Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War (エースコンバット・ゼロ ザ・ベルカン・ウォー Ēsu Konbatto Zero Za Berukan Wō) is the 9th Ace Combat game, and acts as a prequel to Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. The single-player campaign follows the story of a legendary mercenary ace, "Cipher", and his impact on both the outcome of the Belkan War and the lives of the enemy aces he defeated in combat. The story is told in retrospect via narration of an Osean journalist, named Brett Thompson, and a series of his interviews with Belkan War veterans, in particular with Cipher's former wingman Larry "Pixy" Foulke.
The Belkan War features more named enemy aces (most of them members of the legendary Belkan Air Force) than all other Ace Combat games to date combined; consequently, dogfights against small squadrons of highly-skilled AI pilots play a much larger role in this game than in others. It is also the only installment to date to feature the Ace Style system, which determines the course of the story according to the player's conduct on the battlefield.
Typical of the Ace Combat series, most of the game takes place in the air, seen from the cockpit of Cipher's plane. With the default controls, players steer their plane with the PS2 controller's left analog stick and aim the camera with the right analog stick, with the arrow buttons used for interaction with the wingman. The player can choose between three different control schemes: either Zero-specific, or based off Ace Combat 5 ("ACE5 A" and "ACE5 B"). The new Boresight System allows the player to select their lock-on targets manually with a thumbstick instead of cycling through bogeys and ground targets.
Unlike Ace Combat 04 and 5, Zero does not feature a gameplay tutorial explaining the flying basics, so the player has to be already familiar with the controls (e.g. from earlier games) before starting the game.
- Main article: Ace Style
The central feature of the game is a dualistic moral alignment system based on the player's treatment of neutral targets. Unlike the previous games in the series, Zero features non-hostile destructible "yellow targets" (called so because they are highlighted yellow on the radar). These targets are either civilian ground facilities or previously hostile planes that took critical damage and attempt to escape the battle airspace. Yellow targets are harmless and are not required to destroy in order to complete the mission, so neither the wingman, nor allied planes will target them. However, since destroying yellow targets brings additional credits, the player is given the option to shoot them at their discretion.
Whether the player kills or spares the yellow targets determines their Ace Style, represented by a gauge in their mission debriefing screen. The effect is cumulative but neutral yellow targets only appear up until mission 14, after which only the rare yellow aircraft can be used to slightly alter the Ace Style gauge. There are three ace styles in the game:
- Mercenary Ace. This style emphasizes destroying as many hostile and neutral targets as possible, which brings most credits but results in encounters with the toughest enemy aces.
- Soldier Ace. This style strikes balance between indiscriminate destruction and avoiding unnecessary damage, earning less credits but facing easier enemies.
- Knight Ace. This style emphasizes minimizing collateral damage (even from high-spread bombs). While the Knight Aces receive the least credits, they also face the least aggressive enemies.
The ace style mainly determines which enemy ace squadrons (see Characters) the player faces in the next level. As a result, it also affects which planes are unlocked upon completing each mission (see Aircraft) and which characters Brett Thompson interviews in the framing story, creating a degree of non-linearity in the game. Last but not least, Cipher's battle record determines the in-game dialogue between allies and enemies, making Cipher either feared (Soldier), revered (Knight), or viewed with disdain (Mercenary).
- Main article: Wingman Command
Like in Ace Combat 5, the player is the flight lead and can give orders to their wingman with the arrow buttons. Unlike in AC5, where the player had to call up the Wingman Command menu before giving orders, in ACZ, the corresponding order takes effect immediately after an arrow button has been pressed, reducing the wingman reaction time but requiring the player to know the commands by heart. There are four possible commands:
- Attack concentrates wingman's fire on the targets being currently pursued by Cipher.
- Disperse lets the wingman choose his own targets. Repeated selection of the Disperse order additionally specifies whether the wingman should only engage air, ground units, or both.
- Cover recalls the wingman back to Cipher and makes him attack any hostile pursuing the flight lead.
- Special Weapons toggles the permission to use special munitions (e.g. to preserve them for later). Unlike the other three commands, which are mutually exclusive, this one can be combined with any of them.
