The Infinite Zenith

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Category Archives: Ace Combat

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown- Final Review and Reflection at the Endgame

“When I close my eyes, the sky in my dreams…is a deep, dark blue.” ―Avril

With the Osean communications satellites destroyed, the Osean military is unable to organise a response to Erusean actions. Strider squadron is sent out to Anchorhead Bay to cover a defecting Erusean military official. With the IFF system down, Trigger must identify his targets to ensure he does not fire upon friendly forces, and manages to defend the official long enough from attack for him to reach a helicopter, but the Erusean official is accidentally shot down by Osean forces. Later, Strider Squadron heads to Tyler Island to take an airbase close to the space elevator. Here, they destroy occupying Erusean forces, save refugees and manage to protect the Erusean princess, as well as destroy aircraft launched from the mass driver with munitions headed for the Arsenal Bird. With provisions running low, Strider Squadron launches an assault on the Grand Duchy of Shilage to capture a base, and in the process, encounter Sol Squadron. Trigger manages to shoot down Mihaly in a dogfight, and Mihaly’s last wish is for drone production to be halted. Erusean and Osean forces form a coalition to destroy the Arsenal Bird and force the radicals to surrender. After eliminating radical Erusean forces, the Arsenal Bird appears. When saturation fire from ground forces fail to reach the Arsenal Bird, the princess manages to disable the power supply long enough for the Arsenal Bird’s shields to go down. Trigger knocks out its propellers and exposes its microwave powered dome, destroying it to sink the Arsenal Bird. However, two autonomous drones arrive in response to the Arsenal Bird’s destruction. After shooting down allied aircraft, they prepare to use the space elevator to transmit their accumulated data to drone manufacturing facilities around Erusea. Trigger manages to shoot down both drones, but the second drone ejects an ADF-11 unit that heads into the tunnels leading into the space elevator. Trigger and Count pursue the ADF-11 and successfully destroy it to prevent it from uploading its combat data. Both pilots manage to fly through the space elevator’s windbreak, back into open skies. Thus, my journey in Ace Combat 7 comes to an end, and with it, my first-ever experience with a true Ace Combat game on PC.

While Ace Combat games have always been about the arcade experience of taking to open skies and becoming a veritable ace, each of the games (save Assault Horizon) also has a distinct theme. The introduction of UAVs into Ace Combat 7 speak to the current events surrounding the increased presence of technology, automation and artificial intelligence. With UAVs providing Erusea with a powerful air force, Erusean military leaders deemed it prudent to turn their resentment against Osea into a war. While the initial drones are inferior to human pilots in terms of adaptability and creativity, they more than make up for it with superior endurance and mobility, being able to overwhelm human pilots with their numbers and wear them down over time. The lack of a pilot means that drones are expendable, as well. Pilots from both Erusean and Osean air forces continue to express their distaste in drones, feeling that they can never replace human pilots despite their advantages. However, when information from super-ace Mihaly is utilised in powering a new generation of UAVs, both sides, and even Mihaly objects, feeling that improved artificial intelligence and a powerful data set would allow machines to tirelessly fight wars without end, where humans might see the futility of warfare and set aside their differences. The gap between humans and machines, then, is empathy – machine learning algorithms are constantly improving and excelling at their tasks, but they have yet to reproduce the process that make humans distinct. Thus, where a machine might simply fight until its fitness function is satisfied, humans have the capabilities to understand how others might feel and make a decision that machines cannot comprehend. Mihaly recognises this, as do many of the pilots that resent the UAVs for being pale imitation of human pilots. Ace Combat 7 suggests that the most important decisions sometimes do have a human, emotional component to them, and that entrusting warfare to machines may have detrimental consequences that wind up being undesirable for all sides involved.

Themes of the horror and desolation of warfare are also explored in Ace Combat 7 – again, save for Assault Horizon, all of the Ace Combat games give players a glimpse of the effects that conflicts have on civilians. While players might get to fly in the skies, far removed from the destruction on the ground, as players push further into the campaign, it becomes clear that the war between Osea and Erusea is having a toll on both nation’s civilian populations. Erusea is particularly hit hard, and even those in the Erusean military begin to wonder whether or not their war is worth fighting. Anti-war themes are present in Ace Combat games with a degree of irony, suggesting to players that for all of the amusement derived from accomplishing incredible feats in the skies, war nonetheless is more tragedy than glory. This is likely the reason why Japanese games tend to place an emphasis on combat efficiency, scoring players favourably for swiftly completing a mission; the sooner an objective can be accomplished, the lower the odds that unnecessary casualties, both military and civilian, can result. Ace Combat missions are scored based on time, rewarding players for attacking precisely what they need to, and where necessary, do as much damage to an enemy as to limit their ability to wage war elsewhere. This mechanic encourages players to pick their engagements smartly and approach them with creativity, rather than brute force. Instead of destroying an enemy outright, it is preferable to stop them from fighting while other solutions are implemented. In a proper Ace Combat game, the themes of the game are directly baked into the mechanics that create a level of immersion that is unparalleled. With this being said, Bandai-Namco have not sacrificed gameplay in any way with these mechanics – Ace Combat 7 is thrilling, engaging and exciting, providing the first-ever Ace Combat experience on PC that was well worth the price of admissions and then some.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • After the satellite network goes down, the IFF system is taken down with it, and while the aircraft’s sensor suite thankfully still locates enemies, they are now tagged in yellow as unknowns. Players must fly close enough to them to positively identify them before they can start shooting. Flying closely amongst skyscrapers in the dark of night makes for an exceptionally exciting mission: players are taxed as they must simultaneously determine which targets present a threat to the convoy while at once maintaining a reasonable awareness of their surroundings.

  • Ace Combat 7 really kicks into high gear in its final quarter, and every mission is simply a thrill to fly in. At this point in time, I’ve become sufficiently versed with my controls such that losing sight of the convoy was never a concern – as threats materialised, I simply flew over them, melted them and then flew off to find more targets to ID. While the mission was a chaotic one, at no point did I ever feel like something was outside of my control. This was a problem in Assault Horizon, but by Ace Combat 7, it’s clear that all of the best elements from Ace Combat 5 were brought back.

  • I fly by a cable-stayed bridge en route to tagging unknown targets on my HUD here: this bridge looks like it’s modelled after Shanghai’s Nanpu Bridge, with its spiral ramp. Anchorhead Bay is a massive city, and offers one of the most compelling environments to fly in: when I saw the trailers for Ace Combat 7 and combat sequences set here, I knew immediately that I was going to pick up the game without any question.

  • Much as how I featured an image of an explosion’s shock wave in Assault Horizon, I feature one here from a fortuitous screenshot that I captured while flying low over the bridge and blasted the hostile armour on it. The pressure wave is clearly visible here in the dark of night, and I’m flying low enough so that the different lane markers are visible on the spiral ramp below; while this mission entailed some of the lowest altitudes I’ve flown at, the F-15E Strike Eagle was more than up to the task.

