The PlayStation VR has been out for less than half a year but it already has some significant support from third party publishers using their biggest franchises. Now, Namco Bandai is ready to join the fray with their extremely popular Ace Combat series.
The Ace Combat series has been around for a long time (since the early 90s), and its blend of flight sim and arcadey dogfighting has proven quite popular over the years. It has a fairly small but hardcore fanbase here in the West as well as in Japan, so when a numbered entry to the long-standing franchise was announced at PSX 2016 in the form of Ace Combat 7, it definitely managed to turn a few heads. To add a bit of flavour into the mix it was also revealed that the game would be compatible with PlayStation VR, a natural extension given virtual reality and flight sims are a proven successful formula. I had an opportunity to play the latest demo build at Namco Bandai studios and while a lot of it was impressive, I have some lingering fears that I hope will be assuaged before release.
Firstly, the game’s VR portion is exclusive to PlayStation VR, however the base game will release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC as a traditional experience. As such, VR functionality will be completely separate from the base game, and the representative even indicated that the traditional version and the VR mode are built on different engines. Before I get into the nitty gritty, I’ll add a disclaimer that I have had little experience with flight simulators over my gaming career. It’s just not a genre I typically play. In fact, I probably would not have given this title my attention if not for the VR functionality and I’m glad I did because what I played felt great.
Once I placed the headset on, I was in the cockpit of a fighter jet on an air strip. There was quite a lot of detail in the cockpit and the environment, and it was quite immersive sitting there surrounded by various esoteric dials and gauges. Even the visuals of the glass canopy over my head complete with wavy lines of explosives embedded in the glass (these explosives weaken the glass prior to ejection) were quite impressive. But despite being impressed by the level of detail, I will say that the aliasing and jagged lines are very noticeable. This was running on a PS4 Pro too, so it may not bode well for vanilla PS4 users. Keep in mind that this was an early build though, and things like visuals will likely improve as developers polish the game.
Once I actually started my engines and took to the skies, I felt that unmistakeable rush that only VR can deliver. At first, the controls were a bit overwhelming and I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants, but it didn’t take me too long to get the hang of it. The jet itself controls very similarly to aircraft in other video games like Battlefield and EVE: Valkyrie. The left stick controls the rolling, while the right stick controls the direction the nose is facing. The jet I found myself in was equipped with a machine gun and lock-on missiles, and as I struggled to master the machine gun I mostly relied on the lock-on missiles. While taking down enemies is satisfying, it’s not as fast-paced as a common arcade dogfighter. At any one time I was firing at a maximum of three enemy aircraft and taking them all out can take a while. A large chunk of my demo had me trying to turn my aircraft fast enough to get the enemy in my sights. The jet also turns a bit slower than I expected, but I guess this comes down to creating a comfortable experience for virtual reality. I do think they can afford to put a little more kick into the speed though without causing too much discomfort.
The UI in the cockpit tells you everything you need to know. It contains the mini-map, objectives, positioning and other useful information to help you complete the objective. On that topic, the objectives were fairly simple: destroy the carriers, protect the allies and chase and shoot down the enemy. They are pretty basic and it makes me question what Namco Bandai plans to do in order to deliver variety and depth to the title, and ultimately what the longevity of the title will be like. The representative informed me that the VR component will have a mission structure with each mission lasting around 15 minutes, but there was no indication of how many there were. Given this is an extra mode included with the base game it’s unlikely to be overly substantive compared to a dedicated VR title, but that doesn’t mean it can’t include aspects that will keep you coming back. I pressed the representative about whether there would be any multiplayer functionality, but it seems at this point that no such feature is planned. I think Ace Combat 7’s gameplay lends itself well to multiplayer, and perhaps we’ll see something further down the road.
Despite the simple objectives and general lack of context to the action I still had a blast – there’s some real white-knuckle tension to be experienced. So much so that by the end of the demo I was literally dripping in sweat. I’ve played most of the PSVR library and have never sweated like this. This can be put down to the gameplay itself and not any uncomfortability due to game design, as even with all the crazy aerial acrobatics going on I didn’t experience any sense of nausea or motion sickness.
What I played felt like a solid step in the right direction. Controls and UI are intuitive; taking down the opposition is satisfying and the feeling of piloting an aircraft in VR is exciting. However, if this is all that is on offer then I am a little concerned. While missions are fun, they are a little basic and Namco Bandai will hopefully offer a bit more variety and mission types to keep players interested. The fact that there is no confirmed multiplayer as of yet is somewhat concerning and feels like a huge missed opportunity. However, due to the lack of traditional Earth-based flight simulators on PSVR (and in fact on consoles), the novelty itself is something worth checking out. Let’s just hope it brings a heavy punch once it launches.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown has no release date yet, but is slated for Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR sometime this year.