Victory Through Airpower: A Realistic Perspective of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
Updated: Jun 17
An opinion piece from the perspective of a decades long fan of the Ace Combat series, aviation simulators and flight action games in general. At one time, TJ "Millie" Archer was an administrator of an English Ace Combat database, but chose to step away from the online community to pursue a new path in life. The release of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown and the subsequent reception of it inspired him to write an article to present his evaluation of the value of AC7 in a down to earth perspective.
Ace Combat 7 is a mess. A disjointed story, a myriad of “gimmick” missions and mechanics, cheesy dialogue, and amped difficulty rooted in game-breaking AI and missile spam. Bias reeks in this statement, but even the most casual follower of the series can’t help but see these same critiques parroted throughout the little corners of the internet the community calls home.
And who am I to disagree? I’ve levied the same criticisms and am just as vocal about it. I oft feel like a foreigner in my own nation when I hear defenses being levied for the game, and the series, that was used sparsely if at all in context of discussion 15 years ago. “The game is just an anime, and it’s always been that way,” seems to be an appealing fallback. But the vocal critics like myself will argue until we’re dark blue the fallacy presented to us. And we’ll continue doing so because we’re old like that. Some of us might be crotchety old cooks at this point, pining for a series that left us behind.
Two camps seem to be at odds here, two sides of the same coin, looking similar, but never seeing face-to-face. These skies have been shattered for some time, and with real-world decoys tossed into the mix to distract us in the past such as Ace Combat: Assault Horizon and Ace Combat X2: Joint Assault, I don’t think we realized how the tone, function, and feel of the core game had shifted its appeal since 2004. And it’s with the whining of wildly fluctuating game dialogue, harsh mission design, incoherent story structure, and FPS mechanics with a dose of schizophrenic world-building we can’t seem to break through the fog and realize that we’ve made a safe return home. Ace Combat 7 is a triumph. Not just for Ace Combat mind you, but for video games in the modern age, the dedication and love with which it was developed should not go unsung.
Kazutoki Kono’s personal Iliad on Twitter chronicling the fiery hell this game was developed in should serve as a lesson to armchair aces and video gamers alike. The game is like a gorgeous time capsule of an era long past, and to get it to shelves required a barrage of willpower, dedication, and grit that can only be admired. Stand back and look at this game for what it is. Take in not just the gorgeous scenery, but the fine detail that proves those working on this game love aviation and fighter aircraft almost as much as the engineers, designers, mechanics, and pilots that work with them every day around the globe. And then shift your perspective and feel the creativity—not just the references to obscure Ace Combat lore, but the subtle expansion of the universe. The liberal addition of energy weapons on legacy aircraft--nearly unacknowledged within the game itself--as though it were perfectly normal, harkens back to a pre-millennial era where we were made to accept bizarre and unexplained phenomena in video games as though it were a walk in the park—and we just went with it because it was cool! Can the F-15C support laser weaponry? Who cares? It’s awesome!
And despite it, there is the utmost respect taken to the aircraft themselves. Down to minute details as the proper orientation of all-moving canards in a turn or the dials in the cockpits delivering accurate readings. This demonstrates that the designers, programmers, and modelers are more than willing to refine their knowledge of real-world aircraft and make their control accessible to those who just want the action of the fight without the management of reality. Despite the obvious fantasy of the flight, it is so wonderfully, strangely real in how it presents itself to the player. This is not something that we have been able to take for granted in recent years. In how often we’ve lost control of our aircraft--whether through on-rails mechanics, limited processing power, or simply not being able to pay-to-play, there’s real justification in wondering if we were going to be taken for a ride at any time. But we never were—ever. We are back in the cockpit in an admirably crafted virtual recreation. The linear design of the game feels like an old friend, and its simplicity has been sorely missed. This is not something sought after in game design today with open-world addiction and player-on-player connectivity, but it is a classic formula that fits the game like a glove. In a game like Ace Combat, where winning the war is the goal, a guided strategy with defined start and endpoints enhances the glamour of being a fighter pilot, where tactical prowess is your forte. And let’s not forget—it almost seems like a miracle to see a game completed once its gone gold. Day-one patches are the norm, and we’ve reluctantly succumbed to this reality. It seems that Project Aces missed the memo. Did you notice it? No patches, no hotfixes on day one—a working game out of the box. Sometimes the old ways are truly better. Is it perfect? No. God no. But it’s exactly what we needed, all of us. It’s a reminder of what brought many of us into games in the first place. It’s both defiant and traditional in the face of expectations. Ace Combat 7 succeeds in developing a video game that matches those of the golden age. Before pay-to-win—before pointless grinding—before forced open-world--before the day-one patch. Dare I say; it hearkens to a time when video games were simple and fun. The age of the internet is here—information is accessible, experiences are plenty. We’ll always find time to nitpick about the smallest or largest detail that keeps us up at night. But let’s not let that detract from what’s actually in front of us: A sleek machine of supersonic success.