Thursday, May 1, 2014

Echos of the Past

I've been playing a lot of War Thunder recently.  So much so I'd be at it right now instead of writing this if it weren't for the fact that the servers are down for maintenance.  Regardless, playing a good old fashion combat flight-sim got me thinking about all the other dogfight themed games I've played in the past.  Obviously the graphics in War Thunder (or Rise of Flight for that matter) are leaps and bounds beyond older favorites of mine like Aces of the Pacific or even sci-fi titles such as Wing Commander and TIE Fighter (both of which have more to do with World War 2 aerial combat than you might initially think).  Yet in spite War Thunder's numerous improvements to the formula it still fails to scratch a certain itch for me.

What I'm getting at is a little hard to define but I'll try to describe it in terms of known quantities; it's like I'm craving for The Ancient Art of War in the Skies meets Air Power, sprinkled with a pinch of Steambirds and a smidgen of Sid Meier's Ace Patrol, all boiled in a mixture of Strike Commander, Wings of Glory and Pacific Strike.  What I definitely don't want is Sky Crawlers or Crimson Skies though.  The former is far too pretentious while the latter has some of the ugliest looking planes I have ever seen.  In other words I want a game that lets the player be both a pilot and administrator of a 1930s era aerodrome in which two nations are fighting a Battle of Briton style air war.

To be more particular, I like the idea of visually distinct factions by having pusher planes exclusively employed by one side while the other only uses tractor aircraft.  For easy identification of individual flying machines I'm rather fond of the World War 1 heraldry atheistic along with feudal notions of pilots being knights who swapped their war horses for fighter planes.  Bombers could be like siege engines, and fiefdoms divided by steep mountain ranges or fast flowing rivers.  Nobility could reside in lofty fortresses or sally forth in dirigibles under heavy escort.  Gameplay could take the form of sortie planning, aircraft procurement and pilot training.  Actual battles are a bit more tricky since they would need to bridge the gap between simulation (fly first, navigate second, fight third) and strategy (sun, altitude, numbers, ability, objective, fuel and armaments).  Win or lose, the results of missions could definitely be applied to a branching story line.

"Why do I want to fly round and round in circles shooting at a dude for hours again?" is a reductive question I've heard brought up regarding combat flight-sims, and while I agree that poorly executed concepts can suffer from repetitive tactics there is a huge number of things that can be done to keep the gameplay feeling fresh.  Variations in weather, terrain and time of day mixed with occasional changes of aerodrome location are just a few ways to avoid repetition.  Add to this other variables such as different basic mission types (recon, raid, scramble, intercept, escort, patrol, support, strike, etc.) and customized load-outs (rockets, bombs, torpedoes, cannons and machine guns) which can be further broken down by effects ranging from incendiary and tracer to high explosive and armor piercing.  Aside from opposing aircraft there's a vast array of potential non-flying targets (fuel depots, bunkers, transport vehicles [fuel/supply trucks], ships [capital and cargo], airfields, repair/maintenance hangars, rocket silos, war factories, ports [sub pens], trains and railroad nexi, army camps, bridges or viaducts, artillery emplacements, tanks, dams, road networks and so on) as well as ground based defenses to contend with (radar installations, barrage balloons, flack towers, search lights not to mention anti-aircraft guns).

For a long time flight-sims have been out of the limelight, but recently the future has been looking bright with Star Citizen and Enemy Starfighter on the horizon.  Even novelist Ernest Cline seems to be getting in on the act with his soon to be released novel "Armada" (due out July, 2014).  Sadly there still isn't much in the way of new developments in the alternate history front.  Regardless, I hope this new generation of dogfighting video games will ride high on VR headsets rather than crash and burn in 3-D.

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