Released On: January 12, 2018 Genre: Air-combat Action Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: ACE MADDOX Publisher: ACE MADDOX MSRP: £15.19 GBP / $18.99 CAD
For the sake of full disclosure, it is worth pointing out that I was infatuated with aviation as a child, specifically military aviation. I grew up with tales from the Second World War, as my grandparents were children during that period of history. My great-grandfather served in the Royal Navy (I believe as an Anti-Aircraft Gunner), whilst his brother was a Submariner. Films like the Battle of Britain and Battle of Midway (just Midway out with the UK) fascinated me, not because I was a ‘warmonger’; but because of the bravery of the service members and those fantastic mechanical marvels of the sky. I begged my family to decorate my bedroom with wallpaper that looked like clouds, and subsequently had a squadron of model airplanes hanging from the ceiling by strings of thread. With the aid of colouring pens and cardboard, I converted my bed into a cockpit and pretended I was participating in dogfight after dogfight; oh how life was so simple and glorious back then.
It should come by no surprise that once video games became a part of my life, Flight Simulators and Air Combat Games took centre stage for quite some time. I still have my CD-ROM of IL-2 Sturmovik and have played every single one of the games within the Ace Combat series. Now, admittedly, I have not played this type of game in a little while, but when my Editor stated that there was an opportunity to review Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China I bit his hand off. I assumed the game was for PC and dusted off my Flight Stick, only to be pleasantly surprised that it was actually a console title. As it turns out, it was also a history lesson as well.
Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China (Flying Tigers, or FTSOC for short) is an Air-combat Action Game developed and published by ACE MADDOX, an independent game company that is head-quartered in Sweden. The development team shares an interest in combat aviation and arcade games, and is comprised of industry veterans from all over the world; with backgrounds in games, digital media, and the music industry. FTSOC is based on the historical events of the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force, which were nicknamed the Flying Tigers. During the summer and autumn of 1941, some 300 men (carrying civilian passports I might add) boarded ships to Burma. Allegedly, President Roosevelt signed a Secret Executive Order that authorized service members on active duty to resign in order to join the AVG; I must emphasize allegedly, as there is no evidence of such an order ever existing. Regardless, these brave men were based in Toungoo whilst their aircraft were being assembled at the Mingaladon Airport outside of Rangoon; keep in mind, the United States of America was not at war by this point. Their mission was to secretly defend China from the potential threat of Axis Forces; the devastation at Pearl Harbour however, changed everything.
Upon firing up the game, I was immediately greeted with a quote from the Flying Tigers’ Squadron Commander-Claire L. Chennault; and noticed the main title screen has an aesthetically pleasing ‘film-grain’ effect with flickering, simulating old war reel footage. As it turns out, there is a pool of quotes from a variety of people, so you may see something different the first time you enter the game. As I navigated through the menus, the accompanying music was really beginning to get me excited; it has an uplifting/motivational feel that only a full orchestra can successfully accomplish. Game options are a straight-forward affair, with plenty of control over the various audio levels so you can fine-tune them as you see fit. The various HUD settings allow you to personalize your view to as much information as you want or not much at all if you prefer, and of course there is a lot of various settings available for controls. I chose to play with ‘Arcade’ controls and did not tweak any of the sensitivity settings. If you prefer however, you can of course select ‘Pitch/Roll’ which introduces the mechanic of rudder controls for a more authentic experience. Concerning controls, the only option at this time is of course using a controller. But ACE MADDOX just announced that support will be added for the Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS One in an upcoming Flight Stick update. I have considered buying one of these since release, but now the deal is sealed and it shall be mine.
