When I first saw the trailer for the new game from Z-Software, the nostalgia almost swept me away in a rose tinted deluge of memories. You see, I spent a ridiculous amount of time playing Pilotwings way back in the day on the old SNES, and this game looked like nothing so much as a modern take on that classic. Pilotwings with proper analogue controls and updated graphics is hugely intriguing, but can Pilot Sports live up to the high expectations?
First off, and we just have to talk about the music. It’s perfectly pleasant and all, but appears to be set at a volume that is just short of ‘making your ears bleed’ level, and throughout my time with the game I had to ensure that any volume was turned right down, for fear of small ornaments vibrating off the shelves. Still, once that is actioned it’s quite simple to dive into the game proper.
The first task is to choose your avatar and obviously I chose the goth female character – why would you not? She has a top hat and everything! But then delve into the main menus and it appears that Z-Software have taken the minimalist approach here with simple menus with no real design flair or warmth about them. However taking in the first option, nailing the single player and the first set of courses, you finally get the chance to set off into the wild blue yonder.
And for a while, everything is great. The graphics are cute and well designed, with the avatar you chose sticking out of the top of the plane in the first level and with a lush, colourful looking island and seascape to look at. The first mission is to fly the aeroplane we find ourselves in through a series of rings, picking up time extension items and being hit with a penalty if you miss a ring. Depending on the time taken to complete the course, this will dictate what medal, if any, you get at the end.
Controls are pretty simple too with the expected up, down, left and right mapped to the left stick, and the throttle attached to the triggers. The more throttle you apply, the faster you go; this makes the turning circle of the plane larger, so to do tighter turns you’ll need to slow down. So far, so simple, yeah? Well yes, but it doesn’t take long for niggles to creep in.
Having beaten the first course, Pilot Sports then throws you into the next challenge, and then the next and so on. Now, reading the blurb about this game, it promises seven different types of vehicle to play with; two planes, two hang gliders and two jetpacks, with a parachute also included as a flying vehicle. Surely a parachute is what you use when your flying vehicle is in danger of becoming a crashing vehicle? Still, it is what it is, and I was keen to get to grips with the rest of the vehicle types.
The hang glider isn’t too bad, compared to the jetpack, at least. It obviously has no propulsion of its own, so if you want to climb or extend the range it can fly, you’ll need to find thermals. Trying to fly through rings in a hang glider is a thankless task, mainly because the course is dotted with these thermals. But these are usually in between two gates or rings, causing you to fly upwards and ruining your approach to the next ring, causing a time penalty, and ensuring you fail to get a gold medal. Still, the hang glider does at least go where you tell it to, most of the time, and despite some weird landing issues it’s quite fun to fly around.
The jetpack, however, is dreadful to control; there’s just no other word for it. The A button fires the thruster, and it can either go forward or upwards. It’s so counterintuitive that you have to stop flying toward the objective to get high enough to reach required levels and it won’t be long before you feel like completely giving up with trying to compete in these stages.
As for the levels where you have to collect parcels on a jetpack, and well, these are infuriating to say the least. It is such a faff getting to the point where you can pick the parcel up that by the time you’d done it the jetpack is practically out of fuel and a crash results. Of course, there are platforms where refuelling can take place, but again in a timed game there is no time for messing around with things like that.
Parachuting is quite good fun though with a skydiving segment where, just for a change, you have to fly through rings, and an aiming mini game takes place once the parachute is pulled, seeing you attempting to land on a bullseye.
As a solo experience, Pilot Sports is a bit tedious, however having a second (or third or fourth) player along for a couch co-op session does add to the fun considerably; splitscreen mode works very well. It’s a shame then that there’s no option for play across the online service, but having a bunch of mates sat around trying to put each other off does elevate the game.
Unfortunately though there are many things that don’t work too well. The controls for the jetpack have already been covered with too much detail but those for the plane and hang glider also have their own foibles to get used to. Apart from the very beginning of the levels featuring these vehicles, it’s extremely difficult to get either mode of transportation to fly straight and level once you’ve turned or changed altitude. The glider is the worst for this, as if you dive too far it’s impossible to regain the height again and so a crash is inevitable if you can’t reach a thermal. It’s not helped that on a particular level that challenges you to fly the hang glider as far as possible, with more than 2000 metres under my belt I was feeling pretty smug as all I had to do was land on a target. Which I dutifully did, only to fall straight through the world and for the game to tell me I had failed the level. I gently put the pad down and walked away at that point. It is similarly hard to land the parachute, when the feet of your little guy clearly hit the target and the next second you find yourself back 50 feet in the air as apparently you missed.
Control issues, annoyances with hit detection and the utterly annoying jetpack has sadly spoiled the experience of Pilot Sports on Xbox One. Whether the developers were aiming too high with their comparisons with Pilotwings I can’t say, but the game stands as an example of what happens when you take a good idea and don’t give it enough care and attention. With three mates it is fun, but as a single player experience its ultimately disappointing.