Air Conflicts Hands-On
The long drought of WWII air combat sims on the PSP has finally come to an end. We go hands on with Air Conflicts.
When you think of World War II air combat games, Sony's PSP might not be the first gaming platform that pops into your head. After all, flight combat games have long been the dominion of the PC (and to a lesser degree, consoles). Still, that hasn't stopped developer Graffiti Entertainment from bringing the upcoming Air Conflicts: Aces of World War II to the handheld. We had a chance to try this game out recently to get a feel for how the genre translates to the small screen.
The core of Air Conflict's modes is a campaign mode, where you can join one of four World War II forces: Germany, Britain, USA, and USSR. Each of the 13 campaigns is composed of a number of missions (240 total in the game) that are inspired by actual WWII combat actions, but all revolve around showing your worth behind the flight stick.
Campaign missions typically start out with a quick tutorial--the USAAF campaign we played first had us piloting our plane through a series of in-air waypoints. Soon enough, however, the action picks up and you'll be engaging the enemy in toe-to-toe dogfights. Right out of the box, Air Conflicts is a very difficult game, even on the novice difficulty setting. Part of the problem is the small screen size, and the even smaller aiming reticle that indicates where your bullets will strike. Compounding that is the very difficult nature of dogfights in general--you've got to lead your opponent, anticipating where the bullets will strike him when they reach his position. The aiming cursor helps a bit here by glowing red when you have an opponent correctly lined up, but it's very small, and the enemy AI is tenacious enough to put up a good fight even at the lowest difficulty level.
Mission varieties include escort missions, which have you protecting bombers as they look to destroy strategic targets; patrols, where you're looking to blast any enemy aircraft out of the skies; and bombing runs, where you're piloting the bomber and looking to take out targets yourself.
The game's varied missions demand a big roster of planes to pilot, and that's one aspect where Air Conflicts delivers, with 17 historically authentic planes. Sample aircraft include the Spitfire, the P-51 Mustang, the B-17 "Flying Fortress," the Ju-87 Stuka, and many more. Many of these planes have their specific uses--for instance, the B-17 is a bomber--but they all have strengths and weaknesses. For instance, while the aforementioned B-17 isn't very agile, its multiple machine-gun postings (front and rear) make it a formidable opponent against enemy fighters. Different planes have different weapon loadouts as well, and because you'll often have a choice of aircraft before beginning a mission, you'll want to make sure you choose the right plane for the job.
To its credit, Air Conflicts' realistic settings are counterbalanced by relatively simplistic controls. The left and right triggers control throttle, the analog stick is used to steer your plane, and the face buttons are used to fire various weapons (X for machine gun, triangle for missiles, square for bombs). Still, the game's AI is formidable, so don't be surprised if you're shot out of the sky multiple times in the early goings of the game. Interestingly, a failed mission doesn't necessarily mean the end of a campaign--sometimes you'll just move on to the next mission, even if you failed the previous mission. The game will also include multiplayer, with support for up to eight players to connect and battle it out.
Graphically, Air Conflicts holds up decently. The plane models are consistently nice, and some of the explosions in the game, particularly those of damaged planes crashing to the ground, are well done. We just wish that a game that's already presented on a small screen would take pity on folks with bad eyes--the miniscule aiming reticle and barely legible mission text might have you reaching for your glasses (or considering a prescription). Still, if you're upset over the WWII-flight-combat-game hole in your PSP library, Air Conflicts just might be your thing. Look for more on the game in the coming weeks.
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