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Iron Aces

Score: 75%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Xicat Interactive/Infogrames
Developer: Xicat
Media: GD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Miscellaneous

Graphics & Sound:

In a genre without much representation for the console world, what can we use as a solid comparable for Xicat's Iron Aces combat flight sim? I would suggest looking at Sky Odyssey for PS2, although that game is every bit as relaxing and serene as Iron Aces is intense and violent. While Ace Combat may seem a more suitable comparison, the World War II setting here lends itself to a completely different look and vibe, less testosterone and more nostalgia. On the graphics side, Iron Aces generally delivers very good stuff. Flight combat depends heavily on the screen design and interface to convey battle information easily on-screen without cluttering or making actual navigation more difficult, and Iron Aces uses a simple H.U.D. to show weapons levels, enemy location and gauges. Using the D-Pad, it is possible to pan 360 degrees and look straight up to find pesky enemies who slipped away. This 'peek' feature is okay, but doesn't end up being very practical in battle situations, especially since planes are equipped with radar.

Iron Aces brings a nice, cinematic touch to this type of game, with in-depth briefings that include interactive maps, and scratchy WWII movies for cut-scenes. After a mission, you return to 'base' for prepping on the next mission or to save and load, and instead of just menu choices, you enter a room with different objects you select for each action. You can even talk to your squad leader for tips on mission and combat tactics here. Once in the plane, unless you choose an outside view, the cockpit is your window to the world. Iron Aces has a way of changing camera angle after a successful kill-shot, to show the action in more detail when you sink a ship or shoot down a plane. This is disconcerting at first, and somewhat irritating if you think a movie is playing and then watch your plane crash because you weren't controlling it. After any successful level, a replay option is available, including the choice to save replays for later viewing. Missions can take place during different times of day, so you'll fly dusk to dawn routing the world of bogies. It's nice to see special graphical touches like the water effects as you fly over the ocean or the many details put into the H.U.D. If WWII pilots had really had this stuff, they would have been much better off. Of course, there was some attention to detail on these old planes in terms of body styles and markings that is true to history, but I doubt they had radar that was quite as fancy. The music is almost nil, but pops up in dialogs and between missions, so nothing too memorable on that front.


Gameplay:

The setting for Iron Aces is WWII, and although individual battle scenarios may be modeled on actual events, sim-fans will have only the plane types to glory over. In a market glutted with 3DO's Army Men games and plenty of WWII-themed action, Xicat's choice of this time period is interesting. Since Iron Aces isn't trying to be realistic, it's free to twist or embellish, taking artistic license with flags, insignia and the events of the war. In the Iron Aces version of the war, each of 4 nations is represented by an island. The British and Japanese have islands that look roughly like their real-life abodes, but the American and German side is a different story. As best I can tell, the Americans are represented by Australia or Greenland, and the Germans occupy what looks like West Europe. So, with each country defending an island (named with an imaginary title), the battle between American/British (Allied) and German/Japanese (Axis) powers begins in the air.

But, before you jump right into combat, there's a Training Mode available. I think Xicat presumed a bit too much in making the training only cover torpedo bombing runs. Sure, bombing's not intuitive, but neither is anything else about flying. Training Mode gives you practice shots at stationary, moving and highly-strategic targets, and the experience not only helps you grasp controls, but comes in very handy during bombing missions. Three planes are up for a test flight at first, but you'll have a chance to unlock about 20 planes before the game's done. I really wished there could have been more in-depth flight training, but I guess they thought without heavy sim-elements, flight school wasn't needed. Single or Vs. Modes take you into the meat of the game, and also some more frustrating territory. As a mission-based combat flight game, Iron Aces is very hit or miss on enjoyment and balance, no matter what difficulty you preselect. Even on Easy, some levels will seem almost impassable. But, objectives are clearly given, and using the map seemed a key strategy to tracking and nailing enemy craft. Another nice feature is the plane selection, with at least one alternative per mission for the adventurous pilots who like unlocking and flying new planes. Again, because this is more stim than sim, none of the plane choices feel very different, so it's mostly about armament and style.

Dogfighting action makes or breaks this game, and if you like the idea of careening over air and land blasting at bogies, you'll likely enjoy what Iron Aces has to offer. A well-rounded experience this isn't, although the scenarios are nicely scripted to give reasons and strategy to what would otherwise be some fairly pointless action. Planes come with stats related to weight capacity, affecting weapons capability, mobility and speed. Given the choice to have unlimited ammunition, how much ammo a plane can carry will only matter to the folks trying to handicap themselves. After a mission briefing, you pick your plane and launch the mission. Dogfighting consists of acquiring a target manually through a nice radar-style interface in the Pause screen, or letting the game pick up a target after you get close enough or start chasing a plane. There's a lock-on feature to follow the plane if it goes out of sight, which saves the trouble of moving views or turning around in the cockpit. Radar also helps you keep track of both friend and foe during intense battles. Speed, as the manual is quick to point out, is a huge part of gaining the upper hand in the air or on bombing runs, but there's no absolute for where one should be. Basically, if you can't draw a bead on the enemy, you need to slow down. Otherwise, controls are simple and response is...simple. And, for a game that's billing itself as a flight-sim, gamers will find there's not much more to flying these babies. But, to make up for it, some of the missions are quite hard.


