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Ace Combat 7 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Comfortable middle ground between arcade shooter and flight sim
  • Environmental obstacles
  • Varied, well-conceived levels
  • Flying in a squad of convicts makes ineptitude of wingmen credible
  • Impressive cloud, weather effects
  • Multiplayer is stable and lag-free!
  • Can unlock MP planes, weapons, and upgrades via SP
  • Not fueled by grindy micro-transaction economy

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Hardware exclusivity deal means only 2 flight sticks are supported. Hope it's yours.
  • Would be really nice if wingmen would do something -- anything!
  • Mission 6
  • Generally erratic difficulty curve
  • Only 2 mutlipalyer modes?

Overall Impression :B
Arcade dog-fighting with some creative new twists!

Ace Combat 7 - cover

Developers:
Project Aces within
BANDAI NAMCO Studio

Publisher:
BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam),
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
18 January, 2019 (consoles),
31 January, 2019 (Steam)

Genre:
arcade flight sim

ESRB Rating: T (for Teen) for:
Language, Mild Blood, Violence,
In-app purchases, Online User Interaction

Player(s):
single player campaign,
with up to 8-player online multiplayer

Official site:
www.bandainamcoent.com/games/ace-combat-7

Ace Combat 4 would be on my short list for "favorite games ever". It's one of the few games that I've beaten multiple times. I rented the game from Blockbuster (back when Blockbuster was a thing), and beat it over a weekend. A few months later, I wanted to play it again, so I rented it another weekend, and beat it. I think I may have rented it (and beat it) one more time before finally just buying my own damn copy from a bargain bin, then played through it again.

When I was in high school, my parent's home was broken into, my PS2 and all my games were among the items stolen -- including Ace Combat 4. Despite having already beaten the game multiple times, when it came time to replace my PS2 collection, I bought the "Greatest Hits" version of the game, and played through it once more.

So in total, I rented Ace Combat 4 at least two or three times from Blockbuster, and have bought two new, retail copies of the game.

I always liked how this series hits a comfortable middle ground between an arcade shooter/dogfighter and a flight sim. You can configure the controls so that the planes fly like actual planes, but it also gives you access to 50-100 missiles on planes that only have 2 missiles strapped to their wings. If you get good enough, you can shoot down enemy planes with just machine gun, but it takes a lot of practice.

Ace Combat has found a comfortable middle ground between arcade shooter and flight sim.

I had gotten to the point that the mission briefing music has been permanently burned into my memory, and I was performing my own self-imposed challenge runs in those last few playthroughs of AC4. I would play through the entire game with machine guns only, trying to cut down on the number of times that I'd have to stop at the airstrip or carrier to resupply. I think the only other game that I've ever done self-imposed challenge runs on is Metal Gear Solid 2.

Challenge runs

The direct sequel, Ace Combat 5, sadly, didn't quite do it for me. I played the game once, and I'm not even sure if I finished it or not. A big part of that game's problem was that it was repetitive. A belligerent nation launches a surprise attack, cripples the Allies' military, and the Alliance has to fight back to reclaim occupied territory before finally beating the aggressor by capturing or destroying its secret super-weapon. I had been there, done that so many times that Ace Combat 5 just kind of dragged. It didn't help that many of Ace Combat 5's missions felt recycled straight from Ace Combat 4.

Ace Combat 6 was an XBox exclusive, which I never played on account of having never owned an XBox, and the other titles since have either been portable titles or spin-offs that just veered too far into "arcade" territory for my tastes. As such, it's been over a decade since I last played an Ace Combat game. Perhaps Ace Combat 7 is a prime opportunity to jump back on the bandwagon? Well, if you were getting tired of challenge runs in AC4, then 7 is loaded with its own little challenges for the player.

Clouds will ice your plane, limiting maneuverability, stalling the plane, and covering the canopy in frost.

