Where would videogame publishers be without Brahmagupta? The revered Indian mathematician, astronomer and scholar probably didn't think this far ahead when he was preparing his seminal work, the Brahmasphutasiddhanta (try saying it without spitting all over your monitor), but as the first person in recorded history to incorporate the number zero into mathematics, and indeed to treat it as a number in its own right at all, he inadvertently solved a thorny problem which many videogame publishers seemed to hit a few years ago.
The problem, of course, was what to do when you've got a series of videogames that has really reached something of a logical conclusion, but which you'd rather like to continue making money from. Back in the seventies, George Lucas hit upon the genius idea of starting his series at episode four, just in case he ever needed to come back and desecrate his earlier works in order to raise cash to buy some more lumberjack shirts, but videogame publishers didn't have that foresight. Without Brahmagupta's helpful invention of Zero, they'd have been screwed.
Yes, dear reader, you're quite right - I've started yet another game review with a trip to Wikipedia rather than any kind of useful or helpful observation about the game itself. However, I plead extenuating circumstances. The game in question here is the sixth game in the Ace Combat series, you see - and despite the fact that I like Ace Combat very much, I find myself hard pressed to find very many ways in which this differs from Ace Combat 5, or Ace Combat 4 before it. It's not a promising, or very exciting, start.
Take my breath away?
I've got a page of notes here which I took down while I was playing the game. There's some stuff about the graphics, a comment describing the game music as "your mum's game soundtrack", a little sketch of a jet plane with a smiley face, and in big letters, underlined, are the words "solid", "uninspired" and the wonderfully onomatopoeic "meh". That doesn't sound terribly upbeat, I'm sure, but yet I certainly didn't detest the time I spent playing Ace Combat Zero; in fact, it was quite a decent way to spend a couple of drizzly London evenings. After all, there's a reason why the jet plane sketch isn't scowling and dropping bombs on a building with NAMCO written on it and small stickmen running around on fire on the roof: there's nothing fundamentally wrong, and quite a lot right, with this game. It's just that it's all very familiar, almost homely, and it's hard to get excited about the game - not least because there's the feeling that the team making it were very competent and talented, but weren't particularly excited either.
It's hard to tell how useful a summary of what Ace Combat is all about is going to be, since if you've resisted its lure right the way to the sixth iteration in the series the chances are you really, really don't care, but here goes anyway. In essence, this is an action shoot-'em-up wearing the skin of a combat flight simulator; the environments are realistic (albeit set in a fictional nation, thus happpily sidestepping any political issues), the planes are modelled on real-life aircraft, and the physics are sort-of realistic, but the gameplay happily thumbs its nose at any form of realism where it might impinge on the player having fun. Your primary weapon has infinite ammunition, for example; and your plane has far more hitpoints than the average enemy "grunt" planes which you'll blast out of the sky in droves. It tries hard not to break the feeling that you're in a realistic dogfight - you don't get power-ups floating about in mid-air to fly through or anything like that - but below that veneer, this is a pure and unapologetic arcade game.
That, in itself, is pretty cool. It's a great concept, and in fact, it has been a great concept since the very first Ace Combat title - and on its own, given competent execution, it's enough to ensure that no Ace Combat will ever actually be bad. Ace Combat Zero is no exception. Like its predecessors, it offers an accessible, fun and easy to learn control system which disguises all the frustrating (for most people) complexity of flying an advanced jet aircraft, loads of targets to shoot down which have just enough AI to present a bit of a challenge but aren't remotely clever enough to actually get annoying, absolutely lovely graphics and a set of missions clearly balanced to ensure the player has fun. The game design team working on Ace Combat Zero are professionals, clearly; they have created a game which is, for the most part, utterly polished and consistent, a rare enough achievement in our industry. On that front, hats off to them.
Forwards and Backwards
However, as updates to an ongoing series go, this one is incredibly minor and incremental - which is, really, the problem. Aside from the obvious factor of having new missions and a new storyline (more on that in a moment), you'll struggle to distinguish what's actually changed between Ace Combat Zero and Ace Combat 5 - itself not exactly a revolutionary update to Ace Combat 04. As it happens, the two most major changes both relate to the AI of computer-controlled planes. On one hand, the game now gives you a relatively intelligent and useful wingman who actually knows how to cover you and can rack up a decent kill-count of his own, while on the other hand, you'll also face off against tough ace pilots from the opposing side occasionally. While the improved wingman is really just a case of fixing an element of Ace Combat's gameplay that was broken, the enemy ace pilots are a genuinely interesting addition to the mix. They give the designers a fresh card to play in Ace Combat's otherwise very familiar missions - getting ambushed by a squad of ace pilots who made your life hell in a previous mission at the end of an otherwise uneventful bombing run is the closest Ace Combat gets to dishing out genuine surprises, and dogfights against the enemy aces do break up the pace of the combat very nicely indeed.
As much as that's a step forward, however, the game's storyline is an equally large step backwards. Set 15 years before the events of the Ace Combat series to date, the story explores the first war between the aggressive Belkan nation and its neighbouring countries of Osea and Ustio. As is usual for an Ace Combat game, it attempts to address big themes - like why people cling to nationalism even in the face of war, how ideology can drive friends to fight one another, and so on. Unfortunately, the story simply fails to be particularly interesting - none of the characters ever actually emerge as engaging personalities, and by the time the terrorist organisation roaming the area on the giant jet-propelled aircraft carrier darkens the skies, the whole concept seems faintly ridiculous. You'll almost certainly have lost interest by then - if for no other reason than that the plot cut-scenes are so hilariously bad. What could possibly have made Namco think it was a good idea to go back to the bad old days of real-life actors in front of rendered backgrounds, we can only guess - but whatever it was, we don't recommend it.
It's just as well, then, that despite the lack of any kind of compelling storyline to drag you through, the missions themselves are generally fun enough to keep you going - and the dogfighting action is as good as it's ever been in an Ace Combat game. However, for the most part, this is mission pack game design; a talented team with an "it ain't broke, so don't fix it" mentality churning out a polished, well-crafted new set of missions for a well-loved franchise, and making no particular effort to even pretend that it's anything else. The shining opportunity to bring Ace Combat online has been resolutely ignored once again, with only a fairly uninspired two-player mode included as any kind of nod to the idea that sometimes, humans like to play games together.
By this stage, I'm sure you understand why I ended up reading about the number Zero on Wikipedia instead of launching straight into reviewing Ace Combat Zero. This is, frankly, an incredibly difficult game to review - there's nothing wrong with it, and it's certainly impossible to hate or really dislike it, because it's got great production values (aside from the awful cut-scenes) and well-balanced gameplay, but equally there's simply nothing here that leaps out as being interesting, innovative, original or inspired. It's solid, entertaining, and for anyone with an interest in arcade flight combat, will while away quite a few hours some damp weekend - after which time it will be consigned to the corner of your games shelf and forgotten within a matter of weeks.