A good example of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War offers up largely the same brand of intense, easy-to-pick-up, beautiful-looking flight combat featured in its PlayStation 2 predecessors. More than a year has passed since Ace Combat 5, which wasn't all that different from 2002's Ace Combat 04, so Ace Combat Zero stands as a testament to the quality of the series' action as well as its presentation. However, if you've played those games, you'll get the distinct feeling that you've seen and done all this stuff before as you dogfight your way through Ace Combat Zero's bogie-infested skies. That doesn't mean you still won't have a great time with it, though.
Even the story feels familiar, though for years now the Ace Combat games have distinguished themselves by combining flight combat with fairly intricate narratives, and this installment is no exception. Presented from the perspective of a journalist looking to uncover the truth behind a certain unsung war, the game centers on a couple of mercenary fighter pilots called Pixy and Cypher. The narrator has a special interest in Pixy, who came to be known as the Demon Lord for his incomparable skill as a pilot, and the story is basically about what happens between him and Cypher. The setting is an alternate-reality war between the huge nation of Osea and the aggressive nation of Belka, which begins encroaching on its neighbors. The game touches on themes that should be familiar to fans of this series: Are there any real good guys or bad guys when it comes to war? At any rate, while the story is a little clichéd and doesn't succeed at turning Pixy and Cypher into interesting characters, it still does a lot to effectively tie together the sequence of the nearly 20 missions composing the game's single-player campaign.
To their credit, the campaign missions in Ace Combat Zero generally avoid the types of missions you've probably come to dislike. There's very little in the way of having to escort defenseless targets through swarms of foes or having to survive for prolonged periods of time to move the story forward. Instead, missions tend to throw you right into the action and challenge you to do a lot of dogfighting high in the sky while also taking out ground targets and occasional sea targets. You'll encounter a few points in the campaign in which you're invited to choose from several different missions, as though you're taking part in a larger offensive, and these essentially let you concentrate on either air-to-air or air-to-ground combat. Some missions let you leave the typically very large mission area to repair your jet and resupply your ordnance. Another slight twist to the formula is that you're ranked as either a mercenary, soldier, or knight based on how you perform in your missions, though this has little noticeable bearing on anything. In general, the missions are fast-paced, exciting, and challenging--you might catch yourself breathing a sigh of relief once you finish each one. However, if you save up for one of the better jets in the game, you can make things a whole lot easier on yourself throughout the latter half of the campaign. Overall, there's a great variety of real-world planes available, and they look authentic right down to the interiors of their cockpits. Classics like the F-15 and the A-10 are available, along with cutting-edge jets like the YF-23, and many more in between.
You need to start the mission over if you crash or get shot down, and to that end, there's often a nasty surprise waiting for you near the end of a given mission. This means you'll inevitably have to replay some of the missions a few times, though the difficulty isn't such that it gets too frustrating. Besides, the toughest parts of the missions are some of the best. For example, just when you think it's safe, you might be set upon by one of many ace squadrons from the Belkan air force, and these guys tend to be a lot more maneuverable than the average fighter craft you'll be shooting down in droves. For as much as it tries to throw some variety into the campaign, Ace Combat Zero surely is at its best when you're dogfighting with a bunch of enemy planes.
The artificial intelligence still seems susceptible to some of the same old tricks--for some reason, most planes won't try very hard to avoid your missiles when you fire away from maximum range. To make up for this, as well as the fact that you can absorb more damage than most of your enemies, the odds are stacked heavily against you. The controls are also quite simple. You have unlimited ammo for your main gun, and you don't have to worry about fuel, system malfunctions, or blacking out. You just focus on managing your speed, not crashing, getting missile lock, and choosing the most opportune time to fire. It's a simple but engaging formula, and having the option of three different perspectives (including a cockpit view and an exterior view) helps give the game a realistic look, even if it's a long way away from being a realistic simulation.
The campaign offers some replay value in that there are multiple difficulty settings, lots of different planes to choose from, and those occasional multiple-choice missions. Also, you can unlock some medals based on particular accomplishments. Beyond that, Ace Combat Zero offers a basic two-player mode, containing a handful of different scenarios ranging from pure dogfighting to an air race. But the absence of online play stands out as a noticeable omission. You can't help but wonder what this game would be like if all the planes in any given mission were piloted by real people, rather than the game's competent but unremarkable AI. As it is, the addition of some form of multiplayer is still welcomed, and the mission variety should keep you busy for a while if you've got a friend to play with.
While it may be lacking in originality and long-term lasting value, Ace Combat Zero maintains the fast, fun action and silky smooth look and feel of its predecessors. An appropriately tense musical score, plenty of radio chatter, and spectacular explosions highlight the game's slick presentation and make for what's still a technically impressive PS2 game, despite its many similarities to previous installments. So as long as you're not expecting something substantially different or better than what Ace Combat has done in the past, you'll find more quality jet-on-jet violence in this one.