Wot I Think: Air Conflicts: Secret Wars

By Adam Smith on October 7th, 2011 at 2:03 pm.

Bogey on my 5:52
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.

A chap

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.

A spiffing occasion

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.

A jolly good show

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.

A gentlemanly sport ending in charred, bullet-ridden death

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.

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22 Comments »

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  1. danimalkingdom says:

    There is a bright sunlit upland, long vanished, and long yearned for that exists between arcade flight sims and hardcore flight sims called Lawrence Hol-Land, and someone needs to find it before sims are written off for all time.

    Which reminds me, I really should try out that new career mode in Rise of Flight.

  2. joel4565 says:

    It doesn’t sound like a bad game for 30 bucks on steam. Its a shame its in between arcade and simulation as I would probably really like it if it was full arcade. Oddly enough, I like my flight games to be arcade and my racing games to be closer to simulation.

    I really enjoyed the Crimson skies series, particularly the sequel on the Xbox. Does anyone know of any other good flight games similar to Crimson Skies, on either Xbox360 or preferably PC?

  3. Jim Rossignol says:

    Flying and shooting games always sit in a bit of an awkward place, I find. They’re always fun, but somehow never manage to carve out enough depth. Hmm.

    • Novotny says:

      See comment above re: TIE-Fighter.

    • GraveyardJimmy says:

      I think one of the problems is that they aren’t accurate enough to make the dogfight mode any fun, unlike simulations, where I can spend hours trying different tactics against different enemies (like in Cliffs of Dover).

      Therefore a lot of it lies in the campaign and when thats over the other modes dont offer much value, even in multiplayer. The exception to this lies in making multiplayer a rts/flying hybrid like that game set in the pacific, where you ordered out flights of bombers and ships and fighters whilst your opponent does the same, with islands giving tactical advantages and new weapons, along with a research tree. Cant remember the games name now, but it was quite thought through compared to the normal online dogfights.

    • Archonsod says:

      Sounds like Pacific Storm. Was a fun little game.

    • idiotapocs says:

      @GraveyardJimmy:
      These twe games were Battlestations Midway and Pacific. I’ve spent some hours with mostly Midway, and thoroughly enjoyed it! Not too deep simulation, packed with action, still, it doesn’t feel cheap at all. It is actually on my Steam wishlist for a reason.

    • GraveyardJimmy says:

      @idiotapocs: that’s the one! I forgot that you could control ships and subs as well. I think ti went quite well to flesh out the multiplayer and other areas to more than a simple dogfight, which in a sense makes up for (or makes more interesting) the arcade style controls.

  4. macwarrior says:

    Why is it that “awesome graphics and smooth performance” and “realistic flight models” are totally incompatible in flight sims these days? There are the developers who make fast, stable, pretty engines for a game that can be best described as “bullet hell: modern warfare”, and then there are those who actually bother to model the inside of the plane and limit missiles to what fits on the outside but who couldn’t optimize their way out of a paper bag.

    I’m not asking to have a cake and eat it too — but I would KILL for something as realistic as Il-2 (the old one, not Cliffs of Dover) with the graphics engine of HAWX 2. Surely it couldn’t be that hard to pull off? Why isn’t there a market for that sort of thing any more?

    • GraveyardJimmy says:

      The new Beta patches for Cliffs of Dover are looking incredible. As for why it is difficult, I think it comes down to two large reasons.

      Firstly, budgets for these games are smaller, since they are a more niche market. They have to adopt strange (and maybe unpopular) payment models, like Rise of Flight, or get pushed out before they are finished (CoD). Publishers are less likely to promote something like Cliffs of Dover when it sells less than those that offer an easily accessible arcade experience (like HAWX).

      Secondly, the amount of CPU processing on a title like Cliffs of Dover is phenomenal, having to register flight dynamics, impacts, bullets, all the ground stuff, weather etc, all at the same time and for multiple aircraft. Alongside this graphics detail is expensive, with damage modelling and ground details, all the aircraft and their effects. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pFvFT3AEHo&feature=player_embedded#! (contrast is still being tweaked, but that shows the incredible detail CoD can produce at the moment)

      There are more videos on the IL2 forums that show even the tanks have barrels that move, every detail takes processing power and simulations have a lot else to compute, so sacrifices do have to be made. I would keep an eye on CoD though, they apparently have a “big surprise” coming that will “worry competitors” and they are continuing to work on the engine,so who knows what will happen.

