Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War Review

Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War, developed by neoqb and published by 777 Studios.
The Good: Authentic handling, varied difficulty settings, career mode with randomly generated missions
The Not So Good: Medium-to-large battles are unplayable due to poor performance, long load times, restricted plane usage, boring and repetitive tutorials
What say you? A lack of polish hurts this World War I combat flight simulator: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
While World War II has gotten plenty of quality flight simulators, the First World War: You Know, the One with Trenches has been largely ignored. And the few times games have addressed World War I, they haven't been that good. Well, it's time to rectify both of those shortcomings in one fell swoop with Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War. Take the pilot seat alongside the Red Baron, Snoopy, and Woodstock, or so I would assume since I am using Peanuts as historical reference. You would think that the more primitive flying devices would result in a smaller learning curve, and thus would make Rise of Flight appeal to a larger audience. Well, does it? DOES IT?!? I demand answers!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Rise of Flight is reminiscent of IL-2 in terms of graphics, and I mean that in a very complimentary fashion. The terrain is the most striking part of the game and the French countryside looks fantastic, with 3-D trees, varied features, and changing weather conditions for added realism. The planes themselves are finely detailed and look like their real-life counterparts. Explosions and weapon effects are also nicely done, delivering an extra sense of satisfaction when an enemy plane plummets towards the ground. However, it's not all good news: when many enemy planes get involved, Rise of Flight slows down to a crawl. This is possibly due to an issue with my on-board sound card, as adjusting the graphics options make no difference. I have adjusted the only sound options available to their minimum value, but the severe performance drops are still present. The developer states that my processor isn't fast enough (even though it fulfills the minimum system requirements: AMD Athlon X2 4200 Dual Core 2.2GHz, 2 GB RAM, 1 GB Radeon HD 4670) and that Windows 7 comparability hasn't been tested yet (although I have had no problems running any other game). The true culprit is yet to be determined. This is coupled with extremely long load times for every mission: expect to wait upwards of three to four minutes each time you start a new session. That gets old quite quickly. Another “feature” is the inability to change any of the options while in the game: everything from graphics settings to control schemes must be altered beforehand. So much for referencing the options menu to remember the controls. The sound is pretty much what you would expect: appropriate plane effects with realistically wimpy engines and convincing battle sounds. The voice acting during the tutorials is quite horrible (with almost constant abuse of the English language), but luckily that's the only place you will experience them.

ET AL.
Rise of Flight is really designed for online play, as evidenced by the fact that you have to log in each time you play; it seems like all of the mission content is kept on a central server (the “mission” directories on my computer are empty). The main component of the single player game is the career mode, where you take to the skies for either France or Germany, selecting a plane, starting year, and regiment. You can also adjust the mission length as you advance from also-ran pilot to ace fighter. The best part of the career mode is the random generation of the missions: you never know quite what to expect, and you are always given a main objective and several secondary missions to complete if you have time and don't die. Mission types include attacking the enemy (recon flights, bombers, fighter patrols, transport and armored columns, tank and artillery positions, observation balloons, buildings) or defending friendlies of the same sort. While there isn't severe variation in each mission type (for this or any other combat flight simulator), giving you different objects to attacks or defend does mix up the action. There are also a number of single missions that repeat for each plane type: one-on-one dogfights, covering bombers, attacking balloons, plus several more scripted events like patrols and scrambles. That's a decent amount of content for a flight simulator.

Piloting a rickety old airplane can be difficult, so Rise of Flight features a robust selection of difficulty options. You can adjust them as you wish, showing icons for objectives and planes, automating the mixture and radiator controls, and granting unlimited fuel or invulnerability. It's always a nice feature to allow individuals to customize the game to their liking, depending on how “real” they want to make their experience. On the multiplayer front, Rise of Flight includes a server browser to search for games and you can engage in any of the single player missions in addition to five-on-five battles. You can gain rewards and earn experience over time, and your online prowess is recorded on the central stats server. Learning the game is done through the tutorials, which could have been done in a much more effective manner. There are tons (usually five or so) of cutscenes to introduce each new procedure (landing, engaging balloons, et cetera) that begged to be skipped: who wants a story in the tutorial? In addition, most of the activites are done over and over again in the tutorial, leading to a lot of boredom. Of course, you must fully complete each tutorial in order to unlock the next, so get ready to sit and wait. Rounding out the features is the mission editor, a complete but initially confusing tool that allows you to design your own scenarios. The editor is not as simple as I would have assumed, as the manual states it “consists of a generator,” so I was envisioning a point-and-click, two-minute mission building procedure, but that's sadly not the case.

Rise of Flight lets you control four planes that few over (and occasionally crashed into) France during World War I: two for Germany (the Fokker D.VII and Albatros D) and two for France (the SPAD XIII and Nieuport). Half of these planes are initially locked as you must “purchase” them as you progress through the game; I though the Army Air Force was supposed to buy them for you. Your tax dollars not at work! Before each mission, you can customize your ammo loadout, paint scheme, and fuel load. More interesting is the ability to set your gun convergence distance, where maximum damage will be wraught. I can't think of many other flight simulators that have let me do that (as an astute reader pointed out, IL-2 apparently does...shows how much I know). Actually flying seems to be quite realistic, as the planes have a very ancient feel to them, slowly moving through the sky. This makes for some intricate dogfights (of which World War I is famous for), and the AI is up to the challenge, proving a good opponent of varying capabilities. Learning the controls of the era is simple if you have played any other flight simulator: about the only controls (other than the directional ones) you need to worry about are the fuel mixture and radiator (both of these can be automated anyway) and recharging the guns before you unleash a copious amount of lead. The stately nature of the combat of Rise of Flight can mean some repetitive battles, but the unpredictable nature of the AI and the varied mission objectives alter the experience enough. It's too bad, then, that the game runs to poorly on my mid-range system, a configuration I suspect the average gamer will have and subsequently suffer the same performance issues I did.

IN CLOSING
Rise of Flight displays the typical promise and pitfalls of Russian-developed games: it looks great but lacks the refinement you would expect in a complete title. The core simulation is well done, with planes that I assume behave realistically fighting over a beautiful rendered setting. The AI pilots put up a good challenge and handling these ancient planes is difficult, but not from a learning standpoint as there are few buttons to press and no digital readouts to be confused about. The career features randomly generated missions: always a plus. You can also adjust the realism of the game and add any number of aids that will assist those less skilled pilots (author raises hand). While the single missions and multiplayer affairs are more static, there is enough content overall. The mission editor is not as straightforward as I would have hoped, lacking simple point-and-click creation. The tutorial also takes too long to progress (even when you skip through the monotonous and plentiful movies) and features repetitive objectives, with a single training exercise taking about three times longer than it should. The game also initially locks half of the aircraft from you; I paid for the game, so I should be able to fly everything from the start, darn it! Most significantly, Rise of Flight performs horribly for me, with intolerably long load times and the inability to handle large battles smoothly. I think the limitations of Rise of Flight will overshadow any of the positive aspects of the game for most users, so the game is only recommended for those with a true interest in the aerial combat of World War I.