Planes are fun. You can make them go WHOOSH and PEWPEW while doing sweet barrel-rolls or dive bomb manoeuvres. You can then make your plane play roughly 30% cooler by adding the secret ingredient – the planes are now fancy future planes with lasers.
This is pretty much all I had in mind when I was approached to give Aeronautica Imperialis: Flight Command a shot. All I needed was some WHOOSH and PEWPEW to meet my coolness quota – the fact that it was based on the Warhammer 40,000 universe was a bonus.
Red leader, standing by
I actually picked up the tabletop version of Aeronautica Imperialis around a year ago – I am a slave to tabletop plastic – so I had a rough idea what to expect. Being a turn-based tabletop aerial combat game, I was not surprised to find the same is true of its digital counterpart (sans tabletop). Set in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, Aeronautica sees the pilots of humanity dogfighting with a race of savage green-skinned soccer hooligans known as the Orks. Bring all your epic weaponry to bear against whichever force you wish to see blown out of the sky – you get to play both sides.
The game is presented as a 3D-spaced, turn-based manoeuvre game. On your turn, choose what you want your pilots to do, taking into account the possible movement of your enemies and work to strafe and destroy – or elude and escape your foes.
That manoeuvre is going to cost us the battle
Working within the 3D space of the game takes some getting used to. Selecting your pilot (and their aircraft) is simple enough, however the act of actually executing a particular action takes some figuring out. It is simple enough to click and drag your aircraft to assign what you wish to happen, but the learning curve comes from setting your camera up just right to view the airspace in a way that means you are confident with what will unfold. An ongoing frustration (mostly on my part) was ‘committing’ my turn to take place, and watching the action camera display it in the real-time that is your turn – only to discover my dopey ass had set my pilot to fly directly into someone I thought might have been above or below me. Stupidity on my part, as I never reflected on how that vertical axis was treating me. Initially I found the method of inputting your action and executing it tedious, but as I came closer to mastering the buttons available to me, it sped up and I started to feel more like a flying ace.
There is also a bit of frustration when you reach close quarters. With no real reference to work off, I found myself in many situations where both myself and my AI opponent would be flying in tight circles trying to get into each other’s sightlines, looking like a pair of dopey blow flies trying to smell the other’s ass. I found myself desperately wanting an AI vs AI mode, so I could perhaps see how the game expected me to deal with the situation – instead of frustratingly committing to a really dramatic move that likely puts me in danger, but at least shakes the stalemate.
Orks just want to have fun, war be damned
Visually, the game has some polish to it. I have personally built some of the models present in this game – and I was thrilled to see the same detail applied to the in-game models. I was less thrilled however, with the lack of momentum in the aircraft animations. Spending your turn planning a particularly epic action for your pilot, you envision the dramatic turn in your head – going into a plummeting nose dive, to then suddenly ramp up and start blasting the foe, you can’t wait to see it. Instead what you get is a ship that feels like it’s on some kind of rail system – like a mine cart following tracks. It looks even goofier when you have planes banking or performing proper barrel rolls, they look weightless and it crushes the immersion. I understand it’s only a small scale studio working on this project – but even some small contrail effects on the wings would have done a lot to sell the movement of these space-era aircraft.
There is a level of pilot management within the game, and the title even touts a little persistent gameplay in how a lost pilot is gone forever. Training up new ones can be a chore, so you might be better off keeping them healthy. Of course, playing as the Orks does wonders for making you care as little as possible for your pilots – being a never-ending green horde, you feel there are plenty of nuttaz willing to get in the cockpit if given the chance.
The audio design in the game is worth commending – the tone of Warhammer 40,000 is essentially a borderline case of taking yourself just seriously enough to not come off absurd, and the voices and music fit perfectly in this space. Orchestral music swells and punctuates your gameplay, while voiceover work for the mission briefings sounds believable enough to sell it. My only gripe would be that the passive audio effects for aircraft jarringly jump up and down in volume during the ‘play’ phase as the game’s camera rapidly jumps from ship to ship. It ends up sounding jittery and weird.
I desperately wanted an AI vs AI mode, so I could perhaps see how the game expected me to deal with situations
The real breaking point for me was discovering that the game had committed the most grievous of flight-combat sins – there were no gorgeous crash animations. An enemy exploding in the air vanishes in a brief and disappointing flash of light and smoke, not careening out of the air into the nearest surface. And if you do somehow crash yourself into a surface (something I am quite guilty of) you will see the same effect. No glorious plume of fire and smoke, no wreckage screaming away from the impact site – just the same sad little POOF of something immediately becoming nothing. I can imagine that people learning the game should at least enjoy some spectacle in their failures.
This screenshot is a little plain. Geddit?
Aeronautica Imperialis: Flight Command is a game that knows what it wants to be. An ambitious project that is aware of its identity but feels a little like it is still growing into loose fitting clothes. If it were an aircraft, I’d imagine a couple rattling bolts that might concern you, but once you get past those the flight is relatively turbulence free – albeit a little plain after a while.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher