Wings of Prey is one of the most beautiful and visually captivating flight-themed games I have ever played in my life, full stop. Gorgeous vistas all around you wherever your eyes gaze, phenomenal aircraft models and cockpits, and some of the most astonishing effects I’ve ever seen in a video game. The gently rolling hills are perfectly salted with trees, homes, army camps, castles, cities and that perfectly nice family from Leeds waving at me as I scream past in my Hurricane at 400 miles an hour.
The water condensation effect when you fly through a cloud bank was both wondrous and disorienting all at once. You will fly into clouds over and over again just to see it. The pyrotechnic effects must be seen, no experienced, to be believed. Pieces of shredded aircraft go sailing violently in all directions as the Huns fall to your brilliant display of aerial gunnery. It is real, visceral, and enthralling to see, and it does it all at a buttery-smooth 60 frames per second on a very modest machine. Granted, it’s a console port and would suggest that the hardware in a gaming PC isn’t having to work too hard to run it, but it’s still surprising.
One gripe regarding Wings of Prey graphics, and it is well-known, and well argued. What is with the prevalent green tint? Was there a simultaneous malfunction of the developer’s RGB monitor color calibration?
Until you hear it. Sound quality for the music and the radio chatter sound authentic and lend to a mood of tension and anxiety as you wing your way through the missions, but the weapons and engines just make you want to tear your digital audio USB headset off and throw it into a wall. The Spitfire engine made noises I’m normally accustomed to hearing from the 10-hp Briggs & Stratton engine in my Dixon deck mower. I swear, it sounded like a power mower going through the St. Augustine grass in my front yard. Again, it’s a console port and the average Xbox 360 user isn’t going to notice the difference between a Rolls-Royce Merlin and a Packard V-12, but they all sounded like a string trimmer taking out a particularly resistant strand of weeds.
The weapons are not much better. Every bomb whistles and the guns have a staccato clacking noise that reminds me of my dog’s nails on the kitchen tile flooring.
And here is where the wings fall off (so to speak).
It is quite apparent not only from a graphics and sound aspect but also from a gameplay stance that this is, no question, a console port. Yes, she’s a beautiful girl, but she’s capable of such maddeningly dense decisions that you won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
There are three basic difficulty levels: Arcade, Realistic, and Simulation. Arcade is exactly that, it’s Son of Air Quake. Realistic is intended to be more challenging, and Simulation is allegedly like strapping on one of these warhorses for real and going off to fight the Nazi scourge for God, king and country.
The way I’ve always thought that difficulty levels should work is that the less a game does to “cheat” its way into being more challenging, the better. IL-2: Sturmovik was a master at screwing this up, with aircraft whose performance envelopes fell somewhere between Superman and a UFO and with me having no way possible to mirror those movements. If I cannot do it, the AI shouldn’t be able to either. Things like armor ratings, engine performance, airframe characteristics and weapon power should be left static. It’s your AI opponents that ought to be doing things differently.
In Arcade mode, you have the otherworldly ability to decimate your enemies at your leisure, a quick burst of cannon fire will take down even the most difficult of adversaries.
In Realistic mode, something odd happens because either the Heinkel He111 magically becomes a flying battleship with inch-thick armor all around or the Hawker Hurricane was equipped with Airsoft guns.
In Simulation mode, you just shoot peppermints at the Germans. Oh, and your aircraft is also made of paper-mache at the elevated difficulty levels, as they can apparently shred you to bits at their leisure.
In Arcade mode, you can loop, bank, climb, and cruise at any speed and almost any angle you choose. In Realistic mode… well, did you know that if you yank back on the Spitfire yoke just 2mm more than what you’re supposed to, it will enter a flat spin? …at 300 knots? …in a dive?
In Arcade mode, the bombs and rockets magically reload for you after you expend everything. In Realistic…well, they still do, but it takes a few seconds longer for some inexplicable reason.
For an air combat simulation junkie, there is precious little reason for flying in Arcade mode. None, practically. However, between inconsistent flight performance envelopes (no two stalls happen in the same way, at the same speed, in the same air frame) and dodgy kinetic energy values from the weapons, there’s almost no reason to try to fly it in Realistic mode, either.
“Realistic damage model” means armor-plated aircraft piloted by the same cast of idiots that can blow your butt off with one pass while you fail to so much as scratch their painted surfaces.
And this is all with the AI pulling from the same bag of tricks in terms of behavior. There really wasn’t much they were doing differently between each setting. There’s also really no reason to fly it in Simulation mode as it’s somewhat disconcerting to adjust the mixture on something that sounds like a lawn mower.
And there are other failings, like taking a gunner’s position on a bomber. It’s best to let the AI handle it and just try to avoid being shot, because if you attempt to take over, you better be a hell of a shot with your mouse or you better have a lot of altitude to play with. Why? Because when you take over the gunner’s position, you still have to fly the plane. This means one hand is shooting with the mouse, the other is on your flight stick, trying to keep the plane from making a large, smoky hole in the Earth. It’s the ultimate in multitasking and it’s a solid gold pain in the ass to try. If there’s an autopilot I can engage, I can’t find the command.
Also, there’s this terrible game mechanic whose presence I just can’t figure out. When you end a mission, you have the option to continue so you can do neat things like shoot more airplanes down or, I don’t know, go home and land. But, you’re on a timer, so whatever it is that you wanted to do, do it quick, because Mom’s over there looking at her watch and giving you that “have-your-butt-home-at-ten” look. It gives you about nine minutes to wrap things up and then you’re done.
The Simulation mode is another kettle of wahoo entirely. The flight and damage models are pretty similar to Realistic, but the HUD is completely removed, along with any other visual cues. Navigation is performed with an inflight map and it adds some complex engine management, plus the ability to manually adjust the trim of your control surfaces.
I got so exasperated, I’ll admit it, I quit trying. Funny thing. The latest patch says it removes the Yuplay DRM. That’s not really true, provided you want to fly online. If you want to fly in multiplayer, you still have to log into Yuplay. Now, this makes me feel kind of sorry for the people who bought this on Steam, because I presume they have to log into Steam and then log into Yuplay in order to fly online, that’s two layers of DRM just to play a console port. It’s almost not even worth it.
I tried for two weeks every evening, on high traffic nights like Friday and Saturday, to connect to a game and was greeted with an empty lobby every time. If there are controls to adjust what regions you are attempting to connect to, I can’t find them. I realize this is an older game in a very small niche market, but I expected at least one or two people to be in there.