Reviewed: May 17, 2006
Released: April 25, 2006
Iíve been playing Ace Combat games since Namco started making them way back on the PS1 in the mid to late 90ís. About the only other series with this much longevity is Ridge Racer. Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War despite the ďzeroĒ is actually the sixth in the ongoing legacy of flight action combat titles. The series saw some definite leaps in quality with last yearís installment, but sadly not much has changed for this latest adventure in the skies.
Ace Combat has always been about one thing; intense aerial combat, but it wasnít until Ace Combat 4 that they managed to work in a compelling story. That tradition continued in the fifth game and continues to evolve in The Belkan War. We follow two warring (and fictitious) nations in an alternate-reality of 1995, and while the story is mildly appreciated, for most cockpit jockeys it will only serve to delay your launch. I found it no where near as captivating as last yearís narrative.
For those who have ever played an Ace Combat title, you are all probably quite familiar with the concept of flying around in circles, looping about, and feathering the throttle, all the while trying to line-up that distant enemy target just long enough to get a lock so you can fire off the traditional pair of missiles to take them down.
Things get a bit more complicated in Ace Combat Zero with multiple objectives, timed missions, land, air, and sea targets, and even some branching mission designs where you get to pick the wing, which ultimately determines the type of mission. And of course no Ace Combat game would be complete without an underground mission that has you flying through twisting passages.
Ace Combat is, and always has been about flying and Ace Combat Zero delivers dozens of licensed planes and several unique special weapons for each, all available for purchase of course, to help you in your quest to dominate the unfriendly skies. Early in the game you are assigned planes but later you will be able to purchase additional craft as you earn money and unlock new models. You will also be responsible assigning weapons for yourself and your wingman.
There is a new Ace Style ranking system in place that tracks your kills and how well you protect any friendly allies. Obviously, you must destroy all red targets to complete the mission, but you can earn bonus points for killing yellow targets, and even the easier green targets will add slightly to your total. You also get bonus points for completing the mission quickly as well as landing, takeoff, and refueling bonuses.
After each mission you are ranked on a sliding scale ranging from Knight, to Soldier, or Mercenary. As your Ace Style slowly evolves over the course of the game the story and some of the communications will shift to fit with your chosen style of play. Itís all pretty superficial, but itís a nice try to tailor the game for each player.
Much like last year, you have limited control over your squadron through wingmen commands. This is the same D-pad command system everyone has been using for years and gives you instant access to four commands that allow you to disperse your team, cover a target, fire at will or use their special weapon. The latter is a huge improvement and one of my only complaints about last yearís system.
While the game looks just as good as any military flight simulator the gameplay is unmistakably action-oriented. Yes, it is possible to stall your plane, and landings and take-offs are optional (but you are rewarded with extra points for doing so), but that is about the extent of the realism as far as physics and flight dynamics.
Ace Combat Zero plays extremely well with the DualShock. The left stick controls the plane while the right controls your viewpoint. The shoulder buttons control throttle and rudder, and I was most surprised to find the rudder actually came into play for once, especially in carrier landings, the canyon mission, and the underground facility.
The triangle selects targets and is also pressure sensitive to zoom in on the selected target. This is about the only way to see what you are shooting in Ace Combat. The square button toggles between radar and map and is also pressure sensitive allowing you to zoom the map. The X button fires your cannon while the circle shoots the currently selected missile or special weapon. Itís all fairly standard stuff for any veteran of the series.
The R3 allows you to cycle through three views, all of which are extremely pretty and playable. The chase view gives the game a definitely arcade flavor allowing you to see your plane and all of the fully functional control surfaces. The HUD view is probably the most traditional view and puts you on the nose of the plane with the HUD overlaid on the screen. This definitely gives you the best view of the action. The final view is a cockpit perspective that totally immerses you in the experience. Itís also a bit restrictive in a realistic and possibly claustrophobic way.
As far as difficulty, there were only about three missions that actually tripped me up and nearly all of them involved racing the ďclockĒ. You have to race around a map killing 20,000 points worth of enemies in 20-minutes, but you will easily have to refuel and rearm at least twice, probably three times depending on your plane.
There are other trial-by-error missions where you learn by dying. Once such mission has you flying through a canyon littered with gun emplacements. The first few times I tried to kill them as I went, but later I realize it was easier to just blow past them at Mach 2 to get to the dam at the end of the level, which was itís own challenge entirely.