  • After the F-15E’s solid performance in the fourteenth mission, I elected to field it again over Anchorhead Bay; in hindsight, a different aircraft with dedicated anti-ground munitions might have been more effective owing to the abundance of surface targets. While there are enemy helicopter gunships and aircraft, most of the sixteenth mission entails strafing ground targets. The F-15E’s large missile capacity and handling means it’s more than up for the job even when equipped with the 6-target missiles, but specialised anti-ground weapons would make it more straightforwards to clear out ground targets.

  • After the Erusean general makes it safely to the helicopter, an unknown group of aircraft arrive. A few tense moments elapse, and Trigger is given the order to shoot them down. Most of the enemies up until now have been ground targets, and my missile stockpile was dwindling, but I did have a large reserve of the 6AAMs remaining, so I made short work of the remaining fighters in the sky to finish off the mission.

  • The seventeenth mission is set over Tyler Island, Osean territory that has been under Erusean attack since the conflict started. There’s a mass driver here (just visible in the image’s leftmost side): these electromagnetic catapults are used to slingshot objects at high velocities, and the Mobile Suit Gundam series is known for employing them as a practical means of launching craft into space. Ace Combat 7 feels, more than any other instalment of Ace Combat, like a Gundam game in the Unreal Engine with aircraft rather than mobile suits.

  • While a fair portion of mission seventeen deals with blasting ground targets, there is wisdom in carrying a good anti-air loadout: the ground targets are relatively easy to deal with, and as Trigger hammers the Erusean ground forces, their bombers make an appearance. Like previous missions, failure will result if the bombers are allowed to reach their targets, and the bombers come from difficult angles, so making good use of special weapons will allow these to be swiftly dealt with before they can deal any damage.

  • A glance at this blog’s archives show that I began writing the posts for Assault Horizon precisely five years ago. During this time, my application to graduate school was accepted, and I accepted an offer to work on The Giant Walkthrough Brain project. I also saw heartbreak of a calibre I’d never quite previously expected, and in hindsight, The Giant Walkthrough Brain ended up being the tonic that saved me from melancholy – this is one of the reasons why the project had such a profound impact on me, and why I continue to mention the project to this day.

  • In fact, news of the heartbreak came on social media precisely five years ago to this day. Five years since, while things’ve not really changed in that department, I’ve found other ways to turn things around. It’s important to never lose sight of what’s important, and during times of difficulty, regrouping and finding ways to move forward is critical in healing the hurts. Focus on The Giant Walkthrough Brain and graduate school was my answer to heartbreak; I think that after five years and troubling readers with numerous recollections of this later, I’m all the stronger for it.

  • I’m sure readers don’t come hear to read stories on how I accepted my rejection and moved on, so I’ll promptly return the discussion to Ace Combat 7, where I blasted remaining air targets with my missiles after clearing the bombers out. The moody skies of Tyler Island reflect on the general atmosphere surrounding allied forces: despite lacking communications with the military leaders, Strider Squadron and their allies continue to do what they feel is necessary to end this conflict.

  • The mission checkpoint is reached when players are tasked with rescuing Princess Cosette and Avril from hostile Erusean forces. There’s not much time to do this, and players must hasten to reach the two before the timer runs to zero. I quickly restarted from the checkpoint here to reset my damage and restock on munitions: this act is a rather low-handed but effective way to quickly resupply and repair without affecting one’s time spent (and corresponding score).

  • Yellow smoke marks the targets, and once the threats surrounding Avril and Cosette are neutralised, players have one final objective remaining – take out the supply ships carrying parts and munitions for the Arsenal Birds. Launched from the mass driver, players have a  maximum of ten minutes to pursue the ships and shoot them down.

  • In my case, the 6AAMs were more than sufficient in dealing with the supply ships: they turn out to be carrying Helios missiles, and will detonate in a brilliant flash of blue light once destroyed. The challenge in mission seventeen ended up being the bombers that appear mid-mission; they are quite difficult to pin down in the clouds, and so, while I was carrying anti-ground munitions on my first attempts, necessity dictated that I carry good anti-air weapons. I ultimately choose my special weapons based on what the tougher enemies of a mission are, and only use them for these segments.

  • The eighteenth mission is set in a small country adjacent to Erusea: Shilage was once an Erusean state and declared independence. Strider Squadron undertakes this mission with the aim of acquiring provisions, and launch an airstrike against Shilage Castle, a known site where supplies were stockpiled. This mission has some of the most beautiful skies of any level in Ace Combat 7, being set in the early hours of a quiet, misty morning.

  • With all unknowns presumed hostile, the need to identify targets before firing is no longer a part of the mission, and so, players are able to freely fire on all marked targets. For this mission, I chose the F-15C for its superior performance in air-to-air combat; I’d come into the mission knowing that I’d be squaring off against Sol Squadron and Mihaly again, so having a good plane for dogfighting would be critical. The pulse lasers that had worked so well earlier came to mind: unlike missiles, they cannot be dodged, and I knew that Mihaly in particular was every bit as agile as Assault Horizon‘s Markov.

  • The early part of the mission is melancholy – blasting hapless ground targets on a quiet morning did not offer too much in the way of excitement, and I turned the F-15C’s payload against ground targets. By this point in Ace Combat 7, I’ve become accustomed to rapidly switching between targets quickly: missiles will continue tracking the last target with a lock, and most ground targets only require one missile to destroy. With this being said, I’ve heard that tanks can shoot down players if they’re careless.

  • Shilage Castle is based off Slovakia’s Spiš Castle, a UNESCO world Heritage site that was built in the twelfth century as the political and economic center of Szepes Country. The castle was destroyed by fire in 1780, and while the cause is unknown, the castle underwent reconstruction towards the latter half of the twentieth century. It stands to reason that Shilage is probably a blend of Slovakian and Hungarian cultures.

  • With the pulse lasers, Sol Squadron becomes a pushover in air combat. However, when Mihaly arrives, he arrives in style with the X-02S Strike Wyvern, the most powerful aircraft in the game. Armed with an electromagnetic launcher of his own, the Strike Wyvern is a straight upgrade of the Wyvern, featuring improved electronics and flight control surfaces that allow Mihaly to dodge almost anything players can throw at him. The EML will devastate players, and I sustained one hit that brought me to the brink of death.

  • With my pulse lasers nearly exhausted, I managed to get behind Mihaly and downed him with missiles. This fight between two aces epitomises what dogfights in Ace Combat are about – just a player and their wits. Assault Horizon‘s handling of the fight between Bishop and Markov proved to be a chore to complete, and when I completed Assault Horizon, I wondered if I would ever go back on a summer’s evening to fly over Washington, D.C. again. The answer was that, with how ardous the fight with Markov was, I ended up never returning.

  • After Mihaly is shot down, he requests that Trigger, a worthy pilot, put an end to drone production. I never got the impression that Mihaly was an antagonist per se: a legendary pilot fighting for Erusea, Mihaly is not a warmonger or seeking revenge, and flies only for his own sake. His loss here, coupled with the toll of combat on his body, means that he will retire from active service. Beating Mihaly was exhilarating, and I flew off into the sunrise once the mission was completed.

