Dakka dakka dakka! Tracer from the Orks’ guns rent the air between their aircraft and mine. Impressive? Yes. Intimidating? A bit. Effective? Absolutely not. In contrast, however, the fire from my Imperial pilots is deadly accurate, and three of the Orks’ planes are reduced to balls of flame and hurling chunks of metal. Head-on attacks are decidedly risky, but in this instance it’s paid-off beautifully. Having passed my foes, I order my squadron to execute barrel-rolls, bringing them smartly around. Then the dogfight starts. Planes slide-slip, loop, dive to the ground to escape fire, and try their best to line up their shots. Anticipating the movement of foes incorrectly, one of my pilots ends up flying through his opponent. Another has to make a mad dash to escape after using up all of his ammo. A third very narrowly misses flying straight into a mountain range after executing a high-G maneuver and blacking out for a few seconds. Ultimately, however, they are successful, and my squadron marks up another victory for the Emperor.
In Aeronautica Imperialis: Flight Command, players take control of a squadron of Imperial Navy aircraft, and fight against the Orks in single player scenarios and campaigns, or against each other in multiplayer matches. While this is essentially, a PC version of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop wargame, Aeronautica Imperialis, instead of merely digitizing the game, developers Binary Planets have turned it into a complete 3D experience. You can watch as planes dive down and hug the ground, turn loops, and execute bombing runs, instead of having to imagine it all.
Just like the tabletop game, gameplay is turn-based, using a ‘we-go’ system. That is, each player (or player and AI) both select what maneuvers they wish to performer independently of one another, and then hit the ‘commit’ button, which then plays out both players’ moves at the same time. Virtually nothing happens without the player’s say-so. Each aircraft has to be given orders, even if it is flying in a straight line, before you can end your turn, and there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that you have carefully hand-crafted each barrel-roll, zoom or side-slip.
Of course, being able to intuitively navigate your way around 3D space is vital in a game like this, and Aeronautica Imperialis: Flight Command does an excellent job. The camera controls are quite easy to come to grips with, as is the command system for each aircraft. Thanks to a series of excellent tutorials, players will be able to find themselves ordering their planes about competently in next to no time. Especially helpful in this respect are the ‘ghost’ aircraft that appear whenever you issue a command, showing you just where your craft will end up, and giving you a chance to revise things (especially if you’ve plotted a course that will send pilots careering into one another).
All this is to the good, because the last thing you want to be doing in a game like this is fighting the controls. No, you want your focus on what’s happening, and your concentration on predicting the likely outcome of the next few moves (think very short-range 3D chess). In each turn you’ll find yourself considering every craft’s speed, altitude, pilot’s G-force stress level (too much and they’ll black-out), and be deciding whether to tell a pilot to focus on one target to the exclusion of all others, only fire when in optimal range, or go wild and shoot at anything that wanders across his sights. You’ll also be considering damage levels, ammo reserves, and when to order particular craft to make a dash for the exit zones (located at the extreme edges of the map) to avoid losing precious victory points.
If this sounds all too complex, don’t be worried. In practice it’s incredibly intuitive, so much so that after a few matches you can treat the game in a casual manner: pick it up when you feel like it, have a match or two, and come back to it at a later date. It’s fun, engaging and entertaining.
Of course, some things that seem to have been brought over from the tabletop game won’t appeal to everyone. The success or failure of an attack, for example, is determined by the roll of (digital) die, coupled with modifiers based on your pilots’ skill. As anyone who plays game using dice can attest, while this does definitely produce moments of pure frustration, it can also result in utter elation when you’ve had a string of good luck. Also there is a strict 12 round limit to each encounter. While some may find this short, it does prevent matches from dragging out too long, and give players who find themselves on the back-foot a chance to ‘hang in there’ until the whistle blows, and perhaps even snatch victory (especially if the opponent’s goal is to destroy a specific target).
Regarding the campaign, this is made up of largely random scenarios (yielding a certain number of victory points) with squadron management and mission selection in between (somewhat like the old flight-simulators). Lose too many, and the forces of mankind will be overrun, win enough, and you’ll eventually help drive the Orks away. In between each battle you can manage your squadron, including choosing which pilots and aircraft you want to bring to battle, the load-out of the craft (anti-air or anti-ground), and recruit new pilots to make up for those lost in battle. Also, as pilots rank up they can gain useful abilities, which can help turn the tide of battle in your favour.
It should be noted that you can only play as the Imperium in the single-player campaign, with the Orks being reserved for scenarios and online play. Also, at present it’s only possible to see each move played-out (albeit from different camera angles), but not the run-through of an entire match, giving the play-backs a rather piecemeal feeling.
Niggles aside, I found Aeronautica Imperialis: Flight Command to be a different kind of strategy game, which is both a fun and surprisingly relaxing game to play. It effortlessly engages the tactical side of the brain, and presents the visual appeal of a real-time fight, but without the time pressure. While it won’t appeal to everyone, those who enjoy Warhammer 40k, the idea of orchestrating an entire dogfight, and like a more relaxed pace of strategy game, should find this enjoyable. ■