Flying Tigers offers a varied selection of game modes, which can initially be broken down into either Single player or Multiplayer. Multiplayer has 5 distinct game modes: Dogfight vs, Team Dogfight, Rocket Match vs, Team Rocket Match, and Flagbusters. The Dogfights are straightforward Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes, where the objective is to have the most kills. Rocket Match and Team Rocket Match are similar, except the aircraft have rockets in addition to their guns. With a combination of skill and luck, players can take down an enemy with just one shot. Just keep in mind that during this era rockets did not ‘lock on’, you will have to resort to good old ‘Kentucky Windage’. The final mode is Flagbusters, which is basically Capture the Flag: fly to enemy base, take flag, return to your own base alive, all easier said than done. The Multiplayer part of the game is relatively well thought out, with a whole range of options to choose from and supports up to 16 players per match. There is one major problem however, currently there is barely anybody playing online. I do not know if it is a case of poor advertising or lack of interest, but it really is a shame; as whilst online PVP can be quite punishing in this genre of game, it is also extremely enjoyable. Hopefully the lobbies will fill up over time, instead of looking like this:
Suffice it to say, most of my time was spent in Single player, which has a variety of different modes. If you wish to just enjoy free-flight and explore the scenic vistas of the various maps in your aircraft of choice, there is a mode where you can do just that. There are some quite unique achievements that will require you to use the free-flight mode; whilst I do not usually ‘chase’ achievements, I really enjoyed trying to attain those ones. If you prefer the challenge of topping Leaderboards, then the Challenge Mode will be right up your alley. Five distinct challenges await, and I can personally vouch that they are indeed challenging (I am currently on 3 of the Leaderboards, catch me if you can pilots). There is also a Dogfight mode, which allows you to configure a custom battle on the map of your choice/aircraft/time of day/etc. against the FTSOC AI fighters. Likewise, there are some achievements that you may need to use this mode to unlock; unless you can manage achieving them during the campaign.
The campaign is relatively short, with only 13 missions available; but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much in fact, that after my play through on normal difficulty I went through it again with the difficulty set to hard. I enjoyed it so much, that I think once I purchase my HOTAS I am most likely going to get the game on Steam, as I am quite curious to see how it looks and plays on PC. Before each campaign mission, you are presented with a brief written overview which sets the scene for the upcoming mission. Once the mission begins, that aesthetically pleasing film-grain effect continues from the menu into the mission’s initial cut scene (which even begins in a sepia colour scheme for the first few seconds), which generally consist of a little bit of radio chatter and panoramic aerial views of the aircraft approaching. These cinematic interludes serve to further outline the situation, but also function later on in the game as a way to transition between aircraft and/or roles.
During the course of the campaign you will find yourself fulfilling a range of roles: piloting a fighter, piloting bombers, operating the gunner pod, performing reconnaissance, and sinking Japanese Destroyers with torpedoes. This varied range of game modes within the campaign results in an action-packed experience, and as of the time of writing this, is the only game of its kind on the Xbox One. Remember that this is an ‘Arcade Air-combat Game’ and is not intended to be a ‘Combat Flight Simulator’. I reiterate this point, as I feel many of the other reviews out there forget this important aspect. The games within this genre are supposed to be fun, they are supposed to be action-packed, they tend to look realistic but offer accessible controls. Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China delivers all of these aspects in spades.
Visually, the game is striking, as the above screenshot I took evidences. I would personally love to see this game being enhanced for the Xbox One X, but I realize that this may be a tall order for a small studio such as ACE MADDOX. Regardless, the game looked stunning and played exceptionally well; I never experienced any stuttering or frame drops whilst playing the game. If you get up close and personal with some of the terrain while stationery, you will of course notice that the textures are not as detailed as they could be. But the graphics were not designed with that in mind, you are supposed to be flying around at altitude at hundreds of miles per hour; not sitting on a runway critiquing the textures. In addition to the beautiful graphics, the team absolutely nailed the audio. The booming sound effects from machine gun fire/bombs/fighters whizzing past are executed flawlessly, all whilst being backed by rich orchestral background music. Flying Tigers just demands to be played with the volume cranked up (Disclaimer: make sure to not ‘crank it up’ too much, you only have one pair of ears after all!). With the video and audio both scoring highly in my book, what about the game play itself?
