Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
The classic flight-sim action series propels itself into the future
PC, PS4, Xbox One
We get the feeling Project Aces is trying to impress us. As we sit in the cockpit of our F/A-18F Super Hornet and trundle towards the runway, all hell breaks loose. Fighter jets careen towards the ground like meteors while a friendly tank fires wildly into the sky; next, a plane hurtles across our path, missing our nose cone by a hair before exploding into a fireball. This is typical virtual reality showboating – dramatic stuff, but gimmicky.
But as soon as we pull up into the skies to defend the airbase, we forget about the ground-based theatrics entirely. Here is where
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown’s VR mode really comes into its own, as we dip and loop after enemy pilots, even flying upside-down comfortably for long stretches as the fictional world of Strangereal falls away above us. “There’s a lot of knowledge of techniques crammed into this,” series producer Kazutoki
Kono says. “Things like the flame around the cockpit, the speed settings caused by other effects not influenced by players’ handling, or warning sounds that announce the speed change to players in advance. This helps them psychologically prepare for the next movement.” It’s staggering how nausea-free it is to repeatedly barrel roll away from incoming missiles, or dive down into the clouds before popping up to flank a target: Kono’s team have plenty of previous experience designing for VR, and it shows. “We weren’t in the grip of the fixed idea that jet fighters are not suitable for VR content, which many people were worried about when this was announced,” he says. “We tried without stereotype, and we found many things in Ace Combat’s gameplay were really suitable, and the causes of nausea are few.”
It’s the attention to detail that really enchants. Veering into cloud cover to cloak ourselves from enemy fire is particularly pleasing: water droplets stream over the glass of our cockpit, and even the accompanying score is plunged into submarine sound. The effect is something Kono calls “functional beauty”, the result of a slightly exaggerated version of reality that acts as a UI indicator of where exactly the player is in the sky without cluttering up the screen. “In every moment, all the elements need to influence each other without any waste, combine together delicately and match together in the highest quality, so that the impression that players feel will be increased many times more.”
Whether it’s this keenly engineered synergy that contributes to our improved performance in VR, or whether the challenge has been dialled down in this mode, it’s hard to say. But we dearly miss the sensation of piloting a real jet when playing Ace Combat 7 on a regular screen, and even find it more difficult to navigate. Still, the overcast Yinshi Valley is a delight to slalom a nippy F-14D Super Tomcat through: the mountainous canyon is filled with towering pillars of rock that both offer cover and threaten to spike us out of the air should we lose focus. We pepper enemy radar facilities and anti-aircraft guns with long-range missiles, hoping for the safe rescue of our squadron.
Series stalwarts will doubtless prefer the classic approach, but on this evidence, the (sadly rather limited, we’re told) VR mode is
Ace Combat 7’ s crowning achievement, and an attractive entry point to a venerable, and perhaps intimidating, series of games for new players. It’s also an ideal fit for what the series has always been about: the feeling of being an actual fighter pilot. “‘Imitation’ is one of the philosophical elements at play, and
Ace Combat is ‘pretend play’,” Kono says. “I’m pleased if the depiction is as close to reality as possible. On the other hand, it also needs the elements that help people enjoy the world. These two factors are opposed to each other – but ‘pretend play’ integrates both. The key is to give players the impression that their experience in the game actually happened, and when people tell other people about how wonderful the game is, they talk about the reality they actually experienced in their mind.”
On this evidence, the VR mode is Ace Combat 7’s crowning achievement