Sometimes, reboots don't go quite according to plan. As part of some much vaunted, yet understandably ill-fated attempt at reaching out to "Western gamers" (whatever that even really means?), the bods at Bandai Namco decided that its near-future-sci-fi arcade flight-sim Ace Combat needed a reboot - and seemingly, that meant stripping it of everything that made it what it was. Ditching the ludicrously oversized sky bases, getting rid of the oddly named, anime-style countries that were locked in some never-ending war over territory, and instead setting it all in the "real world " (yeurch), with the tag line "make metal bleed", some top bod at Namco decided that flight sim fans didn't actually want to fly planes - don't be stupid. What they really wanted was a game that was, unironically, described on several occasions as being "Call of Duty in the skies" (can you imagine anything worse?). Totally predictably, the game bombed faster than a tallboy - and more worryingly, for a while it appeared to have almost taken Ace Combat out for good.
Luckily, it seems the folks at Bandai Namco certainly learned their lesson. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is a kind of reboot of a reboot then, if you will, and more of a return to its roots than anything. Back are the flying wings battle stations; back is the stunning orchestral score, which always provides just the right wingman to your dogfighting moves; and, most importantly, back is the gameplay, which puts you firmly in the pilot's seat.
One of the stupidest things Ace Combat: Assault Horizon did was to essentially stop you from doing all the cool parts of flying. Take offs and landings, who has time for that? But perhaps the biggest cardinal sin was essentially ditching dogfighting. Rather than having to struggle to stay on your opponent's tail, cutting through the skies pulling Gs so intense they'd crush a lesser man's spine, Assault Horizon instead asked you to simply hold two buttons, and it'd automatically glue you to your opponent's tail (you can see why it bombed so hard, right?). Thankfully, all of that is gone for Skies Unknown - and what we have instead is a game that's much, much better.
The story here will be familiar to any Ace Combat fan, with a pretty impenetrable storyline surrounding a bunch of countries/continents with names like Erusea and Usea, who are all at war, seemingly because of something called a space lift. Which genuinely appears to be a giant lift that takes people into space (did we mention Ace Combat isn't exactly known for its realism?). With cutscenes that focus on the characters caught up in the war rather than the geopolitical struggles, it's certainly a nice touch, but it does make the story rather hard to follow.
What does matter, however, is the flying - and this is a thousand times better than Assault Horizon. With a selection of jets on offer, taking you through from the default F-16, all the way through to cutting edge jets like the RAF's current multi-role aircraft, the F-35 Lightning II, and the US F-22 Raptor, it's up to you to strap yourself into the cockpit (if you're that way inclined, all the planes come with a proper cockpit view too), and take to the skies to shoot down the badniks across the game's 20 or so single player missions as part of its story.
Things start off in the best of ways, as the base you're at comes under a surprise attack by an invading force. Having to scramble your plane as the bombs fall around you, you take to the skies to take down the attackers, and attempt to limit the damage to your homeland. These being jets, every aircraft's equipped with a wide variety of homing rockets - although there's plenty of scope to customise your jet's armament to suit your flying style, thanks to the special weapon each has the option of equipping. With each mission starting with a typically overly dramatic briefing, you'll have at least some idea of what sort of enemy to expect. If it's mostly ground units, why not equip some free falling bombs (which can take out multiple enemies in just one shot), or how about some guided cluster bombs that can target four things at once? If you're expecting a heavy air presence, you could go for an anti-aircraft rocket that can target four enemy planes at once - or, if you're expecting to be fighting chuffing awkward planes, you could go for a long range anti-aircraft missile instead - preferably one with souped up manoeuvrability. Some of these weapons are fire and forget, whereas others are only semi-guided, meaning you'll need to keep your target in front of your plane and "locked on" if you want it to hit home.
But even your basic missiles are more than just fire and forget. You have to work flipping hard to be able to land a hit with the standard rockets, zipping through the clouds and squeezing both triggers to pull off high-G turns, before slipping in on your enemy's tail to give your rocket the best possible chance of finding its target. If you're new to flight sims, you can even choose a simpler kind of control scheme, which sees your plane turn left when you push left, rather than just pitch, which does help lower the learning curve somewhat for novices. Yet even with the best of piloting skills, landing is a hit is far from guaranteed - flares can throw even the best of shots off course, while flying through cloud makes things even more unpredictable. You do get an incredibly atmospheric rain-wipe effect as the water particles get swept up your windscreen at 600mph, though.