  • We’ve come to it at last: a coalition of Erusean moderates and Oseans cooperate at the space elevator to destroy radical forces and lure the Arsenal Bird out with the aim of destroying it. Fighting over brilliant blue skies, the first part of mission nineteen is an annihilation assignment – players simply need to shoot down as much stuff as they can within the allocated time limit. I ended up returning to the F-15E Strike Eagle; with its larger missile capacity and handling characteristics, it would be well-suited for taking on the large numbers of enemy aircraft and UAVs.

  • Of late, things have been remarkably busy, both at work and outside of work. Yesterday, I took the morning to help judge at the Calgary Youth Science Fair (CYSF): unlike last year, where I was assigned projects from the physical sciences and therefore did not have as strong of a background, I was given biological science related projects this time around, meaning I could engage with the participants to a greater extent. The projects I saw were of a satisfactory standard, save one group that started mere weeks ago; it’s always a thrill to see what young minds are up to these days.

  • Earlier today, after hitting the gym, I attended a volunteer orientation for Otafest. Having been an attendee once, after going to Japan a few years back, it suddenly felt a little hollow to merely be attending, so this time around, I applied to be a volunteer. The convention will be in May on the Victoria Day long weekend, and there’s a bit of time between then and now. My main interest in returning as a volunteer was that I wanted to see things from the other side of the fence: much as how I participated in the CYSF when I was in middle school and then got to judge it, I wished to see the efforts that go into making the local anime convention possible.

  • For the first time ever on PC, I fire the Tactical Laser System (TLS) on the F-15E. Firing a single continuous beam, the TLS was first introduced with the ADFX 01 and 02, then integrated into the Falken. The TLS hits its target instantaneously and deals massive damage, making it the ultimate special weapon that aircraft can carry. At least, this was the TLS in older Ace Combat titles: by Ace Combat 7, a simpler system was developed and could be mounted on conventional aircraft. This TLS feels weaker than the version found on the Falken, but seeing as I would be fighting the Arsenal Bird, which has its own laser weapons, I’d figured that it’d be prudent to bring my own laser to the fight.

  • In the end, I had no trouble shooting down enough aircraft to meet the mission requirements, and evaded the Helios missiles that the Arsenal Bird had hammered the area with. With the skies largely clear, the moment had come at last to utilise the TLS against the Arsenal Bird: despite being weaker than previous iterations, I ultimately found that the TLS proved adequate even without the improved power upgrade part. I entered the mission with the beam expander that increased the hit area.

  • Against the Arsenal Bird, the coalition forces initially cannot do anything to it: the microwave-powered dome provides the airborne carrier with an impenetrable energy shield, and after surface and air forces hammer the Arsenal Bird, the shield absorbs all damage. There’s little point in continuing the assault on the Arsenal Bird at this point, and focus should go towards whittling down the number of MQ-101s in the air.

  • While Trigger and the other pilots fight to stay alive long enough to work out a plan, Cosette and Avril work from elsewhere to disrupt the power supply, which one of Sol Squadron’s pilots explains, is powered from a transmitter in the space elevator. I particularly enjoyed the voice acting here: while Cosette and Avril aren’t seen on screen, their actions are audibly heard. By this point, the MQ-101s are trivial to fight, and once the shields drop, the coalition forces will turn their attention towards keeping the UAVs off Trigger’s back.

  • The time has come to put the F-15E’s tactical laser to use for real: Trigger must destroy the sub-propellers and the main propellers to slow the Arsenal Bird down. The sustained damage from the tactical laser makes this much easier: the propellers can sustain quite a bit of damage, and the Arsenal Bird has an impressive array of weaponry against players. Besides its missile barrage, the Arsenal Bird has a tactical laser of its own, and pulse laser CIWS that can bring down Trigger on short order. Concentrating on the propellers and then breaking off for another run will make more sense than pushing aggressively forward.

  • The Arsenal Bird’s propellers will self-repair, and Trigger is given new targets to hit: after destroying the docking clamps, the final step is to hit the Arsenal Bird’s power supply. Here, I engage the Arsenal Bird’s docking clamps with my laser, while it attempts to fire its laser on me. Moments like these are unscripted and fun: with the freedom to tackle the problem that is the Arsenal Bird however I pleased, I felt like I was shaping my own fate, in contrast with Assault Horizon, which had me on rails during the final fight and therefore, did not give me the same feeling that I’d improved as a pilot through the game’s progression.

  • Hitting the small microwave-powered dome took more skill than any objective previously, but I eventually got a lucky shot off with the tactical laser and brought down the Arsenal Bird. Ace Combat 7 is all about the thrills, and each subsequent mission towards the end made players feel the rush of achievement from pulling off increasingly wacky stunts. In my mind, the story in Ace Combat 7 is average in concept, but superb in execution: in conjunction with exceptional gameplay and visuals, Ace Combat 7 simply works.

  • On a quiet Friday evening two weeks ago, I finally reached the final mission of Ace Combat 7: the sun was setting, and I decided that, since Battlefield V had no active assignments, I might as well finish Ace Combat 7. I had enough of the in-game currency to buy the F-22A, the most advanced aircraft available on the American Tree. Players can also pick up the YF-23 as an alternate American aircraft, or the Su-57 on the Russian tree. Having invested all of my currency into the American tree, I ended up going with the F-22A, and in the knowledge that I was going up against the most advanced drones Ace Combat 7 would throw at me, I figured the time had come to into the cockpit of an F-22A.

  • With the best firepower, defense, acceleration and manoeuvrability of any of the aircraft I’d flown previously, the F-22A is a veritable monster of the skies. I flew the basic version armed with the Quick Maneuver Air-to-Air Missile, but didn’t fire a single one during the final mission’s first phase: while the ADF-11 UAVs are manoeuvrable and can dodge missiles with ease, the F-22A was able to keep up with them. I had no difficulty getting behind them and getting a few good hits off. The ADF-11s are equipped with tactical lasers of their own, as well as smaller drones, but despite being formidable foes, I downed both.

  • As the skies darken, one of the ADF-11s shot down detaches its cockpit unit and flies into a tunnel beneath the space elevator, intent on transmitting its combat data. No options are left to the player, who must fly into the tunnel in pursuit. When I was in middle school, the public library had a strategy guide for Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, and reading through it, I became interested in playing the series: during my time as an undergraduate student some years later, I found the soundtrack on YouTube and subsequently watched some playthroughs when I admittedly should have been studying for organic chemistry and data structures.

  • While a few interesting air combat games surfaced for iOS, none of them had the same magic as Ace Combat, and so, when Assault Horizon was released to PC, I picked it up, feeling that it would be the closest I would get to flying in Strangereal. Ace Combat Infinity was a PS4-only title, and so, when Ace Combat 7 was announced in 2015, my interest was piqued. Four years later, I was able experience this, and my verdict is that it was well worth the wait: the finished product is engaging, polished and fun.

  • No Ace Combat game can truly be considered one without a tunnel flight: Unsung War had players fly through a tunnel to destroy a computer core for SOLG, and the final mission then involved destroying the SOLG itself on New Year’s Eve. Unsung War was filled with symbolism, and a final mission on December 31 was meant to symbolise the wrapping up of loose ends, and preparing for the future. Dates don’t seem to figure quite so heavily in Ace Combat 7: the final mission is set on November 1, 2019.

