Game Name:  Wings of War
Developer:  Silver Wish Games
Publisher:  Gathering
PC Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  August 30, 2014

This summer marks the centennial of the war that was supposed to end all wars.  Since the armistice in 1918, not only did this sentiment turn out to be wrong, but the world seems to have forgotten that an entire generation of young men died in the muddy trenches of Europe.  Even though the subject of World War I is generally ignored in today’s movies and books, its absence in the realm of gaming is particularly striking; especially when the number of World War II titles is taken into account.  Sure, I understand that the pure evil of Hitler’s Third Reich makes for a far more compelling enemy than the Kaiser's Germany ever could.  However, this does not diminish the bravery and sacrifice of that earlier generation of soldiers, whose stories deserve to be told.  Ubisoft’s recent release, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, revealed the heroic deeds of these men and women in a balanced and heart-touching way.  While I considered it near impossible to find such narrative depth from the few other titles that broach the subject, I installed Wings of War to at least see the conflict from another perspective.  In line with expectations, it turned out to be an emotionally immature experience that almost glorified the war.  Sadly, the gameplay followed suit, and will only provide gamers about 30 minutes of entertainment before wearing thin.

It should be apparent that Wings of War is a flight simulator based on the title alone, but use that descriptor loosely since it very cleanly lands at the arcade end of the spectrum.  Mission briefings are the first giveaway.  As a pompous British voice lists off the level’s many objectives, it becomes immediately clear that no human pilot could pull it all off.  Leading a combat air patrol, escorting a wing of bombers, taking reconnaissance photos of enemy production centers, rescuing a downed airman, and supporting a ground offensive are some of the many directives given for a single flight.  Since there is a handy statistics tracker in the main menu, players are acutely aware that this translates into a comically large 600 aerial kills over a 12 mission campaign. Similar games work around this implausibility by presenting new objectives in real-time.  Not only does this add a sense of drama within a level, but it provides the illusion that gamers are doing less than they actually are.  While the developers did go this route with the bonus missions, which award power-ups like faster engines and multiple guns, there was an opportunity to do more since they already took the liberty of including plane-to-plane communication via radio, despite the historical inaccuracy this presents.

Getting into the game world for the first time will offset these negatives, since the graphics engine and flight model in Wings of War are generally solid.  Planes are colorful and very accurately built, considering the title’s age.  Ground models and textures are, by necessity, detailed enough to accommodate the missions that require landing to man a machine gun mounted to a train or truck.  The skies are also nicely done, and make a beautiful backdrop for the many aerial clashes with German forces.  While the graphics are not in the stop-and-stare category of 2009’s Rise of Flight, this is a game at its best when the player is trying to jockey into a kill slot while the rain or snow is flying around them.  On that topic of movement, it is very much dependent on the menu options selected.  Arcade mode is a joke and may as well be played with a keyboard alone, since controls are super responsive and it is impossible to flip a plane without using specific commands for Immelmann turns and barrel rolls.  Classic mode is still a forgiving experience, but one that provides a full range of movement and adds some minor performance differentiation between aircraft.  The loops, dives, turns, and throttle changes that are needed to stay on the tail of a bogey provide a sense of wonder and fun, without demanding continual practice as a true simulation would.

Unfortunately, the weaponry will quickly end this honeymoon period in Wings of War.  Having studied a lot of history in college, I was very surprised to pick up a cache of rockets in one of the earlier levels.  From that moment on, the gameplay devolved into a mindless string of one-shot kills because of poor design choices.  Le Prieur Rockets, named after their French inventor, were very weak in actuality.  First used in 1916, they were notoriously inaccurate incendiary weapons that were designed to destroy observation balloons.  While they succeeded in that role, they were good for little else.  In the game world, however, nothing can be further from the truth.  The best way to describe their functionality is as a kind of insanely strong proximity mine cannon.  Aside from duels against the occasional “boss” aircraft, which are intended to soak up a lot of damage, most dogfights become a race to line up one not-so-clean shot, taking it, and watching the target’s wing shear off when the missile gets in range and explodes.  The whole system undermines the flight model, and hides what can be a great cat-and-mouse game when engagements are limited to machine guns.

Bad game design can be tolerated with an exceptional story, but the narrative in Wings of War is just as vapid as the combat.  Gamers take on the role of Benjamin Butch, a completely nondescript RAF aviator who will eventually become the United Kingdom’s ace of aces.  At least I am assuming he did, because a superhuman feat like averaging 50 aerial kills per sortie could result in nothing less.  Throughout the eight hours of gameplay, players will learn nothing about this Grim Reaper of the sky.  There is zero backstory, little camaraderie within the squadron, and no other purpose than beating back the Hun as the commander so enthusiastically says during briefings.  The Europe depicted here may as well be Neverland, because there are no consequences for the British forces’ actions.  They will actively seek out duels with notorious German aces, and then argue throughout the engagement about who will be drinking whose beer in peacetime.  Where there was ample opportunity to showcase something profound, like the death of wingman to illustrate the horrors of war, Silver Wish Games took a lower road and created an experience that is little more than an interactive propaganda poster.

With how rare air combat games have become, it is disheartening to see one that fails on multiple levels, as Wings of War does.  It is even worse to think that this failure may have helped drive player and designer interest further away from World War I source material.  Realistically, an arcade-style flyer is never going to replicate the sense of tension and terror that defined a dogfight in 1916, but there is nothing to keep it from channeling the mood and atmosphere of the times.  Nothing that is, except for a willingness on the part of developers who would rather have gamers fly through buildings and change planes by leaping from one to the other.  Something this light and fluffy is not fun, and does a disservice to the airmen who lost their lives in the conflict, as well as those who protect us today.

Verdict:  Not Recommended