Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War

Ace Combat Zero is the last title in the high flying series from Namco Bandai to make its mark on the PS2, ending its run on the console with a story taking players back to the Belkan War that had been touched upon in Ace Combat 5. It brings the licensed planes and the explosive gameplay, but while it returns pilots to the skies above, it’s a trip that also brings plenty of turbulence along for the ride.

The Story of an Ace

Ace Combat Zero acts as a prequel to Ace Combat 5, taking players back fifteen years from when it had taken place to 1995 when the country of Belka waged war against the world in a desperate bid for survival. The world of Ace Combat is much like our own, only with different countries but with many of the same problems.

The country of Belka has seen better days. Its resources stretched thin from expansion, an economic crisis in the 1980’s has forced the country to recognize the independence of several of its territories at the end of the decade in an effort to stave off complete collapse. When it failed, Belka quickly fell into the hands of a right wing party promising to restore the glory of the country. In 1995, valuable resources discovered within the territories that had seceded would spark war as Belka launches a massive invasion to seize back what had once been theirs.

Aces

Belka’s vaunted military machine took its neighbors by surprise as it swept through its former lands with ease. The Republic of Ustio, formerly of Belka, is nearly overrun when the temporary government manages to assemble a squadron of mercenary fighter pilots to hold off the tide of conquest. It is as a part of this mercenary air force that you will help write the story that a reporter is attempting to piece together about one of the Belkan War’s most enigmatic ace.

Much like Ace Combat 4 and 5, Zero’s story is told through the eyes of someone outside of it. In this case, a reporter in 2005 who is investigating the mysterious ace that had almost singlehandedly won the war, the very character that the player will be. As you go through each mission, chatter during the game and the cinematic cuts in between slowly reveal what is going on.

In a change of pace from its predecessors, Ace Combat Zero uses live actors to tell the story via interviews. While this fits in with the general approach of the title’s story as a reporter’s crusade for the truth, it doesn’t help fill in some of the more glaring holes in the narrative. The dialog can sometimes sound a little weak and a few of the lines appear as if they were literally read from a cue card.

The war that should be the centerpiece of the action feels more like a minor skirmish considering the small number of missions and objectives that cover it. Although it looks like a huge campaign, none of the missions have the kind of war fever that Ace Combat 5 filled its missions with across two continents, or the twists that it had such as flying over a stadium as part of a morale boost to a city or escaping from capture in training planes armed with nothing more than your skill. It also doesn’t help that the main campaign feels extremely short.

The the overall impression that I got from this part of the game was that it wasn’t as well told as it was in Ace Combat 5, that it was more of an expansion pack to the events in Ace Combat 5. It definitely feels as if it were a step backwards. It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t seem to be as exciting as it could have been. Even the music is pretty unremarkable, even with the flamenco inspired pieces that can quickly get old. And if you miss the wingmen that you had gotten to know from Ace Combat 5, you’ll continue to miss it as many of the characters in the game simply aren’t that interesting…other than as targets.

Fighting for Freedom…and Profit

Ace Combat Zero seems aimed right at the series’ veterans, or players that have had a chance to play any one of its previous titles. For one thing, there’s no tutorial to ease newcomers into the controls which can take some getting used to. For another, the standard difficulty of the title is a lot more challenging than it was in Ace Combat 5. It’s still very much an arcade shoot ’em up in the skies at which it excels, so players hoping to pull some G’s and watch themselves black out may be disappointed at its light take on reality.

Although players will get the standard fare of cannon fodder to gun down in the title, they’ll also run into special squadrons packed with aces that can fly circles around you and blindside you with a missile at point blank range if you’re not careful. At the higher difficulties, these can really give veterans a good challenge especially if they’re aiming for the best score in any particular mission. This is especially true since most of these aces will usually gang up on you. When some of the fights involve eight or so planes with all of them gunning for your tailfins, it can get really stretch your sense of disbelief, especially when you only have one, ineffectual, wingman, as you try and survive the onslaught. This can easily turn into more than a few aggravating deaths as you twist, turn, and spin on a dime just to avoid the missile rain that the enemy loves to abuse you with.