Difficulty:

Flight combat games have an almost certain downfall, which is freedom. In designing most games, the creators of levels know to a certain degree where you can and may go. But, in the air there ain't nothin' to hold you back. Enemy AI is such that you'll often pursue planes outside the mission area, and even though you're warned about this, it's hard to recover. Watching the map or the landscape is nice enough, but the first nightime mission is totally frustrating. Not, 'you lack the skills, young grasshopper' frustrating, but 'nobody thought to design intuitive gameplay' frustration. Timed missions don't have much if any margin for error, and although I don't suggest we play games like this on rails, it wouldn't hurt to have more structure. Especially since this isn't much of a sim, the older and wiser crowd will likely pass. We're left with a younger bunch that may like the action, but give up when the levels get inscrutable and overly difficult. If there were any justice or reason applied here, levels like the Battle of Trincer, which is a nightime German raid on British aircraft factories, wouldn't even come into the game until much later. After a light course of training and a few dogfights, we're expected to go up against a big German force, in the dark, without any clear boundaries or reminders of what we should be protecting. Things like this might pass in a sim, but arcade players want to know if they blow stuff up, they'll beat the level. Some of the strategy elements feel out of place.

Game Mechanics:

I'll probably have them bury me with a PlayStation controller, but I love the Dreamcast controller for certain types of games. Driving is one, and flying seems to be another. The controls, albeit simple, don't leave much room for error. The analog stick handles flaps, adjusting climb-dive orientation and wing rolls. The triggers move the plane from side to side, but feel spongy on even the lightest fighter. Big planes are naturally more weighed down, but little two-seaters should respond like lightning. Buttons control throttle, bombing and machine guns, or just select in menus. Working with the D-Pad moves camera in the cockpit, showing everything but what's under you. A neat transparency effect lets you view through the body of the plane, giving just a suggestion of structure without obscuring the scenery. Throttle on the buttons is hard to manage, but gets the job done during dogfights. Bombing runs require consistent speed, and one strange thing in Iron Aces is how unaffected planes are by dive/climb behavior. I suspect this comes from not worrying about landing planes, since airspeed and rate of climb or dive are intimately connected. So, for the layman out there, turning the plane into a nosedive should generally send airspeed up like crazy, and trying to do barrel rolls on low speed should result in loss of speed and eventually a stall. None of this is a reality for Iron Aces and will feel like a big loss to fans of true flight sims. One neat thing about consistent airspeed is that bombing runs become very easy. Even Sky Odyssey had its rescue missions, which were basically bombing missions in the form of cargo drops. Things like crosswinds, stalls and flap use or airbrakes don't fit into the picture here, so moving around isn't much of a challenge. Vs. Mode leaves some nice room for variety in that you have to outfly opponents or be first to sink all their ships, and unlike enemy planes, human opponents are totally unpredictable. The control scheme is somewhat beyond what I expect from an arcade flight game, but not near enough for a sim. So, it's on the fence for sure. Most all the levels run smoothly, and the engine is tuned well. One sign of this is a death by falling debris after you destroy another plane. Ironically, Iron Aces switches to a triumphant outside view of your plane when you score a kill, mostly to show you the explosion, but I watched my grin turn to chagrin at least once when I flew right into the wreckage and died. Plenty of little touches like this make for good flying.

There's no way to knock Iron Aces for trying, and playing the period just to get the feel of old planes and dogfighting is never a bad proposition. PC gamers have more military air-combat sims that you can shake a stick at, and PlayStation got Colony Wars and Starfighter to boot. Dreamcast owners looking for a good flying game will enjoy the action, but I can't say it's a satisfying ride for simulation buffs. As a flight-combat game in WWII, there's not much like it out for DC or other consoles, but flight sim it ain't. Is there enough action to make it fun for arcade flying fans? Probably. Flow and balance problems between levels hurt Iron Aces in my eyes as an arcade game, since I really just want to sit down and start blasting. I really believe the idea was to just throw people into the action without all that tedious takeoff, landing and instrumentation business, but not balancing levels and leaving response mushy in the planes won't make anyone happy. As a rental, it's well worth the money and fun for a while, but very little of the fun endures once the novelty wears off.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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