“It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot” –Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Top Gun: Maverick
As players became increasingly proficient in Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, they would slowly progress towards unlocking the Erusean-made X-02 Wyvern and Gründer Industries’ ADF-01 Falken, two of the most powerful aircraft in the game. The unlock requirements for both aircraft are steep: the Wyvern is earned by buying at least one of every other aircraft in the game, while the Falken is unlocked by destroying five special hangars hidden throughout the campaign missions, and then on top of this, earning enough currency to buy the aircraft. The efforts in doing so, however, were quickly apparent; the Wyvern and Falken are both incredibly manoeuverable, allowing players to accelerate and decelerate with ease, turn on a dime and maintain a bead on other foes thanks to its impressive handling. These planes excel in very specific roles: the Wyvern equips advanced long-range AA missiles that can lock onto four targets at once at long ranges and is capable of destroying entire squadrons at once, while the Falken’s iconic tactical laser torched anything it touched on short order. Being the most capable aircraft in The Unsung War, I’ve longed to fly both the Wyvern and Falken. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown‘s Season Pass offers instant access to these aircraft on top of three additional campaign missions: representing a chance to realise a dream I’ve had since I was in middle school, I picked up the content and immediately found myself with Skies Unknown‘s most powerful aircraft. At that point, I’d already completed the campaign once, so I was already familiar with the mechanics, and upon hopping into the game, it became clear as to why these superplanes were included into the game. Besides being a nostalgic callback to earlier titles, the superplanes live up to their reputation as the most advanced aircraft available to players. However, while The Unsung War required players to earn access to these veritable game-changers, Skies Unknown had made these planes available to anyone with a credit card. At first glance, this diminished the thrill of having the superplanes, since next to no effort needed to be spent in-game to earn them, but looking back, Skies Unknown perfectly balances their aircraft out so that players aren’t given an overwhelming advantage merely because they could buy the DLC.
While the Falken, Morgen and Raven are exceptional aircraft with excellent handling traits, far above those of the other aircraft available in Skies Unknown, their base weapon performance remains unaffected. One must still master dogfighting and aerial manoeuvres to enter a position where they can shoot down their targets. The planes still share the same limitations as other aircraft in that one can only carry a single special weapon with them at a time, and weapons still require a certain amount of knowledge to use effectively. The Raven has unlimited pulse lasers as its gun, but pulse lasers are blocked by moisture, leaving one without a good close-quarters tool if their foes should fly into a cloud. Bringing a tactical laser into a mission with large numbers of ground targets, or wasting a multi-purpose burst missile on an F-16 is unsound. It becomes clear that, while the superplanes are a cut above the other planes available to players in Skies Unknown, their efficacy is determined by one’s ability to operate the plane and understand what its weapons are configured to do. In practise, an inexperienced player will not perform well with a superplane in a given mission, whereas a skillful player will always find ways of making a less-than-optimal aircraft successful. This parallels reality, where having the most top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art tools do not make a difference to anywhere nearly the same extent as having the experience and know-how of how to approach a problem. For instance, the average Macbook is likely used as a note-taking machine that doubles as a great way of watching Netflix, but in the hands of an iOS developer, that same Macbook can be used to debug and compile apps that have a tangible real-world impact. This is why the line from Top Gun: Maverick, is so applicable: as important as it is to have excellent tools, this alone doesn’t mean anything unless one also knows how to utilise their toolset fully. In tuning the superplanes so that they reward skilled players but otherwise don’t offer novice players an overwhelming advantage, Skies Unknown has done a fantastic job of incorporating real-world lessons into its mechanics. Having the Falken, Raven or Morgen isn’t going to make this game any easier, but for players who’ve beaten Skies Unknown and are yearning to fly their favourite superplanes from earlier titles, the Morgen, Raven and Falken are a superb way of seeing iconic planes brought out into the present.
Screenshots and Commentary
- The last time I wrote about Ace Combat 7, it was almost three years ago: 2020 had just arrived, and I’d been looking to the new decade with optimism. At the time, the startup I was with was amidst a push to complete a version two of our app, and while the seed money had run out, investors had expressed that, contingent on us producing an app that had a very clear business case, they would be willing to commit to Series A funding. At that point in time, I’d been a few endpoints short of a working app, and I vividly remember struggling with the Facebook API, as well as integrating the Stripe workflow through their SDK.
