Dearest reader, I do not wish to alarm, but after playing through Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown I have come to a rather disturbing revelation; I don’t think the developers have ever watched Top Gun. Now look, I know it sounds absurd but after a touch over a dozen hours there seems little doubt in my mind. How can anyone, having seen the ridiculous, homoerotic glory of the late Tony Scott’s masterwork come up with something so sober, and at times, rather dull?
To be fair, the combat and essential gameplay is fantastic. It very much has the look and feel of the Ace Combat games pre-Assault Horizon but makes use of modern graphical technologies to give the environments more detail and add a plethora of new weather effects. Clouds obscure your vision, winds impact on steering and the sun’s gross incandescence is suitably celebrated.
However once you look past the look and feel of the game it all starts to lose a little altitude. Take the game’s story, clearly someone put a lot of effort into it as there are many elaborate and beautifully made cut-scenes and missions are saturated with related radio chatter, but somehow it manages to be heroically awful. Your mute, faceless pilot is ostensibly the hero but the game devotes most of its time to exploring the lives of a handful of specific individuals caught up in the conflict. Such an idea has great potential; it allows for more context, gives a human face to all the violence and can, repeat can, introduce some added stakes to the 20 missions that make up the campaign.
Unfortunately this doesn’t happen, largely because the characters in question are interminably dull and spend inordinate amounts of time talking about irrelevant guff or otherwise going off on the kinds of awful pseudo-intellectual soliloquising that most of us had outgrown at age 12. The story bares all the festering wounds left by your classic JRPG hack writer. So of course there’s no blood or injury, but you’ll get no end of emotionally overwrought wailing about the horrors of war, and there’s a princess, because fucking of course there’d be. And she has all the charisma and depth of a fresh gob of spit on a pavement.
The radio chatter, somehow, is even worse, with multiple characters you don’t give a shit about shouting and screaming non-sequiturs and badly written attempts at humour, drama and just about everything else. The voice acting itself is fine, mostly, but it’s pretty much standard anime voice actors trying their best with soiled toilet paper that at some point in antiquity might have been a script. I’m likely being harsh (I was playing Sunless Skies at the time) but it was honestly annoying and hard to follow at the best of times. I mean, who’d have thought that high speed dogfighting might leave you a little distracted.
But what dogfighting it is; swinging around through the clouds, getting behind an enemy and hearing that sweet lock on sound with the whoosh of missile fire, all culminating (hopefully) in a firestorm of jagged hot metal falling from the sky. The thrill is certainly there and with a dearth of similar titles it’s a welcome sight to see a new flight combat game with some robust production values.
What’s not so welcome is the game’s infuriatingly archaic mission design. I can somewhat understand escort missions in that jet fighters are often used to provide air cover in various combat scenarios, but in video game form it simply isn’t fun or tense in the way the designers were most likely aiming for. In fact, quite a few developers seem to misunderstand the nature of challenge. Having someone spit in your eye every 10 seconds whilst playing something is certainly challenging, but hardly entertaining or something you’d actively want to attempt. Many games simply spawn more enemies when they can’t be arsed but in Ace Combat 7’s case it’s the immortal stench of the arbitrary time limit.
No, just no. I know why it’s there; to force you to get a move on, to be aggressive and sort matters promptly but fuck me upside down with a novelty banana balloon if it isn’t just disk snapping levels of illogical and infuriating dog shit. It speaks to a lack of imagination that runs through the experience as a whole, where slavish devotion to the past seems to have overridden good sense and any sort of daring or creativity.
Fortunately these systems aren’t entirely ubiquitous; some missions task you with just racking up as much damage as you can whilst others test your flight skills in more interesting ways with tight spaces and hostile environmental conditions. The use of weather effects is probably the most obvious new addition from past titles and it’s nice enough in making the world feel more alive, even if the lightning strikes that hit you in certain mission seem suspiciously common.
The mix of planes and weaponry are also decent, if slightly conservative. There’s no charging around the skies in bright fuchsia or soaring about the stratosphere in some alien looking hyper-plane, but being able to tinker around with your loadout and choose your plane keeps you from feeling straight-jacketed into a specific approach. The campaign is also quite generous in the latter stages with the currency needed for new acquisitions and as I was able to get one of the best aircraft in the game before the final mission suggests a more modest level of grind. There’s also multiplayer and some apparently stellar VR, if you’re into that sort of thing.
It goes without saying that the lure of Top Gun puns is always there with a modern aerial combat game, and the serious reviewer, as when considering Kafka or Orwell on stories about North Korea, is usually wise to try and avoid such obvious allusions. I however will do no such thing; Ace Combat 7 has some mighty wings but fails to be maverick enough to enter the danger zone. You can go playing with the boys during hot summer nights but the campaign is ice when it needs to be great balls of fire. But while there are no points for second place it can certainly take your breath away.