Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War is the latest entry in Namco's Ace Combat series. Although the game is officially the sixth in the series, it's actually a prequel, set during the war referenced in Ace 5. Though you won't see any familiar characters in this one, you'll definitely zip around familiar territory. Namco dropped by with a work-in-progress version of the game, which featured two demo levels to give us a sense of what to expect.
The game will offer a mix of old and new elements, for an experience that feels like classic Ace Combat. The core Ace mechanics, wingmen, and dogfighting are all back, but you will also see the return of some features that were absent in Ace 5. You'll be able to select special weapons for your planes again--a feature last seen in Ace 4--which comes in handy during battles. The wingman system affords you more options and lets you direct your fighters to attack air and ground targets. A new ranking system will evaluate your performance during a mission.
This time out, you'll actually have a number of choices over the course of a mission. For example, you'll typically have three options while playing a mission. You can choose to tear through it and complete your objectives, take on enemy craft, or assist your wingmen. Depending on which approach you take, you'll be rated a mercenary, soldier, or knight. Mercenaries focus on their objectives; soldiers take on enemy craft; and knights look after their wingmen. The ratings will affect the mission-branching system in the game and affect the ultimate path you take.
Another new wrinkle to combat is the rival-ace system, which amounts to miniboss fights during missions that pit you against beefed-up foes who are a far cry from the cannon fodder you've been picking off. The rivals pack the same sorts of souped-up weapons you have--and the standard enemy artificial intelligence has been given some schooling, so they should be smarter this time around.
After we got the rundown on the new bits to the game, we had the chance to try out the two demo levels ourselves, and we found them to be well in line with what you'd expect from an Ace game. The handling was solid and responsive, which really helped us out after the mellow first level, when we found ourselves in a hectic air battle with swarms of foes. The second level also let us get a rival-ace encounter in, which was something else. A quick cutscene was triggered during the battle that showed off our nemesis, who happened to be rolling with three buddies. After that cinematic played, it was on--and we were swarmed by the quartet of fighters, who did their best to circle us at high speeds, making it difficult to get a missile lock.
The presentation in the game is on par with the quality seen in Ace 5. You can expect impressive visuals, a good sense of speed, and a generous helping of special effects and lighting. As far as audio goes, the game provides sharp sound effects and plenty of radio chatter, which helps set the tone for the air battles you'll find yourself in.
Based on our brief playtime, Ace Combat Zero is looking like a strong entry in the series so far. The return of special weapons and the new gameplay elements, especially the Ace Style Gauge, seem like cool additions to the game. The rivals are a tough new challenge that should be interesting, especially given that there are roughly 150 of them to take on over the game's course. Look for more on Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War in the coming months.