“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.