercept the ICBMs launched from a dam below before they accelerate enough to move out of firing range.
- Successful destruction of an ICBM thankfully only requires good missile hits, unlike the Trinity bomb of Assault Horizon‘s final mission, and results in a spectacular detonation that fills the screen with light. The further I push through Ace Combat 7, the more obvious it is that many of the mechanics in Assault Horizon were unnecessary: the old mechanics seen in Fires of Liberation and earlier have evidently worked, so going back to these roots results in an improved experience. One thing I would very much like to see is properly remastered versions of Shattered Skies and The Unsung War for PC in the Unreal Engine.
- Whereas Assault Horizon utilised the night mission setting for a bomber mission, Ace Combat 7 has players flying through a narrow valley while avoiding searchlights en route to a Erusean base. In Assault Horizon, I would not have had the confidence to perform such manoeuvres, but the controls in Ace Combat 7 have been flawless. I’ve been playing with a keyboard-only setup, using WASD for acceleration and yaw, arrow keys for pitching and rolling, and then the spacebar for firing missiles. The only thing I can’t effectively do is turn the camera, but I do have enough precision to do most everything else in game.
- The canyon players must fly through for mission fourteen narrows, and to add a further challenge, players cannot exceed a height of six hundred metres lest they be picked up by enemy radars. It’s another test of patience for players, but those who can make it through the canyon can be assured that they now have a sufficiently strong command over the controls for the remaining challenges left in Ace Combat 7.
- By the fourteenth mission, I’ve unlocked the F-15E Strike Eagle. An upgrade to the F-15C, the F-15E is superior all around and comes with six-target air-to-air missiles (6AAM), which excel for hitting scores of slower air targets. Highly manoeuvrable targets will evade these multi-target missiles, but for slower targets, they’re fairly effective. The F-15E also comes with self-forging munitions for anti-ground capabilities, as well as the legendary tactical laser system. For now, I’ve not chosen to unlock the other special weapons on the F-15E.
- After coming out of the valley, I clear out air and ground forces while Osean ground teams move to capture the base. The Erusean base stands no chance, and when the operation is complete, Erusean forces are taken as prisoners of war, although the Oseans seem to be in high spirits and declare to their POWs that they’ve even brought in pizza. While some game journalists count this as clichéd, remarks like these do much to enhance the humour of the game, reminding players that Ace Combat is at the end of the day, a game meant for entertainment.
- Gaming journalists tend to take themselves too seriously in this day and age, and it suddenly strikes me that we’re nearing on the five-year mark since a rather major incident involving alleged favouritism in a “game” for being an important contribution to gaming (despite said “game”‘s exceptionally poor production values and messages). The resulting fallout sparked flame wars on social media sites, and also diminished the relevance of gaming journalism, a field that is shrinking from the advent of YouTube channels that allow prospective players to see gameplay in greater detail.
- While I still find value in gaming articles that deal with release dates, mechanics and other developer insights, I’m increasingly finding myself taking to YouTube to assess how a game plays before making a decision. This is how I came to pick up Ace Combat 7 with conviction after its launch, and I’ve been loving every second of it. I’m strongly considering purchasing The Division 2, as well: the game looks to have taken all feedback from The Division to produce a superior game overall. My only constraint is time: I would very much like to finish Valkyria Chronicles 4 first. Back in Ace Combat, after strafing the base repeatedly, I complete the fourteenth mission in good time, and fly over the base in a victory lap.
- The fifteenth mission is set over the Erusean capital of Farbanti, a sprawling city with a portion of its central financial district underwater from the Ulysses 1994XF04 impact. The first part of the mission is an annihilation mission, but despite the plethora of ground targets to attack suggesting a multi-role aircraft would be suited for the task ahead, I felt that equipping the F-15C and its pulse lasers for the first time would be more effective, as the pulse lasers would allow me to deal with air and ground targets alike.
- It turns out that even in their base form, the pulse lasers are incredibly effective: only a few shots are needed to destroy aircraft, and even from a distance of five kilometers, shots from the pulse laser can still reach an enemy aircraft. I upgraded my lasers with an increased hit-box size, allowing them to hit targets with greater certainty, and was superbly impressed with how they made short work of enemy aircraft outside of missile range.
- One thing that I did need to be mindful of was that there’s actually more after players have reached the scoring requirements for the annihilation mission. I’ve expended much of my ammunition destroying ground targets, and flying to the return line in some missions can take some time. My solution was that at check points, I would simply restart at the checkpoint, allowing me to fully replenish all stores and return my damage to zero.
- Ace Combat games have come a very long way in visuals: even Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation looks dated compared to Ace Combat 7. Urban settings have been greatly improved; rather than flat texture maps denoting low rises seen in earlier titles, smaller 3D assets are present to give even individual cargo containers and storage sheds three dimensions, adding much to the game from a graphics perspective.
- Once players hit the time limit, Sol Squadron and Mihaly appear. While the goal is supposedly to shoot down Mihaly, this strictly isn’t possible, and players should instead focusing on whittling down Sol Squadron. The pulse lasers make short work of anyone who isn’t Mihaly, and the wisdom of having returned to the ever-reliable F-15C becomes clear here. The mission ends when Sol Squadron sustains enough damage; as players turn their attention to the remaining bogey, their HUD suddenly flickers.
- I will be returning in early April to conclude my thoughts on Ace Combat 7, where I will explore thematic elements and my final thoughts on the first true Ace Combat title for PC. Patient readers will have noticed that after a few anime posts this month, I’ve slowed down and reverted to writing about games. Things have been busy on my end, and admittedly, I’ve been watching much less anime than I have in previous seasons. With this in mind, I am actively watching Endro! and have every intention to write about what turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
At the three-quarters mark, I’ve unlocked both the F-15C and F-15E models: the F-15C is the ultimate air superiority aircraft whose performance makes it well suited for air engagements, while the F-15E has better all around performance and can be outfitted to be effective against ground targets, an upgraded F-15C is no slouch in performance. Possessing pulse lasers, the F-15C is a solid contender in aerial battles, with the lasers’ range and damage making them a powerful choice against enemy planes. Against Sol Squadron in Farbanti, I engaged my opponents with confidence. Besides improved aircraft, I also greatly enjoyed the alternative perspectives that Ace Combat 7‘s third quarter has to offer. Fighting to defend the Stonehenge superweapon from Erusean forces, players find themselves at the opposite side of the fence; Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies had players mounting an assault on Stonehenge to prevent occupying Erusean forces from using the weapon. Stonehenge was originally constructed to intercept Ulysses 1994XF04, an asteroid measuring 1600 kilometres across. While the weapon managed to reduce casualties, it was not a silver bullet. The weapon has become an iconic part of the Ace Combat lore, and seeing the complex in Unreal Engine 4 was a breath of fresh air. It was an honour to finally fly over the superweapon that is a major piece of the Strangereal universe, and this time, rather than attacking its rail guns, players must defend it long enough so that the decades-old complex could be used to down an Arsenal Bird. With one Arsenal Bird down, and Farbanti captured, Ace Combat 7 is shifting into high gear for its final quarter.