Space sims and flight sims are both rarities on the PC these days. Echelon: Wind Warriors manages to combine both genres, letting you hop into futuristic fighters and soar across planetary surfaces while dogfighting and raining destruction on ground targets. This unusual blend of genres makes Wind Warriors worth a look. When you look closely, though, you see that it's a simple retread of the original Echelon, released back in 2001. The missions are new, but the gameplay and graphics are nearly identical in all the essentials, making it feel like you're playing the same old game taken out of a new box. Many of the problems that marred the original game rear their ugly heads again, and new ones also pop up, making it hard to enjoy Wind Warriors' strengths.
Once again, you play as a generic pilot fighting a generic enemy in a generic setting. A good game should have some real emotional pull, making you hate your enemies, love your allies, and feel a real sense of accomplishment when you've saved the day. You won't find those things in Wind Warriors. When fighting through the game's 40 stand-alone and campaign missions, you feel like you're merely zipping around and blasting stuff for the heck of it. Storytelling and world-building, such as they are, mainly take place through dry, wordy text mission briefings. In-game radio chatter adds a little ambience, though not the sort you'd like: A lot of it consists of your base commander repeatedly and gratuitously cussing at you and your wingmen.
Just like the original Echelon, Wind Warriors puts you in the cockpit of various fighters, each with unique max speed, maneuverability, and weapon mounts. Some ships are fast and nimble but limited to a few weapons, while others lumber along like flying tanks. You can outfit your craft with various rechargeable energy weapons, as well as machine guns, cannons, rockets, and guided missiles. (The presence of guided missiles makes you wonder why these futuristic fighters mostly lack the sort of countermeasures and stealth technology found on real fighters today--quite an odd omission.)
Wind Warriors lets you control the fighters with various mouse arrangements or a joystick. We found mouse control more trouble than it was worth; a joystick made flight and combat easier and added a little immersion. Whichever way you control your ship, you'll see that the physics bear only a passing relation to reality. Inertia, gravity, and drag all get a simplified treatment here. That makes the flying accessible but shallow. You'll note, for example, that your ship will often bounce off objects. Once, our fighter struck a mountainside, and instead of blowing up, it started to fly backward at high speed into the stratosphere, as if it had rammed into a colossal rubber band. Sometimes your craft will indeed explode on impact, but quite possibly at the hands of the buggy autopilot feature that sometimes steers you into hills instead of over them.
On the bright side, the game's missions and terrain are at least superficially varied. You'll race through treacherous canyons to avoid enemy radar, roar over plains as ground units slug it out below, and get tangled in whirling dogfights. If you want simple, fast action, you'll find it here. The missions start to blur together really quickly, though. Also, Wind Warriors frequently makes a mess of letting you know exactly what you're supposed to be doing and why. Mission briefings can be vague, and the constant barrage of radio and text messages during flight can be distracting instead of helpful. It's surprising that Wind Warriors doesn't include a feature found in so many games: a clear, accessible checklist that shows you what specific objectives still need to be accomplished and where.
Even if you know what you're doing, missions can be a drag because of all the repetition, as well as the downtime as you laboriously fly from one distant waypoint to the next. There's a time-compression feature, but why should you have to turn it on all the time to avoid dozing off? You can't save your progress during missions, either; one mistake, and it's back to square one. That omission wears thin fast since many of the missions are too difficult and therefore become highly repetitive, since they're scripted to play out the same way each time. As in the original Echelon, you'll also find that your wingmen are of questionable use, just as apt to run into you as to kill the enemy. (The developers seem to know this, poking fun at "dumb" AI in a bizarre remark on one briefing screen.)
Fortunately, some of the independent missions outside of the campaign are straightforward deathmatch free-for-alls where you respawn immediately after dying. These are the missions that highlight Wind Warriors' strengths. There's little depth, but there is nonstop action, and there are plenty of opportunities to try out numerous fighter and weapon combos. The game also sports multiplayer for up to 48 players over a LAN or the Internet, though we could never connect to a server. It seems that the US version of the game isn't compatible with the latest European versions at this time.
It's a shame that Wind Warriors does little to update the presentation of the original Echelon, basically recycling that game's graphics. A game about futuristic fighters and alien worlds just begs for the deluxe graphics treatment, but what looked darn impressive in the original Echelon three years ago looks only OK today. Many of the fighters again look generic, as does much of the terrain, though the latter is at least fairly well detailed and boasts impressive view distances. Weapons fire and explosions are brilliantly colored and dramatic, adding some much-needed flash to the otherwise humdrum visuals.
The audio is merely passable. All the radio messages are clear enough, though some of the accents are pretty hokey. The dialogue itself is horrible: "The base is as blind as a liquored-up old lady"? Engines and weapons often sound weak and flabby. The music, heard only on the menu screen, is downright absurd: Imagine a Euro-techno version of the lounge jazz from No One Lives Forever. It boggles the mind that such unsuitable music would be included in a sci-fi combat game.
It's hard to get enthusiastic about Echelon: Wind Warriors. It feels for all the world like a mission pack for a decent but unexceptional 3-year-old game. Judging by the game box, though, an unsuspecting buyer would assume it's a completely original, new game since no mention is made of the first Echelon. Wind Warriors' dogfights can be a bit of fun, but its campaign is a bore, old problems remain, new ones have arisen, and you won't find new features of real worth. Echelon: Wind Warriors isn't a bad game, so much as a mediocre and totally unambitious one.