For a purported war epic, Flyboys didn't have much of a tour of duty in multiplexes last summer. This thriller about air aces in World War I lasted about as long as the average flier did in one of those canvas crates that saw action over France back in the day. Still, the movie stuck around in theaters probably for a lot longer than its officially licensed game will hang around on your hard drive. Flyboys Squadron is an all-around disappointment, with a practically nonexistent single-player mode, awkward controls, dubious multiplayer value, and visuals and sound so old that they belong in a museum alongside Snoopy's Sopwith Camel.
Taking that old British plane up for a spin couldn't be much more frustrating than flying the virtual equivalent of it here. For starters, even though you might think that you're getting the usual arcade-friendly movie tie-in game, you're actually getting a hardcore flight sim based on Interactive Magic's Dawn of Aces series. This isn't exactly bad, of course, as the game provides a fulfilling depiction of what it was like to fly rickety contraptions over Flanders Field during the Great War. But the flight model is still a lot more rigorous than the packaging indicates. Casual gamers and moviegoers expecting to soar into the wild blue yonder and start blasting Fokkers just like in the flick will be surprised at how tough it is to point planes in the right direction, let alone shoot anybody down. There are autopilot options to take off, land, and fly and fight during missions (the game will even shoot for you), though it's hard to see why anyone would bother with them because they reduce you to the role of spectator.
Of course, demanding flight models are OK if you've got the right audience and an acceptable number of tutorials and missions that let people get the hang of what they're supposed to be doing. Flyboys drops the ball on both accounts, though. Although a fair number of the 12 solo missions are dedicated to training, the first basic flight is conducted with the autopilot on, and the next two, which cover takeoffs, landings, and basic dogfighting with blanks, offer little interactivity. You end up hashing everything out for yourself, so you might as well skip these training flights and go straight into real combat with the German enemies.
Or maybe not. Most of the combat missions aren't all that engaging, either. Once you take out the three training flights, there are just nine actual combat assignments in the solo campaign. They're only vaguely connected with the plot of the movie through character names and the odd photograph, and they tend to either be over in mere moments or drag on far too long. The two gun-turret missions where you man the rear-gunner position on a plane and take over an ack-ack gun defending Paris from German boats and planes wrap up in a few minutes apiece. And the climactic battle with an enemy zeppelin on the way to bomb Paris kicks off with a good 5 to 10 minutes of just following your buddies to the airship and its escorts. You can kick in the autopilot during these slow periods, but you still have to sit through entire flights in real time since there is no fast-forward button to speed things up. All in all, you can rip through the solo campaign in an hour or two.
There is more to the game than just the single-player campaign, though. One of the big selling points is being able to go online and take part in massively multiplayer dogfights on the iEntertainment Network's Total Sims site against an almost unlimited number of players. You get a dozen or so aircraft to pilot, including famous models like the Fokker D.VII, the Nieuport 17, and the already mentioned Sopwith Camel. But it's pretty tough going, especially if you come in as a Flyboys movie fan looking for more arcade-oriented combat flying. There aren't too many people playing the game online right now, either. You can often pop into scraps with six or seven players, but the arena maps are so huge that it can be tough to really get into battle with enemies. So the game often feels deserted.
Also, buying Flyboys to play it online doesn't make a lot of financial sense. Dawn of Aces III is essentially the same game as Flyboys, and right now you get it as a free download along with four other games when you sign up with Total Sims for $13.95 per month. Flyboys and Dawn of Aces III players even compete against one another in the same online arena. So, basically, you're paying $30 here for the solo missions and the movie tie-in content. You do get one free online month with your Flyboys purchase, but still, the numbers don't exactly add up in the customer's favor here.
Visual and sound quality is pretty bottom of the barrel. When viewed from above, the ground looks fantastic, as it is apparently based on maps of the actual French countryside over which WWI air aces fought, and the sky provides a pretty backdrop. However, planes are mostly lacking in detail beyond basic wing markings. You have to be right on top of an enemy to see much aside from a black, jaggy silhouette, although there are brief moments of beauty when the sun hits a plane just right. The game is hideous when you're on the ground. Character models and buildings have no textures or detail. The mission where you man gun turrets to defend "Paris" is hilarious, based solely on what the developers are passing off as the Eiffel Tower. At least the frame rate flies no matter how many planes are onscreen. Audio effects are so annoying that it's hard to play the game with the sound on. Enemy bullets hit your plane with a tinny, repetitive plink and plane motors whir in what's probably a realistic, but still aggravating, drone.
If you dug it out of a box of cereal, or got it free with your movie ticket last summer, you might not think too harshly of Flyboys Squadron. However, as a retail game, it's a dubious value and is misleading for movie fans looking for a game that lets them hop into a biplane and immediately start shooting down zeppelins.