Nuclear weapons, betrayal, moral choices, gigantic flying behemoths. Ace Combat The Belkan War brings all this and more to the table in a tale that I much anticipated since finishing Squadron Leader for my last retrospective. Although the campaign this time around is shorter by quite a long way, it does have much more replayability and complexity than previous Ace Combat titles.
So last time in Ace Combat Squadron Leader we were told the tale of the nations of Osea and Yuktobania being pitted against one another by the bitter Belka. The two nations were instrumental in the conclusion of the Belkan War fifteen years previously and it is that war that we are now concerned with. Particularly interesting is the fact we already know how it ends; Belka, upon losing a great deal of territory to the advancing allies, drops seven nuclear bombs on it’s own cities. Whilst this was a devastating turn of events it isn’t the whole story…
The plot of Ace Combat The Belkan War (or Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War in America) is told through the eyes of a journalist researching events of the Belkan War, in the hopes of learning about one pilot in particular. The pilot in question was a mercenary hired by the nation of Ustio (a former principality of Belka) when Belka began hostilities. The pilot was legendary and, through countless victories against impossible odds, earned the title of “Demon Lord” (you guessed it, you get to play as just that pilot).
A lot about the man is uncertain. Not a lot of records tell of his victories so the journalist travels all over the continent to meet pilots who faced him in battle. Interviews with the pilots are shown through ingame cutscenes with real-life actors (think of Command & Conquer’s FMVs back in the nineties) one of which is a pilot named Larry, who for most of the game plays the part of your wingman under the callsign “Pixy”. Tales of the Demon Lord’s battles always bring a smile to the face of the men and women he shot down, giving you the impression that he was a man worthy of either great respect or great admiration and it is your job as the player to fill those boots.
This neatly ties into the new moral choice system built into the game. During missions you will have the standard array of enemies to blast to smithereens with impressively expensive ordnance but scattered amongst SAM sites, bunkers and flak cannons there will be various objects marked in yellow. Such targets include munitions depots, barracks, civillian structures and enemy craft that, having sustained damage, are leaving the battlefield. These targets are entirely optional and up to your discretion to destroy or spare, herein lies the morality system.
Destroying these hapless marks will decrease your moral standing and earn you the title “mercenary” whereas sparing them increases it and rewards you the title of “knight” (you can also do a little of both for the “soldier” moniker if you’re feeling vanilla). Upon choosing your path of morality, the missions available to you will change, as well as the attitudes of enemy aces (whether they approve of your methods or not seems a tad inconsequential as you’re gonna blow them up either way). I have to say that you really do have to work hard to earn the knight rating as Namco have cleverly placed many neutral targets in clusters of enemy units so your usual strategy of bombing everything wont always work.
Like every Ace Combat game there is an undertone to The Belkan War of deceit and conspiracy and surely enough, when I reached the point in the game that saw the infamous nukes go off I was shocked to find that as I was struggling to keep my craft airborne following a huge shockwave my wingman opened fire on me. Just as the war seemed over, Pixy revealed that he and a group of radical extremists from all nations involved in the conflict had planned on using stolen military hardware to destroy both the Belkans and the Allies in order to rid the world of all borders.
It was their view that nations will naturally disagree with eachother and wage war, killing their peoples in the process. Should all nations be abolished (say, by the use of weapons of mass destruction) then all people would be free from conflict and political strife. The group therefore decided upon the name of “A World Without Borders”. Whilst their message may have been pure, their methods are insane and Cipher, the Demon King, takes it upon himself to put an end to them.
Just as both sides of the conflict had become fatigued by an ongoing battle, a new, more dangerous threat had appeared with a secret stockpile of uber-weapons, ten times the size of a nuclear bomb, aptly named “V2″ (after the ballistic missiles Germany used during the Second World War). Whilst I admit this was a familiar escalation for the plot of an Ace Combat title, it was somewhat pronounced with the betrayal of my wingman, the only comrade I had through every mission in the campaign up to that point.
At a paltry 18 missions, the campaign of The Belkan War is markedly shorter than that of Squadron Leader, however as the morality system changes which missions are available, coupled with the ability to choose certain theatres of war in some missions (you can pick ground attack, dogfighting or a mixture in some sorties) you are very much encouraged to play through the campaign multiple times in order to see the whole game. I admit this isn’t for everyone as repeating missions is a bit of a chore, but the ability to carry over all unlocked aircraft and special weapons does smooth things slightly.
I must give special mention to the soundtrack this time around. The Ace Combat titles have always had a great affinity in matching audio to the tones of each mission. From rocking guitar riffs to techno trances, Namco have done a fantastic job of keeping the adrenaline pumping and even bringing a tear to your eye during emotional moments. It was during the fiercest battle in the game, the final dogfight with Pixy, that a charismatic and shockingly hispanic acoustic guitar track struck in. A first in the series, it gave an entirely unexpected twist to a tense moment and really stuck in my head as noteworthy. It conveyed a sense of passion and gemütlichkeit that seemed quite alien as I streaked across the sundrenched skies (sorry, got a bit poetic there). It’s well worth experiencing, search online for the “Mission 18/ zero” background music and check it out!
Wrapping up, Ace Combat The Belkan War tells the tale of one mysterious kick-ass pilot that chases down planes the size of a football field, spares (or punishes) the innocent, survives a nuclear blast and an assassination attempt and still comes out on top. It’s short but sweet, has a fantastic soundtrack, oodles of replayability and wraps up one of the PS2′s best gaming trilogies. C’mon Namco, this one’s screaming HD remake!
Ace Combat The Belkan War is available online for under a fiver, not bad for a title that ticks so many boxes.
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