Going into Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, I never expected a story with any sort of substance. Granted, I’ve never played an Ace Combat game before, but what I’ve come to expect of military-themed action games is vapid nonsense at best and aggressive imperialist propaganda—almost always in celebration of the United States—at worst.
Ace Combat 7 couldn’t be further from that. Set in a fictional world, albeit one that closely mirrors our own, it depicts events far would become known as the “Lighthouse War”. But rather than a simple story of ace pilots triumphing against a faceless evil despite terrible odds, Ace Combat 7 is more interested in looking at the impact of war, especially in an age where drones and other forms of high-tech warfare are becoming commonplace.
Among the opening cutscenes are two news reports played back to back, both reporting on a the Kingdom of Erusea’s declaration of war (and accompanying military assault) against the Osean Federation but offering very differing perspectives. One, from Osean Broadcasting Corporation, focuses on unprovoked nature of the offensive in a time of hard-earned peace between the two nations. The other, from Erusian News Network, widespread civilian collateral damage from Osea’s counterattacks.
Neither report is lying, but neither is telling the whole truth, either. The aim, as is so often the case with news reporting in times of war, is to rally morale and convince the people of each respective nation that they’re the “good guys”.
With this as the backdrop, you’re thrust into Ace Combat 7 as a fighter pilot for the Osean Air Defense Force (OADF). What would otherwise be a series of fairly typical “us vs them” military operations becomes more complicated thanks to the bigger picture afforded to you as the player. Even though you spend the entirety of the game fighting for Osea against Erusea, Ace Combat 7 never lets you settle into the idea that you’re a “good guy” fighting against “bad guys”.
This becomes especially apparent when the Spare Squadron gets involved. Officially known as the 444th Fighter Squadron, the nickname “Spare Squadron” took hold because all its members are seen as expendable by the OADF higher-ups; they’re military prisoners forced to undertake missions far too dangerous for more “reputable” soldiers. Through them, you get a first-hand glimpse of the ugly underbelly of the force that, by virtue of you playing as one of them, would be the de facto “good guys” in a conventional military-themed game.
As Ace Combat 7 ticks along, you see more and more of the real human cost of the war, for all involved. From thousands of feet in the sky, when you’re piloting one machine in a fight against others, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the impact of your actions—something that a few different characters comment on. But as the game ticks along and the situation escalates, keeping that distance becomes impossible, and the cast—allies and enemies alike—are forced to deal with the reality of what’s going on.
In a similar vein, Ace Combat 7 is fascinated with the implications of increasingly automated warfare. The idea of war played out entirely between machines, with no human soldiers and therefore no human casualties (in theory, anyway) sounds nice on paper, but what comes with making war more palatable? What happens when those machines fail, or get compromised, or when their AI acts in ways nobody predicted and there’s no scope for human intervention?
These ideas aren’t confined to the cutscenes and mission briefings, either. Most missions begin as the sort of straightforward missions you’d expect from an air force unit—go attack this target, go escort that transport plane—but they rarely remain as such. Sometimes, this is deliberately frustrating for the player: when the mission briefing suggests that you’re dealing primarily with ground targets and you outfit your plane with that in mind, the sudden appearance of a particularly troublesome group of UAVs can be a pain. That’s the point; in so doing, Ace Combat 7 builds that sense of desperation into the very mission structure that the whole game is built around.
And that’s one of the lesser examples, though to share any others would be to take away some of Ace Combat 7‘s hardest-hitting moments. Suffice to say, one mission in particular—mission 4, for those who’ve played it—left me with no choice but to put the controller down, go for a walk, and just think about what had just happened. That is, sadly, a rarer thing than it ought to be.
One of the tradeoffs to Skies Unknown’s big-picture look at war is loss of characterisation for the individuals. As one of the two main narrators, you get a good sense of Avril, a civilian and a genius mechanic who somehow found herself working with the Spare Squadron, while the other narrator—an Erusian scientist trying to improve their drones’ performance with combat data from a legendary pilot—offers some insight into said legendary pilot’s life, even though he rarely speaks a word himself. But the player character, Trigger, is a complete blank slate, and his squadmates never amount to more than faceless voices yahooing over the radio.
This is still an Ace Combat game, with all the high-flying antics that come with the name. The dogfights are intense, and successfully shooting down an enemy or dodging a missile is a rush. A new weather system plays an important part in the later—cloud cover now plays a crucial role in helping you shed enemy locks and obscure you from the view of anti-air turrets.
(If you have a PlayStation VR, a handful of VR missions take that exhilarating flight combat to the next level. Taking off from a carrier—with that little drop off the end if the ship before you get properly airborne—makes the stomach drop like no other VR game I’ve played. It’s a shame that this mode is limited to just a handful of missions, though.)
The increasing stakes of the plot allow for a wide variety of creative mission types, too. One of my favourites involves flying through a maze of radar coverage, with detection resulting in immediate failure and your own radar as the only means of detecting where it’s safe to fly; it’s not as difficult as it sounds, but it kept me on the edge of my seat all the same.
A few other missions leave you unable to identify if a potential target is a friend or foe until you get close enough to visually identify them; pull the trigger to early, and you risk shooting your allies out of the sky. One such mission takes place in the dead of night over a sprawling cityscape—and even without any gameplay-relevant risk of killing civilians, this setup, coupled with everything that had come before, still gave me pause every time I took a shot.
Admittedly, not every mission is as effective as those ones. Some of the score-based objectives—wherein you have to earn a certain amount of points within the time limit by taking out endlessly-respawning foes—can outstay their welcome long before the timer runs down. It’s not always clear what the goal is, either; one particular level saw me repeatedly failing due, I think, to a key allied base being destroyed, but I couldn’t find any way to track this in the game and nothing in the Mission Failed notice explained what had happened. Still, it’s those great missions that stand out far more than the rest.
Ace Combat 7 is full of excitement and action, but that’s always set against the more sombre and introspective tone of the story. Even at its most bombastic, Skies Unknown always wants you to think about what war really means. Even when you’re trying to shoot down a giant UAV carrier equipped with a laser cannon—appropriately named Arsenal Bird—the game wants you thinking about the implications of such technology. Even when you’re dogfighting an (in)famous ace pilot who can seemingly turn his plane on a dime it never lets you forget that that pilot is an old man who lost his home to imperial expansion, and for whom the sky is the only home.