Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Wings of Prey

I'd been jonesing for a good flight simulator for some time, practically ever since Chuck Yeager's Air Combat fell off the radar. Is Wings of Prey a good simulator? Well, it depends on two things: How much you like or dislike realism, and how important to you the between-mission fluff is in a game.

Wings of Prey is a technologically impressive WW2 flight simulator from Russian developer Gaijin Entertainment. And when I say it's a flight simulator, I mean it's a simulator. The ground, the sky, the planes, the water, the boats, even the cockpits are all very detailed and impressively rendered. Combining 3D rendering with high resolution textures and some very good postprocessing, WoP manages to convey a very immersive flying experience.

There are 3 settings to the game: Arcade, Realistic and Simulator. Arcade mode has lots of HUD "augmented reality" instrumentation like most games do these days, and on top of that it plays "physics nanny" to help keep you from smashing into the ground like a hefty bag full of beef stew. In arcade mode, the game is almost too easy... not much of a challenge at all.

But when you flip that switch to Realistic mode... hooo buddy.

Realistic mode still keeps the augmented reality targeting and instrumentation of arcade mode, but when it comes to flying, physics and damage, the training wheels are most definitely OFF. The phrase "punishingly realistic" kept coming to mind. And I'm not talking "100 different switches and buttons to pay attention to" realism like in Falcon 3.0 (for those of you who remember it back in the day), I mean in regards to physics, damage, and the scientific principles governing flight.

Never before have I played a flight simulator where I could stall simply by maneuvering. I don't mean "whoops I pointed straight up and now I have no speed" stalling like just about every flight sim, this is different. See, what makes an airplane generate lift is the uniform and rapid movement of air past the wings, the shape of which cause lift. In previous games, including my fondly remembered CYAC, I've never experienced a stall by rolling 90 degrees and pulling back on the stick all the way. That, I had been led to believe by every sim ever, was your standard way to turn.

How misinformed I have been.

The performance characteristics of your average WW2 fighter plane apparently are such that you can change your bearing faster than you can change your momentum - IE, if you start out facing north, roll to the right, and pull back on the stick, your nose will be facing southeast about the time your velocity will still be sending you northeast. This means that air is no longer rushing toward you from the front, but rather rushing "up" from "under" you... no longer generating lift, and pretty much guaranteeing you to go into a spin and start spiralling toward the ground. Assuming you can wrestle your way back to control (and you have to do it firmly but gently or it just gets worse), you'll still lose several hundred feet of altitude. Hopefully several hundred feet you had to spare, otherwise you're now an impromptu bonfire.

That's not the only way things "get real." As you take damage to your airplane, it suffers. Damage to your engine makes it harder to maintain airspeed. Damage to your wings (Actually visible in the form of real polygonal holes in them) makes them generate less lift and makes it harder for you to roll your airplane, thus making you easier to kill. And let me tell you, these planes don't take much to kill. I was under the impression (again from previous flight sims such as CYAC) that it took many seconds of sustained gunfire to shoot down a plane... such is not the case. A withering half-second barrage from most planes (especially those with large bore cannons) will start you streaking for the earth... and much more than that will cause such structural damage that a the wind might rip a wing right off you. Also, so many of these planes only carry so much ammo. I had no idea that the machine guns on an ME-262 could basically be exhausted by 10 seconds of continuous fire. Light, quick bursts are the name of the game here. And it goes without saying that you have to lead your target.

Switching from "arcade" to "realistic" mode is a shock, like going from "easy" to "expert" in terms of difficulty... but heaven help you if you crank it all the way to "simulator." In addition to the physics realism of the previous mode, Simulator mode takes away all the augmented reality. You want to know your airspeed, heading, or altitude? You have to LOOK AT THE INSTRUMENTS in your cockpit! That plane coming toward you, is that a friend or foe? Well, I hope you've boned up on silhouette recognition charts, because there's no "targeting" feature or any kind of labels. If you can't distinguish a Messerschmidt from a Mustang in pretty quick order at 100 yards (while being shaken like a wet dog), you're probably going to be having a hot lead sandwich for lunch, and it's all you can eat.

Now, I'm a fella who enjoys a challenge, as long as the BS factor is kept to a minimum. I find Arcade to be too easy, but I find Realistic to be very difficult. Forget about Simulator mode. Fortunately the developer realized that it would probably be too difficult for most people, so the game gives you (now hear me out on this), infinite lives. Well, not lives so much as "do-overs." If you get shot down or crash for whatever other reason, you simply hit enter and you're back up in the air a little behind where you died, at full speed again. "Well, what's so hard about that?" you might ask - well, it keeps track of how many times you get killed, and at the end of the mission it rates your effectiveness. So there's still the achievement factor for those who want it, and yet the content tourists can still progress through the game instead of being denied access because they aren't aces.

These are the guts of the game, and for the most part it's pretty solid. The garnish, however, leaves a little to be desired. Much like other games I've reviewed from Russian developers, the localization leaves something to be desired. While the voice actors don't have inappropriate accents (in fact they usually have correct accents for their nationalities), the verbiage is just ever so slightly off, the emphasis usually in the wrong places, or the vernacular out of place. It's clear they were reading from cards without knowledge of context. Some of the tertiary controls are also a little confusing, and the joystick throttle controls are a little too sensitive - pushing the throttle all the way to the stop takes it past 100% and into WEP, or "Wartime Emergency Power," a kind of super-nitrous flank speed that will burn out your engine before too long... and it becomes difficult to find 100% throttle without bumping over into WEP.

I have to say this is probably the best Russian game I've played since Tetris. Unfortunately, as loyal readers will no doubt recollect, this is relatively faint praise. There's also a point where it becomes possible to have too much realism. Wings of Prey flirts dangerously with that area, yet I can't bring myself to dislike it. It's not a bad game, but it'll never replace Chuck Yeager in my nostalgia hall of fame.

Verdict: B-, or if you aren't into realism, C+.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice review! Thanks :)