Much moreso than the previous games that I've played, Ace Combat 7 uses environmental phenomena and genuine level design to throw a little wrench into the gears. Most missions will have some extra little circumstantial element of its design that can knock a player out of your comfort zone and force you to get creative and/or bold.

Storm clouds might ice up your wings, limiting the amount of time that you can dogfight within them, and forcing you to have to descend in order to restore your plane's maneuverability and prevent stalling. If you're flying in the cockpit cam, then the icing will even frost up your canopy and reduce your visibility to zero! Other missions might have you flying through thunderstorms, with occasional lightning strikes blinding you and knocking out all your electronics. Dust storms may obscure ground targets. Later in the game, your instruments will malfunction, making you unable to tell friend from foe.

Lightning strikes can blind you or knock out your instruments.

Some of these environmental effects work better than others. The dust storm was particularly annoying, as it caused ground targets to randomly disappear from radar for large chunks of time. The strict time limit meant that I had to repeat this mission several times before finally remembering the locations of most of the targets through trial-and-error. Most of the other missions work well and give you more to think about than simply getting a missile lock and pressing the "Fire" button.

The Ace Combat games have done little things like this before. Both 4 and 5 had missions that required you to fly low through a canyon in order to avoid radar-detection or a super weapon. 7 just expands the scope and applies some kind of extra challenge to almost every mission. And the developers actually get a little bit creative with some of the tricks that they play.

Earlier games have had night missions and trench runs, but nothing on par with what 7 throws at you.

It's kind of weird talking about "level design" in a game about dog-fighting. The level is the open sky, after all. But here we are! This game about dogfighting with fighter jets at hundreds of miles an hour even has an honest-to-goodness stealth mission! And no, you don't get out of the plane and sneak into an enemy base in some Metal Gear Solid knock-off boots-on-the-ground mission. No! You play the stealth level in the plane!

Grind-inducing difficulty curve

Unfortunately, the overall solid design of the game's missions and challenges are significantly undercut by a frustratingly uneven difficulty curve. Most of the game is fine. I beat most missions in three-ish attempts, and I'd say that the overall difficulty of the "Normal" mode is on par with Ace Combat 4's "Hard" mode. Ace Combat 4 is a very easy game, so setting the baseline difficulty a bit higher for this entry is a good change. The first four missions were cakewalks, even though I was using a technically-un-supported old flight stick that lacked the proper buttons and didn't feel particularly comfortable to use.

Then suddenly, I hit a wall at missions 5 and 6. Mission 6 in particular has a very tight time limit. Arbitrary time limits, by the way, have been one of my biggest pet peeves in video gaming since the days of the first Driver; it's one of the cheapest and laziest ways of artificially increasing a game's difficulty. This time limit in mission 6 of Ace Combat 7 forces you to have to play recklessly in a map that is loaded with surface-to-air missile launchers, and in which all the targets are tucked away in canyons or in between mountains.

I repeatedly failed mission 6 until I ground (is that the right word? grinded?) to unlock a specific plane.

To make matters worse, despite having a mid-mission cutscene (about 9 minutes into a 15-minute mission) that brings in enemy reinforcements, there is no mid-mission checkpoint! I can consistently make it to this cutscene, and once, I actually already had the 17,000 points required to complete the mission, only to get promptly shot down because I was at 90-something % damage and couldn't get away from the reinforcing interceptors. If there were a checkpoint here, the mission would be tolerable, but there isn't, and I had to spend about four hours over three nights repeatedly failing at the mission, before having to sit down and grind in the multiplayer for another hour in order to unlock a specific plane and upgrades that makes this mission easier.

Even with a dedicated ground-attack plane, it still took me five or 6 more attempts to complete this mission! I'd have no problem racking up the 17,000 points by destroying ground targets, but then I'd get shot down by interceptors because the A-10c is slow and lacks the maneuverability to effectively dog-fight or avoid missiles.

I still got shot down repeatedly with the slow, un-maneuverable ground-attack plane.