As you would expect from a game of this genre, you can either fly in cockpit mode or via third-person. Personally I prefer the external view for this style of game, as I love seeing the aircraft in action. FTSOC certainly offers a range of different aircraft, from Spitfires to Blenheims, P-40 Warhawks to SC-1 Seahawks; depending on the type of mission you are currently on. I found the controls to be fairly intuitive, and it did not take me long to get to grips with the various aerial maneuvers that were at my disposal. Some fighters have the ability to perform a loop or a barrel roll — necessary if a Japanese Zero fighter is on your tail — which have a shared cool down, requiring you to also use typical evasive maneuvers as well. Through a combination of these abilities, as well as performing ‘fast turns’ via the left and right bumpers, and throttle control, surviving most dogfights will become second nature. Attacking is where the game really shines though. Keep in mind the game is set in the early 1940s, pilots didn’t have all of the fancy technology enabling them to ‘lock on’; it required skill and luck. I have played enough Air-combat games set during WWII to know that shooting down enemy aircraft with machine-guns can be quite difficult, and requires the use of ‘hit and run’ tactics rather than trying to chase the enemy down.
ACE MADDOX uses what they call TrazerTime™ to enable slow-motion precision firing. By pressing the X button, TrazerTime™ slows everything down and gives you much more control over your gun cross hairs. It is a limited resource however, and will take a little while for the meter to refill. Whilst initially this just sounds like a ‘bullet-time’ gimmick, believe me when I say that is an integral aspect of the game. Once you have mastered the use of it, you will be bouncing enemy bombers and shredding enemy fighters like a true Flying Tiger. Whilst all of this is happening, you are also receiving radio chatter from your squadron-some of which is quite funny-as well as enemy transmissions when they take damage etc. Speaking of chatter, keep in mind that this game is based on historical events and as such uses terms for the enemy which would be considered a bit controversial by today’s standards. These terms are not in the game for their ‘shock value’, but are clearly intended to provide a sense of authenticity. After each mission you are presented with an After Action Report, which provides you with a little bit more story/history (in the event of failure you receive an alternative report, but with plenty of checkpoints you can jump right back in) as well as a summary of your performance. The combination of action, history, humour, and sheer fun all come together for a very enjoyable experience.
Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China is best summed up in the same way I described converting my bed into a cockpit as a child: simple and glorious. I have admittedly read over some of the other reviews on the internet, and I respect that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Yes the game is not perfect, the multiplayer lobbies are fairly empty (at the moment) and the campaign-in retrospect-is relatively short. Will the upcoming Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown be a superior game? Quite possibly, but keep in mind that particular game will cost £50 and has a pedigree of 18 games over the course of 25 years. Also, whilst the genre is technically the same, the setting is certainly not. As it stands, as of the time of this review, Flying Tigers is the only game of its kind on the Xbox One. Trying to compare it to past games on different platforms or even upcoming titles is not only unfair, but just downright absurd. We also cannot ignore the price, and with that in mind it provides exceptional entertainment value for the money. £15 would not even cover my better-half and I going to the cinema to watch a film, and we easily spend more than that on pizza on a Saturday night.
If the prospect of playing an Arcade Air-combat Action Game, from the comfort of your living room, displayed on a huge 55″ HD television, audio delivered over your home entertainment system, all for the price of less than a 1/3 of a AAA title does not interest you; then frankly this game is not for you, as you must have a completely different definition of fun than I. FTSOC delivers fun, and it delivers it in an affordable and accessible fashion. At last, a genre that has been missing from this console has arrived, and it has arrived in style; but then again, I’m just a big man-child that still has my head in the clouds.
Final Score: 8.5/10
Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China delivers varied and fast-paced aerial combat, accompanied by beautiful visuals and an atmospheric soundtrack.
At this price, it would be rude not to.
The review copy of this game was a digital code provided by the publisher.