Flight combat games aren't the most popular genre on consoles, but once in a while we get a gem such as Ace Combat or Crimson Skies. Rebel Raiders: Operation Nighthawk isn't on the level of those games, with its simplistic flight and combat modeling, as well as its budget-oriented presentation. If all you're looking for is a little mindless destruction, though, it's not all that bad, but there are much better options available.
Rebel Raiders is set in the future during a stereotypical struggle between an overbearing government empire and some plucky rebels looking to shake things up. You play as a jet pilot for the rebellion, and while there's a decent amount of radio dialogue between you, your commander, and your wingmen, the game's plot is quite thin and doesn't really play much of a factor in the experience. This game is strictly about you flying a jet around and blowing up other jets, attacking large destroyers and bombers, and occasionally strafing some fixed ground targets. If that sounds good, then you're in luck, because that's about all you'll do in the game. Rebel Raiders' mission design is very repetitive, in that all the missions involve you taking on wave after wave of enemy fighters, attacking the hardpoints of a capital ship, and maybe shooting down some bombers or strafing some ground turrets. The game's campaign won't take you more than a sitting or two to get through, and the 16 challenges available are basically repeats of campaign missions with time limits or weapon restrictions tacked on. It's all a very arcade-like experience, so if you don't mind the mindless monotony and are just looking to blow stuff up, then Rebel Raiders will deliver that in an easy-to-play package. There are, unfortunately, no multiplayer modes in Rebel Raiders, so once you're done with all the missions and challenges, there's nothing else to do.
Rebel Raiders isn't set on rails, so you can fly in any direction you like and freely roam the skies, varying altitude as needed. The combat areas aren't extremely large, but they're big enough for you to never feel hemmed in. You'll fly in and around canyons, as well as over enemy bases and other areas. The environmental textures in the game are unfortunately quite muddy, so there are no gorgeous views from high up in the sky. There also isn't very much variety or detail in any of the enemy aircraft models, including the turrets and capital ships you attack. The three aircraft that you fly in the game do exhibit a decent level of intricacy, with movable flaps and bright afterburners, and the frame rate remains steady throughout, even when there are a lot of airborne fighters. At times when the action gets very thick, with missiles rocketing toward their targets, the scene may begin to elicit memories of dogfights in something like Macross, but for the most part, the visual landscape in Rebel Raiders is pretty plain. As far as sound goes, there are a few decent music tracks that quickly get as repetitive as the gameplay, while the explosions and weapon sounds are unremarkable.
The flight model in the game is pretty simple. You never have to worry about takeoffs or landings--you simply steer your jet with the left analog stick and control speed with three of the shoulder buttons. There are two levels of afterburner, as well as an airbrake that can slow you down for tighter turns or more control on strafing runs. There's no fuel to worry about, so you can use afterburners as much as you wish to catch up to enemy jets.
The combat model in the game is also easy to pick up. Each aircraft has two kinds of weapons--guns and a secondary weapon, such as guided missiles or a shotgun spray. You have unlimited ammunition but can only carry a small amount of ordnance at a time. When your gun or missile rack runs dry, you just press a button to reload. It's kind of a bizarre compromise between having unlimited ammo and having truly limitless shots--in practice, you'll find yourself tapping the reload button every few seconds or so to top off on bullets. There's also a special-weapons mode, which requires you to hold lock on a target for a few seconds before you can unleash a volley that will generally kill a target in a single shot. This special-weapons mode is limited by a meter that's recharged by killing enemies. Since the enemies just fly around back and forth, there isn't much challenge at all--in that sense, Rebel Raiders plays almost closer to a shoot-'em-up than a flight combat game.
The heads-up display clearly marks all the enemies onscreen for you and points you toward your next set of targets, so you always know exactly where to go. If you close in on an enemy, you can lock them in to fire off your secondary weapon. Enemies can fire missiles at you, and the way the game handles this is somewhat interesting. You'll see a missile-lock warning pop up, and a few seconds later, the rocket will appear behind you. You have to watch carefully for the missile's secondary engine to kick in, at which point you press the barrel-roll button to dodge the missile. The timing on this is very forgiving, so unless you're not paying any attention at all, you should just about never take damage from a missile. You can take damage from enemy gunfire and flak, though, which will drain your shields. However, each enemy aircraft you shoot down will recharge your shields, and since there are usually a lot of targets to shoot down, there are plenty of opportunities to keep your shields maxed out. The computer-controlled wingmen aren't very skilled at taking down enemy aircraft, so you don't have to worry about them taking opportunities away from you, either.
Rebel Raiders: Operation Nighthawk looks, feels, sounds, and plays like a budget flight combat game. The game design is very straightforward, and the included single-player campaign is brief and repetitive. It's the sort of game you could imagine playing in the arcades of yesteryear for a quarter at a time and then forgetting about immediately. You'll get about that same level of satisfaction from this game, as well.