Ace Combat Zero - The Belkan War
Platform:  PlayStation 2
Players:  1-2
Memory Usage:  112 kb

    The original PlayStation gave us three great Ace Combat games, even if the first release was called Air Combat after the arcade game that birthed the series.  After Ace Combat 3 Electrosphere (which was very different in the USA and Japan but that's another story) the series made its way onto the PlayStation 2 with Ace Combat 04 Shattered Skies.  The fourth installment was followed up by the superb Ace Combat 5 The Unsung War, which I called "hands down the best flight sim" in my review back at the end of 2004.  Even though the training missions in Ace Combat 5 took place in the Ace Combat 04 world, the games have always been non related in their setting and storyline.  Instead of releasing a sixth game for the core series, Namco opted to have the next installment tell the backstory of Ace Combat 5.  With the release of the PlayStation 3 looming closer and closer it made perfect sense to expand things touched on in the previous game without starting a new narrative.  However a few eyebrows were raised in concern that we'd be getting nothing more than a remixed expansion of The Unsung War since the development to release time was fairly brisk.  Honestly, how much could there be to the Belkan War, which in Ace Combat 5 was explained in the opening cutscene.  While this worried a lot of fans of the series, thankfully the gameplay remained quite in tact and was brought a step further with some nice enhancements.

Description:  "Fifteen years ago there was a war" was the narrative that Ace Combat 5 began with and that war fifteen years ago is when Ace Combat Zero takes place.  A few years before this time, the nation of Belka was plagued with political unrest and allowed it's territories in the east to secede.  The secession did not fix the problem however and the nation of Osea assisted the former Belkan territories in declaring independence, setting up Osean-friendly governments to secure trade with the newly liberated lands.  One of these new nations is known as the Ustio Republic which the main characters of the game fly under the colors of.  Shortly after the former Belkan territories became independent, an extreme right-wing political group assumes power in Belka.  Once vast deposits of natural resources are found in the former Belkan territories, namely the area B7R, Belka invades and recaptures their former lands.  This action prompts the nations of Osea and Yuktobania, who were at war in Ace Combat 5, to join forces and launch a counter-offensive against Belka, to protect the recently liberated areas to the east.  Two mercenaries, Cipher and Pixy, fly the skies with the Osean and Yuktobanian forces to repel the Beklans out of Ustio.  From there the story twists and turns as the origins of what lead up to the events that unfold in Ace Combat 5 are revealed.  The seeds of unrest in The Unsung War are planted in The Belkan War and that's what this game's story chronicles.

Core gameplay is the expected affair.  The player assumes the role of the Ustio mercenary Cipher and a number of missions are completed as the story plays itself out.  Anyone that's played an Ace Combat game since Ace Combat 2 will feel right at home.  Ally AI has been vastly improved since the previous game as your wingman actually responds to your command and is a decent shot for a change.  Additionally you can specify air or ground targets or let your wingman decide what to take out on their own.  Most of the pivotal engagements of the game take place in Belkan Priority One Strategic Airspace B7R, known as The Round Table by the pilots that fight in the skies overhead.  Without a doubt the biggest change from the previous games in the series is the addition of different squadrons that you will do battle against.  How you play the game effects which enemies you will face, this "Ace Style" gauge moves between three ranks: Knight, Mercenary, and Soldier.  A Knight flies with a sense of mercy, destroying only critical targets and sparing neutral ones.  A Mercenary shows no quarter and engages and destroys everything with blind hostility, including neutral and disabled targets.  A Soldier strikes a balance between the two, attacking some neutral targets yet not going on a tour of wanton destruction.  This also effects the storyline as cutscenes change based upon your rank at certain places in the game.  Different enemy squadrons are dispatched to intercept you at specific points in the game as well, based upon your Ace Style rank.  Some of the enemy squadrons have incredible Artificial Intelligence and put up a relentless fight.  If there is something new that Ace Combat Zero brings to the table, this is it.  You'll swear that you're flying against human opponents, and not just anyone, true masters of the sky.  The more advanced AI squadrons will send fighters to lead you out into a compromising position only to have the rest of the squadron bare down on you.  There are points where the missile warnings come up so frequently that you truly do feel you're in the middle of a life or death battle in the skies.

Missions are varied but for the most part they're simply expanded and reworked versions of things you've done before if you're a fan of the series.  Not to say that the game is boring, not in the least.  While most of the sorties are recycled from parts of other Ace Combat games, this title literally throws everything at you the series has had to date.  You'll take out beam weapons, a flying battle fortress, huge naval targets, underground missile silos and more.  If it's been in an Ace Combat game it's here.  A few missions have multiple points of engagement that are selected before the mission begins.  These usually vary by the targets in each operational zone, securing air superiority vs. a bombing run vs. escorting transports for example.  Each of the operational zones in these selectable missions are very different from the others and add a great deal of replayability.  Thankfully the game ends with a bang against a very difficult enemy.  I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else but anyone accustom to aviation anime should recognize the plane at the end of the game - it's designed after the YF-19 from Macross Plus, no matter the designation that Namco gives it.  Additionally planes based on the YF-21 and X-9 Ghost, both also from Macross Plus, are purchasable from the hanger but of course their names are different.

