Project Wingman PC Review
When a small team of three people can create a game that would not be out of place as an entry in a series that inspired the developers of Project Wingman, then we know video games are thriving. It is evident that Project Wingman is something the developers at Sector D2 had a passion in creating, and their love can clearly be seen throughout the game. Project Wingman follows incredibly close to the foundations of Ace Combat and offers fans of that franchise more dogfighting action, along with a couple of cool features thrown in for good measure.
The setting for Project Wingman is an alternative reality in which a massive cataclysmic explosion rocked the Earth over 400 years before the current setting of the game. This revealed a new energy resource, known as Cordium, situated across the planet’s Ring of Fire. The Pacific Federation, a group of countries making up the state, has sole control over this deposits. There has been tensions between recent states that have now escalated to the point where one of them, the Cascadian Republic, wants to leave, so declares independence and becomes embroiled in a war with the Pacific Federation. This is where the player comes in as a silent pilot belonging to a mercenary group that is hired by the Cascadian Republic to help them gain their independence from the Federation. It is an entertaining war story told through briefings and in game dialogue, but there is nothing really outstanding about it. The plot does the job to get you through the campaign, with some nice sci-fi elements thrown in to spice up some of the later missions.
The campaign is spread across 21 missions with a structure that is crafted in the same form as Ace Combat. One thing to note is there are no full motion video scenes in the game, something Bandai Namco likes to throw in to give different perspectives of the war. Everything else mimics the design of Ace Combat. The missions begin with a mission briefing, then a menu to select the aircraft and weapons with a very similar menu design that leads onto the mission, sometimes with an optional landing and take off phrase if people want to get themselves more involved with that. Those landing/take-off sections of the missions feel disjointed because the game has to stick a load screen between these elements, while the mission it self is always one big area that is never interrupted with any loading screens. It seems like a throwaway inclusion that could have been included only when it made sense for it to feature in part of the mission’s environment, because not all missions include this anyway, so it seems superfluous.
Fighter jets are initially limited, but as progression is made through the story these jets become available to purchase. None of the planes have their real names, instead, the names are closely resembling the real life counter part, and so does their design, as the development team did not have a licence to use the real planes. Most planes can carry up to three additional special weapons (multiple bomb, anti-air and air-ground types, with over 40 to pick from) to go along with the standard gun ammunition and standard seeking missiles. Project Wingman gives plenty of ammo for each weapon, so I never once felt I had to be restrictive with my use of special ammo.
The total list of planes falls short to something like Ace Combat, with a total of 24 available once all unlocked, some done by beating the campaign. It should be noted that there are some plane types missing, such as the famous stealth SR-71 Blackbird. Planes also cannot be upgraded, with the only customisation coming with unlocked skin colours. What is available does offer enough variety to not have to worry about the big names missing, but it would have been nice to have them in.
Taking flight in one of these expensive pieces of machinery is an easy task, as the controls are targeted with an arcade experience in mind. Ace Combat fans will feel very at home with the controls. Thrusters and brakes are set to the shoulder buttons, while the triggers alter the yaw, the opposite of Ace Combat 7, so changing those in the options might make adjusting to the control layout in the game helpful. The amazing feat of gravity defying moves are expertly pulled off with a simple direction of the stick and using brake or accelerator to adjust how sharp the turning should be. Want to show off a barrel roll or a loop, then just adjust the stick and speed accordingly and pull off a manoeuvre in such a effortless manner. I should add that using a controller (Xbox One Controller during this review) is recommended over the keyboard and mouse. I am sure some players will be able to use that hardware, but for me, it is a similar story to trying to play a racing game with a keyboard; the input is too on/off, and so the controls are overly sensitive. I do not have access to a hands on throttle-and-stick (HOTAS), so cannot comment on how that is, but I would imagine it is excellent.
Mission design is fairly straightforward during the campaign. Expect to be blowing a lot of things up, such as rival fighters in the sky, tanks/AA/SAM on the ground and various boats in the sea. There are a few enemies that require elements of their vehicle to be destroyed before they finally blow up in a fantastic firework display, giving them a sort of boss feeling to them, along with the special Crimson squad that have more health than normal, but most things will blow up in a couple of shots no matter where hit. Surviving damage is based on how well your aircraft can cope with gunfire and missile impacts, but usually five or so hits will be the end, and there is no way to recover health back, so be careful in tough situations or on the harder difficulties, because there are no checkpoints during missions.
