Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Down in Flames Review

Down in Flames, developed by DVG and published by
The Good: Very quick games, easy to play, integrated online components including pilot career tracking and opponent matchmaking, multiple winning strategies, capable AI
The Not So Good: Mediocre sound effects, each game is essentially the same
What say you? A superior card game adaptation, but may be too monotonous for some: 7/8

Before there were computers, how did people play games? Apparently, the public predominately played ancient entertainment devices called “board games” and “card games,” which involved using cardboard pieces instead of a mouse and keyboard (weird). In an effort to bring some the card game mechanics into the digital age, Down In Flames has been turned into a computer game. This was originally produced as a card game in the early 1990s, and have been revamped and adapted to the new medium.

Since Down In Flames is a reproduction of a card game, you might expect that the graphics and sound are rudimentary, and you’d be mostly correct. The user interface where you play each of the game is actually well done, providing an intuitive method of controlling the action. Playable cards are highlighted, the current conditions of all the planes is clearly represented. Of course, more could have been done, especially since the game is all about airplane dogfighting; you could imagine an adaptation of IL-2’s engine showing the results of the play in full 3-D. The 2-D airplanes are good enough, but won’t win any awards for graphical excellence. The sound is quite horrendous, mainly because the same sound effects are used over and over and over again. After a while, I just can’t stand the Japanese acknowledgement cry, and I just turn my speakers off. Despite the number of sound effects in the game (239), the sound becomes old and repetitious far too quickly, bordering on annoying. I do like the menu music, a collection of historically important radio broadcasts. Other than this, however, the sound is not so great.

Down in Flames is an online game with AI components. For some reason, there is a local mode, where you can play the AI, but there is no real reason to do this. The pilots from local mode do not carry over to the online mode, and you can play against the AI online anyway, so I have no idea why it was included. Local pilots are not given online stat tracking, so this essentially renders this mode of play useless. Fortunately, the online play is well done. There are single missions that can be played against other players through the online lobby and campaigns that can be played as a set of linked scenarios against either the AI or online foes. Currently, there are five campaigns, with future ones being added about once per month according to the developers. There is also a multitude of plane available, each with improving statistics that are unlocked by your pilots’ experience points. All of your pilots are tracked online, issued awards and rankings, and available for comparison on the official site. You can even purchase certain cards or attributes to begin the next game with using your experience points. This is all part of the great integration of online components in the game; the website and the game are intertwined to give full-featured online play, with all the stats that most games require third party applications in order to access. It looks like Down In Flames was intended for this purpose long ago, and it shows in the presentation; in some games, you can tell that multiplayer is a buggy afterthought, and this is certainly not the case in Down in Flames.

Down in Flames is a card game with five stages to each turn (wingman, altitude, leader, discard, and draw). First, your wingman can engage any enemy aircraft as long as they are at the same altitude. Your wingman draws a number of cards (for beginning pilots it’s 1 card) and immediately plays them, discarding them all at the end of the turn. The strategy of using the wingman seems to be making a quick attack on the enemy or to improve the positioning of your leader. Since your wingman can only draw a limited number of cards, some of it is luck (as with most card games) that you get the cards you wanted. After the wingman plays, you can adjust your altitude. Raising the altitude requires a discard (and two discards of the enemy if they want to follow you can keep their advantage) whereas lowering the altitude results in an extra card in your hand. There is also a set of strategies dealing with using altitude to your advantage. The main portion of the game comes when your leader can attack the enemy. There are three types of cards: action, reaction, and action/reaction. Action cards are used to damage the enemy or improve your position. You have a position relative to the enemy aircraft, and this determines whether either aircraft can attack their enemy. Reaction cards are used to prevent the enemy from attacking you or improving their position. Some cards can be used for both purposes. The learning curve of the game results from determining which cards counter which other cards, and I’ve made a handy table to remember which cards do what. It pays to read the manual! After you play, you can discard and draw new cards; the maximum number of cards in your hand and the number of new cards you can draw is determined by your aircraft’s stats. The game is easy to learn once you understand the purpose of each card. Even with its simple design, Down in Flames has multiple strategies that can be successful, and this is a very important aspect of a good card game.

Down in Flames is excellent. It has the right mix of simple mechanics and strategy that makes an outstanding game. Now, the developers could have stopped here, but they added great multiplayer capabilities to further enhance the gameplay. The AI opponents are no slouches, but playing against human opponents is much more satisfying. The game is very fast paced (a single game can take around 10 minutes or less) and great for people who can only play for a short amount of time. Down in Flames is a good “quickie” game, as you can play it during lunch or before you leave for something far less important (like shopping for food). It’s also a relaxing game, as you won’t be pumped full of adrenaline during every card draw. Some might call this boring, but I like it as a good alternative to over-the-top shooters. The only drawback of the game is that each match is essentially the same, except for the randomness of the card draws. This is countered by the RPG-like pilot career model; there is something satisfying in building a pilot’s statistics over time and watching him/her/it grow. Since pilots accrue fatigue over time, you’ll need to build a team of flyers, and this makes the depth even greater. It is important to build up your pilots online, because you’ll unlock better aircraft with experienced pilots, resulting in an overall better appreciation of the game. Sure, the sound is bad, but that’s not very important when everything else is so good. The active online community only enhances the wonderful attributes of the game. Down in Flames is a great computer game that strategy fans should not overlook. Now where’s that Ace Pilot hiding?