By Adam Smith on October 7th, 2011 at 2:03 pm.
Air Conflicts: Secret Wars plunges beneath the surface of World War II, even though it’s set entirely in planes rather than submarines. What does it all mean, and is the game the sort of terrifyingly accurate simulation that I struggle to get off the ground, or a point and shoot arcade game suitable for a landlubber with no air-legs? And should I have used the term “landlubber” in a non-nautical context? Here’s Wot I Think.
Tally ho, old chap, old fruit, old bean, chocks away and don’t mind Aunt Jemima, what what, last one home’s a rotten egg, kippers for breakfast Charlie, pip pip and into the blue yonder! It is with deep regret that I must tell you that the previous sentence is not an accurate appraisal of the time I’ve spent with Air Conflicts: Secret Wars. That’s mainly because the game cast me in the role of a young French pilot rather than a magnificently moustached officer in the Royalest Air Force. Furthermore, the French pilot of whom I speak is a lady, little more than a girl really, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for her to use language like “egg” and “kippers”, even if she were British.
It’s an unusual take on air combat, from a narrative perspective at least. Rather than being thrown into the middle of famous conflicts, Secret Wars places you in the role of a smuggler and mercenary initially looking to profit from the siege of Tobruk, Libya, but eventually travelling around the theatre of conflict and becoming more involved in the war effort. The story is told using comic book graphics, single cells which the camera pans and zooms across as spoken narration tells the tale. There is a certain charm to these segments, which take the ragtag characters far more seriously than I did, but somehow managed to draw me in.
The campaign took me to parts of World War II that I’ve never explored before in a computer game, which is quite the achievement, and that helped to keep my interest, even if the actual missions I was flying weren’t particularly exciting. Or different to one another. It’s all well and good to fly over Tobruk and Berlin but no matter the backdrop, you’ll end up doing the same things repeatedly. Dogfights, bombing runs and stealth missions.
Now, I’ve never thought of World War II fighters as the MOST stealthy objects in the world but that hasn’t stopped bitComposer from having almost as many sneaky missions as fighty missions. And they really are stealth missions in every way; enemy planes and emplacements have circular detection zones, shown on a minimap, and there’s even a stealth meter that flashes with increasing urgency should you risk detection. Flying close to the ground helps to keep the meter low, but because the planes are so easy to control, there’s no sense of risk involved when flirting with disaster.
It may already be clear that Air Conflicts: Secret Wars is not a flight simulation as such. It’s an arcade game, through and through, although there is a choice for simulation-type controls. They make it harder to play without giving a much greater sense of control, feeling more punishing rather than fundamentally changing the way the crafts control. Here are some things that will tell you how much this is not a simulator. There are several types of plane but bombers handle like bombers and fighters handle like fighters. There are also World War I planes, mostly in story-related flashbacks to The Great War. They handle like slower versions of the World War II planes.
Nothing wrong with that if you know as little about the different planes as I do, but I’m sure many people will be dismayed to find that the specifications, size and handling of their favourite skymobile has been reduced to a small group of five star ratings. Taking out ground targets, which you’ll be doing a lot, is probably the least simmy part of the game and also the worst. I found the easiest way to destroy anti-aircraft installations was to fly about a metre above them to make sure my bombs hit the target. My plane sometimes looked a bit biffed up afterwards, but damage modelling is purely cosmetic and it it’s possible to soak up an enormous amount of ordinance before crashing and burning.
As for the dogfights, which really should be the core of the game, I found myself quite involved in them. Choosing a target, and lining the blighter up in the sights, which compensate for speed and distance automatically, is jolly good fun and the plumes of smoke and bursts of flame that tear out of targets are ample compensation. The visuals are far from cutting edge but the feedback they provide during air combat is appealing enough. As with the operation of bombing, it’s on the ground that things are less convincing. Everything feels just a bit too small, even when you’re flying close enough to shake hands with fleeing artillery crews.
It sounds very odd to say, but because of the disconnect between what the game is asking me to do and the way that I do it, as highlighted by the fact I’m using my bombs like grenades, at times Air Conflicts doesn’t feel like a game about flight at all. Sneaking between enemy detection zones, controlling an object that’s as steady as a milk float on a breezeless day, there’s no sense of being above ground, let alone in a hurtling metal tube. Similarly, landing, even without a runway, simply involves flying through a few rings close to the ground. There’s no need to slow down or even touch the terrain, that part’s automated once the final ring is passed, with the game skipping straight to takeoff. It’s more like walking through a door than wrestling a weighty, flying machine to a standstill.
But, despite all that, I was actually having fun more often than I wasn’t. Even when a particularly irritating escort mission tasked me with defending a convoy by, you guessed it, bombing a different convoy, I was quite content to swoop and circle ‘til they were all dead. It’s not even a proper escort mission, because the enemies on the ground aren’t interacting with my allies in any meaningful way, there’s just a timer counting down to failure. It’s a bombing mission on a timer, with the whole escort part only evident from the storyline. But I dutifully bombed the little tanks and men so that I could move on to the next dogfight. You can even skip missions if you particularly hate them, which is a kind option, but with the campaign clocking in at well under ten hours it’s no way to get your money’s worth.
So I am conflicted. I couldn’t possibly recommend the game at its current asking price of £21.99, it feels like a budget title through and through, but I can’t deny the fact that I enjoyed it, for its simplicity and its strangely effective story. Despite the comic book visuals and struggling accents, there are plenty of interesting characters and a surprisingly bleak view of war’s ability to destroy innocence. Essentially, it’s about learning that there is a wider world to fight for, but, in its ramshackle way it does show just how horrid both the world and the fight can be.
Given the limited mission types, it doesn’t seem out of the realms of possibility that some kind of dynamic campaign could have been cobbled together, which would have added much-needed longevity. There are resource gathering missions but, again, they only exist to advance the plot. If there was an actual need to capture zones, in order to repair planes more effectively or unlock new types, or if it were possible to continue with the early smuggling missions to earn cash for upgrades or new wingmen between story missions, there’d be more to do without sacrificing the story bitComposer clearly want to tell. But there is none of that. There’s the campaign and there’s a standalone dogfight mode.
Purists will scoff at Secret Wars. It is a silly game in many ways, simplified and repetitive, but when it realises that I want to be in a spitfire shooting down bad guys, it enables me to do that without making me anxious about fuel levels, ammo counts or anything resembling realistic physics. Unfortunately, it sits in an uncomfortable middle ground between something like Crimson Skies and a proper simulator. If I don’t have to worry about trying to pilot my plane as if it were an actual plane, why not go all out and let me perform insane aerial feats, looping loops for the sheer abandonment of it and taking on vastly numerically superior forces with a smile and a prayer?
Fun, then, but I suspect neither enough of a sim or enough of an arcade game. That said, there’s a bit when a moustachioed British pilot says, “That’s another knee to the Nazi bollocks”, which is about as accurate a simulation of wartime derring-do as can be imagined.
Oh, and I shouldn’t really have said “landlubber” and “air-legs” was a bit daft too.
Air Conflicts: Secret Wars is out now.