There is a trend in game series: One successful game is released, and that prompts a sequel. Whether or not the sequel is any good isn't important. What is important is that as soon as a game and its sequel sell well, the developers instantly take that as an opportunity to release dozens of new installments, each less original than the last. The problem with these new "Franchise-in-a-Box" series is that the more they sell, the less the new products are changed. It happened with "Dynasty Warriors" and with "Pokemon," and it was happening with "Ace Combat." Fortunately, "Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War" shows a faint glimmer of fundamental change.
The gameplay is largely unchanged. It has always been solid; there's a reason "Ace Combat" is the No. 1 fighter-pilot game series. The improvement comes in the presentation. The cutscenes are live action, and well-acted at that. The game also allows for moral choices now. When you're in a tight situation, you can decide to do what's right and defeat your enemies while avoiding civilian casualties, or simply take the easy way out and destroy everything in sight. When you neutralize an enemy fighter jet, you can choose to let it escape or shoot it down and get extra points. If an allied soldier is in trouble, you don't have to lift a finger to save him, but he'll be grateful if you do. All of these choices affect cutscenes, rivals you face in the game and the way you are regarded by the world.
The premise of the game is that a historian in modern times seeks information on a mythical fighter pilot, the "Demon Lord" from the Belkan War, which ended 10 years ago. He visits several men who fought with this pilot, and between the missions, when you relive the battles as the Demon Lord, you watch the historian's interviews with the pilots. They talk about your character, and what he did. What these people say is based on what you do, and how you fight. In this way, you rewrite history.
The handling is superb, of course. The controls have a steep but short learning curve, so once you learn to evade and roll without crashing into the ground, you'll be having loads of fun. The environments are beautiful, especially the seamless landscapes, and the attention to detail on the planes is commendable.
One of the great things about the "Ace Combat" series, especially this installment, is the intensity. Sure, that's not a difficult thing to pull off in a fighter-pilot game, but your radio picks up all transmissions so that you hear reports about missiles flying every which way, the screams of defeated soldiers, and reports from all over the battlefield. It actually becomes important to learn how to focus on what's vital to the mission, or you could miss out on information you need.
The sound is mind-blowing. The actors play their roles perfectly, the sounds of battle are severe and realistic, and the music is first-rate. I have several of the songs on my computer, and when music is good enough to listen to outside the game, you know it's good.
All in all, "Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War" is a game you need to play. Even if you aren't a fan of the genre, the sheer effort put into making the game is evident in every aspect. In a world of shallow commercial projects and half-baked ideas, that's refreshing.
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