Version tested PC
Luftrausers is, above all other things, a 2D shooter of ferocity and focus. And yet - look at this - I've just constructed a Luftrausers plane that doesn't shoot. Well, I've constructed one where shooting isn't the main strength, anyway. Being a submarine is the main strength of this particular beauty - an unusual agenda for an aircraft, granted, but then, Luftrausers is a gloriously unusual game. Testify!
Vlambeer's latest really doesn't screw around. Each launch fires you vertically out of the internal pipework of a hulking submarine and high into the clouds that scatter across a sepia sky so that you can be swiftly blown to pieces. The control system is the same turn-and-thrust blaster set-up made famous by Asteroids, but it's tethered here to a score-attack game with a hungry sense of earthly gravity - a game that's always longing to pull you back to the depths as you spin through the ether, turning this way and that, blowing apart enemy forces that start with swarms of puny mosquitoes before speedily escalating to include gunboats, precision jets, giant battleships and far, far worse. You know Vlambeer bullets, right? They're big and chunky and luminous. In Luftrausers, there are an awful lot of them.
If this was all there was to Luftrausers, it would be more than enough. Baddies flock and dart around you, and your plane, while behaving like no plane that's ever taken to the air in real life, handles like a fighter from the glorious old days of flying-ace cinema instead - a hot, steel-riveted conceit. You can fling it about with rakish flair, pulling off sudden turns and screeching dives. And, in a tweak that's all Vlambeer's own, you can even dunk it under the ocean or up through a deadly layer of clouds that block the higher reaches of the atmosphere. Then you can bounce it back out again, facing the opposite direction and spitting flame at anyone nearby who will feed your all-consuming combo meter. You're ceaselessly fighting the pull of the earth as well as your mechanised foes in Luftrausers, and you can almost feel the stress being applied to all those shuddering bolts and struts and stretches of canvas. It's electrifying to chuck such a fragile assemblage through the sky. No wonder they used to refer to these things as kites.
The brilliant thing, though, is that this isn't all there is to Luftrausers. Vlambeer's 2D arena wants you to feel like a hot-shot pilot, but it also want you to feel like a hot-shot pilot's mechanic. As you play, you're steadily unlocking new weapon, body and engine parts for your plane, allowing you to clip together some truly astonishing machines that fundamentally alter the game.
Early on, I got an engine that fired bullets out the back, for example, which gave me all the confidence I needed to strap on a body that detonated with the force of a nuclear bomb whenever I expired, sending my score through the roof, and conjuring a gasping black skull of gorgeously animated radioactive cinder at the same time.
I had become death, the destroyer of worlds. That was fun. For a while, anyway, then I traded it in for something a little more extra-terrestrial: a hover engine and a laser cannon combo. Bzweee! Each of the restless 125 possible combinations of components offers a plane with a personality so punchy and clearly defined that other developers would build a whole game around it (brilliantly, the design team's managed to give them all names, too). Vlambeer, however, is happy to let you tinker or set modules to random so that each launch is different. The designers want you to do your best to subvert the whole game, choosing, oh, let's say an engine that takes no water damage, a body that takes no collision damage, and a gun that fires homing missiles. That's how I like to Luft, pogoing up and down in my Hammerhead. I'm like a dunking cookie that spits hot shrapnel.
As ever with Vlambeer, the true genius lies in the details. Take the screen shake that's applied to the tea-stained environment as you race around, suggesting some RKO camera-cranker on a distant shore, frantically trying to capture the action as it unfolds. Take the realisation that, whichever way you point your craft, you'll inevitably find yourself being dragged back to the ground, meaning you can never take your mind off the controls. Take the fact - probably the most dazzling thing in this dazzling game - that you can only regain health and extinguish fires when you're not shooting, a twist that transforms each dogfight into an elaborate round of chicken. You read the fast-moving battlefield and cross-reference your shrinking iris of HP to work out how many milliseconds of additional heroics you can afford before it's time to scarper. You ad-lib and take insane risks. This is the life of a flying ace.
On top of that, of course, there are levels to gain and missions to beat - shoot two of this, shoot 10 of that, shoot 20 of these while you're on fire - but such compulsion metalwork feels largely unnecessary when clamped onto Luftrauser's screaming air-tuned chassis. Checklists are for accountants, and Vlambeer ultimately wants to turn you into a daredevil.
And, sure enough, daredevilry is exactly what this astonishing shooter delivers.
9 / 10