The player is no longer given the option to interact with non-player characters with simple yes/no answers, as was the case in Ace Combat 5.
The cutscenes between the missions are presented as Brett Thompson's interviews with various characters in a pseudo-documentary style. They feature real actors, unlike the anime cutscenes in the Japanese version of Ace Combat 3, the hand-drawn slide shows of Ace Combat 04 and X, or the pre-rendered animated videos in Ace Combat 5 and 6.
- Main article: Minigames
In addition to the dogfights and bombing runs, there are some skipable minigames that can be completed for additional money reward. They are the same ones that were seen in Ace Combat 5: taking off, landing, and mid-air refueling, which can take place before or after certain missions. All of them require precise control of the aircraft and have to be completed within very short time for the maximum reward.
Additionally, two missions feature the Return Line, first introduced in Ace Combat 04 (and again used in Ace Combat 6). These missions contain too many enemies to destroy with just one payload, so the player has to return to the airbase by crossing the Return Line at the edge of the map. Returning the base fully rearms (on all difficulties) and repairs their plane (all difficulties except Ace), and allows to select different special weapons. The mission timer is stopped until the player returns to battle.
- Main article: VS Mode
Ace Combat Zero features split-screen multiplayer mode for two players, previously seen in AC04. There are seven multiplayer levels, where the players engage in dogfights against each other, computer-controlled opponents, or both. Several multiplayer maps contain references to earlier games:
- Map 2 is set over Vladimir Mountains, seen in the mission 18+ ("8492nd") of AC5.
- Map 3 is set over Bana City, seen in mission 11B ("Reprisal / Operation Wisdom") of AC5.
- Map 4 takes place over the Solo Islands from mission 19 ("Final Option") of AC5.
- Map 5 is the Payavlenie Ravine from mission 23 ("Ghost of Razgriz / Operation Riverbed") of AC5.
- On map 7, Player One's wingmen have the callsigns "Edge", "Chopper", and "Archer", and they fly the Razgriz F-14D, just like Blaze's original wingmen in AC5. Player Two's wingmen have the callsigns "Omega", "Viper", and "Halo", the names of ally squadrons in AC04.
There is also a Mount Shezna map and a multiplayer map from AC04.
- Main article: List of missions in Ace Combat Zero
After years of internal political unrest, which started around 1988 with the Belkan federal law review, Belka allowed its eastern territories to secede. This however, did not remedy the vast economic crisis that had befallen the country. Osea, seeing a chance to make profit, assisted the eastern provinces in declaring independence and setting up Osean-friendly governments; one of which was the Republic of Ustio. An extreme right-wing political group finally comes to power on the 12th of December 1991. Shortly thereafter, vast natural resources were discovered in the B7R region, and Belka invaded outwards on the 25th of March, 1995 recapturing lost territories in a blitzkrieg. These actions prompted both Osea and Yuktobania to combine forces and launch a counter-offensive against Belka.
- Main article: List of aces in Ace Combat Zero
- Cipher (callsign "Galm One"; real name unknown) is the player character of the game and the flight lead of the 66th Air Force Unit. His real identity and name are never revealed, but he eventually distinguishes himself as "The Demon Lord of the Round Table" by defeating a large number of Belkan aces over the Airspace B7R. Although the player is free to choose any plane for Cipher, he canonically flies an F-15C Eagle.
- Larry "Pixy" Foulke (callsign "Galm Two"; also known as "Solo Wing") is the player's original wingman, introduced in the first mission. His nickname "Solo Wing" refers to an incident before the events of the game when he lost the right wing of his Eagle in combat, but still managed to land it safely. To commemorate this event, Pixy sports a unique paint scheme with his right wing painted bright red. This story may have been based on an real life training incident with an Israeli F-15D Eagle in 1983. Pixy goes missing in action in mission 12 but returns in the final one. Before his disappearance, he pilots an F-15C Eagle like Cipher.
- Patrick James "PJ" Beckett (callsign "Crow Three", later "Galm Two") is first introduced as a member of the supporting Crow Squadron in mission 09. However, when Pixy goes MIA, PJ replaces him as Cipher's wingman, flying with him until the final mission. Throughout the game, he flies an F-16C Fighting Falcon.
