I don't know about you, but for me, the fantasy of being a fighter pilot is right up there on my "dream job" list. Of course, I know the reality is a difficult and dangerous one for real-world aces, especially given the hostile, uncertain days in which we live. But ever since Tom Cruise lit the afterburners in Top Gun, well, the idea of life as a fighter jock has seemed pretty cool.
That's probably why Namco's Ace Combat franchise is still going strong 11 years after its debut. It offers would-be flyboys like me the chance to climb into a virtual cockpit and toggle up all manner of advanced weaponry. Spanning both PlayStation platforms, this popular series has enjoyed air superiority as the combat flight simulator of choice. With the arrival of Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War (the sixth title), it's time to don the gravity suit once again and pull some serious g's in the name of freedom.
A (Virtual) World at War
The Belkan War launches pilots into the skies above the fictitious country of Belka, circa 1995. And the narrative backdrop for the game's warfare is as complex as any international conflict grabbing headlines today.
The story revolves around the aggressive action of the strong yet struggling nation that has invaded its neighbor, the Ustio Republic, in a bid to plunder that country's resources. Swooping in to liberate Ustio are the Allied nations Osea, Yuktobania and Sapin. This backdrop convincingly amalgamates elements of World War II, the Cold War and the Balkan conflict of the mid-'90s. The result is a world at war that seems quite authentic, even if the map and country names themselves are unfamiliar.
In the Cockpit
As the mercenary pilot Cipher flying for the Allied forces, however, I was more interested in getting radar lock on my next target than those overarching geopolitical complexities. My job as a pilot, after all, was simple: Stop the Belkans in the air and on the ground.
Easy targets, such as B-52s in the first mission, acclimated me to my jet's basic controls (the stick, pitch and yaw controls, short- and long-range radar, weapons selector, gun sight, afterburners and airbrakes). I'd never played a game in this series before, so it took me a few minutes to get the hang of how these systems work together. But once I got my "wings," it was time to hunt bandits.
Strafing runs on ground targets require nailing enemy installments with guns, missiles and bombs. Aerial dogfights—the heart of Ace Combat's action—demand considerably more skill. And learning how to outmaneuver enemy aces long enough to take clear shots at them is very satisfying. One of my favorite tactics involves letting an enemy close in behind me, then jamming the airbrakes and watching him scream past—straight into the path of my air-to-air missiles.
Almost as gratifying is the gradual accumulation of increasingly advanced weaponry. Plane selection is initially limited, but completing each level yields credits to upgrade your aerial arsenal. As I progressed, advanced fighters such as Saab's Grippen, Dassault's Mirage 2000D and Lockheed-Martin's advanced F-22A Raptor awaited my command.
Swearing Like a ... Pilot?
Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, then, offers a stunningly realistic simulation of modern jet-fighter combat. One area of realism I could do without, however, is its characters' profanity. Throughout the game, radio chatter between Allied commanders and other pilots inform gamers of the campaign's overall progress. Apparently, the designers thought dialogue would feel more "authentic" with salty phrases such as, "Get your a--es in gear, people!" tossed in every few minutes. (Other mild vulgarities include the words "h---," "d--n" and "bastards.") Equally "realistic" was occasional banter between pilots talking about drinking and gambling—which seemed equally unneeded.
By today's gaming standards, it's tempting to dismiss these content concerns as "no big deal"—especially when so many other video games have more significant problems. After all, boys will be boys, right? But ignoring these problems, I think, sends the wrong message, that hard work and risk-taking entitle us to say and do whatever we want. That message is a disappointing and unnecessary spoiler in a game that otherwise offers intense combat action for virtual Top Gun wannabes.