  • The first part of the tunnel flight isn’t actually too demanding, and using yaw alone, with some pitch, is enough to safely navigate the tunnel leading into the space elevator’s core. The UAV will use its electronics to close the gates leading into the core, and players must quickly decide on which gate is the right one to fly through. Count will follow Trigger into the tunnel, and appears to sustain damage from the UAV despite Trigger being in pursuit of the UAV.

  • With the QAAMs, destroying the ADF-11 becomes too easy: I simply waited for it to fly to just left of the central column here and then wasted it in under five seconds, then blasted the terminals lining the core. The tight confines is supposed to make for a thrilling battle, but the QAAMs are a little too effective and ended what would’ve been an otherwise harrowing dogfight. Destroying the wall-mounted targets brought to mind how Poe Dameron’s flying inside Starkiller Base’s Thermal Oscillator.

  • I don’t mind admitting that it took me a few tries to fly into the space elevator’s windbreak – even with an aircraft as capable as the F-22A, I crashed more than a few times trying to break out of the circling pattern in an attempt to get into the windbreak. However, I managed it in the end, and dodging a few elevator pods, I flew to the top of the tunnel, bringing the mission and game to an end.

  • I am so thoroughly impressed with Ace Combat 7 that I have absolutely no regrets about buying the game at full price: while games will hold their value if I can get a dollar CAD per hour, Ace Combat 7 was so well done that I feel I got more than my money’s worth even at full price. I deeply enjoyed the game – like DOOM and what the Halo: Master Chief Collection will be, classic gameplay with a fresh coat of paint is exactly what is welcomed in gaming of this day and age. While new titles have a great deal of features, sometimes, returning to the roots and freshening everything up can produce unparalleled experiences. With Ace Combat 7‘s campaign in the books, I am turning my attention to Valkyria Chronicles 4 next, and once I have more information on The Master Chief Collection, I can make a decision on whether or not I’ll be buying anything else for the next little while.

Representing a triumphant return of Ace Combat to consoles, and the first time a true Ace Combat title has been available for PC, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a solid title that brings back the gameplay that made the original titles so captivating, while at once, modernising the game with current-generation visuals and sound. Ace Combat 7 looks and feels great, capitalising on modern game engines to add additional depth to the flight system. The use of clouds and icing as cover, that doubles as an obstruction, is innovative and clever, adding new ways to approach missions. Flying itself is very smooth and precise: even though I was running with a keyboard-only setup, I had no trouble completing even the trickiest of manoeuvres. Enemies were well-designed, requiring skill rather than uncommon patience, to best. A solid upgrade system pushes players to consider their upgrades and purchases, while simultaneously encouraging replay for folks who wish to unlock everything. The soundtrack, while perhaps not as inspired as Ace Combat 5‘s, is nonetheless an experience that captures the different moods of the missions, and the sound engineering is solid; aircraft feel powerful to fly. The English voice acting is also on-point: earlier titles had corny-sounding dialogue throughout, but in Ace Combat 7, the dialogue feels much more natural (even if it does sound somewhat cheesy in a few spots). Overall, Ace Combat 7 is a proper instalment in the Ace Combat series – it was worth the four year wait since the game’s announcement in 2015 to finally be able to fly the skies of Strangereal, and looking ahead, the additional content for Ace Combat 7 is looking quite tempting. I anticipate that I will be picking up the DLCs once they release and I have a concrete idea of what they will encompass, but for the time being, I will be going through the campaign again to earn enough currency to unlock the Strike Wyvern.

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown- Review and reflection at the ¾ mark

“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 HorizonAce 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.

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.

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown- First Impressions

“Technology’s always changing. If you don’t keep up with it, it’ll leave your ass behind” —Avril Mead’s grandfather

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown marks the first time the world and lore of Strangereal has been available to PC players. With it comes all of the flight mechanics, colourful characters and impressive settings that accompany Strangereal, brought to life in Unreal Engine 4, which represents a return to the Ace Combat universe for many longtime fans. For me, it means the opportunity to get into the cockpit of a fighter jet and take to the skies of an immensely detailed world that I’ve longed to explore since the days of the PlayStation 2 and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. However, before I can experience the realm of superweapons and tunnel flights that I’ve come to expect as standard fare in Ace Combat, there is the journey of actually reaching this point. In Skies Unknown, players take the perspective of Trigger, an Osean pilot who is assigned to the 508th Tactical Fighter Squadron (Mage Squadron). On his first flight with Mage, Trigger downs several Erusean bombers attacking the Fort Grays island base, and later encounters Erusean MQ-99 drones during a ground attack mission. With the Eruseans becoming more belligerent and threatening an international space elevator, Osea decides to secure the mega-structure. While securing airspace in support for an operation to defend the space elevator, Trigger encounters the Arsenal Bird and its payload of MQ-101 drones. A mysterious aircraft appears and shoots down several Osean fighters before vanishing. Trigger is later tasked with rescuing former President Vincent Harling, who is stranded at the space elevator since hostilities began. During the operation, a stray missile hits the Osprey VTOL Harling is on, and Trigger is suspected of murdering the former president. He is court-martialled and sent to Spare Squadron as a prisoner. When Eursean forces appear at the 444th Airbase, a fake facility, Trigger sorties along with Spare Squadron, earning unexpected praise from other prisoners for single-handedly shooting down enemy bombers.

With this, I’m now five missions into Skies Unknown, and the first thing that comes to mind is just how smoothly the game handles. In particular, the controls for Skies Unknown are very smooth for PC, far out-stripping what was present in Assault Horizon. I had gotten my wings flying in Assault Horizons with a keyboard-only setup, and while the controls were tricky, they had been manageable. Here in Skies Unknown, the keyboard-only controls handle very well, and I can precisely manoeuvre my aircraft with confidence. The flight system of Skies Unknown on PC is evidently a step above Assault Horizon, and so, I had no trouble flying with the Expert configuration. Besides improved handling, Skies Unknown does away with the Dogfight Mode, which ultimately ended up being a crutch that, while exhilarating for the first few times I used it, quickly became a chore that took the thrill out of dogfighting. One of the key frustrations about Assault Horizon was that some opponents were impossible to shoot down without Dogfight Mode, forcing players to depend on this element to complete missions. In Skies Unknown, this particular aspect is gone, as is the notion of regenerating health: players are able to engage all enemies with only their wit and must be mindful of damage, bringing skill back into dogfights in a big way. Every successful kill is immensely satisfying, and after the first quarter of the game, it is clear that Skies Unknown is definitely the Ace Combat experience players have waited for: it is the first true Ace Combat game for PC, featuring both classic gameplay mechanics and the Strangereal universe, and at this point, having had some experience with the flight mechanics of Skies Unknown, I look forwards to delving deeper into the story.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Whereas Assault Horizon dropped players right into things with a mission over Miami, Florida, in the cockpit of the bleeding-edge F-22 Raptor, Skies Unknown puts players behind the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the first thing to do is get in the air and head towards a flight of Erusean bombers. The F-16 is the default aircraft, and is characterised by good all-around performance, with high manoeuvrability, as well as options for both anti-air and anti-ground special weapons.

