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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown’s Beautiful And Familiar Thrill

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E3 has provided our first chance to get hands-on with the standard non-VR version of Ace Combat 7 on PS4. The game had previously teased out some first looks on PSVR. For players who’ve been longing for a return to form for Bandai Namco’s arcade-leaning flight combat game, I’ve got good news. For better or worse, the gameplay returns to what we’ve seen before in this newest numbered entry. At the same time, the gorgeous plane, cloud, sky, and ground visuals may be enough to charm even returning air warfare veterans. 

After a minor departure from both setting (into the real world) and gameplay with Assault Horizon, Ace Combat 7 returns to the fiction and gameplay conceits that have characterized the prior games in the Ace Combat series. I was struck during my playthrough of a mission how quickly I fell back into familiar patterns of banking turns, firing off missiles, and dropping flares to dodge enemy fire. In fact, that sense of familiarity is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Ace Combat 7; the game feels wrapped up in a play paradigm that has remained largely unchanged for many years and multiple iterations. 

The mission I confronted saw my wing of FA-18 Super Hornets attempting to reclaim air superiority over a region of land, in advance of our push to reclaim the orbital elevator that apparently plays a key role in the story of the new game. The mission found me dodging and weaving through a dogfight with half-a-dozen enemy jets. 

Once they were destroyed, a massive drone carrier showed up, and began dropping its payload of dozens of drones to take me down. After destroying a few of them, I attempted strafing runs at the mid-air carrier, and felt the thrill of zipping past its rotors at high speed. The drone carrier represents a return to the approach to technology we’ve seen in previous entries – an extrapolation of real world tech into its most dramatic and (for now) unlikely configurations and superweapons.

The game’s most compelling new feature is its “True Sky” technology, with helps clouds and other weather elements to feel realistic, and affect gameplay in cool ways. For instance, when moving through clouds, I was partially obscured from my enemies, but I also had a harder time getting a lock on them. When flying in cockpit mode, the condensation of water on the cockpit was also a cool touch. The game is using Unreal for its engine for the first time, and everything I witnessed looked beautiful. 

Skies Unknown’s demo focused on air-to-air combat, but developers on site assured me that air-to-ground play would also play a big part. 

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is targeting a release on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, and I was told that partnerships with flight stick makers would also be coming before launch. Watch for final release sometime in 2018.

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