It’s a bold move to release a dogfighting sim the week after STAR WARS: Squadrons. Sure, the themes are worlds (and universes) apart, but Red Wings: Aces of the Sky is giving itself a challenge by going up against a triple-A bogey. Good on All in! Games for staying on target and flipping EA the bird.
This is a WW1 dogfighter that centres on the Red Baron, Manfred Von Richthofen, who notched 80 aerial victories over the war. It’s not quite clear if you’re playing as him or alongside him throughout the Triple Alliance campaign, while another campaign clearly puts you on the Triple Entente side, setting him up as a boogeyman for you and your squadron. The campaigns flip through a motion comic every few missions to progress the story, while title cards pop up between missions, giving you an indication of exactly where in the war you are.
The missions themselves are short, pitched encounters, never more than ten minutes long and restricted to a single objective. Don’t expect the developing plot and scripted moments of Squadrons’ campaign; instead, you’ll routinely have three things to do: shoot down everything, fly through hoops in a Pilotwings-style, or drop bombs on targets while dodging aerial bombardment. There are variations within those categories – you might have to shoot down some blimps while waves of fighters attack, perhaps – but Red Wings never strays that far.
Complete the mission and you gain up to three stars, and those stars can be used to buy permanent benefits that’ll up your DPS, aerial maneuverability, and mission-specific buffs. These can be transferred between campaigns, so you might find yourself switching over to the other campaign to maximise your oomph. Keep progressing through the missions, and you will unlock new planes.
The flying is more towards the arcadey, Jedi Starfighter end than some of your more out-and-out sims. It reminded me a lot of Lylat Wars, strangely enough, with a single arena, multiple bogeys in the distance, and simple, one-touch maneuvers like a barrel roll, u-turn, calling backup, and – unusually – a pistol-shot from your cockpit, when you can one-hit a damaged enemy. It’s kind of bizarre, if we’re honest, to zoom in and headshot your opponent, and the game’s erratic in when it’ll let you do it. Too often, the prompt turned up milliseconds before the fighter exploded.
Outside of the campaigns, there’s multiplayer dogfighting to be had, as you can take on another local player in Time Battles, Score Battles and, the absolute highlight, Hide n’ Seek. This is the most fantastically bonkers thing in the whole game: you fly in a swarm of bot-planes and hope you don’t get spotted, like an aerial version of prop hunt. It’s nothing more than a novelty and won’t keep you playing, but definitely give it a shot. We’ve not played anything like it. There’s also a survival mode, which is as boring as most survival modes are: keep killing until you stop, then get your score added to a leaderboard. As a package, it’s pretty substantial. There’s a hangar full of stuff here, and the campaigns keep going for a fair old whack.
But, as the old game-reviewer adage goes, it’s better to try something new and fail, than try nothing new and bore everyone to sleep. Unfortunately, Red Wings: Aces of the Sky attempts to do very little new, and is as middle of the road (middle of the skyway?) as they come. It was a battle to keep the interest going.
The dogfighting is fine, don’t get us wrong. The plane is responsive, and there’s a subtle aim-assist to avoid wild misfiring. The accuracy of the period for planes has obviously been dialled up, as you can take down opponents from quite a distance. Sure, it could have benefited from some of the advances that games like Rebel Galaxy Outlaw have introduced, like lock-on targeting and tracking, but it does the basic stuff well, and the aforementioned maneuvers are enjoyably arcadey, if a bit too slow to replenish in the early game.
The problem is that the pattern of ‘search for a plane, get it in your sights and fire’ is the same from mission 1 to mission 20. Your opponents might gain the odd shield or sponge a bit more damage, but their AI largely remains the same (too often aiming themselves at you, kamikaze-like, which you’ll quickly get tired of). Leveling up doesn’t give you any new weapons or strategy; it just incrementally improves your ability to take down other planes. The same goes with the planes you unlock.
The parameters of your missions don’t change wildly either. You will either fight waves of fighters that are triggered by the AI, or waves of fighters that are triggered by you (blimps circle the battlefield, and destroying them will bring in enemy backup). The difference is miniscule, and nowhere near enough to generate strategy or variety. I found myself wanting something, anything, to turn up and disrupt things a wee bit. Chuck in a tank, zeppelin, mega-bomber, mechanised Kaiser, even a different landscape, a city perhaps. It occasionally rains or gets dark, but that’s the limit.
Sure, the squadron-fighting does occasionally give way to hoop obstacle courses and bombing missions, but they’re not exactly highlights. The hoops feel odd in a game that strictly adheres to the setting and hates breaking fourth walls (if you can break the fourth wall then give me some cool-ass planes to fight!), but they’re serviceable enough as gameplay goes. The plane is nimble, so I never felt frustrated by these sequences, but they don’t inspire.
The bombing, however, is mind-numbing. You move at a realistic trudge, and targets are often grouped in clusters. The problem is that you have three bombs per drop, and it’s impossible to clear all of the targets in that cluster. So round, round you go, like a super-tanker, looking to get another shot at that factory you missed. Aerial bombardment puffs around you, adding a bit of drama, but they’re pretty benign and can be dodged/ignored with ease. I let out a little groan whenever a bombing section popped up, as I knew I’d be circling the arena like I was looking for that last parking spot.
Then you multiply this by two, as the campaigns largely mirror each other. They’re both burdened with having to introduce a player to the game’s concepts (as a player can start the campaigns in either order), which is a huge, huge design mistake. It only rams the repetition down your throat even further, somewhere around the bile ducts. If you want to gain the unlocks that make the harder, later levels possible, you’re going to have to play through both campaigns, and they don’t deviate enough to make that anything but a chore.
A lot of the issues would have been resolved if the story felt it was progressing somewhere, or that there was a neat payoff waiting for you. But, bewilderingly, the story decides to focus on what it’s like to fight in a squadron with your chums. It’s faceless people talking about their missing partners back home, how the press keep badgering them, and what food they have to eat… honestly, the eyelids are getting heavy just writing about it. Anything would have been better: tell us what’s happening more broadly in the war; give us a sense that we’re progressing, pushing the front forward; even do some characterisation, so I can get to know my co-pilots. It doesn’t help that it’s written limply and with grammatical issues, and drab art makes everything – the writing, the voice-acting, the planes – feel like they are made out of cardboard.
Red Wings: Aces of the Sky on Xbox One is competent, workmanlike, and dull. So much about the chassis is well-made – the presentation, flying and arcadey maneuvers are immediate and satisfying – but the game does only one thing with them. You’ll be repeating much the same mission, with only the smallest changes of direction, and then you’ll have to do it all over again in the second, near-duplicate campaign. There’s a good WW1 fighter sim out there, and an even better one based on The Red Baron, but this isn’t it. His life was anything but boring; unfortunately, Red Wings: Aces of the Sky is anything but fun.