Attack on Pearl Harbor PC Hands-On - 16/05/2007

This is one of those funny games that you expect to hate, but end up loving. World War II, flight sims and PC keyboards don't tend to go together, at least on recent evidence, but there's one thing any decent flying game needs to get right, and that's the fun factor. Fortunately, it appears to be well and truly present in Attack on Pearl Harbor.

Clearly, the game is from the American viewpoint (although there are separate missions and storylines to allow you to play as the Japanese too), so no-ones going to be laughing with joy to see dozens of battleships and hundreds of plans shot down at Pearl Harbour. However, Legendo, the developers, have managed to capture the same tight enjoyment of shooting down an enemy plane that classics such as Lylat Wars and Crimson Skies managed to employ. The key factor here is that while it shares the same laid-back pick up and play style as those two games, it also has a definite air of realism about it.

Pitch too steeply and your engine will cut out. Slow down in mid air and your propeller will stop, causing a nose dive to your doom unless you can quickly re-start the ignition and get some speed up again. The sensitivity of the mouse being used to control the aircraft is suitably high. Combine these three factors and you have what sounds more like another edition of Flight Simulator than a fun-filled World War II shooter. However, while the controls feel a little odd to begin with, after the first few missions you can be shooting down the enemy with ease, and actually may get to prefer this option over a joystick.

The story is moved on with some nice art and comic-book sequences – while it doesn't compensate for CGI cutscenes, it's better than botched voiceovers and emphasises the relaxed playing style the game has taken on. The first level in the preview build we played was of course: Pearl Harbour.. Here we had to defend the American battleships and shoot down the enemy aircraft – pretty simple stuff. Not so. Before you get used to the controls fully you will fail missions – it is also important to work out the intricacies of the game i.e. how to evade chain-gun fire most effectively (there's no barrel rolling or swift loop-the-loops here), how to position your crosshairs so as to deal the most damage, and most importantly, how to retreat when you know the battle is lost.

The graphics while in-flight are really something

The truly brilliant thing with Attack on Pearl Harbor is that you can fail. Don't save Pearl Harbor and nothing dramatic happens. No game over screen, no forced retry, in fact, you'll get a statement from your bosses telling you that it was most unfortunate, but that they'll review their strategies in the future, and for you to prepare for retaliatory strikes. Of course, Pearl Harbour wasn't saved in the war, but the great thing here is that because the game is structured in such a way that not completing the mission is acceptable, it allows you to be all the more overjoyed when one comes off for you.

It took me personally about three missions before I started winning, and perhaps a tutorial or target practice mode would be well advised for final release to get you sharp enough to be thrown in at the deep end. The objectives generally follow a route of shooting down all the enemy aircraft, sinking all their ships, or escorting allied vessels (while shooting down all the enemy aircraft in the process). Of course there are more, but all that's relatively unimportant. What matters is that you influence history when you're playing the game – if you fail to complete an objective such as escorting B52 Bombers safely over a stretch of water, you'll fail the mission, the screen will blacken, and you'll be returned to the menu for the next level, however, if you safely return home to base (by flying in a straight line out of the huge mission areas) but perhaps without shooting down all the enemies, you get many more points and generally the mission is still deemed a success, but your generals reflect on improving air support in future missions, for example. As long as you don't crash, the mission is pretty much still an acceptable one, even with objectives not completed. Clearly, escort missions will be failed if your VIP is destroyed, you can't just wuss out in the hope that somehow it all worked out OK without your help; in dogfights though, where the objective is to sink enemy ships or down enemy planes, if you sustain a certain amount of damage, retreating to safety will earn you praise enough.

You get a handy and authentic sounding damage warning beep every half a second or so once your plane is on the point of no return, as well as a damage gauge in the bottom corner of the screen. You'll be advised to abort the mission and return to base, and rather than kicking you out at this point to a game over screen, you are instead given the chance to either finish the mission with your now decrepit craft, or leave the mission of your own accord by flying off as mentioned earlier. For maximum points of course the mission has to be completed to the full, but sometimes that simply isn't possible, and Legendo have developed the objectives in such a way that novice players will feel satisfied at simply not losing a plane (such as when it's just you against 20 Japanese) but still ultimately not completing the mission objectives, with experts able to strive for a perfect level, where they get home safely and complete all the targets.

