The phrase “a sinking feeling” describes the way your stomach feels when you descend in a roller coaster or a car crests a steep hill, but it’s something that’s hard to emulate without physically moving. While a lot of games end up being capable of bringing about that feeling, none excel at it quite like Ace Combat, and the newest game in the series makes you feel like you’re actually in the cockpit of a fighter jet.
As a series, Ace Combat has been its own roller coaster in narrative over the years. After a fairly disastrous foray into the real world, the series is returning back into the realms of fictious lands and their fictious wars. The opening CG scene for Ace Combat 7 is narrated by a young girl who, over the course of many years, built a fighter jet with her war veteran grandfather and his friends. She remains an ancillary fixture of the story, adjacent to a number of the big events and skirmishes breaking out during the war between the Osean and Erusean armies, serving more as your R2D2 than your Luke Skywalker.
The first mission takes the training wheels off the moment you go wheels up, tasking you with the main goals of your gameplay: shoot things and don’t crash. After being told that there are enemy fighters and bombers in the area, your squad dispatches to a nearby island to get a practical lesson in locking on to enemies and shooting missiles at them. After the mission ends, a cutscene explains that Erusean forces placed drones in shipping containers sent to Osea and remotely activated them to attack, which seems like a pretty good plan.
The second mission has your fighter taking on those drones, jets with the ability to make pinpoint turns into the foggy clouds above. Dogfighting with these enemies as you do your best to dip in and out of the clouds to avoid icing up and finding yourself face-to-face with the ground as you struggle to pull up and not crash straight into the soil is an actually indescribable feeling and feels fresh every single time it happens, which is a lot because I’m a bad pilot.
The VR missions might be the real star of the show, however, and are genuinely impressive. The side missions put players back in the role of Mobius 1, the hero of Ace Combat 4 and general mythological hero of Erusea. The venerated tones with which characters speak about you is probably the second biggest thrill in the game behind the emetic quality of doing loops to dodge missiles in VR. While it is only a side mode, it could stand as proof of concept of how well VR dogfighting can work in general.
We also got a chance to try multiplayer, a point-based online match that puts six planes in a 3v3 fight. Enemies take a lot longer to kill in this mode, so you go for inching you way up with bullets and the occasional missile. At the end of each round, you’re given accolades depending on what you excelled at or failed spectacularly at, such as “Avoided the greatest number of missiles using cloud-cover” or “Fired the most missed shots.”
As someone who has dabbed in Ace Combat before but rarely dove in head-first, I came away from the demo excited to play more, especially with a PSVR in tow. It will also be interesting to see how the fanbase takes to the new game’s narrative hooks and the return to what people liked about Ace Combat in the first place.
Ace Combat 7 releases for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on January 18, then on February 1 on PC.