On December 17th, 1903, in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the Wright brothers made the first crewed, powered flight in an aircraft that wasn’t a hot air balloon. By the time World War I broke out in 1914, nations had realized how important airplanes were to combat, and an aeronautical arms race began that’s never ended. The world had changed. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a product of that shift. It’s a romp through the unfriendly skies, and it’s a ton of cartoony fun.
It’s the seventh entry in the main Ace Combat series — the 17th, if you count the more minor releases for various platforms — since Air Combat began in 1995. The first game was an arcade-style fighter sim that pitted you against the forces of terrorism (as one part of a mercenary alliance). Skies Unknown takes the same vaguely coercive tack. You play as Trigger, an ace pilot in the Osean military in the year 2019. You happen to do something bad enough that you’re thrown into a remote, Potemkin-village-style jail / penal colony.
You’re stuck there with Avril, a crack mechanic who just happened to be flying a jet she built in restricted airspace when a war broke out between the aforementioned Osea and Erusia. In the jail, you join the Spare Squadron, other prisoners who have been corralled into being cannon fodder in not-exactly-regulation aircraft. (Your warden / fleet commander says things like, “Don’t worry about dying. Worry about your sins” and “Let the missile hit you or crash into the rocks. That much freedom I will give.”)
The story spirals out in longer, more elaborate arcs from there, and it’s oddly touching that there’s an elaborate political structure justifying the fun-as-hell gameplay. That’s the heart of this game and every other game in the Ace Combat franchise: flying. It’s so much fun to zoom around the gorgeously detailed landscapes in a tricked-out jet, doing your best Maverick impression. That’s also one of the reasons it’s more of an arcade game than a flight simulator (although I decided not to expense a flight stick for the purposes of playing a single game, so who really knows).
Everyone on your squadron is sort of helpless. You’re godlike, the only person who can take down the assortment of surface-to-air missile sites, oil tankers, and drones the game expects you to blow up. It’s exciting, at least for a while. What’s more interesting, though, is how you eventually begin to bond with the other guys on team Spare. They’re blustery dudes who always seem to be challenging each other to shoot down more bogies. It’s weirdly infectious nihilism. But there are real risks they’re not acknowledging. Things change when one guy goes down because the squadron commander made a mistake. You can hear the helpless rage in the other pilots’ voices as you return to base, but you can feel it, too.
It’s more cartoon than simulator, more anime than live-action
What games do better than any other form of media is give the player a sense of embodiment. If something’s made well, you feel as though the pixels on-screen have become your body. Skies Unknown manages to do that with a plane, which makes the game feel way more similar to a mecha brawler like Armored Core than is immediately apparent. The missions in Skies Unknown do get repetitive since there are only so many ways you can remix shooting things with rockets, but the feeling of flying picks up the slack. There are so many ways to do it: the game has tons of customizable planes, and each feels substantially different from the others. Chasing a Gripen E in an F-104C Starfighter and downing it is as satisfying as frying a perfect egg.
But even playing the game in Free Flight mode — where you can replay missions you’ve completed without any enemies or objectives — is fulfilling. It’s less like making breakfast and more like taking a leisurely stroll through a bougie grocery store. (Multiplayer, on the other hand, is more stressful. In the real world, there are a ton more ace pilots.)
I have no doubt that the Ace Combat series will return with another entry at some point; airplanes have only gotten more sophisticated since the Wright brothers first took off in 1903, and there are many people around the world who love them. Skies Unknown takes you about as close as is fun to the world of jet-fueled sky-jockeying: it’s more cartoon than simulator, more anime than live-action.
As I learned from one loading screen in the game, dogfighting is so named because pilots chase each other’s tails. In the same way, Skies Unknown retreads some familiar ground — but it sure is thrilling.
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