The missions themselves have quite a bit to keep the player’s fingers firmly on the trigger buttons, throwing out the number of tiny missions that some of its predecessors were guilty of, although the length of the game can still be measured over a handful of hours. The mission content hasn’t really changed from the last two games, though, as much of it will revolve around destroying targets on the ground, in the sky, or simply surviving the battle. You will even be given the opportunity to choose which missions you want to be part of on occasion for battles that are particularly large, focusing on jobs that either allow you to plow the ground with bombs or keep the skies friendly. But while the title may appear to have fewer missions than Ace Combat 5, one other mechanic in the game tweaks them in small ways, tempting players back into replaying the game to find out what else might have changed.

Depending on what you shoot down and how you approach your missions, your “ace style” will be measured. If you destroy whatever is in your path, whether it’s a neutral target or an enemy, you’ll be pegged as a more “Mercenary” type of fighter. If you strike a balance between neutral and enemy targets, carefully picking out your objectives, you’ll be considered more of a “Soldier”. And if you take care to deal only with your enemies and show mercy, you’ll be known for following the path of a “Knight”.

Targets in the game are more varied and the planes that you shoot at can get away with only being damaged, although helpless to fight back, and will try to flee the battlefield. Whether or not you let them go is completely up to you and can impact your ace style. Targets on the ground will be marked in yellow, indicating that they’re neutral, although quite a few of these will be worth valuable points which can go a long way towards your bank account and rating…if you’re feeling mercenary enough to take advantage of them, or if you need to balance your kill sheet as a tactical soldier.

Ace Combat missiles

Purchasing planes and their special weapons returns in Zero and depending on your score and your performance, the points you earn will translate over as cash. Most of the planes that you will fly are licensed wings, meaning that they’ll look just like planes from the real-world courtesy of the manufacturers themselves such as Northrop Grumman or Dassault. You might not know who they are, but the weapons that they’ll place in your hands will go a long way towards your survival in later missions. And as it has become a hallmark of the series, each one is rendered with an eye towards detail that still looks great on the PS2. There are also special, powerful, planes, ones that really stand out as unique “Ace Combat” only designs, that you can discover.

Each plane also has a set of special weapons that you can eventually purchase and arm them with, ranging from bombs to special missiles that can track four targets at once. Knowing what to use for each mission is still key as it can be easy to go into battle and feel completely outmatched, or be unable to complete it. And if you need some fast cash to purchase that F-22, you can sell off your old planes and weapons to make up the difference.

Jousting for Honor

Medals collected help track some of your accomplishments, whether it is by faithfully following the precepts of a Knight Ace or in destroying enough enemies to be recognized. In addition to these records that you can review, you’ll also be able to read a short bio of each enemy ace you happen to defeat. As you progress in the game, enemy ace squadrons will attempt to challenge you in combat, but there will also be the occasional ace or squadron that happen to come into the fight without any grand entrance. Depending on your ace style, the encounters can also vary mission by mission, and taking each of these down can easily become a side quest for players hoping to add these names to the kill board.

When the game is finished, you’ll also have the opportunity to replay any of the previous missions in “Free Play” mode, or start the game over with all of your earned money and purchased planes. Players hoping to relive some of the battles from the main campaign will be able to in “Free Play” and even keep any of the cash earned or the scores that they manage to improve. Missions that you did not take part in will still remain locked unless you go through the main campaign again to get through to them by making the appropriate choices.

And if the main campaign isn’t enough, a versus mode with split screen action is also available, making a return after being left out of Ace Combat 5 allowing two players to compete for points across seven stages. Unfortunately, there’s no online support nor can you duel your friend to prove who the best might be other than in knocking down the most enemy planes for points.

A War Without Borders

Ace Combat Zero gives fans exactly what they’ve come to expect from Namco’s series, complete with the fancy planes, huge explosions, the superweapons, and a story told from the perspective of an outsider looking in. But it several ways, it feels very much to be the kind of fanservice that only fellow pilots will appreciate, including the last few missions where you’re expected to fly another obstacle course to destroy “the ultimate weapon” complete with a boss fight at the very end. Newcomers may find themselves frustrated when they’re blown out of the sky by the sharpened AI as they’re dumped into battle without a tutorial. It’s still a solid entry into the Ace Combat series with the action and as the last title to make its mark on the PS2, it closes its run out with a title aimed squarely at pushing the envelope in several ways. But for some of those that have followed the series on the PS2, it might feel like a prequel that has also stepped back from the benchmark that its predecessor has set.

– World 1-1
Images: Ace Combat(R) Zero: The Belkan War &(c)NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc.

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