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The Flare Path: Slightly Dead

Simulation & wargame news

The compiler of this column has always been, and will always be, an equal opportunities emplaner. Just because a flight game is Dimensionally Challenged - just because its spread of sky lacks a North and South, or an East and West - doesn't mean I won't clutch it to my kitten-clawed bosom or spit scalding Criti-Bile™ in its eye. Unhappily, 2D flight games with a modicum of respect for realism are rarer than rocking horseflies these days. Some might even go so far as saying the sub-genre is slightly dead.

Of course, the current drought doesn't mean there aren't legacy titles worth searching out. This week, dismayed by yet another inspirationally bankrupt 3D flight game, and fresh from a brush with a 2D game chock-a-block with vitality and viciousness, I've been contemplating and consuming side-scrolling flight sims.

To gain entrance to this exclusive pedant-infuriating club, a plane game must...

A) Side-scroll. (Your 1942s will be covered at a later date)

B) Make some effort to simulate air combat irritants like Gravity.

One of the very first offerings to meet both criteria was Wings of Fury on the Apple II.

Imagine if the US Navy and USAAF had lost all but three of its aircraft and all but one of its pilots at Pearl Harbour and then decided to island-hop to Japan without building/training any replacements. Imagine if you were that surviving pilot, and those three side-on planes were your glory taxis. Done imagining? You've just mindthunked Wings of Fury.

There are a couple of Windows-friendly WoF remakes available today. For my money, the best is Byte The Bullet's super-loyal, super-colourful homage. It captures the challenges and pleasures of the original nigh-on perfectly. The deep satisfaction of mastering carrier landings... the dark glee of strafing panicking IJA infantry... the desk-pounding frustration of losing your last life on Mission 5 for the 128th goshing time... it's all there. It would have been nice had the remakers added a save facility, but if you take on board the following tips you should progress far enough to understand why Wings of Fury is fondly talked of to this day.

WoF Advice For The Prang Averse

  • 1. Even taking-off can seem dashed dicey initially. The trick is taxiing to the end of the carrier to begin your run (you'll need to press E to start your engine first), keeping your finger jammed on the appropriate arrow key (left or right) until airborne, and raising your undercarriage promptly (G) after leaving the deck.

  • 2. Until you learn how to land, most of the fury in Wings of Fury is likely to be of the keyboard-thumping variety. Actually, WoF captures the challenges of landing on flat-tops better than many lite 3D flight games. The secret is to approach the CV at a fairly shallow angle from the right-hand side, aiming for the nearest end of the deck. Just as the undercarriage hits, flare (push the nose up) so that your tail drops and the arrestor hook snags one of the cables. After a bit of practise, it's surprisingly simple - which is fortunate because most missions involve several returns to rearm, refuel and repair.
  • 3. Bombing island huts and sandbagged emplacements is best done from high altitude (near the cloud base) to avoid flak. Be careful. Seemingly KOed emplacements will be re-manned by fleeing gunners after a minute or two. Strafe the scurriers to prevent this from happening. The concrete bunkers are never re-occupied but must be cracked open with rockets rather than bombs.

  • 4. On sustaining any damage it's generally wise to turn tail and head back to the carrier. The second your oil gauge needle hits zero your plane will plummet like a narcoleptic albatross.
  • 5. To finish a mission, repair, refuel, or re-arm, use the carrier's deck lift (X).

The trials and tribulations of Wings of Fury seem positively piffling when placed besides the hair-silvering hardships of another sideways sky legend. Sky Strike (1990) boasts some splendidly singular features including damageable aircraft systems, capture-able airfields and vast random landscapes, but its brutal life rationing (one fatal prang and your flying days are done) and counter-intuitive controls mean only the bravest and most adaptable bedroom Baders will survive long enough to see even a fraction of its 56 sorties.

Between you and the dogfighting, sky-writing, tunnel-flying lunacy are pitch controls that reverse on changing direction. The need to press down to go up when flying west, and down to go down when flying east will drive most people round the twist - an awful shame as Aaron and Adam Fothergill's apprentice piece is arguably the most imaginative, amusing and remake-ripe 2D flight sim around.

Similar control peculiarities, together with a low tolerance for demo nag screens, also prevents me recommending this relatively recent Triplane Turmoil sequel. Thankfully, when British TV network Channel 4 - with the help of creative media folk Fish In A Bottle - flirted with horizontal flight fare, they kept the input approach nice and logical.

Battle of Britain: 303 Squadron is a friendly flash furballer with a nice line in destruction animation and history dissemination. You play a displaced Polish fighter pilot given the opportunity by the RAF to turn natural Nazi hatred into mangled Messerschmitts. The pilot chatter and cut-scenes are - not surprisingly considering C4's involvement - a cut above most of the bilge served up by more conventional pop flight fare. Sorties aren't insultingly easy either. If the Bf 109s and Bf 110s don't get you then there's a fair chance a stall followed by a crunching uppercut from the Garden of England may.

Most of the aforementioned side-scrollers are gratis or as good as. To get your hands on FP's favourite 2D flight sim, however, you will need to spend some pennies. Six hundred and forty-nine to be precise. Pe-2 Dive Bomber is getting on for five years old now, but its well-judged mix of panzer pummelling and Luftwaffe liquidation is still scandalously little known outside select gaming circles.

An ideal week-off indulgence for the weary simmer that can't quite face memorising another cockpit layout or enduring another uneventful thirty minute patrol, Pe-2 comes with a 48 mission campaign generously sprinkled with Great Patriotic War events and machines. As the months and sorties roll by, you find yourself doing your bit in legendary battles like Stalingrad, Kursk, and Sevastopol; your bullets and bombs regularly discover new chronologically appropriate breeds of Fascist warbeast to disembowel. Polynetix insert the history with the same assured touch they insert the sim-style subtleties.

This is is a game where limping back to base in a one-more-hit-and-I've-had-it crate is a regular occurrence. It's a game where the pleasure of strafing and the hunger for mission rewards (25 authentic medal types, plus tech points used to unlock plane improvements for subsequent missions) occasionally leads to heartbreaking and wholly avoidable contretemps with trees and buildings.

Not that collisions are always fatal. Though Pe-2's flight model is distinctly floaty and stall-resistant, it is just about smart enough to discern the difference between a slight brush with a birch and a nose-dive into a hillside.

I'm about two thirds of the way through a campaign at present, and enjoying every minute of it. My last sortie involved a spot of recon photography and partisan resupply as well as a gratifying dash of ground-pounding and dogfighting. That dogfighting - like most fighter vs. fighter engagements in the game - was rather crude: a to-the-death series of head-on passes - but positioning myself in the blindspots of the Heinkels and Stukas that came along later, did involve a bit of deft mouse-work.

As long as you don't buy (or try) this beautifully balanced and surprisingly varied slice of side-scrolling Soviet history expecting IL-2 in two dimensions, you shouldn't be disappointed.

So what of the future of winged warfare in 2D? Well, prospects aren't totally bleak. One of the sub-genre's keenest chroniclers is busy making his own WWI effort. News of Storm Clouds Over the Western Front progress has been scarce of late, but forum evidence suggests work continues.


The Flare Path Foxer

FP's desk is a frightful mess. Stacks of magazines and books. Discarded buns. Photographs of people that no longer exist. This morning he was sitting there contemplating the chaos when he noticed something strange about his tangle of coloured rubber bands...

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About the Author

Tim Stone