Flight games are usually pretty straightforward. You fly around with a purpose, doing things within an area of engagement until the level ends. If it's a particularly engaging flight game, you get to take off and land at the start and end of missions, adding a bit of variety to proceedings, but as the years roll by and new titles come to the market, it becomes hard to revolutionise the genre. Flight games are a bit like sport games, in that sense.
However, like all niche genres, the “inch-wide, mile-high” complexity leaves a lot of nooks and crannies to explore, such as weather systems and the incredibly important effect they have on the aerodynamics of an aircraft. While most flight games simulate only a bit of turbulence, adding a bit of shaking here and there to represent pockets of low pressure and stalling your aircraft if your airspeed drops low enough, Ace Combat 7 is going a step further and adding a completely revamped weather system.
An arcade flight series focused on warfare, Bandai Namco’s long running franchise has always been less focused on being a simulator and more in providing an “authentic” experience -- be that the real one or the Hollywood imagined one. Among takeoff and landings, aerial and surface combat, and mid-air refuelling, the series often manages to provide a very entertaining and semi-realistic experience, while maintaining that casual arcade vibe.
Ace Combat 7 is the 18th entry in the series, and it takes place in the fictional world of Strangereal, an Earth-like planet with different geographical bodies and countries. The lack of real history and touchy real-world politics allows the series a bit more freedom when creating stories, but technology levels and laws of physics remain unchanged -- the planes featured in the game are the exact same ones flying the skies of Earth, like the F-35 or the classic F-14 Tomcat. But now, those planes are subject to the weather.
According to Ace Combat Brand Manager David Bonacci, the idea was to bring the worries of real life fighter pilots to the forefront and allow players to engage enemies tactically. One of the biggest new features of Ace Combat 7 are the realistic weather effects, from volumetric clouds and fog to ice and rain, and the way they interact with the player. Like in real life, cloud cover interferes with sensors and stop enemies from getting an automated firing solution on you -- and of course, you can’t get a lock on them, either. Aside from losing pursuers and breaking target locks, you can also use the clouds as a literal cover and approach the enemies through it, undetected by their radar until it is too late.
Of course, clouds are not puffy white marshmallows -- they are aerosols comprised of liquid droplets, frozen crystals, and particles suspended in the atmosphere. Flying through them results in a range of experiences, from high cirrus clouds that do nothing, to supercells that can break a plane apart. In Ace Combat 7, changes in air pressure and flow can cause turbulence and affect the handling on your plane, but the real danger comes from icing.
Flying high in the sky might get you inside a cumulonimbus, one of those towering precipitation-full clouds that often lead to rain. Full of water vapour and strong currents, the air inside that cloud is cold and far from friendly, and as result, the plane’s surface starts to take a beating. Moisture over the canopy starts to condense and freeze, icing on the wing disrupts airflow and adds weight to it, and controls become less responsive thanks to hampered ailerons and flaps. The result of all of those is an obstructed vision, a higher stall speed, and an unresponsive jet fighter, which in the fast paced and highly visual environment of aerial warfare, often means the death of a pilot.
On the other end of the spectrum, surface runs are also affected by the new weather effects. Volumetric fogs turn nap-of-the-earth flights into a dangerous proposition, especially in urban areas or mountainous regions. It helps to enhance the already unequaled thrill of high speed maneuvering within a dangerous environment, yet it adds considerable risks: low-altitude air-to-surface attacks in low visibility can quickly turn a plane into fiery debris, while chasing -- or leading -- an enemy into a foggy canyon full of rock outcroppings can easily spell doom to both of you.
The other big addition is the use of VR, which I got a chance to test out during my hands-on session at gamescom. On the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, I started the game seated at the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat as the NPCs ran a non-interactive pre-flight check. Looking around like a child, I examined every single knob and bolt on the plane before turning my attention outwards, staring in awe at the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer on my left and my wingman’s jet on my right, sitting 30 feet from me. In the background, the flight deck crew moved about, under the shadow of the ship’s island and its rotating antennae. After about 30 seconds of back and forth chatter, my character lifts his thumb in a universal positive sign -- a gesture echoed by my AI wingmate -- and we take off.
Now, I know as a games journalist I was supposed to respect the demo and get on with the mission, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about faux-politics. I was sitting in the cockpit of a freaking F-14 jet fighter -- I’ll be damned if I ain’t taking that thing for a spin!
Instead of following the objectives, I spent about five minutes doing laps across a nearby island, performing loops, corkscrews, and barrel roll maneuvers, as well as a myriad of very dangerous low-altitude runs across both land and sea. I even went back towards the aircraft carrier and flew so low above its deck the admiral must have soiled himself. Even though the PlayStation 4 graphics were far from excellent, with abundant aliasing in every single object and suboptimal textures, I couldn’t help but feel immersed.
After my little triumph, I pulled the Tomcat into a steep climb and headed to the troposphere. A group of bogeys were approaching our position from the west, and my wingman was flying in a holding pattern waiting for me. I reached his position, and we headed to intercept the enemy planes.
The dogfights were interesting, mostly revolving around missiles’ target locks. The sky was far from clear, and the cloudscape constantly interfered with my sensors -- targets far away were virtually impossible to obtain, as the shifting winds and their fast moving crafts would prevent the radar from acquiring a lock. As a result, while I did manage to take out a couple of enemies from afar in stretches of open space, most dogfights tend to be at considerably closer distances.
At one point, I got a bogey on my tail and had to lose him, as trusting AI to save you is like counting with rainfall in the desert. I managed to perform a loop and caused him to overshoot, putting me right at his 6 o’clock. Immediately before the radar homed in, the bugger turned a hard right and dove into a cloud cover -- to which I promptly gave chase. Unable to acquire a missile lock, I accelerated up against his ass and opened my dual machine guns straight into his engine’s exhaust muzzle.
The whole experience got me thinking about a PC VR setup in the near future, and I am positively excited to get my hands on this Navy-based jet fighter game when it comes to PC and consoles in 2018. A lot of games try to differentiate themselves by being overly complicated, yet only end up boring; Ace Combat 7 tries to add realism to arcade combat flight without bogging it down with unnecessary mechanics, and it's definitely better off for it.