When the Dreamcast launched, aircraft fanatics had two choices: Konami's Air Force Delta or Crave's Aerowings. Though neither proved a raging success, Aerowings, an aerial acrobatics simulation, went on to develop a minor cult following. VMU replays appeared on the Internet, the number of FAQs rose, and, thanks to markdowns at retailers, the game's "word of mouth" appeal skyrocketed. While not an instant success, the mixture of Pilotwings-style acrobatics with simulation flying made believers out of many people. Hoping to cater to this already established niche and attract newcomers, Crave is back with a combat-oriented sequel, Aerowings 2: Air Strike.
As the name implies, this second installment in the series isn't an acrobatics trainer, but an aerial combat training simulation. That's right, Aerowings 2 is not a war game. Its sole purpose is to train you to be a combat pilot, not actually throw you into the heat of conflict. To achieve its goal, Air Strike's feature list is diverse, yet focused. The 30 fighter pilot missions are your training ground, the means by which you prove you have what it takes to pilot the game's more robust fighter jets. Once you acquire a few skills, you can move on to the 15 tactical challenges. Unlike the fighter pilot missions, these challenges revolve around live targets and true-to-life combat situations. Thankfully, they also reward you with new planes to fly. If you want to pilot the likes of the F/A-18 or F-15, completing the tactical challenges is the way to go. All told, through mission completion, kills, and flight-time accrual, you can earn 25 separate aircraft. While some, such as the F-15, F-15DJ, and F-15DJ Aggressor 2 are merely variations of a theme, other planes - such as the XF-3 Super Recipro and F-2B Support Fighter - offer noticeable differences in speed and maneuverability.
Aerowings 2 also has a free flight mode, which, at first glance, seems like nothing more than a way to waste time and rack up kills. However, as you progress, it is actually this mode that becomes the most addictive. First, the only way to adequately practice takeoffs, ground landings, and carrier landings is in free flight, as the training missions don't offer enough freedom to explore as one might like. If you have an active imagination, you can also spend a great deal of time figuring out just what the game will let you do. Landing on freeways and highways or buzzing skyscrapers is fine, but watch out for parking lot speed bumps - they'll rip your fuselage to pieces. You can also vary the weather in free flight mode, so you can experience the joy of facing off against ace pilots in a snowstorm or just partake of a nighttime joyride. The possibilities in free flight are literally endless, bound only by a two-bogey limit and the span of your imagination. If all you care about is blowing things up, the free flight mode may grow old quickly, but if you enjoy realistic aircraft piloting and "what if?" scenarios, you'll be captivated for hours. Similar to the free flight mode, a split-screen versus mode enables you challenge human opponents to split-screen duels.
While Aerowings 2 is strong on features, this attempt at diversity would be nothing without good gameplay and control. Thankfully, the game epitomizes these requirements. Air Strike offers two types of control: standard and professional. On standard, tasks such as landing gear deployment, G-force alterations, and G-LOC avoidance are handled automatically, enabling you to concentrate on combat maneuvers. By setting the game to professional, these automatic controls are put under your jurisdiction, and G-force physics are brutally enforced. You get more realism and speed this way, but the need for precision flying increases. Air Strike's default setting is forgiving, but not so much that one considers the game a cakewalk. For acceleration, the A and B buttons control engine output, while y-axis physics are realistically implemented. If your nose is pointing down, your plane can move faster and bank more swiftly. However, if you're ascending, turning radius is reduced, and it takes higher engine outputs to achieve propulsion. The left and right analog triggers allow for precision banking adjustments, while the analog stick controls pitch and roll. As an added bonus over Air Force Delta, you can actually barrel-roll, spin, and jink, meaning that you can use something other than an Immelmann turn to evade missiles.
Aerowings 2's control system is similar to the first release, albeit with a few subtle changes. Since this is a combat trainer, the Y button no longer produces smoke, but instead fires weapons. At ranges under 500 meters, high velocity cannons or machine guns are at your disposal, while modified sidewinder missiles are equipped for opponents farther away. Aiming and weapon choice is automatic, depending on the situation. For the most part, this isn't a problem, as the automatic targeting system is a good judge of distance and emulates realistic firing mechanisms very well. However, against grouped targets, the targeting system is as useful as a carrier-launched potato gun. CPU opponents take advantage of it, too - they'll sometimes fly in close formation in front of one another just to hinder missile lock. It may emulate a real targeting system, but it's pretty aggravating.