  • The F-16 is known for its negative stability: aircraft with positive stability will naturally return to level flight if no control input is given, and its fly-by-wire system is designed so that the aircraft can match the pilot’s inputs. As a result, the aircraft has impressive manoeuvrability, but is also stable where it needs to be. After taking off into the skies, the reflection of the ocean and tropical heat can be seen in the surroundings. The first target is a TU-95, a Russian turbo-prop strategic bomber. These bombers have been around since 1952 and are still operational.

  • I’ve heard that traditionally, Ace Combat games typically feature a bomber interception mission as its starting mission to warm players up to the flight controls. Shooting down the slow-moving bombers is very straightforwards, and when players get the feel for things, a wave of MiG-21s appear. Being able to engage distant targets, then turn away and engage a second target, is one of the most satisfying features of Skies Unknown, and while Ace Combat veterans will be very familiar with this trick, this was new for me: Assault Horizon forced me to focus on most targets until I were certain they were down.

  • While the absence of Dogfight Mode means no more seeing the charred husks of destroyed aircraft, the visual effects of Skies Unknown are very impressive. This fireball resulted from me blasting a MiG at close range. The primary missiles of Ace Combat have limited tracking ability, being able to lock onto both surface and air targets. American and Japanese aircraft run missiles resembling the AIM-9 Sidewinder, while Russian aircraft use R-60 missiles.

  • Missiles are solid general purpose weapons, but they aren’t always effective. Coupled with the fact that ammunition for them is finite, and despite the prodigious payloads even small aircraft have, they shouldn’t be thrown around. Instead, there are some conditions during which the aircraft’s integral cannons will come in handy; even the base gun is fairly effective at destroying aircraft with a few well-placed bursts, and in close-quarters dogfights, guns can be useful when enemy combatants are moving too quickly for missiles to get a lock.

  • The second mission in Skies Unknown entails a combination of anti-ground and anti-air combat. Ground targets present their own challenges despite being stationary: because one is flying by so quickly, if one overshoots their target, then they must turn around and hit them again. Flying at slower speeds helps one get a good lock before firing, and there are some aircraft with dedicated anti-ground special weaponry that can lock onto multiple surface targets, or else deal massive area-of-effect damage. At this stage in the game, I don’t have access to those parts or aircraft yet.

  • In most missions, critical targets will be given a special designation and appear in red outlines on the minimap. Eliminating these targets allow the mission to proceed to the next stage; I’m still a novice when it comes to Ace Combat, so I’ve not bothered to go for score and time bonuses during my first run. Instead, my goal will be to go through the game and get an idea of what each mission entails, unlock the F-22 Raptor, then go back and get all of the ace kills, as well as unlock the Wyvern. Once I have enough of the aircraft tree unlocked, I’ll then attempt the S-rank and challenges for the game.

  • After the surface targets are eliminated, the Erusean forces begin deploying MQ-99 drones. Unlike human pilots, drones are immune to high G-forces and so, can turn much more sharply than human pilots. Players are introduced to high-G turns here, which are superbly useful for making tight turns for getting behind drones. While powerful, they also drastically reduce one’s airspeed, and dropping below a certain speed, one will stall. Fighting drones for the first time proved challenging, but eventually, I managed to beat them.

  • After completing an in-air refuelling, players head towards a group of enemy fighters, flying over a rainforest that resembles the Amazon. Skies Unknown introduced clouds as tangible entities that can impact gameplay: flying through them interferes with missile tracking, allowing one to evade missile locks at the expense of reducing their own locking effectiveness. As well, staying in clouds for extended periods can cause icing and expose players to turbulence, affecting stability and manoeuvrability.

  • The biggest surprise encountered during the third mission is the Arsenal Bird, an airborne aircraft carrier that houses the MQ-101 drones. Superior to the 99s in every way, these unmanned carriers also carry laser weapons and the Helios missile, which can disrupt or damage multiple aircraft. When the Arsenal Bird appears, the targetting HUD lights up with enemies, and players are overwhelmed with the amount of firepower there is in the air.

  • Players will be tasked with destroying the Arsenal Bird, although at this point in the campaign, it is much too early to be destroying the Arsenal Bird. I managed to deal some damage to it, but the Arsenal Bird then deploys an energy shield, and the mission switches over to destroying the UAVs, which have begun decimating allied forces. During the confusion, an unknown aircraft will appear and shoot down two allied pilots. The mission ends when all of the UAVs have been destroyed.

  • I believe this mission was the one showcased during the E3 and the subsequent demos some years back: Skies Unknown was first announced during 2015, and was set to release during 2017. My curiosity in Skies Unknown were piqued by my experiences in Assault Horizon, and Infinity was a PS4-exclusive: upon hearing that Strangereal was coming to PC, I found myself interested to see what the game would be like. However, developmental delays pushed the release date to 2018, and then 2019.

  • When Skies Unknown launched, reviews for the game were largely positive, with players praising the game’s return to classic mechanics and style seen in earlier titles. The PC version came out after the console versions, and while still fun, the game is a console port whose lack of easy support for flight sticks was its biggest shortcoming. I can see the frustration amongst those who have sophisticated flight stick setups, but for me, Skies Unknown remains very enjoyable: I don’t even have a controller and fly using the keyboard.

  • The fourth mission involves flying through a tight radar net to reach the orbital elevator, marked by large red circles on one’s minimap. There was a similar mission in Assault Horizon where one had to pilot a strategic bomber through radar, but the radar beams were projected onto screen-space, making them easy to avoid. This mission was a test of how the keyboard setup worked, and when I came out of the other end in one try, I knew that the keyboard setup I’m currently running with would be sufficient.

  • After clearing out the anti-air emplacements around the orbital elevator’s base, players fly towards the city and engage trucks carrying launchers for the MQ-99 drones. Any UAVs that have launched must also be shot down: they will move towards the orbital elevator and open fire on the rescue forces if left unchecked. Being made to deal with multiple targets at once and multi-task is a staple of Ace Combat games, and provides the sort of challenge that engages players.

  • Some of the combat in the fourth mission is set over Selatapura, a Usean city that experienced economic hardships during the events of Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies, but since underwent massive development. It turns out that Selatapura is roughly Strangereal’s equivalent of Singapore, being a major port city, and those with linguistic background in Malay and Sanskrit note that Selata is “South” from the Malay seletan, and pura is city from Sanskrit. Details like these show the extent of the creativity from the Bandai Namco studios in world-building.

  • During the course of this mission, a few UAVs did end up getting past me, forcing me to peel away from striking the launchers on the ground and turn my attention to the stray drones that’d begun making a beeline for the space elevator. I’ve found that at distance, drones can be downed with missiles or picked off with gunfire, but owing to their mobility, dogfighting with them is very tricky. If one can pull out of endlessly circling their opponent and make some distance, engaging and destroying enemy aircraft becomes a bit easier.

  • On the topic of guns, one of very few the pet peeves I have with the Ace Combat series is that is that the guns on planes are referred to as “machine guns”. The term “machine gun” specifically refers to small-arms calibre weapons (i.e. smaller than 20mm), and automatic weapon firing rounds with a diameter of 20mm or greater is referred to as an autocannon. By definition, the M61 Vulcan, which fires 20mm rounds, is a cannon, not a machine gun. I imagine this terminology stuck from the days when aircraft fired .50-calibre rounds, which are 12.7mm in diameter, hence their being referred to as such in Ace Combat.

  • Skies Unknown has been seen by some as Ace Combat with Gundam 00 elements for the orbital elevators, and one of my friends remarked on his surprise at the Arsenal Bird’s “GN Field”. While there are no super-powerful Gundams in Ace Combat, players do get access to increasingly powerful and iconic aircraft as they progress through the game. Players can unlock the Wyvern, and later DLC could add the Falken and Nosferatu to the lineup. If I do get the DLC, I’ll likely do so when it’s on sale: I’ve seen that it’s supposed to add three new missions, as well, in addition to iconic aircraft that are as legendary as Gundams in the Ace Combat universe.

  • Enemy planes traditionally carried countermeasures against missiles in earlier iterations of Ace Combat, but as of Assault Horizon, countermeasures finally became available for player use, and in Skies Unknown, aircraft do not abuse them the same way powerful targets did in Assault Horizon – this was the biggest frustration in Assault Horizon, forcing players to enter Dogfight Mode to destroy tougher enemies. Flares in Skies Unknown can instantly break all missile locks, but are in very short supply, and I only use them in cases where I am absolutely focused on a target and do not wish to evade: missiles show up on the minimap and usually can be dodged with a high-G turn.

  • Special weapons provide a powerful means of quickly and efficiently dealing with particularly tough foes, or large numbers of foes at once. The F-16 is equipped with four active radar-guided missiles that lock onto a maximum of targets at medium range. I’ve been using these to deal with a large number of airborne foes when they’re a ways away. The supply of special weapons is very limited, and while upgrades allow for more to be carried, it’s nonetheless a good idea to save them for tricky spots.

  • The story in Skies Unknown is fairly engaging, as is the chatter players experience in the background. While engaging drones, friendly forces will suggest firing missiles at the orbital elevator’s main pillar, which would cause the drones’ programming to kick in and defend the elevator, drawing them off Harling’s VTOL. Unfortunately, a stray missile will hit the VTOL and kill Harling. Since Trigger is the closest to Harling at the time of his being shot down, he will be held accountable as Harling’s murderer and spend the next several missions with a penal unit stationed at the 444th.

  • Located along a quiet coast , the 444th Air Base is far removed from other Osean population centres and military installations. Despite its remoteness, the location is beautiful: the blue skies look amazing, offering a calm airspace to fly about in. The peace won’t last, however, as Erusean aircraft begin appearing with the aim of destroying the base. While prohibited from using weapons, the ferocity of the Erusean attack forces AWACS Bandog to give clearance to engage.

  • As the AWACS officier, Bandog is one of the more colourful ones, frequently insulting the other pilots in the air. His dialogue is hilarious, and while be belittles everyone in Spare Squadron, Trigger’s combat efficiency earns Bandog’s begrudging respect over the course of his time in Spare Squadron, even as he badmouths everyone else.

  • We’re now more than halfway through February, and this Family Day Long Weekend’s been a bit more of a quieter one on account of the snowfall in the area. Both Saturday and Sunday were characterised by extremely slippery roads. To close off the Chinese New Year festivities, we went out into a frigid evening for a dinner with family, where we had Poon choi (盆菜, a Cantonese dish with a variety of ingredients, such as prawns, abalone, chicken, pork, duck, oysters and vegetables). The warm and flavourful experience was a much needed respite from the winter cold. Also on the menu was ginger-onion lobster on a bed of noodles, pea shoots and sweet and sour pork.

  • While yesterday remained cold and snowy, the weather today’s been much more agreeable, being both warmer and sunny. Back in Skies Unknown, I continue flying against the Erusean bombers, who’ve really become convinced that the 444th is a legitimate airbase. After being transferred to Spare Squadron, players gain access to the F-104C and MiG-21. I ended up picking the MiG-21 for its gun pods. Flying a weaker aircraft seemed appropriate given the story, and the MiG-21’s biggest strength is its mobility.

  • Initially, I was struggling with this mission because the last three bombers approached from a higher altitude than before, and leaving too many aircraft in the air meant I was constantly being painted. It was here that I became more familiar with the minimap; I learned to differentiate between missiles that were about to hit me and missiles that were going to miss. When multiple missiles are coming from all directions, I deploy countermeasures.

  • While Spare Squadron has no interest in preserving the facilities, the mission will fail if bombers deal too much damage. Bandog will bitterly (and hilariously) tell the other pilots to shut up, and the comedy of the moment made it worth losing out on the mission. However, I figured something out and managed to down all of the bombers targetting the base. in the end to finish the mission, and here, blast one of the bombers, which detonate spectacularly.

  • The deep blue skies of this fifth mission looks absolutely stunning, although it’s hard to feel a sense of tranquility when there are targets to shoot down and enemy missiles to evade. Unlike Assault HorizonSkies Unknown comes with both a free mission mode for replaying completed campaign missions as well as a free flight mode. The latter is absent from Assault Horizon, likely because some missions wouldn’t have accommodated for free flight, but now that this mode is back, one can conceivably fly around fantastic settings without mission objectives to worry about.

  • With this post, I’m done the first quarter of Skies Unknown and will be pushing ahead in the campaign. My plan is to first beat the campaign, then go back and unlock the Wyvern and beat all of the aces. Finally, I’ll go for the S-ranks as time permits. There’s plenty to do in Skies Unknown, and one of the things I do wish to do is unlocking the entire aircraft tree. In the meantime, I think that with this post on Ace Combat, I’ve finished off one more gaming post. I’m not too sure when I’ll have a chance to look at Penguin Highway, but the ten-year anniversary of CLANNAD ~After Story~‘s Ushio arc is imminent, and I will need to take a look at that.

When I first went through Assault Horizon, I experimented with a range of controls and it took a while to find a setup that worked for me. I ended up deciding on the keyboard-only approach and stuck with it for the remainder of the campaign. Here in Skies Unknown, I similarly took a good half-hour to configure the keyboard controls so that everything would be intuitive and familiar: once this initial setup was completed, I began flying through the first mission. While Assault Horizon might be the game many wish to forget, I personally found the game modestly enjoyable despite its dependence on Dogfight Mode, taking players to a wide range of locations, from Dubai, to Moscow and Miami. For me, Assault Horizon was my entry into the series: I learned to fly here, and those experiences have translated over into Skies Unknown. Having had a quarter of the game under my belt, I am thoroughly enjoying Skies Unknown, and while the days of watching cannon-riddled wreckage from enemy fighters fly past my jet are gone, Skies Unknown has plenty going for it – it was a particular thrill to see the Arsenal Bird appear for the first time and then deploy its microwave shield. Such fanciful technologies were noticeably absent in Assault Horizon, and having high-tech gear in the game, both to fight against and equip, is immensely exciting: I personally cannot wait to equip and fire the Tactical Laser for the first time on PC, and in order to do that, I’ll need to push further into the campaign and earn the in-game currency needed to unlock new aircraft.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon- Final Reflection

