Ace Combat is a series that is widely misunderstood even to this day and might be one of the most underrated series in gaming because of it. People avoid it because they think it’s some flight simulator and has no appeal unless you’re into things like Top Gun and care about dog fighting or fighter jets. The fact is though that very early on in the series it stopped being either of those things. Ace Combat, especially since the 4th game, has been pretty much the pinnacle of immersive storytelling in gaming making you feel like you really are becoming a legend unlike any other game I’ve played mixed with insane plotlines including superweapons that even put Metal Gear Solid to shame, and the gameplay is very fun and arcade-y even on the ‘harder’ flight mode (which you should use or you’re actually gonna have a harder time because the simpler version doesn’t give you yaw or anything I believe) that makes it simple and fun for anyone but also very rewarding to master and no matter what you feel awesome playing even if you suck at it.
If you like crazy stories, if you like JRPGs, if you like COOL SHIT like having a really wild badass battle while beautiful latin chanting or intense dramatic pieces with a spanish flair (or both at the same time) play over them then this is a series you need to play. To make it all better the entire fucking time you’re doing anything you hear radio chatter nonstop from both sides and watching all your allies do shit on the ground and in the air right alongside you with shit popping off all over and it really puts you into the seat of that jet and in the middle of that war by surrounding you with nothing but constant immersion and reminders that you are part of something much bigger in a way no other game has done.
Ace Combat 7 is the newest release – and with 6 being a 360 exclusive and widely seen as mediocre at best, and the shitheap that was Assault Horizon (which for the record is not even canon or related to the rest of the games, doesn’t even take place in the same universe) – this is a huge and important return to form after many years of silence.
AC7 doesn’t hold back either; Strangereal (that is the official name of it) is back and then some, this time with a story focused on drones and the future of war as well as the future of maintaining peace. Sadly it also carries a message against borders, claiming if it were not for nations existing there would be no more sadness and hatred and war because that’s how things work in the mind of a liberal. However, as pretty much anyone who has read my blog at any point knows by now I am pretty quick to get real fucking annoyed with that type of shit – retard politics – ruining my games, anime, movies, whatever. Here? It really didn’t impact it at all and by the end it had no real relevancy whatsoever, it’s more like it just comes up from time to time in a line or two – it doesn’t matter to the story really but more importantly it isn’t smeared all over everything, it’s just present enough to be a little irking but totally ignorable. In fact some of the stuff in the writing goes against that entirely, so it was not only minimal but balanced as well.
The plot itself this time is a little more disconnected than usual though which I’d say doesn’t work in its favor. In 0 the story is told through interviews with enemy aces and allies all discussing the war and, usually, your involvement and skills in the form of a fake documentary about the events that took place. In 5 it was told by a journalist who was following your squad around as the war broke out and talking about the pilots and things that took place and it gave a real good look into everyone in your squad – which also helped develop them (something 7 lacks for the most part, sadly) while he depicts your rise from nothing to you becoming seen as a the rebirth of a demon of lore.
In 7 the story doesn’t really involve you at all on any level. It’s about an ace named Mihaly from a country that no longer exists, literally Wesker who is out to cause havoc because muh Belka, the princess of the enemy nation, and some random cute tomboy who very very very lightly knows the main character by being – to not spoil anything – “stuck” with the main character in a certain place. In fact that spoiler is kind of the only cool little twist to the game and the only way the player feels he is becoming something relevant – going from completely damned by his own to becoming a hero of the war. But, like, the girl’s story has no connection to you at all either aside that she existed somewhere in the same base at the same time and she’s the main focus really. So you basically get a story about some people who basically don’t exist for the player beyond 2 missions very late in the game and Mihaly who is a good character but just obnoxious to run into in the game cuz he’s the worst boss fight they could have made for a flight combat game. It’s not a bad story at all, I enjoyed it, but it just lacks any connection to the player or his legacy. Again, good story, but it just had no real relevance beyond being a good story in a video game – it didn’t feel as compelling or immersive or as empowering as the prior titles thanks to how disconnected from the events of the gameplay and the squad as a whole that it had. Also, I’m pretty sure the game never actually bothers taking care of the fact you were wrongfully accused of the biggest crime possible even by the end it just doesn’t ever come up that it wasn’t you – at this point I’m not sure if you were really meant to have done it (even though it was impossible for me, I had no missiles left and was shooting my minigun as it’s all I had) or if they just completely forgot to bother.
