Imagine my excitement when I was handed my first review assignment, gleefully I trekked home, already eager to install and play the game. Flight simulators aren't normally my thing. In fact, the last one I played, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000, was nearly a decade ago. But now was as good a time as any to play catch-up, and so enters Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War. The game was developed by Neoqb, quite possibly the name of our future sentient, robotic overlord, but also a Russia-based IT company. This is Neoqb's first game, but their website alluded to the possibility of more in the future. Rise of Flight was published in North America by 777 Studios, who appear to be new to the industry as well, with only two published games to date.
Simulation games have two big draws. One is player immersion; to make them feel as if they're accomplishing what the game is simulating. The second is realism, and with that often difficulty. I was ready for the game to be difficult; aware that flying World War I aircraft would be harsh compared to their modern, autopilot friendly cousins. Ultimately, I have to be more than a dude controlling a plane with a joystick. I have to be a World War I ace pilot with the wind slapping my face and the sound of nearby anti-aircraft fire causing me to jettison last night's supper. Rise of Flight is a mixed bag in this regard, and I hope I get that point across shortly. For now, I'll talk about what the game features.
There are five major components to Rise of Flight, and all of them revolve around flying your plane. First up are the Training Missions, which serve as your flight school for the game. Sporting some of the corniest cut scenes I've ever witnessed, the Training Missions are easily one of the more brighter points to the game. There's a structured narrative between the American instructor and his new pilot, whom Neoqb aptly named "John." There are thoughtful and even cutesy animations and diagrams to explain basic flight dynamics and how these dynamics will relate to your actual flights. After the comedic cut scenes, the game explains each step of a training mission in the real level, and then you set off to do them. It doesn't take long before you realize Rise of Flight is a really difficult game. You'll crash, and you'll burn. Nine years of hiatus on flight simulations caught up to me and Rise of Flight took me into the ground enough times to warrant uninstalling the game, but I persevered. Luckily, all the modes in the game allow you to tweak various game settings. You can disable wind, simplify physics, enable autopilot, start the engine easier, manage the rudder automatically, make yourself invincible, and so on. I found myself activating more and more of these options the longer I played the game, but that's not a bad thing. The inclusion of these features are essential however, since the "hardcore" version of the game alone would make it playable only to a tiny, highly skilled demographic.
Once you graduate from the Training Missions, assuming you do, you're thrust into the harsh reality of Rise of Flight and World War I air combat: almost everyone, including most historic ace pilots, tends to die. Between the sixth and final Training Mission and any other mode, I found a significant increase in the game's difficulty. The remaining game options include Mission, Career, Multiplayer, or the Mission Editor. Missions deliver drop-in scenarios that typically consist of a simple dogfight, bombing run, or ground attack, and sometimes a mixture of objectives, but without the narrative or structural elements of the Training Missions. Career mode is another game type, but it falls short of separating itself much from Mission mode. It's the well-advertised portion of the game where you can join an authentic World War I air squadron and "become an Ace Fighter Pilot," but it's really just several missions stringed together even more loosely than the Training Missions. There were no cut scenes or plots, just text descriptions and occasional objective prompts in mission.
Though my initial optimism had been tested by Rise of Flight's difficulty, I used my memory of Canadian Ace Pilot William Avery Bishop from high school history class for inspiration. With baseball cap secured atop my head, I jumped into Bishop's preferred Nieuport 17 and selected a combat mission. Oh, wait, it will cost me $10 plus applicable taxes to unlock the Nieuport 17 and its applicable missions. Rise of Flight ships with a few planes, but to have them all, you'll have to pay. A lot. I should, historical accuracy willing, be allowed to simulate the planes of the "First Great Air War!" All of them. Full immersion, sadly, will cost players an extra $80.
The fourth component to the game is the multiplayer. Sadly, I tried to log in to it several times, and the highest number of people I saw playing was 15. Of those times, all of the people playing were in private, password-protected servers, and most of them were playing alone anyway. I did try connecting to some public, empty servers, but I was usually booted after some period of waiting. Eventually, I created my own server, but no one ever joined it. I guess the one thing that comes to mind in multiplayer mode is, "thank goodness Rise of Flight isn't an MMO!" I returned to single player post haste.
The last major component of the game is the mission editor, which allows you to design your own levels for the aforementioned mode. I didn't spend much time on the editor because I still had single play missions to try, but it only took a few minutes to start doing things. Although the manual goes into absolutely no detail about how to build missions, there are some helpful FAQs to be found on the official Rise of Flight forums. For my part, I built one hundred German observation balloons and one Fokker D.VII airplane to protect them. Good luck buddy.
So what about the most important part of Rise of Flight or any flight simulator: the flying? Well, the flight mechanics in Rise of Flight are bar none. They're simply fantastic. Flying will test your keyboard skills and your patience, but once you get the hang of it you do feel as if you're flying through the air in a flimsy World War I plane. When you hit the space bar and unleash your machine guns on the enemy, the bullets feel like tangible objects instead of infinite-velocity yellow streaks. In terms of simulation, others games that include planes such as Ace Combat (any of them), Crimson Skies, or the Battlefield series don't even compare. Sadly, flying and dogfighting are two different beasts. The game's emphasis on combat is its downfall, as my best time destroying an enemy plane was around seven minutes. Let's not talk about the worse times.
