Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Ace Maddox
Publisher: Ace Maddox
Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher.
Flying games are a bit of a rare breed on console, so when one turns up its hard not to get a little excited about leaping into the cockpit and shooting down some unlucky pilots. This one from developer Ace Maddox was actually released on PC back in 2017, so its had a lot of feedback since then and plenty of time for changes to be made before its Xbox One debut on January 12th.
During the Second World War there were American pilots in the Chinese airforce helping to repel the Japanese attacks, their shark-nosed design being well-known around the world. It’s this that acts as the backdrop of the game, jumping you between a variety of aircraft on a series of missions that aren’t really interconnected by any sort of story. In fact, the game itself seems a tad confused by who exactly you are, referring to you by gamertag during briefings and debriefings like you’re a specific pilot, but then placing you in the boots of nameless pilots in a bunch of different planes.
It’s unfair to really criticise the campaign for a lack of objective variety, but it’s true nonetheless and worth mentioning. Still, to the developer’s credit they try their best by swapping you between fighters and bombers, sometimes having you battle a swarm of incoming Japanese planes, sometimes getting you to bomb runways or drop torpedoes on a ship. One mission has you gunning down convoys of trucks on a mountain pass, including some medical vehicles which prompts a pilot to say that they hadn’t signed up for things like that, a potentially emotional beat that gets swept back under the rug as soon as its said, before you then get to tackle a Japanese ace pilot at low levels through the ravine. It’s a small highlight in an otherwise forgettable campaign, each mission blending into the other.
Given the obviously budget it feels unfair to call the game’s presentation poor, but it’s the truth and is part of the reason why the campaign doesn’t feel hugely engaging. The ground detail is entirely lacking, looking for like an indistinct surface occasionally littered with buildings, and weather effects are laughable. The only half-decent things are the planes themselves, but even then they aren’t the beautifully recreated machines that you’d wish for in a game like this.
As for the audio the machines guns of the fighters lack the violent punch that a gun strapped to a flying tin can should produce, and it’s clearly a looped effect that awkwardly starts up, especially if you hold the button for a split-second. To the developer’s credit, however, there are different sounds for the various caliber’s of gun. Everything else is merely passable, the ting of bullets hitting your plane and of yours hitting other people’s is okay and the engines sound…well, they don’t have the throaty roar you’d expect, but once again it’s passable.
Now, given the budget it’s a little surprising to hear full voice-over throughout the game, something which even much more expensive titles sometimes don’t have. However, some of the accents are almost offensive in how badly done they are, coming across as caricatures rather than actual people, especially some of the Indian accents that pop up during one mission.
Overall it feels like a game from the Xbox 360 era rather than something on a 2018 console.
Oh, and despite launching on PC in early 2017 and plenty of players demanding it only about 50% of the planes have a cockpit view, with the other half having absolutely nothing.
Some good flying action could save things, though, right?
If you’re looking for a dedicated simulator that spends every bit of your console’s processing power on a realistic physics system then turn away now, this is firmly in arcade territory with the only thing limiting your guns being overheating, and an infinite supply of replenishing bombs with which to rain down terror on soldiers who are having a really crappy day.
The act of flying is a tad more realistic in that planes have a nice sense of weight about them, especially the bigger, heavier bombers who must be lugged around rather than flown gracefully. Still, this is far from a simulator like I said, so you can chuck your plane around quite a lot before it’ll begin stalling, and you can even get a brief speed boost by holding the right trigger until your engine overheats. If you perform a loop the screen will start to blacken to indicate a blackout, but it doesn’t actually seem possible to go unconscious due to extreme g-force, so again the game definitely leans toward arcade shooting.
When you bring the shooting and flying together it’s…well, mostly forgettable stuff. It’s not terrible, but it does seem like the enemy A.I. in the campaign is using an entirely different flying model to your own and they aren’t exactly a smart bunch, quite often resorting to the Peter Griffin evasion method of flying slightly off to the left while you pepper them with a hail of bullets. They can also soak up an absurd amount of bullets, so many fights boil down to you holding down the trigger while a hail of seemingly ineffectual bullets hammers into the enemy plane before then patiently waiting for the guns to cool so you can do it again. And possibly even again, because judging what ranges the weapons are useful at involves a lot of guessing. Sometimes you might aim at the hand-dandy aiming reticle which shows you how far ahead to aim, pull the trigger and watch as nothing happens to the enemy health bar.
Sometimes, though, the enemy A.I. seems to remember that it’s in a dogfight and suddenly you’ll get a proper battle. The enemy can be rather good at getting themselves behind you, and shaking a persistent foe can be good fun, as can a few of the campaign’s bigger scraps with dozens of planes circling. Enemy ace pilots can also be a blast to fight against, although their increased health can sometimes make a dogfight feel more like you’re trying to escape through a concrete prison wall using a plastic spoon.
In other words, there are moments when the game feels like quite good fun, such as when you swoop down on a flight of enemy bombers or fly in low to attack some ships. A couple of campaign levels mix things up with stuff like having to destroy a bridge before a train reaches it, and the fact that you get to jump between planes helps keep things moving. I’m not a fan of how bombing in the larger planes involves you having to use the bombers downward view while still flying the plane, but getting to unleash a barrage of fiery death is a laugh.
These flashes of something better don’t come often enough, though, and most of the time I felt like I was playing a generic flying game that was launched back in the Xbox 360 era.
Outside of the 4-6 hour campaign there are a few other options, starting with a straight-up dogfight mode where you can battle against the A.I. to the death, or there’s challenge mode which injects some basic objectives into the mix such as staying alive a certain amount of time.
Multiplayer solves the issue of inconsistent enemy A.I. by tossing you against inconsistent humans instead, and if you can find a game then it’s actually quite fun to get into a tense dogfight with up to fifteen other players. I got review code ahead of the official launch, though, so at the moment it’s hard to really judge connection quality and the size of the player base.
Finally, before we wrap up this review I do have to commend Ace Maddox for a bug-free experience, something that I don’t come across very often these days. I think the only thing I ran into was a few trees popping in.
So, in the end, there’s a passable arcade flight game to be found here at a budget price. It isn’t going to amaze you and frankly there are other options like War Thunder that are probably a better choice, but if you have a bit of cash to spare and have a love of World War II aircraft you may get a few hours of mild enjoyment out of Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China.
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