What AC7 lacks in its story being as compelling and moving as 4, 5, and 0, it makes up for in being the most referential of all of them. Half the missions in this game and a bunch of the story involve places and people that – while you can enjoy 7 on it’s own – you gain an extra amount of “this is fucking awesome” from having played those three. The same ship you spent most of your time on in 1 finally being replaced by a new improved model (that dies off-screen in the same mission it appears, OOPS), Yuktobania, Belka, Farbanti, FUCKING STONEHENGE ITSELF THE MEGA SUPERWEAPON and this time DEFENDING it which is the last thing I’d ever expect to happen since 4, even a few smaller specific locations, I believe the ex-president was an important character (as president) in 5 if I recall, one of the most important characters in 5 reappears for a tiny bit, and so on. Most of the games aside being set in the same timeline and world rarely reference each other – even 0 which takes place before 5 and is a big part of 5 existing story-wise is pretty stand-alone in that aspect. But here? One of the very final moments of the game was one of my happiest with it as everyone’s favorite wingman in the series makes a short cameo, and that sort of thing kept happening throughout. Honestly aside that end cameo Stonehenge has to take the cake – it was so fucking cool that it finally came up again and was even something we were using this time. Again, no experience with the series is NEEDED, but it certainly made certain names, events, and mission locations much more special.
The two biggest issues with AC7 are in the ‘legend creating’ side of things and the boss fights. I hate boss fights in anything, but usually in Ace Combat they, while tough, are these huge set pieces with intense emotion and so much more to them and are usually believably overly difficult but doable. Even when they’re super hard and frustrating you come out of it with a “fuck that was cool” feeling regardless when you finally win. Here? The boss fights just kind of happen because they need to exist to give you boss fights and they don’t even have special music really, the bosses aside Mihaly himself are just against lifeless nothing drone carriers, and even fighting Mihaly is just obnoxious because he cheats. Yes, he’s in an experimental fighter but I’ve flown it in prior games after beating them, it does not turn 180 degrees magically in a tenth of a second, however his basically inverts the graphics of itself so that he is going the opposite way any time he chooses. It’s a very lazy way of creating a difficult enemy and it results in infuriating, stupid, and just boring fights with him due to how unfair they are. He doesn’t actually kill you, he isn’t hard in that way, he’s just forever dodging with magic that shoots him off at 80000 times the speed he was going 1 second ago in a direction that is impossible no matter what you do and typically sitting an inch away from you so you can never target him in the first place. It’s just annoying and takes forever, killing the mood and the dramatic feeling of things.
The bigger issue for me though was definitely that this game lacks the core reason Ace Combat is such a special and amazing franchise. I never really felt that same “I am slowly becoming a legend to both sides of this war” that 4, 5, and 0 all shared and did in amazing fashion. Here they clearly try but it mostly falls flat, I never felt like anyone truly gave a fuck that Trigger/”Three Strikes” was there aside a couple mentions late-game.
There’s a specific moment I always think back on when I think about Ace Combat and why it is such an important and truly uniquely immersive series that stands alone in how well it can make the player feel something genuine about what he is doing and who he is in that world. It’s a mission in Ace Combat 5 (one of the best games ever made, to be honest, with absolutely one of the best soundtracks ever recorded) about halfway through where you, a bunch of other fighters, and a huge amount of marines and navy ships are bombarding and storming a beach. You fight regularly for a little while but then as things are going bad for your side, your allies on the ground start to notice the logo on the tips of your wings and you hear them pointing it out to each other, mumbling about the demon, or wondering if it’s really you and they saw it right. Then the enemies, who you also hear in all the games, start noticing the same, murmuring to one another about “was that really him?”, “if he’s here we’ve got no chance…”.
When they start realizing you’re really there, that it truly is the Demon of Razgriz swooping past, all your allies start cheering over the radio and charging with a new motivation to push forward yelling and whooping over the gunfire you hear in the background of their communications, a new strength of will purely from seeing you go flying past overhead barely long enough to be seen and the enemies start losing their composure knowing the new-born legend himself has appeared and they begin being pushed back with ease due to all losing their shit about you showing up and you hear them all freaking out over the radio both from losing ground and losing their belief in winning this battle now that you have arrived.
Just thinking about it now is giving me goosebumps, because you don’t feel like it’s a video game with the way they manage to present it, you feel like the Demon of Razgriz himself in that moment and throughout the whole game – but that is the very moment that the whole game’s missions with small infrequent mentions about you every now and then from the ground and from the enemies finally builds up more and more each mission and finally into this ultimate moment when you become the most important thing in the entire war effort. You simply existing there, after all the missions prior building up your legacy, showing both sides you are to be seen as an inhuman unstoppable force in the sky, changes the entire fucking war just by you simply flying over a battlefield because you are a fucking legend to both sides pulled straight out of their myths and you, the player, earned that distinction through all the missions leading up to that point.
The game itself acknowledges you the player for all you’ve done throughout the game and as important, as a myth come to life (which makes it even more goddamn cool that they made the lore so relevant to your eventual title), and it makes you feel like this fucking legend – one who earned himself that title – who can strike fear into your enemies just by possibly being in the skies or give your allies new life just from the paint on your wings being seen for a moment. That is, again, about halfway through – it only gets even stronger from there but that is still the peak moment of the series for me when you really get that feeling for the first time.
