Aerowings 2: Air Strike Hands-On

Aerowings fans who have longed for something more than balloon popping will soon get their wish. With refined graphics, more camera angles, upgraded physics, new maneuvers, and "live" combat, Aerowings 2: Air Strike ups the ante.

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When Crave announced it would release a combat-based sequel to the original Aerowings, many wondered if the game would sacrifice realism and become an Air Force Delta clone. Judging from some hands-on time with the game, it is safe to say that Aerowings 2: Air Strike is no clone, but rather a full-scale refinement of the previous release. Developer CRI has added more views, more replay options, more aircraft, and a plethora of new missions. Additionally, the game's graphical engine has undergone a complete overhaul. With that in mind, what follows is a detailed report.

After the initial intro movie, I observed the attract mode demo for a few moments. Not bad. A huge F-16 came into view, performed a barrel roll, locked onto an enemy target, and took it out with a missile. There were smoke effects galore and a number of airsickness-inducing maneuvers, but the frame rate remained steady. Would the game look as good?

With that question in mind, I launched into free-flight mode with the T-3 Recipro trainer, figuring that the terrain visuals would offer the best first impression. Unlike the original, where terrain became blocky and funny-looking as you flew closer to the ground, Air Strike's terrain actually becomes more defined and more realistic. As the plane nears ground level, multilevel buildings, skyscrapers, lakes, freeways, and other landmarks all come into view. You can actually fly between buildings, swoop under bridges, and even nip the water.

The airplane models and environment effects seem a touch more refined than those of last year's release. I've not progressed very far into the game, but the first eight aircraft all have the proper canopy details, wing trim, and "realistic moving parts." Engine exhaust, mist effects, and lens flares also make their triumphant return. The game's missile and cannon effects don't appear overly realistic, but watching a guided missile snake sideways up an opponent's tailpipe still looks cool. Weapon choice is limited to one type of machine gun and a single brand of guided missile, however.

While weather added to the splendor of the original Aerowings, it didn't have much effect on the actual gameplay. In contrast, CRI has taken Air Strike's weather physics up a notch. Rain, fog, thunder, lightning, and a variety of meteorological conditions will affect how you fly. Within a storm, there is friction and turbulence, but above the clouds, it's silky smooth.. For kicks, I decided to see what it would be like to challenge two bogeys to a dogfight above an ocean snowstorm. The control was so shaky that I ended up stalling out and crashing while trying to avoid missile lock. Score one for realism.

In keeping with the first Aerowings, the sequel includes a number of adjustable viewpoints. The cockpit, near, and formation views still offer the best vantage points with respect to the environment you're in. However, there are nine other viewpoints to take advantage of, provided you activate their use in the options mode. It's not practical to fly in rotating camera view, but it's certainly amusing. The replay mode pushes this to extremes, giving you eight more views to play with, in addition to a widescreen cinema toggle. Not only can you watch your mission or free-flight replays, but you can also rewind, fast-forward, and adjust the views innumerable times - and then save the result to your memory card if you wish. There doesn't seem to be much limit on how versatile the replay cameras are, allowing for some pretty Matrix-like homemade demos.

In terms of gameplay, the next thing I tried was the training mission, which acquaints you with the mechanics of flying and explains the game's overall purpose. Returning pilots will notice that the controls are similar to those of the prior release, albeit with a few notable alterations. Instead of using the X button to toggle between views, you now use left and right D-pad presses. Since the game is no longer 100 percent acrobatics, the Y button fires weapons instead of smoke. There's also a fuel gauge to be wary of now.

The training mission also highlights another change from the previous title: pacing. If the slow drawl and snail's pace of the first Aerowings brought about fatigue, you'll find the motormouth trainers in Air Strike a welcome change. Take this with a grain of salt, though, as you also have to react quicker to their orders. I'm not sure whether it's the frame rate or an intended speed boost, but reaction time is definitely a factor in this sequel. Another alteration from the previous title is the fact that you can jump through the key points of each briefing. To get to the meat of the task, the first Aerowings forced you to sit through the entire spiel of the narrator's briefing. In Air Strike, you can hit X to fast-forward to the pertinent points.

The game's main focus is the fighter-pilot missions mode. Each of these missions covers a variety of aspects of combat training, from general maneuvers and weaponry usage to high-speed combat scenarios. As in the original release, initial missions cover takeoffs, turning, acrobatics, and other fancy-pants flying skills. As you progress, you'll train with a number of different planes and learn more-advanced maneuvers. This includes dog fighting. Currently, I've completed 21 such missions, placing me as a cadet in a combat squadron. Much to my chagrin, the eighth mission seems to have a bug in which the narrator tells you to roll right, while the game wants you to complete the barrel roll by going left. Let's hope Crave fixes that. As you complete the fighter-pilot missions, you can unlock new courses and aircraft to use in all the game's modes.

Besides the fighter-pilot missions, there are also tactical challenges. While gaining in rank and acquiring planes is fun, this mode lets you put your skills to the ultimate test. Time-attack target shooting, dogfights with expert pilots, insane high-velocity single-shot maneuvers, and a variety of other nervewracking tasks await you in this mode. Thankfully, there is also a free-flight mode that lets you practice with the aircraft and theatres you've earned in fighter-pilot mode. Initially, this amounts to 19 location/weather combinations and five aircraft, but if you progress, over 40 aircraft become available.

Just for kicks, I decided to see what Air Strike's engine would let me get away with. I took an F86-E fighter into free-flight mode on the bay area course. I landed on a freeway, flew under a low bridge, landed again on a road, and flew between some buildings. So far, environment interaction seems dead on. To test to see whether the game differentiates between landing surfaces, I attempted to land on a patch of grass. The plane exploded. Later attempts showed that landing on freeways and long patches of concrete are acceptable, but parking lots and cul-de-sacs are out of the question.

While Aerowings 2 also has a versus mode, it's not as deep as the other modes. Two players take two planes into a single theatre. Two men enter, one man leaves. Thankfully, despite being a split-screen mode, the decrease in detail and frame rate over the single-player mode is barely noticeable.

The info sheet for this build says it's not final, but Aerowings 2 already seems quite polished. It's shaping up to be like the original, only better and with more features. For those who thought the original was too mundane or slow, Air Strike's pace and adrenaline level might be welcome changes. If Crave can iron out a few minor bugs, it might just have a hit on its hands.

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