Illusion Softworks' Flying Heroes is a good-looking action game with an interesting premise - it's a fantasy-themed shooter in which hotshot pilots and apprentice wizards mount gigantic birds, propeller-driven zeppelins, and flying lizards then compete against each other in huge arenas. Its pacing, decor, and a great deal of its gameplay are reminiscent of Bullfrog's classic Magic Carpet, but its colorful graphics, variety of weapons, and emphasis on competitive play seem more akin to more recent games such as Descent 3 or Unreal Tournament. Though it's got a few problems and a few stability issues, Flying Heroes is otherwise an extremely enjoyable game.
The game takes place in a fictitious land called Hesperia, where magic and technology are equally common. The game has four playable factions: the Sky Knights, the Lizard Riders, the Hammercraft, and the Magion. Each faction has its own distinctive style of aircraft, its own weapons, and its own abilities. Each faction also has a hierarchy of several different aircraft - each is incrementally more powerful, and each looks great.
In fact, just about everything in Flying Heroes looks great. The game's many flying mounts are expertly modeled and very detailed, and each is more over-the-top than the last. Each of the game's four playable factions has its own distinctive aircraft, and some, like the swift and powerful Sky Knight zephyr, look appropriately menacing, while others, like the Magion winged barrel, look perfectly absurd, but in a way that seems to fit with the game's generally over-the-top theme. During the course of a typical game, you might see a two-headed dragon engaged in a vicious dogfight with a gigantic floating teapot, or any number of other bizarre matchups.
But no matter which aircraft happen to be fighting each other, nearly all of Flying Heroes' firefights look spectacular because of the game's excellent special effects. Though all of Flying Heroes' aircraft and several of its weapons leave simple white smoke trails, many of the game's weapons, magic spells, and explosions use colored lighting to great effect. Unfortunately, these excellent graphics come at a price - if you've got a lower-end video card, you may experience stuttering and even an occasional desktop crash. In addition, not all of Flying Heroes' twelve maps look good. Though some, like the sand caves, are enormous and adorned with impressive-looking landmarks, others, like the lake and arctic levels, are rather bare and don't look particularly interesting.
Likewise, Flying Heroes' sound is inconsistent. Though the game's weapons and explosions sound appropriate enough, the background music consists entirely of ambient techno that's in many cases barely audible. In addition, Flying Heroes has a great deal of English speech, and though some of it is quite good (like the voice of the enthusiastic announcer who declares victory), some of it is heavily accented and poorly disguised as such.
Despite all this, Flying Heroes plays quite well. If you're used to playing run-and-gun first-person shooters, you may find Flying Heroes' pace to be extremely slow, and you will likely find the yaw and pitch of the ships to be maddeningly sluggish compared with a traditional first-person shooter's strafing and mouselooking. But once you've gotten over the initial learning curve - or if you've played either of the Magic Carpet games - you'll find that Flying Heroes' pacing actually works quite well. Many of Flying Heroes' weapons have an extremely long range, so anticipating your enemy's next move then firing well-aimed shots at him while he's in view will often save you the trouble of having to turn around and chase him down. And as you play, you can not only use one of six standard weapons, but you can also use one of several special abilities or magic spells (you'll earn these in the single-player campaigns or have them readily available in instant-action mode and multiplayer) that can help you accelerate quickly, throw your aircraft into reverse, or render you invisible so that you can turn and pitch safely.
Flying Heroes features a single-player campaign, a single-player instant-action mode, and multiplayer play. The single-player campaign resembles the single-player game of many recent driving games: You must start with a low-level, poorly equipped vehicle then earn money in each level so you can add to or upgrade your weapons, upgrade your current vehicle, or buy a brand-new vehicle. As you play through single-player games, you'll unlock each of the game's twelve maps as well as gain the ability to play through the campaign as either the Hammercraft or Sky Knights. In addition, you'll be able to play Flying Heroes' different modes. Unfortunately, there aren't that many modes in Flying Heroes; there's standard deathmatch, team deathmatch, a few item-collecting games, and timed tag - a standard game of tag (in which one pilot is "it" and must tag another pilot before his timer runs out) that's far less interesting than it could have been.
Flying Heroes looks superb, but it's definitely not just another first-person shooter; its slower pace and somewhat steep learning curve may make the game seem boring and frustrating at first, but once you familiarize yourself with the game's controls and with the extra movement and magic-spell options, you may begin to enjoy what the game has to offer: the gameplay of a shooter but with less emphasis on twitch reflexes and more emphasis on marksmanship and anticipation.