    • macwarrior says:

      Frankly, though, I don’t WANT that level of detail — it just gives me a headache to think about. That kind of ultra-realism is fine for some people but it ultimately alienates a lot of the flight sim community, too. Back when the Jane’s games were really popular, they never had that kind of modeling. What they did well was make you FEEL like the plane was under your control, moving your radar cursor around and extending the flaps at the right time and such, but you didn’t have to actually learn the specific button combinations that a real F-15 pilot uses or whatever.

      The first Il-2 is a great example of the kind of realism I’d like. For instance to start up a Merlin engine from a Spitfire,
      In a real WWII fighter:
      – oil tank open
      – fuel tank open
      – magneto 1, 2 activated
      – ignition on
      – battery on
      – mixture rich
      – simultaneously hold safety, ignition, and coil boost

      In Il-2:
      – magneto on
      – ignition on
      – press “engine start”

      In a casual flight sim:
      – what start? you start in midair and the engines never stall. Don’t worry about it.

      Basically I want the middle ground between “every cylinder in the engine of the tank a hundred miles away is individually functional” and “your plane has infinite target-seeking bullets and can’t stall”. And with a good graphics engine too.

    • Dozer says:

      Il-2 was even simpler than that.

      – engine ON

      or in a multi-engine aircraft on the high difficulty settings

      – select engine 1
      – engine ON
      – select engine 2
      – engine ON
      – select all engines

      But once in-flight you had to manage mixture, prop pitch, radiator position, and superchargers, depending on how advanced/automated the real aircraft was.

    • Shadowcat says:

      Third Wire have been working hard to occupy that territory for many years now. If you’ve never checked out their titles, you should do so.

    • GraveyardJimmy says:

      Cliffs of Dover is just as scalable as the old Il2. If you want you can pretty much fly full arcade without a cockpit. If you don”t want all the simulation details, you can start an multi-engined bomber in CoD with a single key press, have a realistic flight model but never have to worry about such things as mixture, oil temperatures or propeller pitch. In that sense CoD can be made to match the realism of the old Il2 and as the video shows, is starting to look breathtaking.

      Also, everything can be done from the keyboard so you dont need to remember that the switch for the outboard fuel tank is actually under your seat or anything as silly as that (in fact with automation of fuel you dont even need to switch tanks after a fuel leak if you dont fancy it).

  5. Fallom says:

    Does anybody have any recommendations for flight sims with great joystick control that aren’t as simmy as stuff like IL-2? I like to get right into the action and thus I don’t have the time to get into actual flight sims. I remember loving the hell out of Crimson Skies with my force feedback joystick, and I just bought a new one so I could play through Freespace 2 again.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      If you want WWII, you can try the Wings of Prey demo on steam. The old Rowan sims (Battle of Britain 1/presumably 2 and Mig Alley) let you jump right into the action in the dynamic campaign by letting you join a specific flight, sim until tactical engagement or initial contact distances, engaging in combat, then simming through the waypoints and landing. Frankly, I still rate Mig Alley as the greatest combat flight sim ever made.

    • Wooly Wugga Wugga says:

      I find that the Third Wire http://www.thirdwire.com/ sims do this perfectly. They are proper flight sims but they are simple enough to pick up and play. To me it’s the perfect balance between realism and gameplay. I quite like the campaign structure as well.

  6. meerkat says:


    Does anybody have any recommendations for flight sims with great joystick control that aren’t as simmy as stuff like IL-2? I like to get right into the action and thus I don’t have the time to get into actual flight sims. I remember loving the hell out of Crimson Skies with my force feedback joystick, and I just bought a new one so I could play through Freespace 2 again.

    The Strike Fighters series has scalable difficulty, a dynamic campaign, and a range of aircraft from the 1950’s F-100 to the 1980’s F-16A with a variety of aircraft in between. It most definitely encourages getting right into the action as you can even set your starting position in the sim to be near the action. Sterile in some respects in the quick missions but interesting and fun in the campaign. The lead developer has stated that he is interested in making the game fun, not overly detailed, and so while it does model the relative performance of different aircraft and the limitations of early missiles and jet fighters, it does require that you go through 15 missions just to be able to take off and land successfully (I’m looking at you, Falcon 4.0 AF).

    In general, I’ve found that a lot of sims do have adjustable levels of difficulty for things like AI, flight dynamics, system modeling, etc. The problem with many sims is unless you’re interested in grinding your way through either a dynamic or static campaign, they typically don’t offer as much fun for those not interested in simulations (scalable difficulty or not) who are not interested in doing the same thing over and over, just over a different part of the map. Plus, really, combat sims for most people not obsessed with procedure are about the 5 minutes of terror, not the one hour of leisurely cruising.