The Ace Combat series has a lineage that stretches back to arcade game Air Combat in 1993 but even then, the subsequent PlayStation versions were still seen as a novelty for consoles. There are a number of obvious reasons why, but the main one is that flying a plane in real-life is difficult and complicated and it’s hard to streamline the experience enough to make it fun enough for ordinary gamers. The other issue is that modern jets can launch fire and forget missiles from miles away, when an enemy aircraft is nothing more than a blip on your radar. So being realistic isn’t necessarily a good idea anyway. But even if you pretend you need to be close by there’s still the problem of creating varied enough missions, and to stop them all just becoming ‘shoot down X number of enemies’. All intractable problems which Ace Combat 7 tackles head-on and with impressive results.

Ace Combat 7 is also amazing in just how cinematic the presentation has turned out to be. Part of that is from the frequent and lengthy cut-scenes, which were produced to a standard well beyond what I was expecting. They tell a story of global-scale war, loyalty to nation, falls and redemption. And without giving away anything, it’s told exceptionally well and offers up plenty of unexpected moments along the way.

The short version of the story is that Erusea has surprised Osean with a Pearl Harbor style attack using unmanned drones, while much of the narrative focuses on an aircraft enthusiast caught up in the struggle and forced to help out. There’s a LOT more to it than that, which we won’t spoil here, but much revolves around the fact that this isn’t the real world and while the game features lots of real, licensed planes there’s also fictional ones too and a modest amount of near future sci-fi weaponry that means you’re never quite sure what to expect in any given mission. At the start at least you’re flying around in familiar American jet fighters like the F-16 and F-14, with the game offering either a ‘normal’ or ‘expert’ control system when you start. Normal simplifies the controls so that left is left and right is right but expert controls handle more like a real aircraft and force you to pitch and roll too. It’s really not that difficult though, especially if you’re used to something like Star Wars: Battlefront II, and we’d advise just starting off on expert even if you’re a flight novice.

During the more difficult missions there’s a definite sense of rhythm in which you’ll be working hard to evade and dodge, while trying to work yourself into a possible to bring your own weapons to bear. Newcomers might find the earlier missions to be frustrating, because simply firing those missiles and expecting the homing technology to work isn’t going to cut it; you need to set yourself up in a good position before firing the weapon, because the enemy can – and will – evade attacks otherwise.

The game does a very good job of easing you into the concepts involved, including what to do if you stall and the simple lock-on system for missiles. Each aircraft has one special weapon (the first allows you to lock on to multiple targets at once, like After Burner) and you can unlock two more as you progress by spending experience points on a vast skill tree that gates access to new aircraft and equipment. We were a little disappointed to find no squadron commands, as there were in previous games, but we can understand the desire to keep things simple for this entry.

Ace Combat 7 is an impressively well-rounded package with a surprisingly option-filled multiplayer, although obviously we haven’t had much opportunity to play that pre-launch. But even beyond the VR, the game’s greatest achievement is that it manages to make the aerial combat exciting, accessible, and relatively varied. It may not have much in the way of competition but this is definitely top gun when it comes to modern day flight sim action.