For the fans of the Ace Combat series, it's best that the game doesn't change radically from one edition to the next. Any actual game play tweaks are buried inside changes made elsewhere in the game, and it's hard to find fault in this approach. It's been successful for years, and that's a streak that The Belkan War continues.
The series started back on the PS1, and the meager number of changes to its flight mechanics is a sign of how incredible those games were. The arcade stylings of countless equipped missiles, unlimited machine gun rounds, rapid turning, and insanely accurate tracking missiles are what make this series accessible. Very few missions have ever required paying attention to ammo counts or what you're shooting. However, that's the change Ace Combat Zero brings with it.
Inserting an "ace" system into the game, Namco makes players think before they shoot. If you're uncaring, by blasting non-enemies though still threatening targets, your co-pilots respond. If you take down helpless or disarmed foes, it drops further. Aim only for chosen targets, and you rise to the status of a hero.
Sadly, the only change this makes is to the story. You're never actually punished, reprimanded, or docked funds (for buying new planes and weapons) for going off track. The FMV cinematics occasionally bring back ugly thoughts of Sega CD gaming, but it's interesting to replay some missions to see how (if) they'll change based on your action. Co-pilot chatter also reflects your style during combat.
As with the majority of the Ace Combat games, missions vary from blatantly easy to frustratingly impossible. There's an extra focus on ground assaults this time around, and you have the added benefit of choosing your method of assault during your briefing for certain missions. It's a way to add some needed replay value, especially since there's a total lack of online play. This is a series made for multi-player dogfights, and we're still waiting.
The Belkan War is also showing the franchises age in the graphics department. Normally it's only a small problem, but with the extra focus on ground assaults, the flat, blurry texture that lies under the air-based game play stick out excessively. Looking down from a high altitude is fine, especially with some expansive mountain ranges or tall buildings. It's too hard to ignore when you're flying a few hundred feet up and parallel to the ground below.
As if on target with an easy shot, Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War doesn't offer surprises, special features, or anything else new. It's a guaranteed hit because the previous games were so powerful in all the right places. For all the years of plane-blasting fun we've had though, it's forgivable that nothings changed, and fans will be right at home.
(**** out of *****)