The sky awaits...
Finding a decent flying game for a console is pretty damn hard. Mainly as flying games themselves are a pretty rare occurence. I can name only a handful for the PS2, one for the Xbox and not a single one for the Gamecube.
Fortunately, there is one particular series you can count on to bring the sheer thrill of aerial combat to the consoles, and that is the Ace Combat series. Although getting on in years (the first game in the series was one of the launch titles for the original PlayStation, or was launched sometime soon afterwards), the Ace Combat series has always delivered fun at high altitudes. With Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, known in some territories simply as Ace Combat: The Belkan War, the developers Bandai Namco have truly made this one of the best game series available on the console to date.
The storyline is pretty straightforward. Taking place 15 years before the events of the previous game (Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, otherwise known as Ace Combat: Squadron Leader), the game follows the events of the great Belkan War. Flying as the Ustio mercenary Cipher, you are given mission after mission, blowing up planes, boats and ground targets along the way.
Strangely enough, the missions aren't so straightforward. During the missions, you'll notice some yellow targets on your HUD. These are 'targets of opportunity', which can alter your future missions. You see, by destroying/sparing these targets, you alter your Ace style gauge. The gauge has 6 settings: Supreme Merc, Merc, Supreme Soldier, Soldier, Supreme Knight and Knight. Destroying these yellow targets will move the meter towards the Merc side, while consistently destroying them will further boost the meter towards Supreme Merc. Sparing these will move the meter towards the Knight side, with extreme counts of this leading to becoming a Supreme Knight. Having a balance of destroyed/spared yellow targets will not move the meter much, instead leaving it in the centre where the Soldier and Supreme Soldier styles are. Although you are not told where the Supreme rankings are, it is pretty obvious that Supreme Mercs and Supreme Knights are at the ends of the gauge, while Supreme Soldier is right in the centre.
The rating you have in this gauge determines both in-game conversations between AI characters and which enemy squadrons you fight. For example, having a Merc rating at the start of mission 3 will cause Rot squadron to attack you, while a Knight rating causes Indigo squadron to arrive. You also get a medal depending on which rating you have at the end of the game's 18 mission storyline, with a Supreme medal handed out to those who achieved the Supreme rankings.
Not that you'll be alone trying to get those rankings. During most missions, you'll have a wingman to fight alongside you. The method of giving orders to your wingman is the same as it was in the last game, but has been refined so that you can still tell them to freely engage the enemy, but also restrict them to only engaging air or ground targets. This means that you can order your wingman to take out the enemy air forces while you mop up the anti-air defences on the ground, or vice-versa. Quite a nifty trick, actually.
The enemy also has some tricks of their own now. Although the AI is far from perfect, they've gotten a bit smarter since the last game, enough so that on Ace difficulty, you'll have your work cut out for you. Enemy squadrons will now use their aircraft in ways suited to those aircraft, instead of a standard attack. Some enemies will even use their special weapons against you!
Speaking of special weapons, Bandai Namco have re-added the long-lost feature from Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies, otherwise known as Ace Combat: Distant Thunder, which allows you to buy different special weapons for your aircraft. Each aircraft has 3 special weapons, with one provided with the aircraft upon purchasing it. Only by purchasing the aircraft can you buy the special weapons for it, though. These special weapons can vary from XMAA's (multi-lock anti-air missiles that can be fired in groups of 4, unlike regular missiles that can only be fired in pairs or singularly.), to napalm bombs and jamming devices. Unfortunately, each aircraft seems to have it's own variation of special weapons, so buying the large bombs for the A-10A won't mean you can use them on that F-15E. Another strange thing is that you have to buy your own special weapons and aircraft, but your wingman has only one aircraft they like to fly (which changes when your wingman does), and have all 3 special weapons for it already bought. So, you can't use your wingman's UGBLs on your own plane, even if they're the same model.
Something that I found particularly interesting is that the game makes itself easier for fans of the series. If a save is detected for AC04 from the same zone as AC:TBW, the conditions for unlocking the super-plane from AC04, the X-02 Wyvern, are dramatically reduced. The same thing occurs with an AC5 save and the conditions for unlocking the ADF-01 Falken.
Another feature returning from AC04 is the ability to plug in a second controller and dogfight with a friend. Although I am yet to try this feature (no-one around here is willing to challenge my mastery of the skies), it is a welcome change from the solo-flights of The Unsung War (Squadron Leader).
But really, that's where the game starts to falter a bit. Although there is one or two new features, it's really the same old Ace Combat you've been playing for the past 11 years. The series really needs something new to bolster it's already impressive arsenal. Heck, the graphics and sound aren't that much different than the last installment! (although, they're still kick-ass good)
But still, this is one fine example of a flying game, one of the best to be found on the console market. Sure, there isn't that many to compete against it, but that doesn't make it any less of a game. I insist that anyone who is a virtual adrenaline junkie should buy this game. You won't be let down, except in a ball of flames when you get shot down. Not 'if', 'when'. When you get to 'Ace' difficulty, then you'll understand.