Publisher: Graffiti Entertainment
Developer: Cowboy Rodeo
Release Date: April 14, 2009
Chances are that if you've been gaming for any length of time, you've probably played through World War II a dozen times. From D-Day to Operation Market Garden, you likely have a better understanding of every Nazi attack, Russian advance and French surrender than some expert scholars. However, most WWII games have been presented through the eyes of the infantry, those poor souls who stared death in the face at 100 yards basically every day. What does the war look like at 10,000 feet in the air? If you judge it using Air Conflicts: Aces of World War II as your standard, then it's ugly. Really, really ugly.
Air Conflicts takes players back to WWII and lets players experience the conflict through the eyes of pilots from the Royal Air Force, the U.S. Army Air Corps, the Soviet Air Force and even the Luftwaffe. Each country has a slate of three campaigns (four for the Soviets), and each campaign is further broken down into about a dozen missions. The Russians likely have the most interesting and varied experience, with players starting the war by invading Poland and Finland as an ally of the Germans and then later defending Stalingrad and attacking Berlin as the Soviet Union reacted to the Nazis' betrayal and forced Hitler to fight a war on two fronts.
Unfortunately, regardless of who you choose, the missions all become painfully boring as they basically boil down to fly out, dogfight a bit, bomb a few tanks and then receive kudos for a job well done. Once in a great while, you get a break from the norm, such as escorting a high-ranking officer through hostile airspace or bombing destroyers in a naval conflict, but far too much of the game is spent playing the same boring, interchangeable missions again and again. The worst offenders are the patrol missions, where players fly through a few checkpoints and reach the end of the mission. I would've understood if these sorties were only used early on to acquaint players with the game controls and mechanics, but they keep popping up again and again even in the late stages, ultimately proving to be little more than padding. The other missions aren't much better, but this title even manages to make dogfights and bombing runs boring and tedious.
Many of the issues spring from the fact that Air Conflicts simply doesn't work when shrunken down to the PSP screen. The battlefields are too large and the targets too small for players to have a strong sense of what exactly is going on. Bombing targets are miniscule, unless you drop down nearly on top of them (thereby exposing yourself to incredibly lethal AA fire), and enemy planes are nothing more than dots until the second they're right on top of you, guns blazing. Making things even worse is the fact that the environments all look the same no matter where you go, which causes the game to feel even more generic. Did you know that Iran features lush hills and pine trees? I didn't either, but apparently it's true because that's how the country is portrayed in this title.
Adding to the frustration of the poor visuals is the fact that Air Conflicts features some of the most unbearable load times I've experienced in a decade. It easily takes over a minute for each mission to load, and remember these are excursions that normally take between 30 seconds and two minutes to play. The wait time between levels is akin to those found on the original PlayStation, with a visual quality to match. Perhaps the developers are stuck in a time warp circa 1995.
Complementing the poor visuals are sloppy controls, demonstrating that not only can this game look bad, but it can also play that way. It's nearly impossible to keep the planes flying straight, and since there's no altimeter built into the HUD, you have to rely on the environment to tell you when you're about to smash into the ground. That's easier said than done, though, especially in missions over the ocean when the water and sky just kind of blend into one another. Furthermore, the planes don't seem to have any capacity for substantial climb or dive, since they only move in gentle slopes. This makes strafing runs impossible, and it's pointless to make evasive maneuvers to get enemy pilots off your tail. I'm not asking for the planes to handle the way they do in H.A.W.X., but I would like for them to descend at an angle of more than 10 degrees.
Even though the game has a myriad of shortcomings, there are still a couple of bright spots that keep it from being a complete waste. First off is sheer content, as the title packs in over 100 missions spread across all the campaigns, so you're definitely getting plenty of content for the price. The other draw is the variety of planes for each nation, though even that isn't all that impressive. Each country gets its own historically accurate fighter, fighter-bomber, heavy bomber and jet, and each handles just differently enough from the others that you'll likely want to carefully consider which fighting machine you take with you into each assignment — at least until you get the jets. At that point, the other planes might as well be locked because you'll never use anything else again. While most of the game offers a nice balance of missions playing to the strengths and weaknesses of each aircraft, toward the end, that balance gets thrown out of whack for the WWII aerial equivalent of the BFG.
Air Conflicts had the potential to be great, if only the development team had sat down and worked out the technical issues before launch. The scale of the landscape doesn't translate onto a handheld, and the loading times and subpar visuals are simply unforgivable when we've come to expect so much more. In addition, even though the title provides a ton of missions and a lot of history, nearly all the assignments play out the same way, leading to a repetitive experience that stopped being fun hours ago.
World War II games have a bad reputation right now, and titles like Air Conflicts: Aces of World War II aren't going to help one bit. The game falls short by nearly every measure and earns a dishonorable discharge for being a poor example for soldiers everywhere.