This being Ace Combat, there's a really wide variety of missions here, too - it's more than just "go up, shoot things, come back". One early mission sees you attempting a daring rescue mission at the space elevator - in order to get close, you'll need to steer your plane through tiny gaps in their radar defences, which are only actually visible on your map. Needless to say, it can feel quite a bit like trying to thread a needle. And then there's the Ace Combat standard gigantic super weapons to take out - like the huge flying wing style sky base, Arsenal Bird. Though it may have a stupid name, this gigantic beast of an aircraft holds hundreds of drones under its wings, and seems to even come with its own shield system (did we mention Ace Combat wasn't the most realistic of games?), making it a tough foe to take down to say the least, and laying the groundwork for some epic, Death Star style encounters.
But perhaps what's best is that it actually feels like you're flying a plane again. Dogfights are dramatic, tense, and twitchy encounters, where trying to get on your enemy's six is every bit as tough as you'd expect, while there's plenty of cool plane-related things outside of combat too. Some missions make you take off (although it is a bit disappointing your plane automatically leaves the ground, and puts its wheels up automatically), while if you've gone in a carrier-borne plane, you might find yourself having to touch down on an aircraft carrier before you can finish the mission... And good luck with that.
What's new for Ace Combat 7 is how you unlock your planes. Rather than just being given them for finishing missions or completing certain objectives (although you do still get some that way), you instead earn points for finishing each mission, and have to spend those on a kind of upgrade tree style grid - something that'll be familiar to anyone who's played something like World of Tanks. Essentially grouping the jets into some sort of technology tree, it means you can't just jump in and buy your favourite (boo!), but it does add a bit of extra depth. In between the planes you can buy are a variety of upgrades, which do everything from increasing the speed and homing abilities of your rockets, to making your plane more durable, or manoeuvrable. What's a bit more depressing, though, is the fact that a variety of these upgrades only take effect in multiplayer matches - which is more of an issue than you'd think.
Although the game comes with a full eight player online mode, including the ability to set up private rooms for just you and your friends, it also falls into one of the most common, yet most frustrating mistakes online games makes - it gives more experienced players an unfair advantage over newcomers. As you play the game, both online and off, you'll earn the aforementioned points, which can then be spent on upgrades for your plane. The catch is, a number of these are multiplayer only - and they can only be unlocked once you've played at least one game online. That means the first time you play online, not only will you be playing against players who are much more experienced than you, but they'll also have an artificial advantage. It's no wonder you can't get a shot off when they have missiles that have a greater range, that are faster and more manoeuvrable than yours, and which have a faster reload time. While the game makes no effort at all to try and match you against similarly skilled players, it does give you the option of searching only for lobbies with a "points" cap of your choosing - the points system essentially meaning that the better your plane, and the more upgrades you've equipped, the higher your score. Still - when we started out, our plane (even with all the upgrades we owned) weighed in at a measly 1,750, while everyone else in our lobby had seemingly been playing a lot longer, and had tetrised their upgrades in to be within 50 of the 2,000 point limit. Needless to say, it didn't go all that well for us - a single hit is all we managed, along with an award for "most missiles dodged", and "least shots fired" (presumably because everyone else has a faster reload time). And yet we still weren't bottom of our team.
Though its multiplayer may disappoint, though, Ace Combat: Skies Unknown is a real return to form for a series that we were beginning to worry was MIA. Even if we are a bit disappointed that, even with more planes than Assault Horizon, one of our favourite planes (the Harrier) didn't make the cut, and another (the F-4 Phantom) is a pre-order bonus instead, with tight dogfighting action, a great soundtrack, a traditionally over the top story and world, and just the right mix of authenticity and arcade action, this is a game that any flight sim fan is going to want to pick up, and one which ought to be able to pull in the new players too. Now let's get a sequel out before this console generation wraps up.