Oh, Ace Combat. Where do I even begin with you? I played Ace Combat 2 and 3 around the time of their release, but I wasn’t all that enamored with them. I mean, they were (like many 3D games from the mid-late 90s) pretty ugly.
But the PlayStation 2 was the first console I bought entirely with my own money, and as a teenager with disposable income, I was snatching up lots of different kinds of games. Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies was one of them, and I very quickly became addicted to its gorgeous graphics and intuitive controls. Now, if I love a game and don’t want to stop playing it I will try and get the platinum trophy for it because it gives me a great excuse to keep playing. With no achievement system in place for the PS2, I played AC4 until I had shot down every special (“named”) enemy, unlocked every plane, skin, and weapon, and S ranked every single map on all difficulties. I really loved that game a lot, and its sequel, The Unsung War, wasn’t bad either. But, as I mention in my Top 25 entry for AC4, I was “disappointed with every successor that attempted to revolutionize the flight mechanics or introduce outrageous enemies. Maybe someday they’ll return to their roots.”
Well, Joey-from-a-few-years-ago, hold on to your proverbial butt, because Namco must have heard the prayers of fans like me. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a gloriously crafted throwback to AC4 and AC5. One of the things I very much disliked about some of the later AC games was the way the aircraft controlled. I don’t just mean the control scheme, because that can be adapted to. In AC4 and 5, your plane controlled as if it were on an invisible plank, and you tilted that plank to make the plane roll, pitch, yaw, etc. I call it intuitive because when you consider the fact that the flaps that control movement are on the rear of the plane, and they determine which way the front of the plane points, it seems like a concerted effort, one that moves the whole plane, like a plank.
In some of the later AC games, instead of being on an invisible plank, it was more like your plane was being drawn by a string. Moving your joystick moved the tip of the plane, not a central axis that ran through the aircraft, the same way that the ships in the Star Wars Battlefront and Rogue Squadron games handle. It makes a little more sense for space combat (though I do still wish those games allowed for both approaches), but for a realistic jet it just seems unrealistic and cartoonish.
The first thing I noticed about AC7 was that it had returned to the control style of old, and I immediately knew how to masterfully control my plane. It felt like trying on an old t-shirt that you feel like you must have outgrown, only to realize it fits perfectly. The game also mirrors a lot of AC4 and 5’s narrative, mission types, and style, but has a healthy mix of new to go with the old so it doesn’t just feel like a complete rehash. There are the familiar narrow passages to fly in, giant airships to take down, and low canyons to stealth through, but also new drones, weather effects, and a messy sandstorm to navigate.
As for the graphics, which were a big draw for me back in the early PS2 days, they look a lot better in motion than in some of the screenshots I’m posting here. I was worried when I saw early screens of the game, because it didn’t look as photo-realistic as I was hoping. Once you’re moving, though, almost everything looks great. Some of the ground assets are a little muddy/blurry if you happen to crash and get a good look at them, but for the most part I was very happy with the visuals. There is one specific graphical choice I wanted to talk about, though, because I was thinking a lot about it while I was playing, then I saw it sort of come up on social media. Someone tweeted that the dog in the cutscene below, which they called dog.png, was the funniest part of the game. People jumped in the comments and joked about how lazy the developers were for using pictures instead of ‘real’ graphics.
The thing is, they do it a lot. Like, in most cutscenes. No one seems to notice, though, and I even found myself having a hard time determining what was real and what was fabricated in some scenes. The shot below, for example: the characters are models, but I feel pretty certain that the fencing, barbed wired, and prison background are real photos.
A more obvious one, and one that I recognized and knew I could verify, is the shot below. There’s a scene in the game where they show and describe a junkyard for planes, out in the desert. There is a real place like this, though, called the “Boneyard,” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Arizona.
I found the site on Google Maps and located the exact area that they pulled from (above). You can see that they copied and pasted extra planes from other parts of the site, and they added some B2 bombers that would almost certainly not be in a junkyard yet, but overall it’s obvious that they used a real photo instead of creating a scene from scratch. I made a gif of the two, to show the similarities and differences.
So the dog.png thing is funny, sure, but I think the developers should be applauded for trying to seamlessly mix reality and fiction and (mostly) pulling it off. It’s not a graphical style that would work for all games, but for a military game it brings a touch of reality to a fictional world, deepening immersion and grounding the narrative a bit more.
The final thing I want to touch on is a bit critical. The opening cutscene sets up a story of the granddaughter of a pilot from one of the wars from the old games. With her grandpa and his friends, she uses scraps from the planes in that boneyard to make a barely flyable jet that she uses to see the sky as her grandpa once did. She is shot down by a military fighter who mistakes her for the enemy, though, because she unknowingly makes her maiden flight just as a new war is breaking out. She manages to control her crash and survives, albeit with a serious leg injury, and is thrown in a military prison.
As all of this was playing out, I was thinking of how cool it was as a premise. If veteran players of the series are the grandpa, once flying and fighting in the wars of the old games, putting us in the shoes of his granddaughter who has to learn to fly and fight new aircraft in a new war is genius. We feel like we have something to prove. Other pilots are going to disregard us as just an amateur who couldn’t even evade the fighter that shot us down. But I quickly realized that the granddaughter is not the main character. We are another faceless, nameless character, meant to allow us to project ourselves on. I’m not complaining about that too much, because it is still a little thrilling when the other pilots talk about how awesome you are. But I can’t help but think that the old pilot’s granddaughter was set up to be a really great protagonist, and her story is kind of wasted as a side story. That aside, I loved this game a ton, and if it weren’t for the trophies that require online play I would probably try for the platinum. Either way, I see myself logging lots more flight hours in the future.