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Impressions: Flying Tigers - Shadows Over China

Tigers really oughtn't fly

One of my favourite games ever is 2007’s Attack On Pearl Harbor. It was an arcade WW2 dogfighting game, that managed to cunningly strip away all the technical complexity of flying a plane, and just have it be pure shooty fun. I’d love to recommend you play it too, but it has entirely vanished from existence. Once on Steam but there no longer (due to “various legal and business reasons” I was once told), I’ve deliberately kept it installed on my PC so it cannot disappear from my account. I am one of very few people who can play this game, and that’s a crying shame.

So it was with buoyant heart that I noticed developer Björn Larsson, then of Legendo Entertainment, now of Ace Maddox, has returned to the genre with the Early Access release of Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China [official site]. It was last year, but I just noticed. Well, he only just told me. It’s his fault.

I’ve never been into flight sims, nor anything to do with planes, and have no idea why I ever picked up Attack On Pearl Harbor. Once I’d played it I immediately nagged PC Gamer into letting me review it (RPS hadn’t been born yet!), and gave it a respectable 78%. I think that score still stands – as much as anything as silly and arbitrary as a score can ever stand. It was the aeronautic simulation equivalent of running around a garden holding a model plane in your upstretched hand while shouting, “BRRRRLLLLLMMMMMMMMMMM!”

Flying Tigers is really pretty much the same game. For good and for bad. While Ace Maddox still hold hopes of a PC release of the Wii remaster of the first game, it’s clear they’re not very strong hopes, what with this extraordinarily similar project being in the works.

Once again this is focusing on the US vs Japanese aspect of Planet War Two, except this time in the skies over China. It seems that during the olden days, the US let a bunch of fighter pilots resign from their positions and take up with the Chinese army in defence of the Japanese attacks. They got called the Flying Tigers, and thus the game is named. Although just how much military historical accuracy is actually at play here is immediately irrelevant once you’re playing its bouncy, silly arcade missions.

Controls are either mouse/keyboard or gamepad, and it’s perhaps surprising that m/k is far superior. The controller feels sluggish and unhelpful, while the mouse lets you manoeuvre the aircraft much more swiftly and enjoyably. It also makes targeting a lot easier, although it’s worth noting not super-easy – your reticule is floaty like your plane, and there’s no locking on or the like. This is quite literally a scattergun approach to combat.

The main new addition here is a sort of bullet-time mode, called “Trazertime”, which slows everything down to let you fire more accurately. There are also short-cuts for barrel rolls and escape moves, which have cooldowns to stop you going crazy. Beyond that, if you ever played Pearl Harbor, the very arcadey action is extremely familiar.

And perhaps rather too familiar. If anything, at least at this point in its for-sale development, it seems to offer a bit less in its single player. Pearl Harbor’s best feature was the limited supply of planes. If you screwed up and lost a winged friend, you could still move on to the next mission but you’d have one fewer kites in the cupboard. You had to budget your planes, choose when to fly what, to see how far you could progress. That’s all gone here, with the many different planes prescribed to you per mission (often switching out for different stages of the same mission), and death meaning starting a mission over from the last checkpoint.

On top of that, this time you can only play as the Allies, while Pearl Harbor had a giant pile of Japanese missions to play as well. It doesn’t seem that there are any plans to add that in this time.

And gosh if it doesn’t sometimes look like it’s from 2007, too. It’s really nothing special visually at all, and the ground textures - while a good deal more advanced than last time - are blocky and poor. And so much more could have been done to have the skies be more impressive, and the explosions are identikit. Here its similarity to Pearl Harbor is perhaps not what I was after.

On the plus side, they’ve added a dogfighting mode where you can pick a plane vs plane scenario, a challenge mode with a few set tasks to accomplish, and a free flight mode letting you dick around to your heart’s content (albeit with little to do). And indeed multiplayer, which is possibly of interest to many, if not me. Although at the time of playing, there was no one on the lone server available.

So there I am. I’ve essentially got my wish – Attack On Pearl Harbor back to life, admittedly in a different body. But at the same time, I don’t feel like it’s moved on in any way in the last nine years – this doesn’t feel bigger or more special or more interesting. In fact it feels a little smaller and less special. (It also feels like they desperately need to hire some professional voice actors, because bloody hell, the stuff in there at the moment isn’t good.)

But for that disappointment, the reality is this is more of the arcadey silliness that eschews the severity of the genre, and lets you have a bunch of fun blowing stuff up rather than worrying about dials and levers. And for that it deserves to be celeberated.

I wonder if I’d never played Pearl Harbor whether I’d have the same joy-filled reaction to picking this up for the first time. Perhaps you will too. There are only a couple of months of development left before it’s finished, so while more content is getting put in, I can’t imagine it’ll see any dramatic leaps forward by July. So, I’m delighted and disappointed, which is a confusing state of mind.

These impressions are based on version The game is out now in Early Access for Windows.

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