There is only so much a game can offer where its main form of combat is locking on missiles and dodging from similar threats coming from all around. This is where Ace Combat had a little more variety, as that game threw in a few stealth/scout missions, which are absent from Project Wingman. Due to this, I found it was the game’s locations where these missions take place that help some of the repetitive nature of fight combat. Flying low and under the radar to take out a base full of anti air missiles and AA guns while the mountain side is full of fog gives the game diversity – first time on that mission I flew straight into a mountain side within around 4 minutes of play. How about a dogfight above the clouds of a blizzard, where the sun shines, only to chase one of the enemies through the clouds towards the ground to reveal a hazardous storm thrashing the sea in darkened light, all this helps give the combat scenarios a cool vibe. It helps that the soundtrack is fantastic, too, to give battles that added tension. There was one scenario where the sky was literally filled with missile smoke that the blue of the sky was mostly covered by white, such a cool sight to see.
Still, all the missions boil down to killing the target, and even with the added boss type enemies, they are never more than tougher fighter jets with more agility to dodge. There are no insane gigantic battlecruisers or ground mechs that would fit the role of “boss” just tougher, smarter planes, and so Project Wingman loses out to the mission design of recent Ace Combat games.
Another thing to note is that Project Wingman is entirely a single player experience, there is no cooperative or online versus match. People might be a bit upset with this, but to make up for the missing feature the game does come with a new mode that is refreshing and separates it from anything else on the market in this genre. This mode is Conquest, a sort of roguelite where the player is challenged to take over as much as the regional map as possible, with each region a randomised mission, increasing in difficulty as the timer increases the alert level. Death in battle will result in a reset, starting over again with a basic plane trying to earn yourself back up the ranks. Keep winning and the money earned from missions can be put towards upgrades and hiring more mercenaries to expand the squadron. Unlocked planes and points do carry over, as these are unlocked with prestige points, a currency that stays with the save file, giving the player a way to proceed with a better start once enough points are gained. The end goal of Conquest is to beat all 43 missions without being shot out of the sky. No easy feat, especially if one wants to try it on the highest Mercenary difficulty.
VR fans will be happy to know that Project Wingman supports virtual reality headsets in all its game modes. This means the entire game can be played from the seat of the cockpit (no other views are available when playing in VR mode). VR is fantastic in Project Wingman, maybe a little too good for someone like me who is still fairly newish to VR (mainly got serious with it when Half-Life: Alyx released) and so doing barrel rolls and loop-de-loops actually gives me a strange stomach sensation, like going over a small crest at speed in a car. I felt that meant I could not handle myself well in combat without being able to roll and spin 360 to dodge missiles, so I reverted back to the normal game. For anyone who has the stomach for flying in air at insane speeds, the VR is brilliant. The detail of the cockpit is decent, seeing the scratches on the canopies, the rain splashing off the side, looking through the acrylic at planes above to the side adds some extra dimension to the gameplay. It feels way more natural to do this in VR than using the right stick to tilt the camera. To get decent performance, some details had to be dropped. As such, dropping from maximum settings to high settings – knocking each graphically setting down one – did enough for me to hit 90fps in VR with a Valve Index on a Nvidia RTX 3090.
Moving away from VR, the game is still visually pleasing to the eye. One thing going for Project Wingman is its colour palette. White, blue and green are obviously important colours when speaking of planet earth and its sky, oceans, lands and bundles of fluffy clouds, but there are some wonderful vistas with sunsets that add in some use of orange and red that give this game a pretty look. Planes are detailed enough too, although there is some clear reuse of cockpit dashboards for some of the planes, but people will still be able to be immersed in the cockpit or take in the hue of the afterburners with an external camera view, blasting past an exploding enemy plane in all its overly contrasted explosion, while another shoots at you with its rail gun, plastering orange across the screen. Even when the action is hectic the game was easily running at over 100fps on maximum settings at 4K resolution.
Project Wingman is a good substitute for Ace Combat. Since it has been over two years since we last got an entry in that series, it seems a perfect time for fans of arcade combat flight games to jump into Project Wingman – it will cost you less than half the price of a standard retail game, coming in at £19.49. The story campaign does have issues with a lack of variety in its mission design, although it does save itself somewhat with great sandboxes to fight within. The combat is intense and engaging, with great visuals to help showcase the impressive action. The lack of multiplayer or cooperative action might be upsetting for some, but Conquest Mode makes up by giving the game some longevity. And then the final bonus point, if you can stomach it, is its fantastic implementation of VR, a feature that will surely be a hit for fans of virtual reality. Project Wingman is not scared of being the indie Ace Combat copy, and it is that brave approach by the developers to replicate something they enjoy that makes it a recommendation for anyone who loves taking to the skies.