So we’ve had Apache, Blazing Angels, H.A.W.X, Snoopy: Flying Ace and the usual slew of Ace Combat releases on this generation of console hardware, but little of any innovation or quality has been offered to the ever-dwindling niche of gamers that care about barrel rolls, afterburners and chaff. Sales figures would point to a strong reason for publishers pulling out of the genre, but whether those numbers are a direct consequence of a shrinking demographic or simply down to poor content and marketing is also up for debate.
Part of the problem may well be that flight games have never really found a home anywhere but on a PC, and even on that platform in recent years, if you’re not IL-2 Sturmovik you may as well give up. Gamepads have never been as adept as a flight stick for carrying the experience convincingly, the graphical grunt and memory capacity required to convincingly render landscape detail at a huge draw distance is nowhere to be found on the six-year-old tech powering the PS3 and 360, and unless you’re Ace Combat, the development budget is usually to be found swinging from a shoestring.
It all looks pretty in static shots
Step forward Air Conflict: Secret Wars then; a budget WWII arcade flying sim from European developer bitComposer that’s every bit as polished as you may expect.
Taking up the role of female pilot and smuggler-for-hire ‘DeeDee’ Derbec, the campaign mode spans multiple continents with ‘authentic’ battle sequences against Nazi forces, weaving a tale of a ragtag group of outcasts gradually dragged into the war proper. Following a brief introduction and tutorial mission to pick up some whiskey in the area around Tobruck, DeeDee hooks up with an old friend of her father’s and becomes embroiled in various shady resistance operations loosely based on real-world locales. By the time you get to Berlin the story wraps itself up nicely, but with a profligacy of poor voice acting on show throughout, it’s difficult to get any sense of engagement from DeeDee or her band of acquaintances. It’s not a bad stab by any means, but with the story told entirely through static comic book slides and the occasional bit of mid-mission voiceover, narrative was never going to be the strong point of Secret Wars.
The campaign sequences comprise of search-and-rescue operations, bombing runs, dogfights, supply runs and even stealth sections on occasion. There are roughly twenty planes to unlock, with each of them performing specialist roles. Heavy bombers are cumbersome to manoeuvre but can take a brutal amount of punishment, whilst the more nimble attack planes (such as a Spitfire etc) are suited to missions that involve copious amounts of fighting or general avoidance. Piloting each of them is as simple as pointing the left analogue stick and managing two buttons to speed up or slow down, whilst rockets or bombs are mapped to the left trigger and your trusty cannon to the right. That’s as complex as it gets.
Some of the lighting is well-designed
For the most part it’s an approach that works well, with dogfights becoming engaging thanks to a light difficulty level and simplistic flight model. In an approach adopted by most of the arcade flying games of previous years, your targeting reticule dynamically alters to accommodate the lead you’ll need to give your target in order to strike home, and the majority of the planes handle roughly the same - with relatively sedate pacing throughout the entire roster. Rockets are a tricky proposition to master given the lack of any lock-on facility, but you’ll hardly need to use them save for absolute necessity.
Pretty soon the shallowness of the action begins to show through however, and the lack of nuance or even a smidgen of realism hampers long-term depth considerably. As an example, landing your plane at the default skill level is a matter of flying through four coloured rings at whatever speed you wish, and there’s no collision detection for anything in the sky - planes literally just fly through each other before turning to take another run at doing the same. Bumping the difficulty just makes targeting a little more unforgiving, but offers little in the way of a decent learning curve. Clipping is rife, and flying at low speed close to the ground often results in a wing simply getting stuck into the turf before exploding. Frustration soon abounds.
When stealth goes out the window...
To it’s credit however, the engine crafted by bitComposer doesn’t do a bad job of maintaining a decent frame rate throughout (even in the more densely populated final chapters), but - as expected - detail and texturing are painfully sparse at times. Some nicely-coloured and fairly subtle lighting effects serve to draw the eye away from the lack of polish, but there is no mistaking the budget origins here. It’s certainly not the least convincing title of the year, but perhaps a more stylised approach would have papered over the cracks a little more. DeeDee’s tale of a lost father (accompanied by a few flashback missions to WWI) and impending descent into all-out war is ambitious in its scope, but sadly let down by the presentation mechanisms contained within that same engine.
It’s a bit of a weird one then, as neither the story nor the action is particularly enjoyable, but neither is specifically bad either. Genre fans will no doubt gain the most from Secret Wars, but it’s certainly nothing that’ll keep anybody coming back past its 6-7 hour length, and it’s certainly not the title that’ll revitalise interest from the general gaming populace. In truth that was probably never the remit of the developer however, and in producing a solid arcade flying sim without any major flaws, that may well be a victory worthsavouring.
Best Game Moment: Evading a swarm of nazi planes with ‘stealth’