It’s been a long time since I last played a decent arcade combat flight simulator. To tell the truth, dedicated flight simulators are too technical for my liking. I just like to fly around, have fun and shoot down some bandits. Iron Wings by a small Italian indie developer Naps Team may take elements from World War II but turns them into an easily digestible pulp fiction. A black combat pilot with a female wingman! Perhaps unheard-of in the not-so-proud annals of war but Iron Wings makes it real.
There really were Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American military pilots who fought in World War II. Also, there was W.A.S.P, Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. These brave women however weren’t allowed to take part in air combat. Instead, they transported planes to several theaters of war. Iron Wings stars Jack Carter, a former Tuskegee who invites his childhood friend Amelia to serve as his wingman in Iron Wings, a special squadron always ready to help in tight spots. The game hints about the disrespect the black and the female pilots faced but here they’re unquestioned heroes. Jack is a model officer, upstanding and honest, while Amelia is a half-Italian sassy lass with biting one-liners. Iron Wings lets to choose between them on the fly and often it’s even required to play the both parts as only Amelia’s plane is equipped with camera and bombs.
Iron Wings offers three game modes. Free flight is a good bet to get a hang of flying World War II fighter planes from Spitfire to Junkers Ju 87, all purchasable with money earned from the campaign missions and their optional side missions. The flight model is a bit wonky but to be fair the handling of the planes of the era wasn’t exactly dexterous. Even the best console controller is not a match to a half-decent flight stick though. The Arcade mode lets to take part in dogfights which last as long as the damage, fuel and time permit. They all can be replenished by successfully downing the enemy fighters.
All the practice is put to a test in the game’s lush campaign, consisting of 12 missions, each with several objectives. The campaign is not a least bit dynamic and throws Iron Wings erratically from a theater of war to another, as old Jack recalls his war memoirs in the present day. The missions are rigid and don’t afford any creativity. A job done or it’s back to the previous checkpoint. In fact, whenever the checkpoints are reached, they come as a huge relief as the nazis aren’t the only bogeys the player must fight against.
Iron Wings is riddled with several glitches and strange gameplay decisions. The enemy fighters are downed only by engaging them in a tail view after they’ve been peppered enough in a normal view (first or third person). There are problems in the target acquisition though. Often the cross hairs are right on the advance spot indicating where the bullets will hit, but the game just won’t recognize it. Struggling with these faulty mechanics eats outs precious time, which in turn is the biggest grievance in the game design. You see, there are hidden timers for each mission objective before a visible mission failure countdown is triggered on the screen. Usually the hidden time mark is so ridiculously tight it seems nigh impossible to reach the mission goals within it. And there’s no flexibility either. When the last enemy plane is firmly fixed in the cross hairs, punctured with lead and a pixel away from downing, the magical last second ticks down and it’s a mission failure. Damn, I had it under control! What kind of godly second stripped me of it?
Even though there are tutorials on the fly, the game doesn’t bother telling the crucial wingman commands. it’s absolutely not necessary, or even recommended to do everything on your own. Given the ridiculous mission timers, Jack or Amelia must be assigned targets of their own. Well, I help you out by telling the wingman commands – which I found out about accidentally; pull the left trigger down and then either d-pad up to assign the wingman to the target or d-pad down to tell to return to the formation. Had I known this I would have saved my head from banging it against the wall.
Sometimes, the narrative ridicules about the mission objectives and you find yourself flying blindly with no idea what to do or what’s going wrong after getting a mission failure after another. Oh, and the glitches. The plane can get stuck on a runway of an aircraft carrier or behind a viewpoint when the play resumes after a cut scene. And it’s again back to the previous checkpoint. Thank God for those checkpoints, did I mention that already?
All in all, it seems there’s an awfully lot of negative energy flying around. Indeed, it takes some true grit to endure the shortcomings. If you can manage that, however, the entertainment value of Iron Wings rockets sky high. The air combat action is really hooking, undeniably elevated by the game’s gorgeous visuals. The game is crammed into only 1.5 gigabytes so in pure technical terms the graphics may not be state of the art. It's compensated by a deep cinematic quality to the action, with numerous air combat cut scenes spliced constantly in between. The weather effects, with rain hammering the planes and pouring down on their fuselage and wings, are nothing short of spectacular.
The rich visuals alone are enough to make the experience worthwhile, despite of all the game’s faults. Eventually, the controls are robust enough and when you get the hang of entering the tail view, it’s immensely gratifying to shoot enemy planes to bits and see them plummet to the ground. Strafing the ground targets and pulling up at the last possible moment get the blood pumping. Adding to the thick atmosphere is the constant banter between Jack, Amelia and the squadron. The voices of the heroes are easy for ears and damn, does Amelia sound foxy!
I’m happy that Naps Team is still around. I played their first game, a beat ‘em up Shadow Fighter on Commodore Amiga 23 years ago. It was a bit homespun but really thrilling and competent fighter. There’s some similar likable roughness to Iron Wings. The game needs some more ironing to its wings to get rid of the bugs and seriously tone down the ridiculous time limits to really take off. Then again, there is no air combat game quite like it around at the moment. For all its bents and bullet holes in the game design, there’s an indelible picturesqueness in the game's visceral action. Iron Wings is like a pulp novel. You know it’s a bit silly but it will entertain you nonetheless.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.