Some missions are quite lengthy and there are no checkpoints between key events, so in the case of the mission mentioned above, if I died at the dam I would have to replay the canyon run each time, which is a good 2-3 minutes sequence if you arenít laying on the afterburners. Additionally, and without warning, when you near the end of the game you are stuck with the plane you chose for one mission, for the next several, and what works for one doesnít necessarily work for the others. Knowing this in advance can help your plane selection.
Also new to the franchise are Aces, super pilots that can fly the wings off their plane and shoot you down without thinking about it. These guys are usually part of special squadrons that are introduced with a quick cutscene showing off their tricked-out planes before they pull in on your six and sound off all sorts of alarms.
I donít think you can make a more realistic looking flight game than Ace Combat Zero, at least on the PS2. Simply put, this is photo-realistic and the only way itís going to get more real is if you enlist in the Air Force. Using satellite imaging, you get the absolute, most authentic terrain Iíve ever seen on a console title. The screenshots donít lie. It really looks that good.
As always, the game has a definite tilt towards high-altitude combat so the illusion doesnít work as well when you drop down to the deck, but the textures still hold up and there is a lot more 3D objects like buildings, towers, trees, etc. and they are tangible objects, meaning you can hit them and crash. Twisting through canyons, skimming under bridges or swooping over snowcapped mountains or navigating a twisting river is an exhilarating experience.
The CG cutscenes are excellent, not quite as flashy as last year but they work to tell the story in an almost documentary style Normally cutscenes represent the highlight of the visuals in a game but not in Ace Combat. The real show starts when you climb into the cockpit.
The plane models are dead-on with so much detail youíll think you are watching the History Channel. Every control surface moves and affects the planeís path as it should. The same attention to detail also went into ground targets like tanks, APCís, SAMís, buildings, and just about any other 3D object that isnít part of the photo texturing.
There are real-time lighting and shadows and tons of special effects like fiery explosions, blinding EMP bursts, and wispy rocket trails. You even get the cool red-purple-blue glow from your afterburner. Weather effects are realistically modeled and include rain, snow, fog, and various levels of cloud cover that all directly affect your visibility.
The entire presentation is wrapped up nicely with excellent pre and mid-flight mission briefings that show your mission plan in 3D wireframe. This same wireframe is then used for post-mission playback and you can actually see every move you, your wingmen, and the enemy made, all laid out with color-coded ribbon trails. Of course all of the video playback modes are available so you can relive the mission from numerous angles including chase, cockpit, wingmen, flyby, and target cams.
Ace Combat Zero has that traditional techno and militaristic rock that really gets the pilot juices flowing. Itís not terrible but itís not memorable either. Youíll probably want to turn it down so you can hear the more important com chatter.
Sound effects are minimal at best, mainly the whoosh of rockets and missiles, and the odd sounding buzz of the machineguns. The explosions are good and loud if you are close enough to the blast but most of the time you are lucky to see or hear the results of a successful strike. Of course, the sound effects in the cutscenes are all topnotch and the entire package is delivered in a Dolby Pro Logic II mix.
The dialogue is excellent, both in content and delivery and this has to be one of the best localizations I have heard in years. The self-narrated story is done very well and all the major characters not only deliver they lines with total professionalism, their voices even match their character design. The briefings sound a bit hollow, like the commander is in a barrel, and the speech only comes from the rear channels.
With 20-some missions, the game keeps a tally of your time, but that doesnít include all those retries. So while my final mission save tells me I finished the game in just under four hours, I know it took me more than 16. And this time Namco has included a multiplayer component; no, not online, but at least there is a fantastic split-screen mode for two-player versus combat.
There are also plenty of unlockable items that might compel you to replay the campaign as well as some branching missions, although if you save your game just right you can go back and explore those other flight wings and their optional mission paths.
Heavy on action and ramping the difficulty to new heights, Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War is one of the best flight combat games you can play on the PS2. Itís not quite as good as last year, but that would be a tough act to follow for any developer.
Sim purists might not find everything they are looking for but for anyone just looking for an intense combat game that has you ruling the skies and dominating the ground, look no further than Ace Combat Zero. I can only wait to see what they have in store for the next generation.