4 and 0 have their moments and are both incredible (especially 0), but 5 is at the very peak of making a player feel true empowerment and like he’s really done something and become someone important in this fictional world.
However, 7 does a pretty lackluster job of it. I never felt that build up, I never felt that moment, I never felt like I really mattered even when they said I did. My squad were people I barely knew aside Count who doesn’t really develop so much as go through a heel-face turn out of nowhere overnight. My AWACS pilot kept changing needlessly. You get mentioned but it just feels so empty this time around and it pretty much never matters or has any way to really know that it does. You just feel like the only competent pilot in strangereal rather than a legend with very few tiny parts that at least make you feel kind of cool and respected; for example the mission where you are trying to keep a car with an enemy officer who is betraying to join your side in which they do mention you quite a bit even at the start of it questioning if you’d be there or not and being so grateful that you really are because they know you’re the only chance they’ve got.
The OST this time around is very lacking too, which maybe is the saddest thing. One of the most incredible things about the series is the music which is, I’d argue, some of the best ever made at times, and here you just kind of get bland generic songs. Not a single one stands out in my mind and I probably will never listen to any of them on their own while AC5 and 0 are regularly something I’ll return to listen to because FUCK it’s so damn good. The quality and style of the soundtracks always added so much feeling and emotion to everything going on too – so them not going for it here really damaged the overall emotional attachment of the player to the events as well. Even 4 had sweeping beautiful tracks that still hold up even if it’s nothing compared to 5 or 0, but this was just kinda lame generic nothing bgm you’d ignore without realizing it. You lose the, and I hate to put it this way, but in the proper usage of the word, the epic feeling of even the most large and important missions.
Back to some good things about 7 though; they do a pretty good job at having a few gimmicks in the game that mix things up and add to the experience. First off, the weather is a great addition – on my first mission when I flew through a cloud in the cockpit view and i got water and ice and couldn’t see shit and the music was muffled and then I popped out of the cloud and the music came blaring back and the sun was shining? It felt damn cool – and that feeling didn’t go away at any point in the game. The lightning on a few levels was also cool as you COULD – but not scripted – strike your plane and fuck your systems up for a little bit. It was kind of annoying gameplay wise but still cool if that makes sense.
Then, easily my favorite part of the game and the story, at one point long range communications go down as well as IFF tracking – as in, there is no way to tell friend from foe anymore because that’s all controlled by satellite and those are, for story reasons, not available at the time. So for a few missions, every target is an unknown and about half of them are actually your own guys – land, air, and sea, nothing is certain anywhere (and one of the missions has you dodging through downtown buildings and freeway overpasses while this is going on to make it even better). You have to fly really close for the AWACS to get a read on them and to mark them as allies or targets and it just felt really awesome and threw this crazy twist into things because you don’t want to go around blowing up your own even though they are ALSO shooting at YOU because they have the same problem and, sorry, but when you’re a SAM site launching a million rockets at me I might just fire without checking first.
It was done well too in that it felt bad the times I would shoot without thinking before realizing I just killed one of our own. It doesn’t just fail your mission or something either, I bet it probably does if you kill too many but I know I got a handful and it just made me deal with the guilt of it without real punishment.
The situation also creates some really fantastic moments of flying really low just 50~150 feet above a bunch of vehicles to find out if they’re good or bad or, my favorite, flying head-on directly into an unidentified fighter and him charging right into you too and you both realizing last-second that you’re allies and both flipping on your side and pulling off as fast as possible right before fucking crashing into each other. It made the tense atmosphere feel real because even the AI behaved like a shaken fighter pilot who both wasn’t sure what to do and who also was taking huge risk by waiting so long to do it to be sure of who they were about to shoot down. It felt like something you’d find in Top Gun with the last second dodging on both our parts, almost like it was choreographed but it was totally just a natural moment that happened.
As for basics like ‘gameplay’ and ‘graphics’? The game is fucking gorgeous. The gameplay is as spot on as it always has been and feels great. It engages the player and also gives a fantastic feeling of being a badass regardless of what you’re doing or how good you are at the game.
All that being said, AC7 is a really good game. It has all the aspects that are so truly unique to this franchise that no other game has at all even to this day – from the style of gameplay to the storytelling and immersion and even the nonstop radio chaos, even if some of those aspects are not as incredibly high-level as a couple of it’s predecessors. AC still stands all on it’s own with still zero competition – yet pushing ever onward all the same and this is a sign that there is still a future for the series. This was not only a return to form, but a great, very fun, very challenging game that I really do recommend – though if you haven’t played 5 you need to do that even sooner.