Of the game's more technical aspects, the graphics serve to aid in the immersion of flight. Plane models and cockpits, including their damage modelling, flirt with perfection. The cockpit is detailed enough that you can zoom in and read the dials in the mother languages of the planes, which I can only assume are historically accurate. The character models in training cut scenes avoid grotesquery, but that's about it. On the whole, the massive land area (some 125,000 square kilometers) looks good. You end up flying in a kilometer-wide fully rendered zone, with detail disappearing the farther away you look. This might sound primitive, but for the most part it works very well, and I daresay it's not all that dissimilar from what you see when you look out a real airplane window. The rendering algorithms at work are far from perfect, however. Tree texture flickering and pop-in were a problem. Towns and bridges look blocky, but that isn't really a problem from hundreds of meters up in the air. The explosions from your 20lb. bombs leave something to be desired, but are supplemented by pleasing craters. Frame rate averaged 30 to 40 at max settings on my formidable rig, but sometimes dropped as low as 10 during dives. Given the amount of land the game has to show the player, however, I consider Rise of Flight is a graphical success.
To further the immersion, Rise of Flight delivers convincing sound effects for the planes, their weapons, and the sounds of anything else such as explosions or ground vehicles. The boom of anti-aircraft fire, even though you're still kilometers away from it, can irk you to the bone. This positive implementation of audio is, however, balanced by negatives everywhere else. There's no music anywhere in the game that I'm aware of. Given the shot at historical accuracy Neoqb is going for, I would have expected some period specific music to set the mood. And as I mentioned earlier, the cut scenes are some of the corniest I've seen. Every other aspect of the Training Mission cut scenes are fine, except for the voice acting. The translation job gives everything away: nobody at Neoqb tried overly hard to get a solid English script. The voice acting does often find that sweet spot of "so bad it's good." Other times, you just want to skip it, and thankfully you can. I witnessed one hilarious instance of blatant dubbing when one of the characters was explaining proper altitudes to avoid anti-aircraft artillery, but needed a robot voice actor to say the numbers. It's also apparent the same voice actor is used for both of the trainee and the instructor. The realization of the same person having a conversation with himself is simultaneously sad and entertaining.
The intelligence of the game varies widely, but it's strongest where it counts: airplane AI. Less important AI clearly received less attention, such as ground vehicle AI. Trucks, jeeps, and tanks would follow strict, linear paths. If disrupted by say, and I'll just pull a random example out of the air, my plane crashing into them violently, their complexity would be revealed. They would drive in constant circles, or "not notice" my plane's burning corpse and continually ram into it. Autopilot was hit and miss. On the game's hardest difficulty settings, I watched as the autopilot failed a multitude of times in things as simple as "staying level" or "avoiding the rapidly approaching ground." However, on more simplified settings, the autopilot is an excellent resource to the player.
Rise of Flight has long load times. The training missions, complete with their cut scenes, actually tend to be the shortest. Mission loads were longer, and Career loads were sometimes excruciating. On average, you're looking at 30 second loads at the best of times, and those are fine. Some of the career levels were taking up to 90 seconds. Given there are no cut scenes to render, or really anything besides the level and the triggers involved, in this day and age that's just too long to wait. The load screens also have no music or animations to entertain you. But at the end of the day, one load like that isn't going to kill the game. But the game is hard. Whether you mess up your take off and damage your plane, or get quickly shot down in a miscalculation, you'll find yourself staring at another long load. Rise of Flight reloads the entire level each time you die. It would have made more sense to just spawn a new plane and reset some triggers.
Rise of Flight doesn't offer up anything really unique to the flight simulator genre that I'm aware of, but I was very thankful they included slow/fast motion buttons. This allowed the player to slow down to as low as 1/33rd or as high as 8-fold normal time. Suddenly those long, 15-plus kilometer rides leading up to a dogfight weren't so bad. I would take off, activate autopilot, set the game to 8 times normal speed, and deactivate everything when I got closer to a fight. But this system also illuminated a problem. I had started as an optimistic, young Canadian looking at the beautifully rendered horizon, watching the wind slap my flimsy World War I airplane. When I turned my flight stick to and fro, I could sense the consequences of my actions as the plane moved unsteadily through the sky. The friction of the world seemed real, unlike many other flight games where planes respond a little too fluidly. By the end, I was just a dude sitting at my keyboard, watching the game play itself. I simply wasn't immersed anymore.
There are two other nasty secrets I've been keeping from this review, which I will now relate to you. Installing the game went smoothly, but Rise of Flight also automatically updates itself with game patches by connecting to Neoqb's servers. This is not inherently a bad thing, except they only have their one download mirror in, I believe, Russia. The two patches I was forced to download totalled in at 600MB, and I ended up waiting just shy of ten hours before I could even play the game. I realize this is only a severe problem if you're playing from the Americas, but it's not attractive. Let me play the game without patching, if anything. Worse still, Rise of Flight sports some of the heaviest DRM I've seen to date. Not only are there the regular CD keys to install, you absolutely must be connected to the Internet at all times to play Rise of Flight, to remain in constant contact with Neoqb servers. Playing on a laptop with no hotspots? Nope, you're out of luck. If Rise of Flight's DRM were transformed into an airplane, you'd be staring at a Lockheed AC-130. And it doesn't like you.
Rise of Flight is at its core a strong flight simulator. I am also led to believe that World War I era games are probably an open niche unlike the ever-exploited World War II or the plentiful modern day. So while flying is fun, dogfighting and bombing ultimately left something to be desired. Once you tack on the poor multiplayer, lack of structure in missions or Career mode, half-done cut scenes, long load times, horrendously overpriced DLC, frustratingly long patch times, and heavy DRM, Rise of Flight will need more development time and probably a sequel to be worthy of a wider market or greater attention.