Genre: Flight Simulator
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
Release Date: April 25, 2006
Why is it that flight simulators are all but dead, and yet Namco keeps churning out Ace Combat titles year after year? I guess they didn't get that e-mail. That's fine by me because I can always go for a good flight sim. Namco's Ace Combat franchise has been a long-running series focused all around aerial combat, which seems to be out of place on a console with only a gamepad, but Namco has created a formula to make it work. Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan Wars is the latest incarnation of this series in what could be compared to Koei's Dynasty Warriors franchise with wings. The action is fast and encompassing, and ACZ delivers the most compelling flight sim action on a console.
The story, as with any Zero title, is a prequel that goes back 15 years before the last Ace Combat game. The Belkan War has yet to start, and the story is that of a person trying to find out about a specific mercenary fighter pilot by the name of – don't laugh – Pixy Wing Solo. Pixy has since slipped through the cracks of history, but his achievements during the war and his motivations give him a very romantic and transcendent feel. The story is told between missions through full motion video sequences and voiceovers. The cinematic scenes aren't bad, and the dialogue is a little cheesy but it could've been much more melodramatic. If you can get over the concept that a single man really matters in the grand scheme of a war, then you'll enjoy the narrative as much as I did.
Framing these cinematic pieces are some really fun and varied missions. You begin the game with access to three low-end fighter jets. One excels at air-to-air, another air-to-ground, and a third is a pretty solid compromise between the two. If you're a history buff and are into planes, you'll recognize every type you come across, which is neat. I've always found these games more compelling when I know what I'm flying is a real plane, even if it's in a fictitious universe or war. The plane models are solid, and they come in different colors depending on when and what you unlock. As you defeat new opponents, their planes become available to purchase. The first such plane is the F/A-18, which is a marked improvement over your initial trio of fighters, and you can further upgrade your fighters with special weapons that will allow your planes to be more effective against surface ships, bombers, fighters, etc. The fighter selection isn't just limited to traditional NATO fare, either. You'll get to fly MiGs and Sukhois, as well as the nasty Euro Fighter 2000.
The Ace Combat series has long set the benchmark for console-based flight simulators. While this may be a dubious honor in light of the dearth of flight sim games for consoles, it doesn't mean that Ace Combat isn't fun to fly. The flight modeling and physics are greatly simplified, but by no means an arcade mode. You have control over yaw, pitch, bank and speed, but you don't have to worry about things like fuel (at the easier levels, at least), and your weapons are strengthened in terms of their abilities and ammunition count. You can fly in first-person mode with a cockpit frame, straight first-person view with no frame, or from the third-person perspective. I found the cockpit view to be the most gratifying, but all three views work equally well. Targeting is simple, and you can switch between ground and air mode for your radar by simply selecting a new target. There is also a bore-sight feature, which lets you target whatever is directly in front of you, which is nice.
The whole point of the game is to fly missions and accrue wealth so that you can buy new planes and upgrade weapons or buy new color schemes. I would like to see more modifications available, such as FLIR pods or ECM devices. While it would detract from the realism, being able to modify your planes a la Grand Tourismo or even Need for Speed: Most Wanted would be fun. In any event, the planes are modeled exceptionally well. The control surfaces reflect the maneuvers you are making and each model accurately reflects the plane down to the rivets in the textures. For a PS2 game, ACZ's engine performs very well. Draw distance is far, there isn't much texture tearing or aliasing that gnaws on your eyes. There is some haze used to hide the system's limitations, but overall the game performs very well and looks very good. While most of the action takes place far away and up-close the ground can look rather bland, ACZ looks the part and gets the job done albeit without setting the world on fire.
Overall, ACZ is a fun game and a new diversion for those who are new to the series. If you're a veteran Ace Combat fan, you'll get what you want and expect, but if you've never played the series, then ACZ is a great introduction to the franchise. You can watch your missions replayed after the action is over, from either a real-time 3D view with variable cameras, or a tactical view, which gives you a more encompassing view of what happened. The latter view is a nice way to critique yourself and to see what you did and how you can do it better.
After the mission replay – which you can skip, if you wish – you're given a report on your performance, and you can check out your style of piloting: Soldier, Mercenary or Knight. Soldiers stick to the game plan, while Mercenaries search out everything to destroy for monetary gain, and Knights take on missions from a "fair" standpoint. It is never made clear why or how you can switch your style, but certain actions affect your rating, and the slide bar tells you where you fit in. This is a new feature I'd like to see developed further to change the way the game unfolds. For instance, if you're a Knight, maybe you can eject over enemy territory and be returned to your base without being held captive. Along a similar vein, perhaps a Soldier can get cheaper upgrades, and a Mercenary may have a bounty on his head and come up against more enemies, but will attain higher rewards for accomplishing missions. The pilot style gauge doesn't seem fully fleshed out and is a little more than ambiguous, but it certainly doesn't detract from the game.
Overall, Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan Wars is a good title that is fun and relatively easy to pick up and play but also offers a good challenge. The storyline is maudlin at times, but it is told in better fashion than most games. The semi-realism used in the overall design works and gives ACZ its own distinct style and feel. I'd recommend it to anyone of any age group, especially for gamers looking for something new to try out.
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