Ace Combat Zero features the largest number of named aces in the entire series, justified by the opponents being the legendary Belkan Air Force, famous for training highly skilled pilots. Depending on Cipher's combat style, the Galm team faces different ace squadrons in combat throughout the single-player campaign, although some are invariably encountered in every path:
|Mission||Mercenary style||Soldier style||Knight style|
|03|| Rot Squadron|
EF-2000 Typhoon x 4
| Grun Squadron|
F/A-18C Hornet x 4
| Indigo Squadron|
JAS-39C Gripen x 4
|06|| Gelb Squadron|
Su-37 Terminator x 2
|10|| Schwarze Squadron|
MiG-31 Foxhound x 8
|Schnee Squadron||Silber Squadron|
|16|| Sorcerer Squadron|
F-15S/MTD x 8
| Gault Squadron|
Su-47 Berkut x 8
Brett Thompson interviews a member of each squadron the Galm Team defeated (in addition to Pixy), meaning that at least three playthroughs are necessary to watch all cutscenes in the game. In addition to these aces (who are always mission bosses), the game boasts a large number (to the total of 169) of named regular pilots, each of whom has a back-story, which can be read in the Assault Records from the main menu after shooting them down.
The Galm Team is the 6th Air Division 66th Air Force Unit. According to most interpretations, 666 is the Number of the Beast, an important figure in Revelation, the last book of the Bible that prophesies the end of the world. Also, Cipher's name is a partial homonym of Lucifer, one of the names of the Devil, fitting his late-game moniker "the Demon Lord". Another numerological reference is the total number of named aces in the game: 169, which is 13 squared (see Triskaidekaphobia). For completing Mission 17 (The Valley of Kings) with all targets destroyed, Cipher is awarded the "The Gold of Annwn" medal. Annwn was the 'Otherworld' in Welsh Mythology, which later became identified with the idea of Paradise/Heaven in the Bible.
"Galm" is a mistranslation of "Garm", which is the name of a powerful demon hound in the Norse mythology that guards Hell; the Galm Team's squadron emblem is a hellish hound biting a chain. One of the Norse gods, Tyr, is one-handed, having lost his right hand, just like Pixy lost the right wing of his plane. In Ragnarök, the Viking end of the world myth, Garm and Tyr battle and kill each other, paralleling Cipher and Pixy's final battle (although Pixy survives being shot down and Cipher simply disappears). In the seventh mission 'Bastion', the main areas to destroy are set up in the same design as Yggdrasil, the tree of life in Norse Mythology and Norse Cosmology, which connects the Nine Worlds. Lastly, Galm's deployment against XB-0 Hresvelgr (itself a reference to the Norse mythological giant Hræsvelgr) and Espada Squadron in mission 15 is codenamed "Operation Valkyrie", after the valkyries, female warrior companions of the Norse god Odin. For this mission, Cipher is decorated with the Ragnarok medal.
Airspace B7R, over which many engagements take place, is nicknamed "the Round Table" by the Belkans, meaning that all pilots are on the equal footing there, with no ranks to hinder them, like the vassal knights of the legendary King Arthur. The aces who distinguish themselves over the Round Table are therefore respectfully called "Knights of the Round Table". The super weapon Excalibur is a reference to Arthur's sword by the same name, which he acquired by pulling it out of a stone (according to some legends). In a later mission, an Ustio pilot refers to Cipher as "the guy who pulled out Tauberg's sword". The Hydrian Line, Belkan southern defense line, is a reference to Hadrian's Wall, erected by the Roman Emperor Hadrian to protect the Roman-occupied southern Britain from northern tribes and still intact during Arthur's time. Anthony Palmer and Joshua Bristow owe their nicknames (Sir Bedivere and Sir Lucan, respectively) to the two knights of Arthur's Round Table who carried the mortally wounded king to the lake, where he could be transported to the mythical island of Avalon. The line "The sleeping King in Avalon" refers to Arthur sleeping on Avalon, waiting for the day he will be needed to rule Britain again. The ADFX-02 Morgan plane may refer to Morgan le Fay, a sorceress who was supposed to heal and protect Arthur on Avalon. Finally, when the player acquires the Morgan and Falken there is a red colour scheme for both. This, contrasted with the white colour scheme on the Morgan Pixy flies, is a reference to the battle between the White Dragon (representing the Saxons, Morgan le Fay and Magic) and the Red Dragon (symbolising Wales, King Arthur and the Celts/Welsh) in which the Red Dragon triumphs over the White Dragon.
