Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown – highway to the no danger of nausea zone
The PlayStation VR headset was our favourite new hardware of 2016, but as is becoming increasingly obvious there’s worryingly few big-name VR games lined up for 2017. Apart from Sony’s sci-fi shooter Farpoint almost everything else is indie games. Which is just one of the reasons we were so excited to play Bandai Namco’s Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown.
Believe it or not the Ace Combat series is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but unlike most flight sims the only time it’s ever been released on the PC is via the divisive Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. The 2011 spin-off was clearly aimed at the Call Of Duty crowd rather than existing fans. It wasn’t a bad game, and it sold okay, but Ace Combat 7 is an attempt to show the difference between it and a full-blooded numbered sequel.
You can see what producer Kazutoki Kono thinks that difference means in the e-mail interview below, but basically it boils down to a mix of real-world and sci-fi aircraft and a story set in the series’ long-established fictional universe. As well as presumably removing Assault Horizon’s on-rails elements.
We didn’t get to see any of that though, as the demo we played was of a VR mission. As Kono explains, you can’t play the whole of Ace Combat 7 in VR but it does contain a number of special missions that are designed specifically for PlayStation VR. (The fact that an Xbox One version of the game has been announced has led some to imagine it as tacit confirmation that the Xbox is also getting a VR headset. But since the main campaign does not support VR that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.)
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown – next gen After Burner
The VR demo was brief, but at least as impressive as the Star Wars: Battlefront one. More so from a technical perspective, because despite throwing our jet fighter around the skies like a cocktail shaker in the hands of Tom Cruise himself we didn’t feel the slightest bit of nausea. And yet we couldn’t detect the game holding back in any way, since it has a faster turn speed than Battlefront and doesn’t restrict the view during tight turns. Whatever VR wizardry Kono and his team are in possession of it works flawlessly.
The mission starts off on the deck of an aircraft carrier, giving you ample time to look out the window and at the cockpit – marvelling at the apparent realism of it all. And then, like a modern day After Burner, you’re catapulted into the sky and sent off to intercept some enemy aircraft, at least one of which is some kind of weird boomerang-shaped craft. As you can see in the interview Kono implies that although you’ll always be flying real aircraft they’ll eventually be given sci-fi weapons, with some of the screenshots seeming to show an F-15 firing a laser gun.
There was none of that in the demo we played though, as we banked and weaved amongst the clouds, trying to get a target lock with our (apparently infinite) missiles. The reason there are so many flight and space simulators for VR is that for the first time it makes the process of tracking enemies easy, as you simply follow them with your head – rather than relying on multiple camera views.
This works perfect in Ace Combat 7, and although we never saw any of the enemies put up much of a fight we were genuinely upset when the experience ended and we had to stop. The potential for VR in general has barely been tapped at all, but it’s experiences like this that prove what a game-changer it can really be. We don’t know what the rest of Ace Combat 7 is going to be like, but we can say that the VR missions alone make this one of our most anticipated games of the year.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (previewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Release Date: 2017
GC: Why did you chose to create a numbered sequel rather than a follow-up to Assault Horizon? What does this imply in terms of the gameplay and storytelling for Ace Combat 7?
KK: When the Ace Combat series reached its 20th anniversary and we thought about releasing a game for the first time on the new consoles, all of the team members thought the most wanted content from the users was a numbered title. The core mechanic of basic gameplay is taken from the previous numbered titles, and the so-called Strangereal universe is the same as previous numbered titles as well. As we put a number on this title, we are sending out the message that this is the mainstream of Ace Combat series.
GC: How did the critical and consumer response to Ace Combat 6 and Assault Horizon impact your new game? Have you tried to combine the best elements of both or have you treated Assault Horizon purely as a spin-off?
KK: The response from the reviewers and users are varied. One of the creator’s jobs is to decide which opinions they should pick up and how it will be reflected in the main pillars of the game. Both Ace Combat 6 and Ace Combat: Assault Horizon have their own main pillars, so simply combining two titles does not mean it will become a good title. When it is combined, highlights from both titles could erase each other. Assault Horizon was a challenge. The knowledge we have received from Assault Horizon is benefitting other titles, not the Ace Combat series.
GC: Repetition of enemies and scenarios is an unavoidable problem for all flight simulator type games, as well as the difficulty in making interesting environments that the player will actually see (as opposed to attractive landscapes they barely notice as they fly high above). How have you addressed these intrinsic problems of the genre in Ace Combat 7?
KK: The design will change, whether you think it is ‘bad’ or ‘good’, regarding repetition of enemies and scenario. We think it is ‘rather good’ for Ace Combat. Regarding the environment, we suffer from thinking about the design and ideas as you pointed out. Therefore, in Ace Combat 7 we added the main pillar which is ‘cloud’. One pillar will create countless ideas. When we think a player flying high is ‘rather good’, the ideas of a huge crater on the ground and space elevator come up. If a player doesn’t notice, we provide the things which a player notices and would like to know further.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown – the need for speed has been met
GC: How far have you decided to go in terms of realism and the inclusion of sci-fi vehicles? It seems a difficult balancing act, and it must be hard to know where to draw the line.
