The "flying-around-shooting-stuff" game type, of which StarFox and Crimson Skies seem to be the only memorable examples, turns up every few months without much fanfare or acclaim. There are some excellent examples of this genre, but they seldom receive great awards, nor surprise us with their innovation. We fly around, shoot stuff, and then generally fail to include them on our "games of all time" lists at the end of year. Air Rivals probably isn't going to get on those lists either, but it's nevertheless trying quite hard, and has two excellent features in its favour: it's free, and it's an MMO.
So, things start out well. Not many games are a Manga-styled flying game, and fewer still put you in a world war between two airborne factions, alongside several hundred other players. The flying-around-and-shooting mechanic means that Air Rivals is quite unlike almost any other MMO you could mention, even the defunct Earth And Beyond, or the upcoming Jumpgate Evolution.
However, in most other respects this really is a traditional MMO. Much of the level-based treadmill remains in all its awkward glory, and there's this constant feeling that the game's ambitions are overshadowed by its Korean MMO heritage. What this means is that much of your early game - well, much of the game in its entirety - is going to be taken up by shooting flapping, floating or flying enemies in a series of landscapes or tunnels. Get a mission, go shoot dudes. That is what it all boils down to. As you go through these missions you'll gain experience, go up levels, and gather various bits of equipment. Sound familiar? Oh, it is. Painfully so.
But stop! There's actually more than meets the fizzing retina of this jaded gamer: there's something rather special about Air Rivals, and that's the extensive player-versus-player combat. This kind of "real" conflict dominates the game, and you can choose to play in PVP-active "battlezones" throughout the many kill-x-of-y missions, exposing yourself to danger, and therefore some genuine excitement. I was almost completely demolished during any fight I went into with another pilot, but since there's nothing much to worry about losing in Air Rivals, I was happy to respawn and continue onwards and upwards.
Flying itself, as fans of Air Rivals are desperate to point out, is largely twitch-based, so actual player skill counts for a lot more here than it does in most MMOs. It also means that pilots can contribute to fights, especially multiple-party fights, even when enemies are at a higher level. Having some idea of tactics, and using twisty-turny dogfighting skills, really does help out. You can be an action pilot and proud... in an MMO.
What you'll want to contribute to most of all are these larger group battles - especially those which involve fighting the big faction motherships, into which both sides pile for a mad air-brawl. Getting involved in the ongoing war is the most compelling aspect of Air Rivals, and gives you a better reason to keep coming back than the sheer fact of the grind. It's rather telling that so few developers have bothered to try for the action MMO - with nothing notable since Planetside burned out - and this is utterly refreshing as a consequence.
Of course, being a level-based game, there's a degree to which the skill of flying is limited by the sheer amount of time you've spent playing. In a one-on-one any competent player is going to demolish someone a few levels lower because, as in Eve Online, the older, higher level player simply brings more to the fight: more speed, more power, more hit points. You'll really need wingmen of different stature to make the most of Air Rivals.
Going back to flying, briefly, I should mention that it's very easy, and fairly intuitive. It's not hard to find a reasonable load-out for your "gear", as the craft are called. And the three sizes - small, medium and large - mean there's no multi-class nonsense to get your head around. I picked the middle one and it seemed to suit me just fine. Shooting switches between either point-and-shoot guns, or "advanced" homing type weapons, which get explodier as your character - and therefore aircraft - develops.
Another way to develop your character - currently just cosmetic - is also the way that the game makes its money: the item shop. This allows you to add fancy weapon trails, or jazz up your avatar's appearance.
This isn't exactly helped by the ugliness of the overall game. I'm glad the specs have been kept low to allow the widest possible audience, but it's nevertheless one of the least lovely games I've played in recent months. An Unreal Engine overhaul would probably boost interest in this a fair bit, if the mechanics were kept quite the same. A lack of such options is evident throughout the game, but I strongly suspect we'll see this game being refined and developed for as long as it can keep its tiny player-base interested.
This is one of those games that has such a mixed bag of qualities, both good and bad, that it's difficult to place a final judgement on. It's grindy and simplistic, but then, it's colourful, lively... and free. There's almost no reason for you not to take at least take a look for yourself.