“I saw my death in my dreams, many times. But I didn’t die. I was better than my fears. Better than my nightmares. But to find out, I had to face them all. I had to get through the worst to prove I was the best. That was my reality.” —Lieutenant Colonel William Bishop

The second half to Ace Combat: Assault Horizon sees a support mission to help transports land, a night bombing run against ICBM facilities to prevent launches from occuring, and another chance to pilot the AH-64 Apache against the rebel forces under a snowy day in Moscow. After the next Trinity warhead is set off over suburban Moscow, it’s a race to stop Markov before he destroys a major American city, culminating in a harrowing dogfight over Washington D.C. After shooting down Markov and stopping the Trinity warhead, I sigh with relief and enjoy the fact that I’d just beaten my first Ace Combat game ever, curiously enough, on a grey, snowy day. After I set down the keyboard, I gaze out the window, and think to myself that it wouldn’t be out of place for some CF-18s to be flying overhead on some exercises.

  • Why are there thirty screenshots for a game that I’ve already reviewed in parts? The second half of the game has its share of exciting moments and breathtaking landscapes, so for this final reflections post, I’ve opted to go with thirty screenshots, the same standard for full game and movie reviews. Mission nine is set at Belyi air base, which is modeled after the Belya air base in Russia’s Irkutsk Oblast, located just north of Mongolia. The actual airbase is in a region with more grasslands compared to the Assault Horizon depiction, and although there are forests and hills in the vicinity, the forests are less dense than the ones seen in-game.

  • The F-35B is one of the usable aircraft in this mission: built to replace the F-16 and F/A-18, the F-35 is a single-engine multirole aircraft. The B variant has short-takeoff-and-landing capabilities like the Harrier. Because this mission is a ground mission, I chose to equip the LAGM, which performs reasonably well against groups of ground targets. The cannon is actually quite effective, as well, and for ground missions, using conventional missiles is enough to get the job done.

  • The overall character of the Russian forests are heavy with history and inspire a sense of intrigue, bringing to mind everything from the settlement by the first Russian explorers to the region construction of the Trans-Siberian railway. Even though Canada has a sizable boreal forest as well, the nation’s relatively short history means that here, the forests are a natural beauty, and that’s about it.

  • Mission ten is another airstrike mission; this time, the goal is to rescue the Russian Prime Minister, who was captured by the rebel faction, and I take absolute joy in taking out the ground targets using rocket pods. The A-10 Thunderbolt II is one of my favourite aircraft for its legendary durability and GAU-8/A 30mm cannon.

  • While it’s hardly realistic for rocket pods to sink a frigate, I could roll with something like this in an arcade game where fun is more critical than realism. Initially, rockets and missiles won’t work against the frigate, which has a tight close-in weapons system network: Colonel Bishop suggests saturation fire to overwhelm the systems, and in the ensuing chaos, the frigate is sunk.

  • This mission is strictly an anti-ground mission: other aircraft will be keeping the skies clear. Upon closer inspection of this image, note the shock-wave emanating from the damaged frigate. This subtle detail adds a nice touch to the explosions, bringing to mind the high-speed camera shots of explosions in Mythbusters. While in real time, explosions appear instantaneous, re-watching the same explosion in real time really highlights  the complex mechanisms that fuel every explosion.

  • The night bombing mission was quite enjoyable, as well. The first bit of the mission is to reach the designated bombing point in within the time limit, taking care to stay out of the radar’s range. This mission evokes feelings of tension, bringing to mind the US aerial reconnaissance missions over the USSR in the early 1950s, when intelligence on Soviet forces was not available and the American leaders had wished to assess the size of their new enemy’s forces.

  • These early missions were strictly reconnaissance, and the B-47 Stratojets flying these missions were not armed. The first mission was carried out in 1952 to great success, although in later years, the Soviets began intercepting these flights, prompting the US to design higher-flying reconnaissance aircraft. While thrilling, such a mission would be quite dull in Ace Combat, and as such, players will instead participate ina night bombing campaign to take out ICBM silos under enemy control.

  • The first three bombing runs are to take our surface targets with unguided bombs, and the second set of runs use special guided penetration bombs to hit the silos. Care must be taken to ensure all targets are hit, and so, it is advisable to saturate an area with bombs so that no stone is left unturned; there is only one chance per run, and failing sends the player back quite a ways. To further survival, flares can be dumped to throw off the surface-to-air missiles; dumping flares with the B-1 Lancer here produces a rather impressive visual show that looks somewhat similar to the ‘angel wings’ flare pattern that arises when an AC-130 dumps flares.

  • Where I live, there are snowy days like these that white out everything. On days like these, I prefer staying home and relaxing with a cup of hot cocoa while watching the storm progress, but more often than not, storms happen on the weekdays, and so, I brave the elements on my way to campus. Having grown up in a nation where it’s winter for half the year, I consider minus sixteen to be quite warm: sometimes, temperatures drop below minus forty with windchill for weeks at a time, and so, minus sixteen feels very mild by comparison.

  • The AH-64 Apache makes a return, and this time, the ground targets are tougher, consisting of enemy tanks, howitzers and missile batteries. Hinds are also common in this mission, so I’ve opted to equip anti-air missiles rather than the Hellfire missiles I used in the previous helicopter mission. The rockets and chain gun do a satisfactory job, so I figured that balancing my load out and adding anti-air capacities would be more beneficial.

  • It was a winter’s day during the Christmas break many years ago, and I was at the local mall’s Sony store, where they were showcasing the then-bleeding edge PlayStation 2. There was a third person shooter set on a cold, snowy, forested map, and try as I might, I still haven’t been able to find the game. It might be Syphon Filter: Omega Strain, although with no reference points (such as YouTube playthroughs), I won’t be able to confirm that for sure.

  • It’s times like these that make the anti-air missiles useful: they deal enough damage to the Hinds such that the Hinds can be subsequently brought down with the chain gun without much difficulty. While the ground targets are more numerous and dangerous in this mission, constantly moving about and making use of the rocket pods will do the trick nicely enough, and the Hellfire missiles aren’t needed.

  • Dubbed “Motherland”, the aim of this mission is to defeat the rebels and allow the Loyalist forces to retake Moscow. After defeating the enemy radar units and mopping up the rebel ground forces, it seems like victory is near, but then a Trinity warhead goes off in the suburbs.

  • Focus returns to Colonel Bishop, who leads Warwolf squadron in defeating the Blackjack bombers that are headed towards Moscow. By this point, I’ve unlocked the F-22, and have equipped it with the 4AAMs, which allow me to target multiple enemies at range quickly. The skies in Aftermath recall the occasional winter clearings during a storm, where a bit of sunlight makes it through the snow clouds.

