Average Joes looking for the chance to fly the unfriendly skies of Europe during World War II should enlist with Air Battles: Sky Defender. While this Pilot Entertainment game screams low budget at times and takes a casual approach to aerial combat that won't please hardcore simulation fans, its great looks and easy, breezy design make it a treat for those looking for something relatively light. Only the lack of proper campaigns and online multiplayer keep it from ace status.
Despite the goofy name that would be more appropriate for an old movie serial than a combat flight sim, Sky Defender is actually a dry look at the European air war during WWII. There are no flights of fancy or Crimson Skies-style wackiness here, just a collection of one-off missions where you hop into the cockpits of such famous British and German aircraft as the Spitfire, Stuka, and Me-109 to shoot it out over English farmland, the English Channel, and the rural countryside of occupied France. Rookie pilots can earn their wings before taking on the enemy, thanks to suites of basic, advanced, and military training assignments. These assignments get you up and running with all the basic concepts of flying and fighting, including everything from making a controlled turn and stall recovery to taking off as part of a squadron.
If you get into a real furball, it will feel just about as scripted as the training missions. All of the assignments are purely fictional, and each is geared to illustrate a stereotypical WWII aerial scrap, focusing on a single iconic style of battle. You take part in dive bombing, low-level attacks on airfields, raids on merchant shipping convoys, and dogfighting against everything from a single British aircraft to huge waves of German fighters and bombers blitzing London at dawn. Mission parameters can also be changed, which lets you custom-rig missions in a limited way by flipping back and forth between Axis and Allies. You can choose your plane, as well as set the time of day and weather conditions.
One thing that can't be altered is the pace. Even though Sky Defender is a casual flight sim, missions share very little with action-first arcade fliers. Most battles start with you close to the action, but you can't just race forward and start blasting everything in sight. Engagements are generally drawn out, and a fair amount of time is spent simply turning, chasing, and stalking enemy fighters and bombers. As in real WWII dogfights, tracking the enemy and striking precisely is the goal here. Flying headlong at waves of aircraft or even an airfield will only get you a quick trip to terra firma.
Still, you've got a good chance of staying aloft. In keeping with the "My First Flight Sim" theme, flight characteristics are extremely forgiving. Although the game has novice and realistic settings, neither is very punishing. Bumping up the difficulty to realistic just seems to result in more stalls and more problems with such things as causing self-inflicted damage by cranking up your speed too high for too long. This will seem a bit like flyboy romper room for experienced flight sim fans, but that appears to be the point. The lack of a demanding flight model lets newbies gain Battle of Britain skills in mere minutes. Controls are also fairly simplified, while the keyboard is responsive and easy to use. You're not gaining much, if anything, by going to a stick, which is an impressive accomplishment because so many casual flight sims get grounded by unwieldy keyboard commands.
Visuals are another plus. Unlike so many budget games, Sky Defender looks and sounds good. The menus are hideous, and the air battles online option on the main screen is a fake-out that takes you to the game's official Web site, but the in-game graphics are just shy of gorgeous. Planes look great and are loaded with colorful details, such as pilot insignias. Bullets also create a nifty trail as they cut through the air. The only drawback is static, slightly blurry terrain that makes it tough to tell how high you are above the ground when strafing or dive-bombing airfields. The engine balances beauty and speed in the way it handles battles that feature 100 or more fighters and bombers without a hitch in the frame rate. Audio effects are also impressive, unless you're a music buff because there are no tunes in the game at all. Pilots shout "Shoot! Shoot!" a little too often, but they also have a wide range of comments that make you believe you're in the midst of an actual dogfight. Cries for help and boasts about victories do a lot to increase the tension when things get hairy. The sound of clipped British accents, propellers, bullets whistling through the air, and the wind blowing past your open cockpit also enhance the atmosphere.
It won't win any awards, but Air Battles: Sky Defender does exactly what it intends to do. This is a budget game with some of the issues common to such releases, but it also provides great bang for your buck and serves as a good, solid flight-sim primer for anyone looking to become a virtual aerial ace.