It should, in theory, be fantastic. Or at least very good. Xbox Live Arcade is surprisingly short of no-frills spaceship blast-em-ups, and the dormant Wing Commander franchise would seem to be fairly solid source material for just such a fragfest. After all, the thrill of a decent dogfight against a multitude of human opponents is hard to mess up.
Yet mess it up they have. Wing Commander Arena boasts a veritable feast of gameplay options, but can only offer anaemic gameplay with which to fill them. Basic gameplay can be a blessing where this sort of game is concerned, but here it's not so much the simplicity of the fly-and-shoot action that's at fault but some of the frankly awful design decisions that have gone into it.
From the front end, it all looks very impressive. There's a host of different play modes, both solo and multiplayer, and 18 ships to choose from. Four are available at the start - two Terran, two Kilrathi - and new ones are unlocked depending on how many kills you rack up, and what sort of ship you're flying when you do so. From free-for-all deathmatches to team-based capture the flag challenges, from a single player survival mode to mammoth 16 player Capital Ship assaults, it seems that there's absolutely no excuse for getting bored. Sadly, the inherent flaws in the way the game has been implemented ensure that Stuart Boredom is coming for a visit whether you like it or not - and he's bringing his friend, Brian Frustration.
Most obvious among the gripes is the flat 2D playing field. You can move forwards, backwards, left and right - but not up or down. The logic of setting a game in space and then denying players the chance to actually move in 3D escapes me, but right from the start it leaves the game feeling limited and claustrophobic. Combat is automatically reduced to pointing in the right direction and firing. There's no real dogfighting, no piloting skill required, just a faster trigger finger than your opponent and a stronger hull. The closest you get to movement in the vertical plane is a feeble dodge move, either a fancy loop or a little wiggle depending on the size of your vessel. It's an idea that's been done before - and done a lot better - way back in 1942. That's the Capcom arcade game, obviously, not the year.
For such a simplistic shooter the controls are foolishly complex, with multiple weapons systems mapped to the triggers and shoulder buttons, additional devices selected with X and deployed with A, and a bunch of gauges and markers showing shield strength, gun temperature and afterburner thrust. A series of waggles on the right stick invokes barrel rolls and other tricks, while clicking both sticks activates the boost - essential when you start out in the initial treacle-slow craft, but utterly counter-intuitive when you attempt to fly, steer and boost at the same time. There's no inertia, no sense of scale or speed, and as a result these dreary little vehicles feel more like hockey pucks than spaceships,.
The game is also awkwardly balanced. You can only ever choose from the ships you've unlocked, so early multiplayer bouts can be painfully unfair as it only takes one opponent to have access to the stronger, faster ships and you're automatically outclassed. The Ranked Matches don't eliminate this problem, so frequent annoying death is a guaranteed fixture of your early games. Grinding through the solo modes to open up the full armada is your best bet, but none of the single player offerings are gripping enough to make this an appealing proposition. By the time you get to use the decent ships, you'll only fly them out of sheer stubbornness.
The maps are all rather bland - ranging from dreary open spaces to fiddly dense mazes - but, with such limited movement, your tactical options always boil down to "spot enemy, fly towards them, keep shooting". Once again, you can only be reminded of games that have done something similar with far more grace, such as Twisted Metal. Here, there are no environmental advantages, no secret traps to be sprung, only warp gates which transport you elsewhere in the level and dead ends. The only incentive to memorise the maps is to work out where the best power-ups are, since they always respawn in the same place. As you can imagine, this means that each map has some game-killing camping spots, dominated by tediously devoted players in the best ships, loitering around the same areas, constantly repairing their ships and hogging the best weapons over and over.
The crude multiplayer system itself doesn't help. Several times I tried to join matches that only showed a few players, only to be told they were full. After each match, or each failed attempt to join a match, the game simply boots you back to the front menu. There's absolutely no way of keeping tabs on friends from one match to another - a ludicrous oversight in a game supposedly designed for online play. There's not even a lobby to speak of, as each game starts even if there aren't enough players. This means you'll fly around an empty level, unable to take or receive damage, hoping you'll eventually attract the required number for the action to start. Drop outs are, predictably, a common feature since players soon tire of hanging around in dead space, shooting each other with no effect. Even playing in the middle of the night, when those cheeky Americans are all over the place, finding well populated games proved something of a chore.
There are other gripes - the bland visuals, the way defeated players just wink out of existence, and the way the rubbish music doesn't even loop properly - but it seems rather pointless to list them all. Wing Commander Arena is a rudimentary shooter, the sort of thing that might have passed muster as a homebrew PC title ten years ago, but an unimpressive trudge for console gamers today. While there's obviously a limit to what you can do with an HD game in 50Mb, a few less game modes and a lot more polish on the actual gameplay could have made this one of the most attractive multiplayer titles around. As it is, you'll be better off sticking with Bomberman and Worms.