Air Conflicts: Secret Wars
Review In recent years aerial combat games have been in free fall. The genre stalled after the seminal Il-2 Sturmovick and has struggled to pull out of a seemingly irrecoverable nosedive. But, contrary to their dubious quality, the continuing popularity of the Ace Combat and Hawx series proves interest remains sky high for the genre.
Red sky at flight
With no sign of Hawx 3 on the horizon, and with Ace Combat: Assault Horizon not expected until October, the skies are clear for Air Conflicts: Secret Wars to gain temporary air supremacy. Essentially an update of Slovakian developer 3DIVISION's five-year old PC title Air Conflicts, Secret Wars is a WWII arcade-style dogfighter in which you play as Dorothy 'DeeDee' Derbec, a pilot for hire embroiled in the European Theatre of the global conflict.
Told through comic-book cutscenes and in-flight radio chatter, the game's Saturday matinée narrative places you in a wide range of WWII's lesser-known Partisan engagements, such as aiding the Maquis' sabotage campaign and supporting the Polish Armia Krajowa in Operation Belt. Spread across 49 campaign missions, you'll undertake practically every objective imaginable, from protecting supply trains and escorting bomber convoys, to carrying out stealth reconnaissance and shooting down paratroopers jumping out of enemy transports.
Smoke on the war tour
But while Secret Wars' varied missions prove both competent and generous, the variety of planes on offer exposes the game's greatest weakness. Apart from a couple of noticeably slower bombers, the sixteen iconic fighter planes are virtually indistinguishable. Other than weapon loadouts, you simply won't notice whether you're flying a Spitfire or the jet propelled, delta wing Horton-Ho 229, so similar are their flight speeds and handling. The game also fails to convey any real sensation of speed, and your speedometer is constantly betrayed by the achingly slow passing of trees and buildings underneath.
It's not the only disappointing discrepancy in flight dynamics. There's no rudder to control yaw, limiting angles of rotation to pitch and roll. And there's a constant, overbearing abuse of stall dynamics. Based on speed rather than, correctly, the critical angle of attack, even minor deceleration in level flight invariably ends in a stall. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the permanent invisible ceiling of around 1,400 metres in altitude, which contrives to hem you into the prescribed combat zone by stalling your plane regardless of speed and pitch.
Fortunately, stalls are as forgiving as they are excessive, and, even at extremely low altitude, they're easy to pull out of with additional thrust. But the closer you get to the ground, the more another weakness looms into view.
Up the engine
Air Conflicts' five-year old engine is virtually untouched. Plane models, clouds and weather are all reasonably modelled, but the creaking graphics show their age amid the bleak, featureless terrains and buildings. Still, that means the DX9 game runs just fine on a moderate spec PC, and you shouldn't experience any performance issues playing it on a reasonable 512MB card and Core 2 Duo config.
Near field communications
Despite the obvious constraints in graphics and flight dynamics, Secret Wars is a fairly entertaining game, thanks to its constant mix of objectives and impressive number of enemy planes in dogfights. And it's got decent replay value, too. In addition to replaying campaign missions in any order, there's an additional single-player mode called Dogfight, which offers combat vignettes where you can customise the number of enemy planes, enemy respawn speeds, map and conditions.
There's also on-line or LAN multiplayer for up to eight players, where standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag are joined by Destroy and Protect, a mode in which you have to carefully balance the objectives of destroying enemy assets while protecting your own.
If you can find enough players online for what is a niche title, there's a reasonable amount of fun to be had. But with the game's disappointing flight dynamics and homogeneous plane handling carried over lock stock into multiplayer, gameplay devolves into little more than a hunt for heavily damaged enemy planes to inflict the killer blow and earn the kill count. And with no persistent career stats, perks or upgrades, any enjoyment is bound to be short lived.
Air Conflicts: Secret Wars isn't a bad game, it's just one typical of a genre desperately in need of innovation. There's little to justify its near-full retail price on Xbox and PS3, and there's plenty to complain about in its restrictive arcade sensibilities, but at £19.99 for PC, there's just enough thrust to keep fans of the genre airborne for a while. ®
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