KK: The balance differs in each numbered title. In Ace Combat 7 a player mainly uses real aircraft. To have a balance, the enemy’s aircraft are unmanned, drone, and sci-fi types. As a bridge between the player side and enemy side, a player is able to use futuristic weapons. Rather than drawing the specific line first, the order will be as follows: we think about what kind of gameplay will be fun for a player first, then we accommodate factors to make it a reality, and finally we will be able to see the results of a proper balance line.
GC: The VR demo for the game is extremely impressive. But I was surprised that there didn’t seem to be any safeguards for nausea, in terms of turn speed or restricting the view during tight turns. I didn’t get nauseous at all, and yet have done in seemingly more sedate VR games, so how is Ace Combat 7 able to avoid the problem?
KK: We are taking a lot of measures regarding nausea. The development team has experience developing 3D displays on 3DS, and also arcade games which have the monitor surrounding like a dome. This knowledge is reflected in the VR development. However, the big reason why you didn’t get nauseous was that the ‘3D flight movement of aircraft was in your head’.
If you have this in your head and also understand your location and position correctly, it determines whether you get nauseous or not. If you can’t grasp the aircraft movement at all, or you are not interested in being a pilot, we cannot prevent getting nausea even if we take all the measures. [We chose to believe this means we are natural born pilots and in possession of the ‘right stuff’ – GC]
GC: Having played other flight and space simulation VR games the ability to manually track targets by just moving your head is an enormous benefit, but what other gameplay changes does using VR bring? And do you feel it will be enough to see flight sims become a more popular and mainstream genre?
KK: The action, where you move your head and track the enemy aircraft, was assigned to the right stick of the game controller until now, but moving your head is rather going back to the human’s natural movement. One of the big benefits of VR is that we don’t need to restrict the human’s natural movement into the game controller. It is proof that people are seeking to have devices such as motion control with VR, where the human’s movement is reflected naturally.
I really hope that flight sims will be more popular from the bottom of my heart, but most people would simply think that, ‘I would like to fly’. It will be less people who think that ‘I would like to fly a combat aircraft’, which will add one condition. It is natural that users who chose to fly a combat aircraft will be less. Rather than pushing flight sims to the general mainstream genre, I think we should reach as many potential targets who are fundamentally seeking this genre but haven’t touched or played one before.
GC: Why were you not able to make the entirety of Ace Combat 7 playable in VR? Was this because some scenarios were too hectic or simply because you haven’t had the time necessary?
KK: There are several reasons. First of all, the power of the normal game and VR is totally different. Also, the users who can play in a VR environment are still a minority. A lot of users who will actually play Ace Combat 7 would like to have an experience as a brushed-up ace pilot in the scenario of campaign mode. If we made the product focusing on VR spec and adjusting all the features based on VR, we will end up just offering a campaign mode which can be expressed or processed with VR. This is not what we would like, nor users would like either.
GC: Would you approach the game any differently if it was being made purely for VR, and what, if anything, have you had to change to make the current mode work well – when compared to the main campaign?
KK: The direction Ace Combat VR should be taking is a first person experience where you won’t notice you are in the living room, you’ll forget your daily life, and continue to think you are an ace pilot as soon as you put the HMD on. You cannot achieve this if you have a third person camera and theatrical expression.
Even the interface and mode selections, which are common for the game system will be factors of making you aware that you are not in the game universe. Even though these are customary things, we have to be sceptical and create new ideas from scratch.
If we make the main campaign mode in VR, we have to make it from the user and pilot point of view even when explaining each scenario. For example, during the conversation with people, it is not realistic if you hear music up in the air suddenly. Therefore, even though it is the same Ace Combat, desired VR content and numbered title content will be totally different.
GC: What have been your general impressions of working with VR and how easy is it to add support from a development perspective?
KK: VR is currently the most useful method which makes you think the game’s universe is your own reality. However, the performance is not sufficient and the device has lots of issues in order to make users satisfied from the business point of view.
Current content can be added from the development side but we will end up using resources for a very limited audience, and face an unbalanced and difficult reality unless we have the environment in which people in general can enjoy VR more casually. I think the current situation is to have a high hope for the possibility of VR and make people glimpse the future of Ace Combat.
GC: Have you ever considered making a similar or spin-off game featuring more sci-fi style vehicles, or perhaps transforming mechs? The potential VR has to expand the market for simulation style games seems enormous. [We were actually thinking of Robotech/MacrossValkyrie fighters, even though Bandai Namco owns rival franchise Gundam – GC]
KK: Regarding spin-offs of Ace Combat, we always have ideas but whether it is suitable for VR or not is different matter. The possibility of VR is like I mentioned before, there is a hurdle we need to overcome in order to expand the VR game market and I am not optimistic to think that we can overcome that with just limited content power.
If the current situation stays, there is a possibility of ending up as only a few people’s favourite. In order to make VR blend into people’s daily life, it will need an initiation strength and will need to make another stride forward. However, please enjoy Ace Combat 7 without thinking about this. Your right to enjoy the game has been accomplished already.