Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War Updated Impressions

We get a deeper look at Namco's sixth entry in its high-flying air-combat franchise.

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The last time we got a look at Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, in December, we got a brief taste of what to expect from a simple two-level demo. The game is the sixth entry in the Japanese developer's acclaimed Ace Combat series, which stands as one of the few successful air-sim franchises on consoles. Our latest look at the game afforded us a better look at what it has to offer. The updated version we checked out clued us in on some of the unique storytelling elements that are being used to tell a tale set during the great war referenced in Ace Combat 5.

You'll find two basic gameplay modes in the game, campaign and versus. Campaign will follow you through a series of missions that take place during the war, while versus will let you take a friend on in a number of different split-screen game types. Though the campaign mode will follow the same basic structure we've seen in the previous games in the series, it will feature a unique storytelling technique that's a novel touch. The cinematics in the game that tell its story will unfold in a series of live-action, documentary-style "interviews" with assorted characters recalling their experiences in the war. These recollections will inevitably touch on their memories of a great pilot, which is you.

Make sure you take off with the right equipment.
Make sure you take off with the right equipment.

Our demo of the game showed off two levels we hadn't seen yet, which made it clear the inventive approach taken by the dev team in the previous games is alive and well. The two levels played off of each other, with the first one we saw, mission eight, setting up the action in the next demo, mission nine. The mission-eight demo starts simply enough--you're tasked to deal with enemy forces--but quickly gets hairy as you discover the enemy has a superweapon. Unfortunately, this discovery isn't made through stealthy investigation, but through first-hand experience, as you'll have to deal with said weapon trying to blast you out of the sky. This segues naturally, although a bit stressfully, to mission nine, which finds you leading a squad to take out the weapon, an imposing tower mounted with a death-star-style superlaser, surrounded by enough weaponry to make your life more than a little difficult. While the uberpowerful beam is deadly, keeping your eye on your radar and noting the beam's firing arc will tip you off as to when it's going to fire. You'll have a bit of time to maneuver your butt out of there and avoid damage, if you're fast. In the last level we checked out, mission three, we were able to get our hands on the controller and see how the game's handling has changed. The mission was a considerably more mellow experience and had us facing off against your garden-variety enemies as well as a rival ace and his squad.

The versus mode is a split-screen, two-player mode that lets you engage in different types of competitions with a friend. You'll be able to engage in everything from dogfights to capture-the-flag-style duels, among others. We tried a dogfight, which is a basic duel set in the locale of your choice. The flag match charges you with being the first to hit a randomly appearing flag on the map.

In addition to the proper gameplay modes, you'll find a host of unlockable content that will open up based on the rankings you earn as you play through levels. You'll eventually be able to review everything you unlock in a gallery area that keeps track of your records and the content you open up. Opening up assorted unlockables, such as modes and plane gear, will be a little easier now, thanks to a feature that lets you pop into any mission you've cleared and try to play for a different rank. A handy grid will show the content and clue you in on how to open the stuff you haven't cracked yet.

The gameplay was along the lines of what we experienced when we played the demo, and it had a good, polished feel that was in line with the previous games. Hardcore purists will note that there are two button differences: The select button is now used for calling up special weapons on your craft, and the square button enlarges your onscreen radar, but they work out fine. You'll even be able to adjust them if you're using the flight stick controller with the game.

Zero's aircraft are the most detailed to grace the series yet.
Zero's aircraft are the most detailed to grace the series yet.

The game's presentation showed off some polish since we last saw it running. The visuals are clean and detailed where they need to be. As always, the franchise hallmarks of speed and scale are on display to good effect. The different environments we saw in our demos showed off a decent amount of variety, especially considering that your options are limited for games in this genre. Special effects were smartly used and complemented the action. The audio is a lynchpin when it comes to selling you on the experience. You'll hear the convincing roar of your engines and weaponfire during battle and, more importantly, a plethora of dynamic radio chatter that reflects not only what's going on in the game, but how you're doing as well. The live-action cinematics feature some borderline audio that isn't too distracting

Based on our updated look, Ace Combat Zero is shaping up to be a strong entry in the series that is being packed chock-full of meaty content. The core game has improved on the experience it offers, and the additional unlockable content and versus mode encourage you to come back for more. If you're a fan of the series you will certainly want to check the game out. Newcomers to the Ace series should be warned: It's not a pick-up-and-play kind of game, but with a little perseverance and liberal use of an arcade-control setting, you'll find there's a lot of fun to be had.

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