You can view your craft from all sides, but there's no cockpit view, though the game's accuracy of controls benefit as a result

There's a vast array of aircraft to fly as in the missions, and for some you are given a choice – depending on how well you've performed previously you may well have unlocked new aircraft to fly as. Once you've raked in 20 kills or so, you are given a new model of a particular plane. These are shown in the aircraft select screen, and it takes guts to choose to fly your very last Dauntless Dive Bomber knowing that should you get shot down, you wont be able to use it again for the next bombing mission (lose all your dive bombers and those missions will no longer be available to you, as often there is a choice of level). Knowing that, it is possible to fail at the game – if all your planes are shot down you clearly wont have anything left, but you'd have to be doing this deliberately, as kills are very easy to come by at times (unless you hike up the difficulty) and as mentioned, a certain amount gives you more 'lives'.

Again though, there's captions from your generals if you lose all your planes, one amusing one in the Japanese campaign stated words to the effect of 'if we can't overcome mere Australians how can we hope to win the war' as I had accidentally lost altitude shortly after leaving the aircraft carrier. Often you start on land, but the most engaging and atmospheric missions take place over sea, with fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo aircraft all available on different missions. Torpedo craft allow you to drop torpedoes from height to hit enemy ships. It works really well, and providing you aim correctly by positioning your plane in line with the target, you should get a direct hit. You can also switch to torpedo-cam by holding the right mouse button (clicking it shortly drops it in the first place), to see it go careening into the target.

There's a real sense of atmosphere for every mission.

The same applies for bombs, but for the highest accuracy you have to dive down towards the enemy from a distance, gathering speed before dropping the bombs and straightening out. This also allows you to avoid enemy fire, with most sea based vessels equipped with anti-aircraft guns that bombard you with bass-filled detonations around the cockpit. The audio in general at the moment is very impressive, with authentic-sounding engine drones, ripping machine gun fire, and the beautiful screaming aura of plummeting thousands of feet to bomb a target, or on your way to an explosive crash. Depending on your location radio chatter is changed in language, which adds another nice touch.

Graphically the game looks superb in flight, the backdrops are brilliantly atmospheric and in intense 20 plane battles you really get a sense of urgency and presence that few games come close to matching. Weather effects and time of day cast entirely different moods over the levels, with rain and fog conjuring a really downcast tone that only mid-war settings can replicate, and night time missions seeming deathly silent as you creep forward in search of rumoured targets.

Closer to earth however the game, at the moment (this is still a beta) doesn't look so sharp. There were no graphical sliders in our build of the game, and many screenshots we've seen show adequate depth-of-field and blurring to compensate for the rather sloppy textures and block-filled cities that adorn some of the maps. Above water the sensation is superb, but while the authenticity in building-style and memorable landmarks is appreciated, a little touching up needs to be done perhaps on the lower altitudes of the game. With that said, the game runs effortlessly on sub-par PCs, but feels great in widescreen with surround sound and your subwoofer cranked up glass-shatteringly loud. Never before has the sound of machine gun fire really felt quite so urgent as to afford instant evasive manoeuvres with a quick jerk of the mouse.

There's nothing more satisfying than shooting down an enemy plane just as it was about to dive-bomb an ally.

The controls are very simple at present, and should be set to stay that way because once you get the hang of the engine behind it all, you can be shooting planes into wondrous burning wreckages, plummeting to earth, in no time. This is perhaps the first aircraft fighter game that doesn't need a joystick to play, you can simply sit down, relax, and enjoy Attack on Pearl Harbor for what it is.

A single player dogfight mode is present allowing you and up to 20 AI opponents to duke it out in a vast array of craft and over a large portion of maps. Multiplayer options follow suit, with LAN and Internet play supported, but with the option of forming teams to play Japanese vs. Americans, or really any variety of planes you want.

The game is not far from launch and the only qualms we can have about it is over the close up textures of buildings – all the planes look superb, and the sense of atmosphere is virtually unparalleled in similar games. Hopefully with the ability to alter your own settings that will be fixed with ease. Four lengthy campaigns (two for US, two for Japan) mean you should be content with what is offered and the replay value afforded to you with the ability to 'fail' a mission yet still continue with the campaign should further extend its life. Multiplayer and dogfight options seem well supported, and the general polish of the game's menus and story is really good to see in a game still two months away.

The backdrops to the levels are often simply brilliant

Legendo appear to have constructed an atmospheric, historically founded, flight-sim that is still fun to play. The sense of drama in each and every level is compelling, and you just can't wait to play the next one. Whether there will be any major overhauls is unclear, but while the single player may lack a little depth overall, we can safely say that there's enough fun there to warrant a purchase for any fans of the genre, providing no major hiccups appear before launch.

We'll bring you a review however when the game launches in July. Until then, a demo has been made available which you can download HERE. Enjoy!

- Mike Hazleton


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