Flight sims and dogfighting games have always been a little bit niche; they either have all the excitement of jet lag, or the accessibility of a First Class Flyers lounge. However, recently there have been some breakthroughs. War Thunder has been very successful despite its recent descent in grindfest territory, with its awesome mix of historical realism and choice of satisfying arcade or hardcore simulation controls. It’s a game that I had over fifty hours of joy with, and every single one of those hours had some sort of impact, even when I was just peacefully cruising for ten minutes before dropping my load on an enemy base. Unfortunately, if I were to compare War Thunder to Landfall Games’ Air Brawl, it would be to compare Red Orchestra 2 to Team Fortress 2, but without the player base.
Air Brawl is a game that prides itself on very tight flight controls and an even tighter aesthetic. You have a choice of six planes (although the term “planes” is stretching it for some of these machines) to pilot around a bright, cartoonish map full of narrow corridors, tight holes, and wide open spaces. Manoeuvring your plane through these environments can be quite a joy. Although I recommend fiddling with the controls (try turning Mouse Yaw on), Air Brawl‘s planes are the very definition of nimble and open up the game to some impressive stunt action. Unfortunately, full controller support isn’t currently available, with keyboard and mouse or joystick being the only options. As it stands this game could really benefit from gamepad support, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.
The maps are clearly designed with this daredevil attitude in mind, the blocky but clean art direction clearly marking out potential passageways to lose your tail in. Many of the maps are on a cartoonish scale, making your planes seem like RC toys in comparison, yet it still fits with the over-the-top feel of the game. Overall, it is the slick controls and complimentary map design that make this game worth playing, if at all.
As mentioned before, there are six planes to choose from: the Fatbird, Sharpshooter, Witch Doctor, Viking, Cyber Priest, and The Elder. Each plane has a three different primary and secondary weapons to choose from, as well as a special. These weapons range from simple Gatling guns to Magnetic balls to hammers that you swing from your plane. The are options for defence and support as well (the Cyber Priest has a healing gun), although after a while many of the weapons seem a bit convoluted and unbalanced, as if the developer just kept coming up with whacky ideas that take away from the core gameplay. Case in point, the special for the Witch Doctor and The Elder is the same, despite the others having unique specials; it just goes to show that variety for the sake of variety can take its toll and dilute an otherwise solid game.
Furthermore, everything is unlocked for you at the start of the game, making it very hard to get to grips with all the weapons and their pros and cons. As it stands there is a completely arbitrary levelling system that does nothing, so it is surprising that this system wasn’t used to unlock weapons, as there are more than enough to keep the experience fresh for the player rather than making it overwhelming and confusing as it is currently.
Now we come to what is, unfortunately, the game killer: the player base. Five months ago this game entered Early Access on Steam, garnering a small but adequate following for an indie game at the stage of development. However, since its release in November the game has only reached a peak of 92 concurrent players, which has quickly dwindled into the mid-20s. When I was playing the game, I never managed to find more than five people to play with, and more often than not these people were in private servers which I was allowed to see but could not join, like the game was poking fun at me or something. To make things worse, an empty game will be filled with Bots, but killing these bots won’t add to your kills, effectively meaning there is no single player or offline playability. Just to add insult to injury, if a Bot kills you it will in fact record your death on the scoreboard, as if you’re in some sort of hellish scenario where you can neither win or lose, and there is only the death to look forward to. On the odd chance that another person will join your game, all the Bots disappear so you end up with a one-on-one match where all semblance of map design goes out the window because you both have to fly into the open space on the map in order to find each other. As a result of this all of the weapons designed to make use of tricky terrain become useless, and potential stunt manoeuvres turn into a game of who can turn in a tighter circle. Of course, if enough of your friends buy this game you can have some private server fun, but whether you can persuade them to move away from War Thunder is another matter.
Somewhere along the way Air Brawl flew into the Bermuda Triangle. It started off with a novel concept: incredibly tight arcade flight controls complimented by maps designed for maximum stuntage. Then it was overladen with a slew of unbalanced weapons, some good, some not so good, some basically pointless. Then it failed to nurture the one thing that an indie game like this needs to survive: a thriving and committed multiplayer community.
Air Brawl was promising for a while, but has sadly hit turbulence too early on. Instead, I recommend War Thunder, or even better, Snoopy Flying Ace for the Xbox 360!
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