Thursday, February 26, 2009

RE: Your planes

Thanks, Andrew, for so thoroughly taking to task the flight-sim-genre – or as I like to call them, the zoom-zoom games. Though I’m still convinced you have no heart, only a musty yarnball of nostalgia, your criticism of Ace Combat 4 was dead-on. For six games now, the series has made roughly the same game, each installment prettier but near-identical to the last: you flew a jet, you blew up others, bombed the occasional ground target and endured an absurdly melodramatic plotline. A lack of competition has allowed the series to recline in its lawnchair and let loose a single, decadent yawn.

Tom Clancy’s HAWX hits shelves in a few weeks, and if the demo is any indication, the few twists it throws into the formula won’t drastically change the way we play flight sims. I’m not sure we need more realism – PC flight sims of yore made it impossible to take off unless you had completed written and oral exams, obtained written permission from your parents, begged the control tower for clearance to taxi and switched five of 10,000 switches – but there has to be some way to break to formula of fly, turn, bomb, shoot, fly, turn, shoot.

As Craig pointed out, realism can be dull, and nowhere is this more true than in flight sims. A technically and socially realistic flight simulator would be a true yawner. Consider this: Col. Cesar Rodriguez, USAF (Ret) is the closest thing to an ace America has. His kill count? Three. And one of the three attempted a Split-S at 600 feet and ate Iraqi hard deck.

Air combat has changed, and it looks nothing like Ace Combat, where three jets are often shot down in a single pass. Still, missions can be more than flying (beautifully), hitting the brakes and spinning in decelerating circles until you get the jump on the enemy. Ace Combat 6 tries to spice things up by building missions from multiple operations, each with different objectives – air superiority, close air support, multi-role – but it doesn’t quite work. Stray too far out of your operational corridor, and you trigger the next one. Good luck completing more than one at a time.

These games can afford to be harder. I shouldn’t need to fire six missiles at a time to defeat twelve enemies – a well-made dogfighing game should make it as satisfying to successfully kill one opponent. Simplifying the process may make the game more appealing, but robs the gameplay of much satisfaction. Here, HAWX offers a glimmer of variety– the “off” mode dumps the player to a distant third-person perspective where they can perform all sorts of physically impossible but entertaining maneuvers. It breaks the round-and-round-and-round formula instituted by the Ace Combat series.

One more thing – it’s shameful that Over G Fighters is the only game to incorporate redouts and blackouts, the physical effect of negative and positive g-forces, respectively. Having to temper your turns for fear of passing out would throw an interesting wrench into the process.

Real air combat is boring, tedious and nerve-wracking. Zoom-zoom games shouldn’t be any of these, but they shouldn’t be cake walks either. My missile-lock alert is chiming constantly, but am I challenged? Am I gratified? There is more nuance to the process than the Ace Combat series grants it. We’ll see if HAWX does any better.