- Main article: List of aircraft in Ace Combat Zero
Ace Combat Zero features 36 playable aircraft, of which 33 are real or prototypes and 3 are fictional. To purchase aircraft for Cipher, the player has to unlock them by completing certain missions, then buy them by expending credits. Credits are earned by destroying hostile or neutral ("yellow") targets. Some planes are available from the start: F-1, F-5E Tiger II, J35J Draken; MiG-21bis is unlocked at the start of the game but has to be purchased before use.
In addition to a machinegun and all-purpose missiles, each plane is equipped with a limited number of special weapons, specialized against either ground or air targets. Like Ace Combat 04 and unlike Ace Combat 5, Zero allows the player to select their special munition after selecting their plane at the beginning of each mission. Only one special weapon type is available for each aircraft upon purchase and two more can be bought later (which special weapons each aircraft can carry is predetermined for each plane, see the list).
Also unlike in Ace Combat 5, the player can no longer buy and select a plane for their wingman, who flies his starting plane throughout the game. On the other hand, the player is allowed to select wingman's special munition after selecting their own, and all three special weapon types are available to the wingman's plane from the start.
Before each mission, the player can also select the paint scheme for their plane (but not the wingman's). Paint schemes are purely cosmetic and do not cost anything (unlike in Ace Combat 04). Each plane can have up to five paint schemes, with two exceptions:
- Standard, the default paint scheme the plane is purchased with.
- Mercenary, available for all planes after completing the single-player campaign with the Mercenary Ace Style.
- Soldier, ditto with Soldier Style.
- Knight, ditto with Knight Style.
- Special, only available after certain conditions are met (see list).
- Wingman, available only for two planes after completing the game: F-15C Eagle (Pixy's paint) and F-16C Fighting Falcon (PJ's colors).
Some paint schemes were taken from earlier AC games, such as Cipher's official F-15C Eagle colors, which resemble the ISAF F-15C Eagle paint scheme in AC04, only without the nose stripe. Mobius One's F-22A Raptor (Soldier), Blaze's F-14D Super Tomcat (Soldier), and Yellow 13's Su-37 Terminator (Mercenary) paint schemes are also unlockable.
The mascot aircraft of Ace Combat Zero are two F-15C Eagles with Cipher's colors and Pixy's Red Wing paint scheme, respectively. The super-fighter introduced in this game is ADFX-01/02 Morgan (with the 02 model being NPC only).
The production of Ace Combat Zero began between December and October of 2004, immediately after the launch of Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. The game was used as the basis of a prototype build called Concept: ZERO that was used to test various features such as characters interviews and enemy squadrons. The build used Phoenix as an interim protagonist, and experimental missions using area like Sand Island and Port St. Hewlett were created for playtesting purposes. Concept used fast-paced gameplay centered on an "Spirit" energy system that filled as Phoenix destroyed enemies, likely allowing him to launch stronger attacks or receive less damage when activated at 100% capacity.
Project Aces continued to experiment with the ZERO build when it was publicly revealed in a Japanese gaming magazine in March 2005. Internal testing continued until approximately mid-2005 with the beginning of the development of a finalized version, when the trademarks "The Belkan War" and "The Belka War" were filed. The game, with the final name Ace Combat Zero, was announced on the 2005 Tokyo Game Show.
- Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War was the first game released by Namco as Namco Bandai.
- On the back cover of the US release of Ace Combat Zero, a faint picture of a radar screen with "Bogies" and "Sand Island" displayed on it can be seen. This is a screenshot of the intro movie from Ace Combat 5.
- The videos of the nuclear explosions are the same ones used in Albert Genette's documentary in Ace Combat 5.