When the press sat down to try Ace Combat 7 late last week, there was hardly a PlayStation VR headset to be seen. A couple headsets were sitting forlornly on the far side of the room, all but ignored by the journos playing multiplayer and single-player on traditional screens. It was a tidy metaphor for how VR is represented in a game that was originally introduced as a "PlayStation VR Exclusive."
In contrast to the PlayStation VR's generally strong 2018, which included the release of critical darlings Astro Bot Rescue Mission, Tetris Effect, and Moss, the platform is barely an afterthought in Ace Combat 7. The VR content, such as it is, amounts to a few exclusive missions with no ties to the main story, a VR air show that you can watch from the deck of your carrier, and a hangar mode. What's there is pretty cool, but it's more or less a novelty mode on par with the X-Wing Fighter VR Mission from a few years back.
It's a long way from where Ace Combat 7 was in December 2015, when it was announced at PSX with a slew of other PSVR games. The implication then was that Ace Combat 7 was set to be a full-blooded VR game on par with the likes of EVE Valkyrie. Bandai Namco reinforced this impression by featuring the PSVR compatibility in its initial run of demos, sitting fans and press alike in a cockpit frame to convey the feeling of flying an actual plane.
But behind the scenes, Bandai Namco was quickly backpedaling. Producer Kazutoki Kono later confirmed in a 2016 interview with Monster Vine, that it was initially intended to be a one-to-one experience with the campaign, but that they found it to be a "little trickier than we thought." This resulted in VR and the main campaign getting put, as Kono termed in a separate interview, "on their own islands."
Ace Combat 7 fell largely out of sight through most of 2017 and 2018, finally reemerging for an extended press tour last week. The game on display was much more content to look backward than forward, relying heavily on the well-worn gameplay introduced back in the days of the PS2.
As both a lapsed Ace Combat fan and a bit of a VR skeptic, I'm not entirely averse to this approach. Ace Combat is a rare bird these days-an arcade fighter jet game that mixes a dash of flight sim verisimilitude with console-like setpieces and storytelling. With its unlimited missiles, special attacks, and extremely forgiving flight mechanics, it's a guilty pleasure for otherwise hardcore flight sim fans. There's almost nothing like it on console these days.
In that regard, Ace Combinat 7 is more for long-time fans of the series than the gaming futurists buying into the PlayStation VR. It includes familiar storytelling beats from the series: a narrator speaking movingly about the beauty of flight, lots of radio chatter that is intended to push the narrative forward, and a war between two fictional nations in a near future world. It features recognizable real-world planes like the venerable F-18 Hornet, but also sci-fi elements like a space elevator.
By flight sim standards, Ace Combat's missions move at an incredible clip, with little downtime between dogfights. You can spam missiles to your heart's content, and if you want, even knock out an entire formation at once with a single salvo. But compared to most action games, it's heavily focused on imparting the illusion of reality, moving at its own deliberate pace. Its style reminds me of the old Origin Systems flight games, particularly Strike Commander, which is affectionately referred to as "Privateer on Earth."
All of this should be a natural fit for PlayStation VR. I've said more than once that VR is best-suited for music games and cockpit games, where the static, sealed off nature of the mask is a benefit rather a drawback. I'm not sure why exactly Ace Combat 7 couldn't make the main campaign VR compatible, save that it would have apparently involved a lot of extra resources. When I asked a Bandai Namco representative about it, he said only, "It would have involved a different development track."
The VR experience that is ultimately included with Ace Combat 7 is at least a fun novelty. As always, it's cool to look around your cockpit and track enemy fighters above and around you. The PSVR's low visual fidelity remains a noticeable drawback, especially compared to the main game's relatively crisp visuals, but it's balanced by the unique nature of the interactions involved. It's the sort of fun bonus mode that can make for a fun afternoon if you're in need of a change of pace from the main compain.
This approach is becoming increasingly rare on PSVR. Where 2017 had plenty of weird throwaway modes like Final Fantasy's XV Monster of the Deep, 2018 has been defined more by artistic indies designed specifically with PSVR in mind. Nowhere has that been more apparent than Tetris Effect, which maximizes its sublime visuals and soothing Trance with the sensory deprivation of the PSVR. It's still a pretty niche proposition all things considered, but there's enough there to make it at least sort of appealing to hobbyists.
Ace Combat 7 is a throwback to the first days of the PSVR, when developers were throwing basically anything at the wall to see what would stick. It's certainly a letdown for VR fans given its initial promise, but at least this way it can focus on what its best at: catering to old-school fans of the series. In that respect, it may not be the leap forward for the series we imagined, but it stands to be a respectable addition to the PS4's library all the same.