Somebody at Namco must have lost track of how many Ace Combat sequels there were, thrown up his hands, and decided the hell with it — I’m going with number zero! If you weren’t keeping track at home, Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War is the sixth installment in the venerable series. Not that it’s all that different from Ace Combat 5, or even the original Air Combat for the PlayStation One. (“Air” was ditched in favor of the far cooler “Ace” for the first sequel.) By now, the formula is set. Fortunately, the formula works.
HOT TIP: Ground targets are often hidden behind walls — make sure you have a clear shot or you’ll waste a missile.
What might be a slight barrier for newcomers is the control scheme. I’ve seen the game described elsewhere as a flight sim, which is a little like calling The Da Vinci Code literature, but it’s not strictly an arcade–style point-and-shoot, either. The left analog stick controls the plane’s roll, allowing for the requisite barrel rolls and loop-the-loops, and the shoulder buttons provide yaw control like you’ve never seen. At first it’s confusing — particularly in the heat of a dogfight — but the precision it affords is a cut above. Of course, you could use the alternate control scheme that works in a more traditional manner. And then you could obey the speed limit and drink light beer, wuss.
The title war — which seems neither a shout-out to the real-life Balkans conflict nor a campaign against high-quality computer cables — is set in a fictional world. The story line follows the exploits of someone in the future looking for the true story about a heroic fighter pilot who singlehandedly turned the tide of the war. The flashback angle is interesting, but in the end the voice acting and the script aren’t terribly impressive. Which is just as well, because the real meat here is the flying.
As I said, it’s hardly a sim (did you see that yaw control?), but with dozens of different jets to acquire over the course of the game, it has some of the same detail. There’s a noticeable difference in the speed, weight, and handling of each vehicle. Deciding on the right plane for each mission can take a few tries. (There’s no shame in using a walkthrough for this, no matter what anyone may tell you.) The best part is that all the planes are modeled closely on real-life jets, so though the geography is fictional, the ordinance sure isn’t.
There’s also a wingman who flies with you during most missions, and for once the computer-controlled ally is not totally useless. Although his name is Pixy, he shows more tactical awareness than a canned ham. And that’s a huge step forward for video games. At one point, I got distracted during a mission and didn’t pause and Pixy was still able to complete our objectives. Sadly, that trend couldn’t carry us through later missions. Pixy, you bastard.
SOLID BUT UNSPECTACULAR: At $40, it’s not a bad
Although the game is relatively short — 19 missions, all of which claim destroying targets as primary objectives — there are some feints at depth. Depending on your style of flying, the game will deem you a knight (virtuous protector of innocents), a soldier (middle of the road), or a mercenary (crush, kill, destroy). As is often the case with features of this type, the overall impact on gameplay is minimal. Mostly it affects the in-game dialogue. It’s also a little silly to concentrate on trying to be any of those three things when there’s a Belkan ace on your six.
Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War is solid but unspectacular. Still, if you’ve never played a game in the series, at $40 this isn’t a bad place to start. Franchise veterans may be forgiven for suffering from a little combat fatigue.