- It wasn’t until February that I had a complete app: the founder had been extremely pleased with the completed app and investors had been quite confident this app would be a strong foundation for scaling the business up. However, right at this time, the global health crisis had finally hit. At the beginning of the new year, I had heard of a virulent new coronavirus strain that was wrecking havoc halfway across the world, but once it arrived here, everything suddenly shut down. I certainly had no idea this would happen when I played through and wrote my thoughts on Skies Unknown‘s DLC at the time.
- Since then, I’d not returned to Ace Combat, but recently, after watching Top Gun: Maverick, I suddenly found myself with a desire to fly awesome aircraft around again. I’d beaten Project Wingman earlier this year, and it hit me that both games, because of their unique approaches towards the air combat experience, had their own merits. In Ace Combat, limited special weapons and more forgiving missiles means players are made to be mindful of their choice of aircraft, as well as how they approach a mission given its parameters. Project Wingman lets players run with up to three special weapon types, but on the flipside, has less mission variety.
- After beating Skies Unknown, I quickly replayed the campaign a second time so I could earn the funds needed to unlock the X-02 Strike Wyvern. This was Mihaly’s aircraft during the campaign, and until the first DLC was launched, this was the only superplane available to players. The road to the Strike Wyvern is similar to how one unlocked the Wyvern in The Unsung War, and when unlocked, the Strike Wyvern provides players with a then-unsurpassed platform. For me, I immediately chose to unlock the electromagnetic launcher for the Strike Wyvern.
- With its variable-geometry design, the Strike Wyvern proved to be a highly versatile aircraft best suited for anti-air missions. It is capable of running with a long-range anti-ship missiles or multiple lock-on missiles, giving it some options. Having now played The Unsung War, I found that the option to pick a special weapon meant being able to wield a plane in a greater range of mission types. For my revisit of Skies Unknown, I ran the Strike Wyvern with the electromagnetic launcher: this is the ultimate skill weapon and is devastating against individual targets when a shot connects.
- Having not played Ace Combact for some time, I decided to ease back into things by flying the first mission, where I’d utilise the electromagnetic launcher against the slow-flying bombers. While the electromagnetic launchers aren’t as flashy as the Cordium railguns of Project Wingman, they are still fun to use, and here, I land a kill against a bomber. I’d forgotten how blue the skies of Ace Combat 7 were on this first mission: one of the great joys about any flight game is that it allows one to soar into the skies without needing to book a plane ticket.
- Next, I decided to run with the ADFX-01 Morgan. The first of the superplanes developed by Gründer Industries, the Morgan was designed purely for firepower and foregoes stealth. In-universe, lore states that Belka originally intended to use the Morgan, but Osean forces ended up capturing a prototype. The Oseans never did develop their own equivalent, and in subsequent years, Gründer Industries would build the ADF-01 Falken from data acquired during the Morgan’s development. Designed to carry an unwieldy tactical laser, the Morgan’s manoeuverability is reduced to minimise strain on the airframe, although the Morgan can also be outfitted with the powerful multi-purpose burst missiles.
- However, the Morgan’s most powerful weapon lies in its Integrated Electronic Warfare System (IEWS): when activated, this simultaneously provides ECM and electronics support to both the Morgan and nearby allies. It becomes difficult for enemies to lock onto the Morgan or nearby allied aircraft, and similarly, one’s missiles can lock on much more quickly. While equipping the IEWS precludes the addition of more specialised weapons, the tradeoff means that one’s basic weapons are augmented to a considerable extent.
- The IEWS represents another tool that enhances a skilled player’s ability further: special weapons in Ace Combat are meant to make specific tasks, like hitting multiple ground targets, or neutralising an enemy squadron from afar before they can get into dogfighting range, easier, so forgoing these weapons in favour of making the basic missiles and gun work better represents a commitment to the basics. This double-edged sword is reminiscent of how, after missiles were introduced, pilots lost their ability to dogfight and found themselves at a disadvantage when aircraft stopped carrying an integral auto-cannon.
