Reviewed on Xbox One X

For as long as they’ve been released, Bandai Namco’s Ace Combat games have always managed to introduce a feeling of freedom. From the initial engine burst upon take-off to the calm descent of your landing, every second spent within the gorgeous virtual clouds of its fictional alternate universe are moments of pure escapism.

It’s an interesting dynamic; despite existing within a rather strict and limiting mission structure, the gameplay of Ace Combat has always managed to emulate freedom to an amazing degree. Confined entirely in a cockpit and sticking to a rigid series of objectives should feel restricting, but it doesn’t. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown benefits from the freedom that only this series manages to recreate, and it might just make it the best game in the series.

It may come as a shock then that Skies Unknown is no different from its predecessors. In fact, it’s incredibly derivative of its series. Those who’ve played the series in the past two decades it has been released will know exactly what to expect—a level-based arcade flight sim, predictably so. There is a sense of variety: some missions see you tackling specific objectives whilst others will simply place you in a large map with a target score to reach. Skies Unknown doesn’t waver from what has become series norm, but this is the grand return of a cult-classic series. It doesn’t need to reinvent, just improve and reiterate.

Taking place in an alternate universe 2019, the game’s fantastic dogfighting is placed alongside its traditional melodrama. It’s a graceful return of the series’ tone of grandeur. However, unlike the continent-spanning tales of yesteryear, you’re treated to a simpler and narrower plot. There are two stories that unfold in front of you—the playable character, Trigger, and the narrative hook, Avril.

As a silent protagonist, Trigger doesn’t offer much in the way of meaningful characterization. He’s a husk for the player. He’s a great pilot and a dedicated soldier but you never really learn about him. That doesn’t stop his story from being enjoyable. He may be a husk, but the story built around that husk is rather enjoyable.

As a top-tier pilot fighting in a surprise war between Erusea and Osea, you’re sent to prison for accidentally shooting down an important politician during a rescue op. To keep the forces strong, you and your fellow convicts are thrust back into the war as an expendable team used for the most dangerous missions. It’s an intriguing set up, and one that pays off well.

However, as one of your fellow prisoners, Avril’s tale is much more engrossing than that of Trigger’s. She’s a real character; Avril has likes, dislikes, and motivations. Seeing her narrative through to the end is one of the better hooks outside of the game’s phenomenal flight-based combat. In future games, it would be great to see the player character double as a narrative hook as well.

Thankfully, Skies Unknown more than makes up for this slight misstep in the game’s mechanics. In essence, it’s the spirit of Ace Combat taken to the extreme—it’s pure, unadulterated ecstasy. Handling the game’s impressive assortment of planes feels tight and enjoyable. Some may think that blasting through the sound barrier in a legally distinct F-16 may feel too fast to handle but flying high above the clouds always manages to introduce a feeling of leisureliness to it.

Honing in on a target from afar feels slow—mostly due to the excitement of the oncoming destruction. As you steadily get closer, hold down your accelerator and lower your nose into the oncoming fire emitting from an AA gun, the missile lock blazes red. Then, it’s up to you to find a perfect angle and timeframe to fire. Sometimes, your plane will become an airborne machine of death. Sometimes, you might not have noticed a tiny hill obstructing your target causing you to fly around and try again. Skies Unknown’s combat never fails to exhilarate; it’ll keep your heart rate well above your doctor’s recommendations.

This isn’t just a game about flying in and destroying things—although it is mostly that. Once you’ve gotten to grips with the game’s mechanics, you’ll learn how to optimize your play. Think of it as an airborne Hitman. Over time, you’ll learn the patterns of your enemies allowing you to turn from an adept pilot into an unstoppable force of nature! Swooping in, blowing up oil rigs and then proceeding to take out planes before they’ve even lifted off the ground? That’s how Ace Combat makes you feel incredibly badass.

While every mission is well designed, there are some that are vastly more memorable than others. An important mission regarding the continent’s symbol of peace, a space elevator, is one that I will forever fondly look back on. To start, you’re tasked with sneaking through enemy radars. The closer you get, the more the space elevator starts to loom over you; it’s huge, big enough for you to easily weave between its structural cut-outs. These set pieces are undeniably the highlight of Skies Unknown—having such an interesting and well-designed central piece that aids in your flying makes everything so much more interesting.

Outside of its main campaign, Skies Unknown features a Team Deathmatch mode and Battle Royale which, sadly, we were unable to play at the time of this review. (No other critics playing plus the death of our review Xbox One X made this an impossibility.)

With just its campaign, this may just be the best flight sim to release this generation. There isn’t that much competition, which is a damn shame, but Skies Unknown has an aura that always makes you crave more. With a healthy selection of planes, upgrades, and skins to tinker around with, there is a wealth of content to play through.

Ace Combat: Skies Unknown not only returns a classic series back to the heights of its predecessors but also reinvigorated its entire genre. There aren’t many games like this available on current generation systems and, if there were, Ace Combat would still shine above them all.

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