Apart from the odd encounter with Starfighter over the years, dog fighting aerial combat games aren't usually the kind of games that keep Eurogamer types up at night. Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered that FASA's Xbox-exclusive is one of the better titles on the platform this year.
The game kicks off in an alternative 1930s setting where the US no longer exists and a series of warring nation states have sprung up. Militias have formed, the connecting railroads have been rendered useless, and the only way to transport goods and passengers is by Zeppelin - in turn encouraging the proliferation of air piracy. With no law, it's up to folks like the swashbuckling Indiana Jones-inspired Nathan Zachary and his band of freelancers, the Fortune Hunters, to take matters into their own hands.
Taking to the skies in the Devastator - the first of ten available flying machines - your task is basically to complete a series of defensive missions to right the wrongs perpetrated by the endless supply of bandits that clog up the skies. Naturally, every character you come across in the game appears to have some tale of woe and is under attack or being robbed blind for one spurious reason or another. Split into a series of beautifully rendered environments, you buzz around picking up jobs, accepting racing challenges, and generally earning money or picking up tokens in order to buy better, stronger, faster craft and progressing through an ostensibly linear, narrative driven campaign.
Grand Theft Aerial
The mission selection mechanics offer a degree of choice, with the radar of your immediate surrounding alerting you to the available jobs via blue icons GTA-style that direct you to the source. Not every mission has to be taken up, but opting to take up sub-missions, such as gambling your fortune in races, or performing delivery tasks, helps you to ultimately upgrade your existing craft, and stand a better chance of progressing.
Once you've cleared the available jobs available to you, it's off to the next lovingly crafted environment, and so the story moves on via some very impressive cut-scenes that - gasp - actually lip synch correctly, look classy and come complete with some rather splendid voice acting. With an amusingly dramatic Stan LePard soundtrack straight out of John Williams' Indiana Jones/Star Wars school of composition, it creates a wholesome and relentlessly cheesy retro-adventuring ambience that forces a permanent smile across your chops. And probably drives anyone else in the room to distraction, but, ach, hell to them. Ba-bababa-da-daaaa!
The bulk of the missions tend to focus on escorting a cargo from A to B and defending them on their way, which can be achieved via a combination of two basic methods; either just shooting them from your craft, or the anti-aircraft stations dotted around the landscape. AA guns are placed strategically, and hitting X near them allows you to quickly hop out of your craft and mount them for some first-person shooting action. Hitting A zooms in the view, while tapping B mysteriously instantly transports you the next available gun (even if it's some distance away), and some levels can be taken care of without ever taking to the skies. On the downside, your stationary position makes you a sitting target for all and sundry, so often a bit of strategic gun hopping is required, lest you get blown to smithereens and have to replay the mission.
The amazing everlasting plane
Taking damage is part and parcel of the proceedings, so it's just as well that every environment hosts a repair shop to enable you to swoop down, hit X and instantly restore your craft to full health and stock up on secondary weapons in the process. In addition, downed enemies also spew forth health boosts via parachute, mysteriously, as well as the occasional stock of ammo. Picking them up before they hit the ground and vanish for good is a skill in itself and can get you out of many a scrape.
Aerial combat - the mainstay of the game - is immensely satisfying. Right from the word go FASA's mission was to create the kind of accessible combat flight game that had intuitive controls and didn't require the usual ludicrous telephone directory-sized manual, and it succeeds on every level. Thanks to the slow but satisfying pace, manoeuvring around the skies becomes second nature after a matter of minutes, with the craft automatically travelling at a manageable speed. Left stick takes care of the basic steering, the right stick allows you to perform evasive dives and Immelman rolls, while the D-pad lets you dart into other viewpoints, allowing you to see what's going on around you. Fans of the previous PC-only Crimson Skies might find it all a bit dumbed down, but those who enjoyed the Starfighter titles will instantly be at home.
Further movement precision can be achieved by holding down the brake (B button) which has the effect of tightening your turning circle and also enables you to get your enemy firmly in your sights before wasting precious secondary ammo. On the other hand, if you need to make a clean getaway, hitting Y gives your craft a speed boost, while letting go recharges, and strategic use of this is essential to get you out of all manner of scrapes, such as attempting to steam back to the repair shop before your shields expire or outrunning a posse of determined bandits at six o' clock.