I've got your six!
The flight sim genre has been around on the PC since it first started to evolve as a viable gaming platform, and there has been a great succession of attempts to breathe fresh life into the ageing theme, with varying degrees of success. Often the path taken by a designer trying to push the boundaries is to set the game in the future, enabling the concoction of fantastical weaponry and a mediocre sci-fi storyline. Russian developers Buka are the latest to conjure up such a title, in the form of Echelon. The storyline is a standard fare George Lucas rehash job which is set, according to the publishers, in the "near distant future". Yes, that one confused even us... The Galactic Federation is defending a planet under attack by a rebel race known as the Velians, who are hoping to overpower the Federation with their massively advanced technology, and thus conquer the surrounding worlds. Cue your entry into the game as a young recruit thrown straight into training to prepare for epic dogfights, bombing runs and defence campaigns. Upon loading Echelon you are presented with a simple interface from where you can launch into the single player career mode, the multiplayer mode, or plump for Instant Action. Opting for the latter gives you a choice of missions to partake in which seem to run on indefinitely, getting progressively harder until you get fed up or shot down. These missions range from bombing runs and dogfighting to Rebel Assault-style canyon chases. It's clear from the first ten minutes of play that the emphasis is on arcade-style action, and less on using the entire keyboard as a controller, which in itself is a relief.
Where's my flight manual?
Heading into the single player game you are treated to an admirably produced FMV which briefly outlines the story so far, after which you are tossed into training. This short section of lessons is very effective in detailing the intuitive interface and HUD, and despite the many functions of your craft, there really are only a few essential details that need remembering. This refreshingly enables the player to relax and enjoy flying instead of fumbling through the pages of a huge manual whilst careening into the side of a mountain. Once training is out of the way you will embark on a "career" which develops throughout the course of the game. Often a mission will start out relatively sedately - escorting tank columns and freighters becomes a familiar theme - and for these often lengthy periods of lonesome cruising, you can employ the skills of a particularly adept autopilot function. If you get really bored, you can toggle the accelerated time option, halving your flight time. However, a mission rarely goes without some kind of action, and before you know it you're battling it out alone against three enemy fighters with one wing left. This constantly shifting pace is one of Echelon's true strengths. It can be very unpredictable. Some missions will see you leaving a base with two wingmen for a fight with some incoming fighters and leaving the battle on your own, rendering the rest of the mission extremely tricky. But play again and the same battle could be a whitewash, obviously depending on the performance of your buddies, leaving the rest of the mission open to an easy victory with your additional reinforcements. The action in Echelon is rarely short of frantic, and some of the faster paced sections really do get your pulse pounding. You can also find yourself entering some literally huge battles occasionally, and there's nothing more exhilarating here than swooping over the crest of a mountain to spot masses of craft engaging each other in the distance, bathed in the ever-present glare of the sun. The fact that you're meant to involve yourself in these massive battles is a daunting notion, and you feel truly insignificant in the mess of radio chatter and showers of exploding aircraft. Moments like this can be rare, but it's worth the effort to trudge through the earlier, rather lacklustre missions in order to experience them.
Plot? What about the plot?
An interesting part of the player's progression through Echelon comes in the form of route-taking decisions. After successful completion of a mission, you are usually presented with more than one option for your next assignment. Once you have chosen you're not able to retrace your steps without reloading the game, meaning you can play right to the end of the campaign without actually finishing all of the missions. This helps to add a certain degree of replayability to the game, and it's an admirable move. There are also mission editors and extra units available for the game now, so the longevity should be extended further still. Throughout your career you are given the option to pilot an increasingly wide range of different air-based units, which offers a nice level of variety and also serves as a kind of reward system. You can customise each craft with a choice of different weaponry, with different combinations of machine guns and plasma cannons in primary and secondary weapon slots, plus the option of adding missiles into your armoury. This admittedly limited level of customisation enables you to form a new strategy for a mission should you fail first time out, and certain situations can force you to become resourceful in your choice of weapons. For example, the enemy often employs a "suppression field" which has an electro-magnetic pulse effect on your HUD and plasma weapons and forces you to employ more traditional weapons, such as machine guns and rockets. With 52 missions in total, you would think there was plenty of scope for plot and character development. However, after the initial introductions and mission briefings, you are reminded of what's going on once more part way through the game, and then hear nothing more about it until the intriguing end sequence. The lack of depth isn't helped by the faceless, nameless nature of your cohorts throughout the missions. Radio chatter is composed from words spoken by a generic voice and rearranged to form sentences, which has the effect of making everyone sound robotic.
"Watch out for that mountain!"
For all of its innocent arcade-style antics, Echelon has a few glaring faults which really dampen the experience. The intelligence of your co-fighters and enemy are more often than not extremely impressive but this can occasionally lapse, resulting in the end of your mission. Several times I was forced to restart a mission because a wingman took an evasive turn into my face, and other times I have observed in amusement an enemy fighter veering off course and flying straight into the side of a mountain a few hundred yards away. Your autopilot system can also suffer a lapse of concentration and send you bouncing across the ground, or perform a startlingly late climb and, you guessed it, land you in a vertical face of rock. Another niggle involves the radio command system. What could have been a superb Tribes 2-style command interface enabling you to conduct battles from your cockpit whilst your autopilot takes care of the piloting has instead turned out to be a sadly under-used, clumsy and bulky menu of useless options. The problem is that it's rarely context sensitive, so instead of being able to call for cover during a particularly tricky mission, your only option is to set the autopilot to send you back to base. It just isn't useful unless it's been hard-coded into the mission that you have to use it. Finally, the huge gaping hole that is the multiplayer option. I haven't even been able to review this aspect of the game simply because there were no servers to play on. Finding one would involve hanging around the official website's forums all day waiting for someone to announce an IP address, since there's no server browser to speak of. Buka haven't even thought to include some kind of web-based match-making affair, which would have been better than what you get, which is essentially nothing. This is a crying shame, as you could imagine the multiplayer battles and co-operative missions being one of Echelon's true shining points.
It's easy to be wooed by Echelon's glorious graphics and its sometimes epic atmosphere, but the game is marred by a few problems which could sadly bring it down with a disappointing thud for many. It's also disappointing that Buka haven't exploited the potential of the multiplayer support on the back of the strong single-player experience. What is essentially a very good stab at Wing Commander for the 21st Century ends up as a title that will unfortunately be forgotten in six months time.