- By 1968, aircraft loses were mounting, and the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor programme was established to produce pilots that could operate with all aspects of their aircraft, including dogfighting. The programme, better known as TOPGUN, yielded dramatic results; the kill-to-loss ratio improved drastically on subsequent sorties. As a bit of trivia, it turns out that TOPGUN students are fined five dollars every time they reference the Top Gun film: the actual TOP GUN programme is about leadership and professionalism, and the film is fiction, so making light of the programme can be seen as an insult of sorts.
- When I picked up the season pass back in December 2019, I immediately set about flying the Falken, using it in the first of the DLC missions. The Falken is my favourite of the superplanes: with excellent all-around statistics, its The Unsung War incarnation had a tactical laser so powerful even a momentary, glancing hit against a foe would destroy them. Here in Skies Unknown, the tactical laser on the Falken has been dialed back compared to its original appearance for balance reasons. However, the Falken’s laser is still more powerful than the lasers that the other aircraft could equip.
- Bringing the Falken to defend the 444th Air Base was plainly overkill: when I originally played this mission, I believe I was flying a MiG-21 outfitted with the gun pods. At the time, I’d just started Skies Unknown and didn’t have access to parts for bolstering my aircraft’s performance, so I reasoned that having additional gun pods would help me keep up with the enemy bombers. The mission had, admittedly, given quite a bit of trouble, although in the end, I was able to pull things off. Returning with the Falken made the mission trivially easy: with the parts for extending the tactical laser’s hitbox and duration, I was able to destroy bomber groups before they could even see the base.
- While it’s easy to attribute the mission’s reduced difficulty to the fact that the Falken is considerably more powerful than the MiG-21, the fact is that I’ve also got more experience in using the aircraft of Ace Combat by this point in time. This is where the choice of page quote comes from: what one can achieve ultimately boils down to their skill and experience. This definitely holds true in reality, and my example about the MacBook Pro is one I have personal experience with: when I entered my first year as a university student, some of my old high school classmates were quite smug about how they were running the best MacBook Pro of the time in their courses, letting them take notes faster and use social media more efficiently than their peers who didn’t have the latest and greatest tech.
- I stuck to my old-fashioned approach of taking notes by hand, and by my fourth year, during a research symposium, I borrowed one of my lab’s MacBook Pros to do a demo. Said classmates had seen my presentation and had been gobsmacked that it was possible to create and run a full renal system visualisation on the same machines they’d been running. I remarked that this was made possible by the fact that the game engine running my model had been built by exceptionally skilled people, and that with an active imagination and creativity, one will find their machines can always pleasantly surprise them. Since four years had passed, my classmates had matured, and were amazed that technology could accomplish impressive things.
- While I take considerable pride in achieving my goals with whatever tools are available to me, I won’t say no to a hardware upgrade, either: being able to do my job more effectively is something I always welcome, and I will note that good hardware is the difference between night and day. I primarily do my work on a company 2019 model MacBook Pro nowadays, but for my own side projects, I work off a 2017 iMac. The aging hardware is quite noticeable now: Xcode is considerably slower to compile apps and run the iOS simulator. However, because these side projects are for my own edification more than anything, I don’t see a particular need to upgrade my iMac just yet.
- The last of the superplanes that came with the season pass is the ADF-11F Raven, an evolution of the ADF series. Originally an unmanned aircraft, the DLC gives players a manned version they can pilot, and despite its bulky airframe, it shares similar handling traits to the Falken. For my test-run of this aircraft, I decided to fly the mission to defend Stonehenge and decided to equip the tactical laser. Having said this, the Raven’s best weapon is the UCAV, autonomous drones armed with pulse lasers that function similarly to DRAGOONS, Bits and Funnels.
- To ensure things are balanced, the Raven can only send out two UCAV’s at once. Were one able to send out eight UCAVs at the same time, the Raven would become as overpowered as a Gundam, and there’d be no challenge at all to the game. Similarly, were Ace Combat to allow the same approach as Project Wingman, in allowing players to carry additional special weapons into the skies, the balance would be gone. While Project Wingman‘s approach increases combat versatility dramatically and make the ordinary aircraft capable of adapting to different scenarios, the end result of this is that the game’s ultimate aircraft, the PW Mk.I, becomes obscenely powerful.
