Sleeper hits are an oft-underdeveloped trend in the gaming industry. In this age of press hype and the internet, games are almost totally uncovered prior to their release, and so for the most part we know all there is to know about them by the time it comes to actually buying them.
So it's a pleasant surprise when you discover a game that you have never heard of to be damned enjoyable throughout. Like getting a Christmas present from that old Aunt, expecting a knitted sweater and instead receiving an Armani suit...
The game's menu system is modest and unassuming, and can be navigated smoothly. Once you have chosen a name and face for your character, you can then move on to choose either a career game, a single match, or some external options.
The gist of things seems to be flying around on the back of enormous winged beasts and flying machines. If you ever played Warcraft 2, you can probably remember the Orc Flying Machine used for peeping in on your foes, and you will be pleased to hear that Flying Heroes has similar contraptions - the mythological era Flying Heroes appears to be set in is not dissimilar to that of Warcraft.
If at this point you are beginning to wonder quite what Flying Heroes actually is, then you are in good company - I was rather uncertain myself. So I opted for the single match mode, and was asked to choose an enemy (or enemies) and a landscape. Yet more confusion. Anyway, I was eager to start, so I jumped into the fray...
The controls didn't make sense at first, so I used the simple menu system to reconfigure them. The default is somewhat akin to Quake, in that you use the mouse for turning (on both the horizontal and vertical axis) and the keyboard for navigation and armament selection.
At this point I realised that Flying Heroes is something of a cross between a flight sim, Quake 3 Arena, and Drakan. Your objective is to shoot down enemies as often as possible in a series of matches. In the career mode you can start off with lesser enemies and move on to more skilled prey, while the single match mode puts you in at the proverbial deep end.
The career mode deposits you into the fantasy realm of Hesperia, the location of the "Hesperian League" air tournament. A very prestigious event in medieval circles, apparently.
The tournament is a battle between four rival clans - the Sky Knights, Lizard Riders, Magion, and Hammercraft. Their names give away their mounts and their armoury. For instance, the Lizard Riders may fly atop fire-breathing dragons, while the Magion cast magical spells to deal with their competition.
During the game there are a lot of powerups and mana balls floating around, and picking these up may aid or disadvantage you. If you pick up ammo or armour for instance, obviously it is going to help, but if you pick up poison by accident it is going to make it more difficult for you.
The game plays very well indeed, and while challenging (and probably the wrong side of hard) the game doesn't ever leave you too frustrated. The fluidity of movement and animation makes it very easy to control and adapt to. Swooping between peaks and majestically hunting your opponents perched on top of a huge reptilian monster with a wingspan of many metres is a surreal experience, and a wholly enjoyable one.
Even though the game is tough, there is a "slow" mode included, which the developers enthuse will make a good training option for younger players. It's this sort of forethought and ingenuity that makes Flying Heroes so complete.
Graphics And Sound
Each battle takes place above sumptuous medieval castles and naturally carved landscapes. The game uses Direct3D foremost, but performs very well on 3dfx cards too.
Each mystical beast is portrayed very realistically, and I would hazard a guess that the animations and movements are modelled on real birds of prey. The action can be viewed from several perspectives (you can swap between them in-game using the C button) and each is perfectly easy to use.
One thing that I felt was rather disappointing was the actual firing of your weapons. The effect is very minimalist, when it could have been very spectacular. The grandeur of the spells in games like Final Fantasy VIII would not have gone amiss here. When I breathe fire, I want to be so impressed that I can practically feel the heat. To be fair, some of the bigger weapons do have a satisfying onomatopoeic thrust to them, but it's something I would like to have seen more of...
The only area of Flying Heroes that I felt proved a little feeble was the sound. While the hawks craw and the dragons roar, the weapons sound puny, and there is not much to be heard from the surroundings aside from a bit of ambient noise.
This is actually something I have seen before in fantasy games - it's ever so hard to determine quite how over-the-top it should be, and in order to remain neutral to press-abuse and misunderstanding, developers choose to be modest and understated with their approach, instead of just throwing as many hideously explosive sounds at us as possible. Which is a shame, because I love games that push back the threshold for sheer loudness.
Playing on my home LAN against a couple of chums revealed a lot about Flying Heroes' ease-of-use. We all picked up the playing style quickly and learnt the various turns and manoeuvres necessary to out-fox our opponents.
Eventually it was just as exciting as any first person shooter that you might promote. I didn't get the opportunity to try it over the Internet, as at the time of writing the game had yet to come out in America, and my usual slew of frag-buddies were busy charging themselves up for tournaments elsewhere.
Still, if you have the option of playing this at home against friends, don't be afraid to - it will most likely prove worth your while.
Fundamentally Flying Heroes is a mishmash of ideas and concepts - it has action, character development, hell, even resource management! Thankfully, for all its complexity, it doesn't take itself too seriously, being at the end of the day, a big air battle between winged beasts.
There are problems of course - it really suffers from being almost too modest for its own good, and I would love to see this concept taken and really worked on. Pirouetting in mid-air and diving into combat against aeroplanes and enormous dinosaurs would be so much more involving! Still, it is the first game in five years to make me feel like Bullfrogs' classic "Magic Carpet" did, so I can't but help like it...