[6 November 2011]
It’s a good thing that Air Conflicts: Secret Wars is an admitted arcade experience because referring to it as a flight simulator would either be willfully deceitful or hopelessly optimistic. Mind you, I don’t play many flight simulators. The few that I remember playing extensively include the 1994 PC release Star Wars: TIE FIGHTER, Star Fox, and Star Wars Rogue Squadron. But if we’re using a comparable scale, racing games for instance, ranging from Cruis’n USA (arcade) to Gran Turismo (simulator), Secret Wars would fall somewhere near Mario Kart.
Secret Wars takes place in the mid-20th century, spanning both of the World Wars, but the setting only tangentially matters. Interrupting the gameplay is a wooden, still-frame storyline forced upon the gamer, which describes how the playable protagonist, Dorothy Derbec, transitioned from liquor smuggler to American do-gooder. But the timing and setting of the levels have no bearing on the game itself. Though your commander may instruct you to attack a “Nazi” convoy carrying crucial supplies, nothing exists to discern these vehicles as anything other than things that explode.
Plenty of games have awful storylines. That’s not enough to condemn them. The gamplay in Secret Wars, however, is some of the most remedial that I’ve played on the current console generation. Though I used the arcade setting for the controls (I think this is the equivalent to playing a racing game on automatic instead of manual), this doesn’t affect the in-game strategy and dynamics, which amount to turning faster than the incompetent AI opponents and shooting at the crosshairs conveniently leading the airplane that you’re attacking. Half of the challenge of games like this is determining where to shoot in order to hit a moving plane. Secret Wars does this for you.
When you engage enemies on the ground, things get even worse. Aside from the obvious scale issues—tanks are approximately half the size of your single-seater dogfighting plane—dropping bombs or firing rockets is an exercise in patience. You could fly a dozen feet above your desired target, drop a bomb, and miss by a healthy margin—at least enough so that the target is still standing and operational.
Single-player mission modes include what you might expect: straight dogfighting, stealth missions that require you to stay out of sight, convoy protection, etc. Unfortunately they uniformly turn into the same thing: circle around until you’ve blown up whatever it is that you were told to blow up. It also features an online multiplayer mode that I admittedly haven’t dug into because the pacing and dryness of the single player showed what it would be: you and various other gamers circling endlessly until you can crack off a few shots at someone else—imagine multiplayer from Star Fox 64.
My biggest complaint about the game arose early on during an ambush level. My job was to explore the area and uncover a secret Nazi oasis in the middle of a mountainous desert (yes, really). After quickly taking out two enemy aircraft, I began flying around the level in search of the hidden base. After about a minute of searching, the game decided that I had flown too far in the wrong direction and flashed across the screen “please return to the playing field” or something to that effect. The playing field? I’m covertly searching for a hidden Nazi base. There are no playing fields here.
There are concerns for designing an “open world” arcade flight simulator like this, but there needs to be more prudent ways to tell a player that he’s screwing up. Have your commander radio through your headset that the believed location of the Nazi base was somewhere southeast of your current location or any number of other logical, in-the-moment tips. Simply flashing across the screen a sign that essentially says, “You’re not doing what we want you to do!” is infuriating.
Secret Wars feels like a Facebook game, the kind of social gaming experience that people design as a fun but shallow, wooden gaming environment that players can succeed in without much experience. The storyline has absolutely no weight or relevance to the gameplay, which feels like slogging through a glitchy online game when you’re trying to kill the last hour of work on a Friday. So unless you’re unable to find another game that allows you to kill Nazis and have a burning desire to do so, there’s very little to recommend Secret Wars.