Am I supposed to grind through previous missions or in multiplayer to earn money to buy new planes and upgrades? The irony is that I actually took a break from playing Sekiro because I was frustrated by being stuck on two bosses, only to get stuck on a mission in Ace Combat 7. Well, back to playing Civ, I guess...

AC4 unlocked new planes for purchase
as you progressed the campaign.

This gave me a new respect for Ace Combat 4's mission progression. That game still gave you money with which to buy optional planes and upgrades, but it unlocked specific planes for purchase at set points as you progressed the campaign. This would provide an indication that a mission might be coming up in which those new planes are useful, and you could sell owned planes and weapons if you needed extra cash to afford a necessary new plane.

Now, in Ace Combat 7, I have to grind for in-game money (no loot boxes or micro-transaction store) in order to buy new planes, weapons, and upgrades. Then I have to just hope that I'm buying the right plane for the right mission, since the game won't (as far as I can tell) let me sell planes, weapons, or upgrades that I don't use, and which are prerequisites for the stuff that I do want.

My recommendation: don't buy anything until after you play (and fail) a given mission and find out what the mission requires. Don't waste your money upgrading planes that you're already proficient with, or buying new planes that you may never use. That was my early mistake. Instead, buy only what you need, when you need it, and ensure that you always have funds available to buy the next necessary plane (and its respective prerequisites) so that you don't get stonewalled and have to grind or shell out a credit card number to progress the damn game.

The grinding isn't too bad. The lack of a micro-transaction economy means the grind doesn't feel inflated to induce the player into spending real money to speed things up. After just a couple multiplayer matches, I had more than enough cash to get the plane I needed and a few upgrades to help with its maneuverability. Later in the game, things get much more expensive, and you may have to grind a bit in multiplayer or by replaying missions.

Grinding single player missions and multiplayer matches earns money to unlock planes, weapons, and upgrades.

Zero tolerance for n00bs

The multiplayer itself isn't bad. I found it to be very stable and lag-free, which is essential for a dog-fighting game that moves so fast.

Or at least, the MP would be good if anybody were actually playing it. I've only ever seen between three and five matches going on at any given time. Some of the match names and usernames even have Japanese characters, so I'm assuming that the MP lobby is showing me everybody in the world! I don't know how active the PS4 or XBox multiplayer is, but the Steam multiplayer on PC looks to be dead on arrival.

There don't seem to be many people playing multiplayer.

This creates a problem common to many competitive multiplayer games (like Call of Duty or Battlefield), which is that the players already playing are so good, and so high level, that the barrier of entry for new players is exceedingly high. High enough that I'm guessing most novice players don't even bother, which is part of the reason that the MP lobby is so barren.

Worse yet, it's hard to get good because a novice player has trouble even getting into (and staying in) matches. Matches only seem to support (at most) 8 players (which probably helps to keep the multiplayer running smoothly), which means that a single exceedingly bad player can make or break the game for everyone else in that match. This isn't like Battlefield, where there's 60 or 80 other players, and my poor play can just kind of fade into the background while everyone else has fun.

It was hard to score points in my early matches because I was constantly being shot down.

I also felt like I was being singled out and picked on when I was in matches. Everybody seemed to go right after me, and I'd routinely get shot down before I could even get within missile range of a target. This was especially problematic in team games, since my frequent deaths would rack up points for the opposition, dragging down my team. I thought that a team game would be better for learning the ropes, as the other players could provide cover for me, or I could act in more of a support role. That was not the case at all.

I got booted from matches for no apparent
reason other than that I was a n00b.

As such, I found that some of the experienced players who are actually playing the game seem to have zero tolerance for n00bs like me. In my first MP session, I got booted out of a match room after a match in which I scored zero points. It was only, like, my third match, in my first session ever of playing a multiplayer dog-fighting game online. A few minutes later, I got booted out of another match room before the sortie even started -- presumably because the host saw that I was rank 2, I only had starter planes, and the host didn't even want to bother with me.

It was disheartening, to say the least.

No support planes?

