The promise of virtual reality was realized for me when playing Elite Dangerous: Horizons at E3 in 2016 wearing a VR headset and with flight stick and throttle in hand. That immersive space combat demo left me craving a true VR dogfighting experience. Eve: Valkyrie on my PSVR comes close, but it took Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown to bring it to fruition.
What Elite Dangerous and Eve share is an impressive fantasy created around space flight. The Ace Combat series on the other hand, while long utilizing a fantasy narrative, is renowned for a photorealistic presentation that models its make-believe world on modern military aircraft and aerial combat mechanics, fueling gamers' fantasies of being a fighter pilot.
The inclusion, therefore, of a virtual reality mode in Skies Unknown is a dream come true for longtime fans of the franchise such as myself. That's why I was compelled to finally invest in a flight stick/throttle combo prior to the game's release this past Friday. Armed with the Thrustmaster T.Flight Hotas 4 and my PSVR headset, I eagerly explored the game's VR missions.
The fact that there are only three missions in virtual reality is a disappointment, but it doesn't lesson the impact that the Ace Combat experience has when transplanted into VR. What makes the series popular makes the transition, though with mixed results, including intuitive, fluid and responsive controls as well as a good presentation in virtual reality.
Notice I wrote "good" and not "great" as the franchise is otherwise known for. The reason is the lower fidelity typical of PSVR games in general with a few notable exceptions. But the presentation is still a quality one especially considering the speed and activity on display. The player's cockpit control panel, other aircraft and even landscape and landmarks are well-rendered.
Particle effects, too, are well done. Missiles criss-cross the sky, aircraft explode into fireballs, smoke billows from the ground, waves ripple on the ocean and raindrops streak the windshield. The sounds of your aircraft and weapons, or passing missiles, aircraft and explosions, as well as radio chatter, likewise impress. The one drawback are clouds that can appear blurry instead of billowy though not enough to distract.
What matters, of course, is that the gameplay and controls create an immersive experience that helps lend the settings a realistic quality. The intuitive, nimble controls implemented on the DualShock wireless controller are sensibly transferred onto the Hotas 4 flight stick/throttle for the kind of responsive, accurate actions that Ace Combat has always enabled.
Pushing forward/pulling back on the flight stick with the right hand controls aircraft pitch down/up, moving the stick right/left rolls the plane in those directions, and twisting the stick to the right/left adjusts the fighter's yaw in those directions (yaw controls are also at one's fingertips on the throttle). Missiles and special weapons are under thumb, as is targeting. One's index finger can trigger guns.
The throttle has three settings. Forward generates the most thrust, the middle setting provides cruising speed and pulled back reduces thrust. Besides the yaw control lever, the throttle also includes controller face buttons under thumb for general use especially in-menu. It should be noted that the detachable stick/throttle work fine connected on one's lap, though that configuration corresponds to right/left hands only.
The control configuration provides for great, fluid action even in the midst of a frenetic dogfight or bombastic air/ground combat. I was never frustrated by the controls or felt like I had to fight them at any point, though I'm still getting used to how I can switch between missiles and special weapons, and placement of the share button on the controller base is inconvenient but a minor quibble.
What likewise adds to immersion and cannot be underestimated is the ability in virtual reality to track enemy aircraft or other targets/objectives by turning one's head. Akin to following a dragon as it flies overhead in Skyrim VR, tracking jet fighters as they soar past helps players maintain pursuit and immerse themselves in the dogfight at hand, or simply make note of their surroundings and targets.
In this regard, the first mission is pure dogfighting bliss. Taking place in the skies above an archipelago, the clash of aircraft is breathtaking and terrific fun, with nothing to impede the joy of a fighter pilot fantasy come to life. The problem I had was with the second mission, which introduced air/ground combat in VR, and the related motion sickness that can arise.
For those unfamiliar with VR, the technology can make players nauseous due to the disconnect between visual input, which tells the body there is movement, and actually being immobile. I've found that, for myself, the less visual input that suggests movement -- such as flying/racing past stationary objects -- the less I experience discomfort.
So any game where I'm moving fast past stationary objects (such as in DriveClub, War Thunder or this second mission), I'm prone to get nauseous. Eliminate that setting and I can play indefinitely in VR (such as in games like Skyrim VR or Farpoint). It didn't help that for some reason on my first play through, I could not lock on to ground targets for most of the time.
Eventually I powered through because I wanted to unlock the third mission, though I haven't felt well enough to return to the game for days. Of course that's a personal physiological reaction and not game design, though being unable to lock on ground targets prolonged the experience and made it worse. Still, the thrill of the first mission, and promise of the third, are enough to keep me playing the game in VR. [Update 6/20/19: See below video of the third mission. It's more challenging, and great fun!]
That Bandai Namco Entertainment has been able to take what makes the Ace Combat series so successful and put it in to a virtual reality experience so faithfully and with so few issues to undermine the gameplay is yet another indication that VR is not only a viable option but an important one for immersing players in a game world. I, for one, will at least be replaying VR Mission 1 over and over to scratch that fighter pilot itch.
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