My favorite part of the game is also a new addition, the assault records.  Every time you shoot down aircraft that are more than simply drones with faceless pilots, an entry is made to the assault records.  Here you will find a mockup of their plane as well as some background information on the pilot and their known whereabouts.  It's a nice touch that goes on to further what this game really is about - pilots.  Yes there is a story there about political unrest and warfare policies but at the end of the day that's not what makes Ace Combat Zero's storyline interesting.  Truly this game is about a group of combat pilots, the lives they live, and the sacrifices they endure during and after the war.  As with Ace Combat 5 the story is presented from the viewpoint of a reporter.  However instead of the story being a first hand account, it is presented via interviews the reporter conducts with the pilots that crossed paths with Cipher in the war, including your former wingman Solo Wing Pixy.  The reporter is gathering this information just after The Belkan War but just before the events of Ace Combat 5.  It's an interesting viewpoint to advance the game, a retelling of events past that you play though as your present.  In other words the narration and interviews take place in 2005 concerning a documentary on The Belkan War that was fought (and is played through) ten years earlier.  I have to applaud Namco for telling the story in an interesting way that is both different yet somewhat alike the style of the previous two games.  Learning about the character you play though interviews and research being done in the future, for a documentary to better understand who your character was, has never been done before.

Graphics:  If you thought things couldn't get better on the PlayStation 2 after Ace Combat 5 you're wrong.  The terrain and clouds are even more detailed and realistic.  The detail level of all aircraft has been bumped up as well and the plane exteriors look better than ever.  The cockpit view is a little more detailed than things were in Ace Combat 5 but aircraft interiors still do look a little motionless and stale, guess that's something that'll have to wait until the next generation.  However when in combat things are beautiful.  Missile launches play out realistically, long strings of searing gunfire streak through the skies, aircraft bank and turn how they should.  It's almost like you're there, it really is incredible the things developers are still able to do with the PlayStation 2 hardware.  The HUD will be familiar to anyone that has played Ace Combat 5 as it works exactly the same.  Radio chatter is subtitled atop the screen as usual but it takes a few minutes to get accustomed to the new font.

I do have a complaint however.  The previous game in the series, Ace Combat 5 The Unsung War, had the most beautiful CG cutscenes I have ever seen.  Not just in games, in film as well.  Without a doubt the CG in Ace Combat 5 blew anything else away.  Those hoping to see more of the same in Ace Combat Zero are in for a rude awakening.  There is some CG but it's used for backgrounds instead of rendering everything.  What you get instead is an actor sitting in front of a bluescreen, talking to the reporter, with a CG backdrop behind them.  Obviously this was a cost saving measure by Namco and I'm sure it also shortened the development time of the game.  Some of the actors are very good but many of them are decent at best.  Still, none of them come off as completely horrible and those very few that seem believable do a nice job.  It's not what was expected but it still suits the required purpose and certainly doesn't detract from the game.

Sound:  Honestly I'm somewhat conflicted when it comes to the audio.  All the radio chatter that has been a standby of the games since Shattered Skies is there and done well.  There are still a couple voice clips that are downright horrible and should have been recast but it doesn't ruin anything.  The reporter / narrator's voicework is top notch, which is a good thing since you'll be hearing a lot of him.  The tango music that thumps in during squadron combat is a nice touch but it's simply too loud at times and makes radio communication from the enemy squadron hard to understand.  I don't see why this wasn't caught in testing as it really does hurt the game to have the audio drowned out by the music at certain points.  As for aircraft and combat sounds, they're all what we've come to expect from the series and are done nicely.  However compared to the amazing cinematic audio package of Ace Combat 5, Ace Combat Zero just falls short.

Play Control:  Control has been left alone since the previous game, which is a good thing.  Input is accurate and fast with subtle motions being recognized perfectly.  With how intense the dogfights are against the enemy squadrons you'll need all this control precision and the DualShock2 doesn't disappoint one bit.  There's not much else to say since after a few minutes flight controls will become second nature.

Replay:  This time around two player support has been put back in, which was scrapped in the previous game due to the release schedule.  Online play would have been great but sadly it was left out as well.  Still, you must complete the game at least three times to earn the different Ace Style rankings, complete all the alternate missions, face all the different squadrons, and see all the different cutscenes.  Additionally there are achievements to complete and medals to earn.  Yet what adds the most replay value in my opinion are the assault records.  I've spent hours searching for planes I haven't yet shot down, only so I can go into the assault records after the mission and read up on the pilots backstories.  Then of course there are still a ton of aircraft and weapons to be purchased with credits earned from completing missions.  This installment will keep series veterans busy for awhile.

Final Verdict:  There is only one disappointing thing about this game and that is how unrelated it is to the characters in Ace Combat 5 - The Unsung War.  Back when press releases and information on the development of Ace Combat Zero were circulating, talk of it being based in the Ace Combat 5 plot arc sounded great.  I anticipated following the storyline of the older characters in Ace Combat 5, only to later find out that the game would not follow them at all.  Bartlett and Pops can be found in one mission but neither of them say anything and they fly nothing but standard enemy aircraft.  However the whole plot angle of being about the aces of the war, about the lives of pilots in the middle of conflict, really is interesting.  While it doesn't feature characters from the previous game predominately, it is still directly related to the events that will unfold in The Unsung War and better explains the feelings of the Belkans.  The enemy squadron battles are something else and over all this is a very worthwhile addition to one of my favorite series of games.  If you enjoy the Ace Combat series, especially The Unsung War, this is a game you deserve to own.  If you're new to the Ace Combat games then I would pick up Ace Combat 5 The Unsung War first, but do come back and play this one after it.

Written on 10-20-06 by David,
Last amended 11-07-06 by David,

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