I have a confession to make. Despite my love of sports games, my constant flexing, and my Chad-like abuse of Spencer, I can be kind of a nerd. Like I was such a nerd, I used to go to the Chuck E. Cheese by my house wearing my NASA flight suit and a flying helmet I got at a garage sale and blow a ton of quarters playing Afterburner. They had one of those motion cabinets that moved with the game, so I was in the most immersive environment possible hollering about bogeys and incoming.

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
Developer: Bandai Namco
Price: $59.99
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, and PC (reviewed).

After some missteps we can safely throw under the stairs like unwanted children, the Ace Combat series is back where it needs to be: providing that kind of absurdist fighter plane experience, the dream of eight-year-old boys everywhere heading to the arcade to rule the skies.

I feel like the Ace Combat series is underappreciated for its story because I think too many people just skip past it to get to the sweet aerial dogfighting. I see why. It was not one of those series I took seriously because it seemed very console gamey but then I picked up Ace Combat 5 and it was more like Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone The Game.

To explain the contrast: on the one hand you have this game, which is a loving tribute to every fighter plane you grew up loving over the past 40 years, from the F-16 and F-14 to Gripens to MiGs. The splash screen is full of official logos. They licensed these bad boys the way a sports game licenses every league, team, and player, so you’re not just flying a Gripen, you’re flying the official Saab-approved Gripen. But it’s not a simulator when your plane can carry 60 missiles and you’re going up against Arsenal Birds and other exotic airborne fantasies with energy shields.

And then you have the story. I feel like people don’t pay attention to the story in Ace Combat games. But they should. It’s like a bunch of writers heard about Top Gun and decided what it really needed was some anime spin, so there’s some kind of framing story about a girl who likes working on planes, her grandpa, the war breaking out, somehow F-15s are involved, you accidentally shoot down the president and get exiled, then you wind up flying shitty planes in a front nobody cares about instead of, like, being jailed or shot for murdering the president. It’s insane.

And then you go tweak your F-16 for a tighter turning radius and blast a bunch of near-future drones out of the sky with your near-endless supply of missiles.

I love it.

If there is a flaw, it’s that the missions can be ridiculously unfair. It’s seldom two equal elements of roughly matched fighters going mano-a-mano. It’s usually something like you and a couple of dudes versus eighteen ground targets and waves high-performance fighters that can destroy you by sneezing. It’s possible to get through every mission, but it’s difficult.

Adding to that difficulty there’s the loadout decisions every time: Pack some bombs so I don’t have to strafe a bunch of SAM launchers or pack more air-to-air missiles so I stand a chance against the inevitable swarm of UAVs. Do I rig for faster speed or for faster reloading? Do I bring my heavily-armed missile boat or my fast-moving dogfighter? The mission briefings aren’t always clear, so you may find yourself packing a bunch of bombs that are useless or rigged for air-to-air and forced to use the default missiles for air-to-ground.

The developers continue the industry-wide trend of making a game that’s really good at one thing–dogfighting, in this case–and then refusing to let you do it. The dogfights are outstanding. So instead of using them, every few missions there’ll be something silly like a stealth mission. Because exactly what I dreamed about when I dreamed about being a fighter pilot was spending 10 minutes weaving through radar with an automatic mission failure if I’m detected.

On the technical side, some people are complaining it doesn’t work with their HOTAS. It’s…possible to play with a keyboard, but it’s like eating a steak with a spoon. You’ll definitely want a gamepad at the very least.

The Final Word
That said, despite the frustrations, there’s no other series out there that captures the thrill of running around with a detailed fighter plane model in your hand blasting bad guys. It’s the small things, really. The way the Tomcat’s swing wings tuck back when you’re in full afterburner. The way the music goes muffled when you’re flying through storm clouds. And the classic anime character development where even if you shoot down 30 planes in a mission, they still make fun of you for being a rookie, because you’re on the    HIIIIIIIIIIGHWAYYYYYYYYYYYYY TOOOOOOOO THE ANIME ZONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNE.

MonsterVine Review Score: 4 out of 5 – Good

Ace Combat 7 Review: Highway to the Anime Zone

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