Do you have a franchise that you just love to play?  How about a franchise that has been a huge chunk of your life?  Or how about a franchise that has changed your life?  For me questions 1 and 2 can be filled with a few franchises like HALO, HALF-LIFE, MEGA MAN, etc...  But there is only one franchise that can fill the answer to question 3 and that is ACE COMBAT.  Ace Combat began life as a franchise back in 1996 on Sony’s Original PlayStation.  However, it wasn’t until ACE COMBAT 4 on PlayStation 2 that I discovered the franchise.  While I enjoyed my time with Mobius 1 in Ace Combat 4, it was 2004’s ACE COMBAT 5 that left a defining Impact on my life.

Being fresh out of high school with no real goals in place, the journey of Ace Combat 5 cemented my desire to fly and be around planes, so I decided to join the US Air Force.  Of course, life likes to throw its curveballs and a car accident in December 2004 prevented that goal from happening immediately.  I did finally join the Air Force in 2011 but the injury from years past made it an exceptionally short-lived experience.  At E3 this week when I saw ACE COMBAT 7: SKIES UNKNOWN behind the closed off part of the Bandai Namco booth, I KNEW I had to play it!

There were 2 demos on display this year, one with VR and one without.  Thankfully, I got to spend a significant amount of time with each during my visit.  The first thing I want to call out is that yes, we are once again back in the Ace Combat alternate universe of Strangereal!  While Assault Horizon brought the series to the real world, it just never had the same appeal as Strangereal.  Returning to the universe that made fans fall in love with the franchise to begin with is a huge win for longtime fans!  The country of Osea is once again at war and it is up to you as a member of the Osean Air Defense Force to keep your country safe.  Being set in Osea puts this game in line to be a direct sequel to Ace Combat 5, which, if you can’t tell from the story I told above, is a huge deal to me.  Outside of this basic knowledge I choose to ignore what other story elements might have been present in the demo.  I honestly want to be surprised by every little story detail when the full game launches next year.

The non-VR demo had two selectable aircraft, the F/A-18F and the F-14D.  Both planes looked stunning to behold.  I chose to play as the F-14D and couldn’t wait to see how the game handled.  I am happy to report that Ace Combat 7 plays like a dream come true!  Gone are the “Close Range Assault” mechanics found in Assault Horizon that forced gameplay into a less-than-stellar on-rails experience to shoot down enemy planes.  Instead we are back to the signature arcade flight action where taking down an enemy is all under the players own terms.  A new mechanic that is being introduced this time around is the importance of cloud cover.  Clouds have always been a part of Ace Combat but, until now, they served as nothing more than a visual effect.  This time around, clouds can serve as cover for both you and enemy planes to hide in, making radar locks harder to achieve.  The other effect of clouds on gameplay is the buildup of moisture on the planes canopy.  Stay in the clouds too long and your canopy will freeze over!  Like the planes themselves, both effects look visually stunning. 

The demo itself had me start by taking off from an aircraft carrier and then proceed to shoot down multiple enemy fighters.  Enemies would try to take cover in the clouds, making the whole experience feel more dynamic than past entries.  After the initial enemies, I got to meet the first super weapon in Ace Combat 7: the FAS.  The FAS deploys a multitude of unmanned drones to try and destroy its enemies.  From this point on, the mission objective becomes to survive until the level ends.  The sheer number of enemies makes that task a lot harder than it sounds, and it was a fun contrast to being the hunter in the earlier half of the mission!  In true Ace Combat fashion the chatter of both enemies and allies is happening during every part of the mission and sounds more believable than past entries.

As for the VR experience, words cannot describe how insanely good it felt and played.  Beginning on an aircraft carrier like the previous demo, I couldn’t help but look around the environment and take in every little detail.  I was watching the flight crews manning their stations as my wingman took off.  I honestly couldn’t help but flash a literal thumbs-up to my virtual compatriots as I myself took to the skies.  I need to just say this here, I have played quite a few things in VR and have never found them that enjoyable.  This game alone now has me wanting to go out and buy a PSVR setup.  Tracking enemies by looking around felt as natural as anything I had ever experienced. My brain was simulating the G-Force I would be experiencing as I performed these maneuvers.  I ended up playing the VR demo three times in total and I honestly can’t stress this enough, VR was meant for flight games!  The combination of good flight mechanics, stunning visuals, awesome sound work, PLUS being set in the world I have spent hundreds of hours in literally had me on the verge of tears with how good it all was!

Everything in Ace Combat 7 is shaping up to be a game fans have called for since Assault Horizon.  I am happy to see the team at Project Aces taking fan feedback so close to heart.  Everything I played and witnessed at E3 only confirms this game is going to make a play for that top spot in the series that 5 has held for so long.  While I am disappointed it was delayed into 2018, the amount of polish already included with the game has me even more excited to see what that extra time is going to deliver!  Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is set to release on PC, PS4 and Xbox One while the VR experience is a PSVR exclusive feature.

Images & video courtesy of Bandai Namco