In terms of gameplay, Air Strike takes the Aerowings engine and tweaks the devil out of it. Depending on the aircraft, you can perform a wide array of high-G, low-G, high altitude, and low altitude maneuvers. If you're 15,000 feet up, the decrease in air friction enables easier banking and rolls, but your plane has a tendency to lower its nose. If you're closer to the ground, air density is higher, making turns more difficult and loops a bad idea. Frankly, the attention to detail is overwhelming. Launching missiles lessens your aircraft's weight and increases velocity, while jinking from side to side or lifting your nose lowers maneuverability and thrust output. Altitude and weather also alter your ability to fly. Cruising above a thunderstorm at 15,000 feet is easy, but trying to drop into a low-G yo-yo at 3,000 feet is a real pain. Play the game long enough, and you'll be criticizing the implausibility of Top Gun and Iron Eagle for years.
Excellent control and physics are useless without decent AI, and Aerowings 2 doesn't disappoint. In early missions or on low difficulty settings, enemy pilots perform an amount of evasion and create an amount of pressure that feels neither oppressive nor deficient. By the time you reach mission 30 or challenge "hard" level pilots, though, you may find yourself wearing your bottom as a hat. On the plus side, the enemy pilots have to cope with the same physical constraints that you do, meaning that they can't just avoid your missiles at will or abuse their roles as CPU opponents. If you're at 600 meters and they're coming out of a roll, they're toast. Of course, if they get behind you while you're executing a low speed turn, they'll blow your wing section to bits. Most important of all, however, Air Strike's abundance of detail doesn't diminish its lasting appeal. Though it may be a sim, the gameplay in Aerowings 2 makes snaking through the skies after smart aggressors fun as well.
In what is almost overkill, Air Strike delivers in the area of visuals also, lifting the bar in every possible way over the first Aerowings. Aircraft are perfectly detailed, replete with military logos and camouflage, and contain a number of visible, moving parts. Rudders and ailerons tilt, gear wheels and propellers spin, and engines glow with the subtle tinge of rocket burn. When you incur a nonfatal hit or deliver a few rounds into an enemy, there are also smoke effects and visible damage. Environmental design exhibits a similar level of refinement. Noontime sunlight glows off buildings, and clouds form a subtle mist as you plow through them. The game's 19 locales aren't as creative or diverse as those in the first Aerowings, but with 90 percent less pop-up, more weather effects, and an increase in clarity, the sequel is still a huge improvement. CRI also adjusted the tail and cockpit camera angles too, lessening the claustrophobia factor that plagued the first installment.
Another aspect that Aerowings 2 excels in visually is its replay function. Unlike many titles that replay the last few seconds of a flight or make you sit through a series of omniscient camera angles, Aerowings 2 gives you total control. You can view the action from one of 20 camera angles, switching on the fly. There are toggles to enable or disable letterboxing, onscreen displays, and background music, while fast-forward, rewind, and pause features let you go back and change the camera angles you dislike. When finished, you can then watch the masterpiece you've created or save it to a VMU for later viewing in the replay theater. It may seem silly, but once you start playing with the controls and rehashing prior flights, the replay mode just adds to the addiction factor of the game. Even if you don't like the replay features, you can at least use them to rejoin a situation from any point you wish, allowing you to fix a fatal faux pas or avoid wasting five minutes of flight time before reattempting the good stuff.
Considering the attention to detail in every other aspect of the game, it's hard to believe Aerowings 2 has an Achilles heel. However, it does - music. While cannon, engine, missile, explosion, and cockpit sounds are realistic and jarring, the background music supporting them is altogether repetitive and nondescript. There are at least six unique music tracks throughout the game, but the Top Gun-style anthem and ambient jungle thunderstorm track gather airplay on a level three times that of other accompaniments. Things never get so bad as to distract, but one can only take Top Gun anthem reject #57 for so long.
Aerowings 2 boils down to excellent gameplay, copious replay, and creamy visuals, marred ever so slightly by chintzy music. The title may be misleading, but Air Strike makes no bones about being a combat training simulation. Because of this distinction, it's impossible to fairly compare it to existing simulation or arcade flight titles. As such, Aerowings 2: Air Strike ends up best of breed in its own genre, existing as neither a war game nor a flight simulator. Furthermore, since the premise is so unique, it also has the potential to attract an audience of gamers that otherwise wouldn't consider traditional shooters or flight sims.