Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War Review
Ace Combat has always been one of the most under-appreciated franchises out there. Despite consistent and relatively glowing praise from the critics, the series somehow flies low under the radar (pun intended), usually experiencing less than stellar sales numbers. In this way, the latest installment, Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, is no different from its predecessors.
The flight genre in video games normally doesn't draw massive popularity, primarily because it's almost a lose-lose situation for the ailing category: if the game is strictly arcade-style, it will generally lose out to other "arcade-y" titles in the more mainstream genres, like racing and sports. On the other hand, if it's a strict simulator, the gamer had better be a serious flying nut, or the game will hold zero appeal. However, Ace Combat has always enjoyed moderate success, and this is probably because it's a flying hybrid (of sorts).
One of the most impressive features of the game is the visual presentation. The textures are sharp and refined, and the detailing of the world map below you is extremely well done. The planes themselves are also well depicted and in general, it's actually one of the prettier graphical displays on the PS2. This shouldn't be too surprising for fans of the franchise, but even so, it's certainly a very large plus. Combine this sweet visual palette with silky smooth animation, and you've got one fine technical achievement.
The sound isn't quite as spectacular, though, as there's a great deal of repetition in the video chatter and not a great deal of variety in the soundtrack. When you're inolved in an intense dog-fight, you'd expect to get an influx of hard-hitting tracks, but they're rarely in-your-face enough. The rest is pretty high-quality, though, with plenty of nicely orchestrated classic pieces melding nicely with the thundering missile impacts.
As mentioned before, Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War is a cross between arcade-style and simulation. This has always given a great deal of appeal to the franchise, and the gameplay continues to deliver a solid and ultimately entertaining experience. You'll be able to choose between four difficulty levels and even two control types: Normal, where you are responsible for pitch and yaw during a roll, and Novice, where that is automatically calibrated. And the controls themselves are pretty darn straightforward, even though they respond in a realistic manner.
Once you get a handle on speed, banking, targeting, and timing, you're ready to embark on a fun and expansive campaign. The campaign itself consists of a surprisingly decent story, numerous and diverse missions, and a steady supply of high-flying action. You'll be duking it out with other aces of the sky, closing in on ground targets, and assisting your flight comrades in various objectives. From tracking down bombers to pulling off Top Gun-esque maneuvers when outnumbered four-to-one, the action is non-stop and satisfying.
The only real problem revolves around a lack of innovation in the typical Ace Combat gameplay foundation. See, it's always good, but at the same time, it's always pretty darn similar. There have been quite a few installments over the past few years, and they all have very much the same feel. Furthermore, the same traits are pretty evident: enemies tend to only uses evasive action when they're close; if you're firing at them from maximum range, they kinda just fly along and get nailed.
And in terms of combat core, provided you understand how to adjust speed and you've got your timing down for missile and other special weapon fire, you're basically good to go. Although it's not a straight simulator, not ever having to worry about blacking out, any adjustments outside of altitude and speed, or fuel, makes the game quite repetitive. Sure, the difficulty increases steadily as you go, but you really don't have to learn anything new after the first hour.
Still, the overall formula ultimately succeeds. And you've got a healthy campaign mode, two-player battle, better-than-average ally AI, and a thrill of nailing a target that never diminishes. The game also features a slew of upgrades; you can use your hard-earned cash to purchase new special weapons and even new fighter jets, each with their own apparent strengths and weaknesses. Throw in that passable storyline, a great deal of variety in each mission, and an amazingly smooth flying experience, and you've got a very good overall game.
Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War doesn't exactly redefine the franchise or even add anything too significant to its tried-and-true formula...but that doesn't stop the formula from being tried and true. It got a few noticeable errors, especially when it comes to repetitive gampelay, no drastic enhancements, and erratic enemy AI. But it's extraordinarily pretty, the controls are nearly flawless and quite accessible, and the fun factor remains high throughout. All in all, it's well worth your time.
10/11/2006 Ben Dutka