Hands-On – Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Brings Pulse-Pounding Aerial Dogfights to PS VR

by David Jagneaux • January 26th, 2017

I craned my neck back while wearing the PS VR headset to look above into the sky. At this angle, I could see an enemy fighter jet attempting to loop around behind me. Recognizing what was happening, I pulled the L2 trigger on my DualShock 4 to brake, pushed down on the left joystick to dive forward, flip around, and head off their loop before they got behind me. The maneuver worked and as I broke through the clouds, water droplets smearing the outside of my cockpit, I launched a rocket. It spiraled forward and destroyed my enemy, letting me boost through the flames and stab through the final layer of clouds, emerging victorious.

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is an absolutely exhilarating and pulse-pounding game with immersive aerial dogfights. During a Bandai Namco press preview event in San Francisco this week, I got the chance to go hands-on with the flight combat game using the PS VR and came away with a giant smile on my face, excited to take to the skies once again when it finally releases later this year.

I was hoping the entire game would be playable inside of Sony’s headset when it releases, but alas, that’s not the case. Only a handful of specific missions will support the PS VR, similar to Gran Turismo Sport’s VR mode.

The original game in the franchise from over 20 years ago was actually known as Air Combat and first appeared in Japanese arcades. The brand has never been recognized as a hyper-realistic flight simulator by design, but instead attempts to combine its ultra-realistic visual style with accessible, yet intense, flight controls to help you orchestrate epic moments of aerial combat, like the ones seen in the trailer above. Ever since Ace Combat 2, the franchise has been synonymous with Bandai Namco and the PlayStation platform. Now, it’s making the leap into the immersive space with PS VR support on PlayStation 4. It feels like about as natural of an evolution as you could hope for.

“VR introduces a new form of expression that the traditional medium of gaming doesn’t really have access to,” said series Producer Kazutoki Kono during a translated in-person interview. “So when I try to create something for VR, I always bear in mind the feelings I had the first time I tried VR and saw a giant life-sized dinosaur towering above me.”

Ace Combat 7, as a full package, is aiming to be the most robust and engrossing entry in the franchise to date. After over two decades, the latest engine updates and graphical advancements have resulted in the most visually impressive entry thus far and that vision is clearly carried over into the limited PS VR content on display.

ace-combat-7-takeoff

“For the VR aspect, we felt the most important element was to never interrupt the illusion that the player is the pilot,” explained Kono. “There are no cuts or weirdness going on, it’s always first-person. When you get to the campaign side of things in the non-VR mode, it comes down to using a lot more cinematography techniques like cutscenes and scene shifts to add more emotion and storytelling.”

Earlier this week we showed a video of supposed PS VR gameplay in action for Ace Combat 7 and after trying it for myself at this preview event, I can confirm that the below footage looks essentially identical to the mission I went hands-on with. There will be more than just a single mission to try in VR when the game releases across a variety of environments. Graphically it’s a downgrade from the non-VR version, as is the case in all instances of games that support both play styles, but the immersive factor more than makes up for the loss of visual fidelity.

I didn’t notice a screen door effect because I was too busy dodging rockets and bursting through clouds. Momentum felt appropriate as I nimbly banked and throttled through the air with a satisfying sense of velocity.

It’s a great experience that easily feels like one of the most accurate games I’ve tried in VR yet, at least from a purely photo-realism perspective. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed that the entire game won’t be playable in VR.

“We took into consideration the development time and budget from a production standpoint as well as the need to craft a tailor-made experience when we made the decision of the amount of VR content we wanted to create,” said Kono. “What we realized very early on in the process is that we couldn’t just make a few tweaks to the standard version of the game and expect it to work properly in VR. The goals of the VR version and the flat-screen version were in completely different places in terms of what we were able to achieve and what users wanted to see. When we made this realization it almost became like a parallel development of two very different experiences. To reproduce the content in all of its entirety for two different platforms was just impossible. For the purposes of Ace Combat 7, the VR missions are a tailor-made experimental mode, whereas the non-VR campaign missions are the mainline experience.”

ace-combat-7-cockpit-view

Anyone that’s played any other flight game in VR, such as EVE: Valkyrie, Elite: Dangerous, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s Jackal Assault Mission, or the X-Wing Mission for Star Wars Battlefront, can attest to the fact that it’s a genre that feels right at home in VR. The seated cockpit setting and placement of your hands in real-life as well as in the game all do a wonderful job of tricking your mind into thinking you’re inside a virtual world. That’s a big reason why motion sickness isn’t as common as in other types of VR games.

“Fairly early on in development we had a number of focus groups that tried the game with the VR headset on,” explained Kono. “What we noticed as a pattern is that people’s awareness of what the plane was doing and what the physics were supposed to be, did not get sick. For example, if a player understands that you should bank and then pull up in order to ‘turn’ the plane, they handled the VR experience better due to understanding what their inputs were causing in VR. In addition, by including fixed elements like the cockpit and the HUD elements help the player orient themselves and help combat tendencies towards motion sickness.”

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is launching this year for PlayStation 4, with optional PS VR-exclusive side missions, as well as on Xbox One and PC via Steam. When asked about PC VR support for headsets like Rift, Vive, or OSVR, Kono indicated that they currently have no plans to institute support. From the sounds of it, the VR missions were created in collaboration with Sony specifically for PS VR.

I’m excited to climb back inside the cockpit again, but I just wish the full game were getting immersive VR support. Do you plan on picking up Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown when it releases later this year? Let us know in the comments below!

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