As noted countless times previously, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon excels with the atmospherics in-game, while maintaining engaging gameplay. While dogfight mode (DFM) might be required to take down certain aircraft, everything else can be defeated traditionally; this is particularly satisfying, to see one’s missiles streak off towards a distant target, and watching the ensuing explosion from the enemy aircraft. Despite what the critics may think, DFM allows for a much more engaging experience: in most games with flight combat, air battles quickly devolve into circling an enemy repeatedly without firing a shot. Similarly, I thoroughly loved the airstrike mode (ASM), which allows for ground targets to be targeted more efficiently in a single run. In other Ace Combat games, the only way was to look for target indicators and strafe them, but here, multiple targets can be determined and destroyed efficiently. The controls for Ace Combat: Assault Horizon were originally designed to be used by a console controller, and since I’m a PC gamer through and through, I don’t happen to have a controller handy, but I can see how a controller would make the game easier. Though I’ve gotten quite used to a keyboard-only control for flight, there are moments where I wished there was more precision.

  • The ominous mushroom cloud from Trinity’s explosion can be seen in the distance: from the looks of it, it’s probably a 5 kiloton warhead. Criticism directed was directed at the weapon: some felt that the weapon was a nuclear weapon in all but name, although the fact is that sufficiently large explosions, nuclear or not, will produce a mushroom cloud because the explosion produces a blast wave and fireball that would draw air upwards, including dust and debris from the ground. The mass of dust and hot gas rises until it reaches an equilibrium, forming the distinct mushroom structure.

  • While some enemies cannot be defeated with weaponry outside of dogfight mode (they’re either invincible until a scripted event or will drop flares), ordinary opponents (labelled TGT) can be shot down from a distance in the same manner as more traditional Ace Combat games.

  • Guts is a very capable wingman and pilot, helping Colonel Bishop out of tight spots and astutely spots that of the Blackjack bombers, only five were destroyed. Given that they traditionally flew in sixes, he lets Colonel Bishop know that a sixth bomber could be arriving, and sure enough, one carrying the Trinity warhead appears. The priority is to shoot the bomber down first as quickly as possible, rather than wasting time on the escort fighters. Once the bomber is destroyed, Bishop will engage Markov a second time and seemingly defeats him in the process.

  • We finally come a full circle back to Miami, where the game first began. By now, having played through thirteen missions, initiating and disengaging from DFM has become intuition, and I’m finding myself a much more effective pilot than I was when I first started playing this game.

  • Because last time, I didn’t showcase any of the DFM sequences, I’ve opted to do so here. Over the skies of Miami, the fighters marked TGT_LEAD must be taken out by DFM, although even then, some of them will only go down from a scripted event, rather than from any of the munitions the player fires into them. The fastest way to determine whether or not a plane will be defeated in a scripted sequence, I prefer using the cannon.

  • One such example is the fighter that ends up colliding with a construction crane, forcing Bishop to fly under it as it collapses. These moments are quite cinematic and, though we are only watching it happen, it nonetheless adds a bit of rush to the game, whereas traditional Ace Combat games didn’t have this element.

  • This is my last DFM image, I promise: the Miami mission has a particularly large number of these. I’m not quite sure if I mentioned it or not in the first post, but one DFM sequence takes players unnaturally close to the cargo cranes over the seaport. Most enemies in the game can be engaged via DFM and destroyed quite easily. Near the end of the mission, Markov appears, although this time, Guts takes the missile and finds his plane disabled. A bit of sharp shooting using the cannon will save him.

  • The penultimate mission involves chasing after Markov and Illich: the mission ends with Bishop engaging and defeating Illich. Right at the start of the mission, there are several small fry accompanying the two big fish: choosing the 4AAMs will allow most of them to be downed quickly, allowing Bishop to focus entirely on Markov and Illich.

  • Despite the radio chatter, Markov will soon be out of range, leaving Bishop to engage Illich in an intense but brief duel in the eye of a hurricane. While this doesn’t really make sense, it is quite entertaining.

  • We finally reach the last mission, set over Washington D.C. Even as Bishop joins the aerial combat, fighting has already broken out amongst the American forces and the remnants of the rebels. For now, there is no sign of Markov, but there are a lot of enemy aircraft to take care of. Casually note that there is an American vessel called the USS Anzio. The Girls und Panzer OVA (“Against Anzio!”) is set for release on July 5, and I will try to get out a set of screenshots and review lickety-split.

  • While there’s no time to enjoy the sights over Washington D.C., the city is accurately represented, and so, the White House, Capitol Building, Washington Monument and National Mall are visible. I was here on vacation nearly three years ago, and I must say that it was quite enjoyable to fly over a virtual Washington D.C. again, under what appear to be evening skies.

  • As with Moscow, Blackjack bombers approach. If one is equipped with the 4AAMs, one volley, plus two more heat-seekers will be enough to down them, and those with über-micro can engage them from a distance without the need to engage DFM, saving some time.

  • The final fight in Assault Horizon isn’t one of the classic tunnel flights from earlier Ace Combat games, but rather, a protracted duel against Markov. Part of the appeal about the older Ace Combat games, especially The Unsung War was the unique combination of flying through a tunnel to destroy the SOLG’s controls, then taking to the skies on the morning of New Year’s Eve to destroy the SOLG and prevent it from taking out Osea’s capital city. Here, the ending is rather more conventional, as it is set in the real world; besides the controls with low sensitivity, the lack of a tunnel mission would be the two main disappointments in what is otherwise a welcome instalment of Ace Combat.

  • Markov is technically invincible until he makes one final run on the White House. Before that, firing at him with weapons deals no damage, and Markov reciprocates in kind with his homing missiles, which can track Bishop even if the latter is behind him. The fastest way to rectify this is to disengage from DFM when a missile warning appears, and re-engage as soon as possible. Once the White House is reached, Markov can finally be taken down, although he fires the last Trinity warhead before crashing. The game closes once the Trinity warhead is destroyed: sustained cannon fire from the F-22’s internally mounted M61A2 vulcan will eventually trigger the final cutscene where a 20mm round cuts through the warhead and causes it to explode harmlessly over the National Mall’s reflecting pool.

  • With this, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon comes to a close, and I’ve finally completed my first ever Ace Combat game. This was one heck of an experience, and now, I’ve unlocked all of the missions for replay. There are definitely some missions I liked more than others, and I will probably go back and play through them again during the winter. There is a multiplayer component to Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, and although the game has now been updated to work with Steam, I’m not sure if I’ll try that or not, given that my current attention is focused on Battlefield 3 for the present.

While the controls are more stiff than is preferred for an arcade flight game, everything else about Ace Combat: Assault Horizon handles and feels good. The visuals do an incredible job of contributing to every mission’s identity; whether it be Moscow, Washington D.C., the Caucasus mountains or Miami, each mission is unique. The planes feel powerful, and it is immensely satisfying to blow aircraft apart in DFM, before watching the remnants fly past one’s screen. The soundtrack, a mixture of orchestral and rock pieces, is quite enjoyable: the tracks “Release” and “Mrs. Krista Yoslav” stand out, evoking a sense of tension and haunting associated with Markov and intense aerial battles. All of these elements come together to yield a game that acts as a fun installment to the Ace Combat series; even if the game does step away from more traditional elements, Assault Horizon winds up being a pretty enjoyable game for those looking to try out an Ace Combat game on PC (more so after mastering the sometimes-frustrating controls).