- I am looking to write about my experiences with Project Wingman‘s best aircraft in a separate post, since it completely alters the way one plays the game. Having said this, it would be interesting to see if the upcoming Ace Combat title will expand aircraft customisation options and potentially allow players to carry a second special weapon type at the expense of bringing performance-improving parts. In such a scenario, there could be a set of special weapons all aircraft could equip (such as the Mark 81 or Mark 82 unguided bombs, 70 mm rocket pods and missile variants, such as high-velocity missiles that sacrifice explosive payload, or high-impact missiles that sacrifice speed). One could then select these additional weapons in place of upgrade parts to increase their firepower.
- I do not imagine that the next Ace Combat title will allow this, since Ace Combat games have traditionally emphasised the idea that certain planes are more suited for some roles than others, and this encouraged players to mix up their planes in a mission to achieve the goals more effectively. For me, the Stonehenge defensive mission with the Raven proved quite manageable: on my original run, I flew an F/A-18C and found success by prioritising targets on the ground. Having now returned to Skies Unknown and replaying some missions, I am reminded of how much fun I had when going through this game three years ago.
- I am therefore curious to see what the next Ace Combat title entails; at present, there is no information on what story this game will tell, but excitement is high because of Unreal Engine 5, which has proven exceptional in tech demos. In the meantime, having found newfound engagement with Ace Combat 7, I will be looking to pick up the Top Gun DLC when there’s a sale: I thoroughly enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick, and the opportunity to fly the Darkstar hypersonic aircraft, Pete Mitchell’s custom F/A18E and equip the Rooster and Hangman emblems would be quite entertaining. This might perhaps incentivise me to revisit the entire Skies Unknown campaign again. Until then, all eyes are on the Modern Warfare II campaign. While the game is going to cost 90 CAD, the trailers for it have been very promising, and if the play-throughs I see of it instill sufficient excitement, I anticipate picking up Modern Warfare II shortly after launch and making my way through the campaign early November.
In practise, being the earliest of the ADFX prototypes, the Morgan is the weaker of the superplanes. Its tactical laser has a six-second recharge, but on the flipside, it is able to carry the obscenely powerful multi-purpose burst missile, which I’d previously used to destroy the Alicorn’s weapons and structures in the DLC missions. The Raven’s special weapons and performance make it an immensely powerful dogfighter, and its drones are able to make short work of the targets its assigned to. Moreover, it was one of the few planes that had the pulse lasers as its gun. In situations where there isn’t much cloud cover, the Raven can decimate aircraft without expending its missiles. On the other hand, the Falken is probably the most versatile of the superplanes; it has the most effective tactical laser of any aircraft (signified by the fact that the beam is blue, rather than pink), and it is capable of carrying the fuel-air bomb, whose large blast radius makes it suited for missions with an anti-ground focus. Finally, the Strike Wyvern, Skies Unknown‘s upgraded version of the Wyvern, lives up to its role as a plane for aces: beyond a weaker anti-ground rating, it shares similar performance statistics as the Falken, and its most powerful weapon, the electromagnetic launcher, demands utmost precision because it fires projectiles at hypersonic velocities. Unlike the tactical laser, which can be directed to focus on a target after it’s begun firing, the electromagnetic launcher only fires individual rounds, so one must be certain of their aim before pulling the trigger. In the hands of a capable pilot, any one of these superplanes will deal a significant amount of damage: each represents a novel way of experience Skies Unknown to the point where it is a worthwhile exercise to revisit the campaign with these new aircraft and see how far one has come, both in terms of their skill and the tools available to them, once they’ve completed the campaign. Of course, having finally returned to Skies Unknown after two years, and with the recent release of the Top Gun: Maverick accompaniment DLC, I am now intrigued to fly the Darkstar, a superplane that is capable reaching a top speed twice that of the Raven, along with Pete Mitchell’s custom F/A-18 and the fifth-generation fighters seen in this film. Top Gun: Maverick was a superbly gripping film that, in my eyes, surpasses even the original to deliver an unparalleled movie-going experience, and in doing so, revitalised my enjoyment of the Ace Combat and Project Wingman games.