It's unfortunate that multiplayer only seems to have two modes: battle royale and team deathmatch. These modes put new players in direct competition with other, more experienced players. In effect, it just sets those new players up for failure, and sucks the fun out of the game for everyone. If there were modes that resembled single player missions, with an attack force bombing ground targets while defenders intercept and defend those targets, or escorts having to defend a squad of NPC bombers, then there might be a gentler learning curve. In these cases, new players could act as support and take on a role more comparable to their single player experience. We could learn the ropes by going for the NPC targets, while the experienced teammates distract the interceptors -- kind of like playing as a medic or engineer in Battlefield. Or inversely, novice players playing as interceptors or escorts would be able to go after a human opponent who is focused on attacking an NPC target, rather than bee-lining to me.

Worse yet, the lack of any such modes means that bombers and multi-role fighters are completely worthless in multiplayer. Multiplayer is all dog-fighting, all the time.

You remember that A-10c bomber that I had to grind for in order to beat mission 6? Yeah, I won't be using that in multiplayer -- ever!

Other games have had multiplayer modes with dedicated support characters or asymmetrical play.

And it's not like such a mode would be unprecedented. There's the aforementioned medic and engineer classes in Battlefield. Star Wars: Battlefront II had star fighter modes in which one faction would have to prevent the other faction from shooting down an NPC capital ship. Metal Gear V's Online had asymmetrical gameplay modes in which one team would guard a base from the other team trying to sneak in and capture a prisoner. The original Metal Gear Online also had asymmetrical modes in which one player gets to be Solid Snake, sneaking around incapacitating players from both teams. Analogous modes would definitely be do-able here.

On the upside, Ace Combat 7 uses the same in-game currency for multiplayer that it does in single player. This is probably a necessity, as the multiplayer mode (as it currently stands) is simply not robust enough to be its own independent game. This means that your play in the single player campaign will earn you cash to unlock planes, weapons, and upgrades that can be carried over into mutiplayer. There's even a whole branch of the unlock tree that contains nothing but MP upgrades, and you are perfectly free to buy these while playing single player.

There's a whole branch of the Aircraft tree dedicated to multiplayer-only upgrades.

Unlike other competitive multiplayer games like the aforementioned Call of Duty and Battlefield, you don't have to go into the MP essentially naked and start from scratch, clawing and scratching your way up to having competitive gear and upgrades. You can play through the single player, and then waltz into the mutliplayer with the best planes in the game, decked out in extensive MP upgrades -- no micro-transactions or loot boxes required! You'll still probably get your ass handed to you by the more experienced players (assuming they even let you into the match), but at least the result will be due to an obvious skill gap, rather than you being at an unfair mechanical disadvantage.

So close to living up to Ace Combat 4!

Despite being immensely disappointed with the multiplayer, I really enjoyed my time with Ace Combat 7's single player campaign. Except for mission 6. Fuck mission 6!

Unlike with Ace Combat 5, the variety of challenges and twists within the missions kept things feeling new and fresh. I didn't feel so much like this was all stuff I'd done a dozen times before in Ace Combat 4. Of course, 14 years of separation from the series probably also helped with that.

It took me a while to get a comfortable set-up for my flight stick.

Once I got my old PC flight stick working, and set it up so that I could comfortably use the keyboard for functions that didn't map comfortably to the flight stick's buttons, playing AC7 was like slipping back into an old pair of comfortable shoes. It was familiar enough to be nostalgic, but also fresh enough to be exciting.

Ace Combat 4 is still, by far, the better game due to its brilliantly-told narrative conceit that re-contextualizes the player's actions to tell a touching story of war and loss. The story here is nowhere near as transcendent. With a better, more robust mutliplayer mode, populated with a lot of players of varying skill levels, this game could have been something truly special. Instead, it's an enjoyable -- but ultimately disposable -- entry in the series. If you liked any of the Ace Combat games prior, or are interested in some casual, fast-paced dog-fighting action, then I highly recommend this one.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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