Air combat games are a rarity on the Wii, which is quite surprising considering the tilt sensors on the Remote and Nunchuk have been demonstrated to be the most reliable form of motion control available on the Wii. Thankfully Namco Bandai have decided to step into the breach with Project Aces' excellent movie tie-in Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces.
Being a game based upon any film license, much less an animated one, is immediately cause for suspicion, but Innocent Aces manages to not only be a fun game but present an interesting, if obtuse, storyline. A brief video clip after you start the all-encompassing story mode will give you the gist of what's happening without going into great detail. The setting is an alternate 20th century Earth (a popular theme in Japanese anime/manga/games) where global wars are no longer fought by nations, but rather private corporations; apparently for the entertainment of the public and as a way of avoiding mass blood spillage in real wars. This doesn't explain why everyone is Japanese despite the corporations having names like Rostock and Lautern or why the place names are all Japanese when all the action takes place in Central and Southern Europe, but that doesn't really matter when you're playing an arcade-style air combat game.
Missions begin right away with a briefing presented by your base commander indicating objectives followed by a virtual tactical map with little figures giving you an idea of the opposition you'll be facing. You can go to the hangar to check out your plane(s) and apply any upgrades earned or swap out colours you've unlocked, then start your mission, choose your plane, fit it with a secondary weapon and take off for battle. Missions start out with a bit of chatter between the pilots, but you'll get into the action pretty quickly.
Any game of this nature is going to require some good displays and quality controls; thankfully Sky Crawlers delivers on both counts. You'll have a choice of three camera views: chase, full screen or cockpit and well-placed instrument dials for altitude, horizon, airspeed, compass direction and radar indicating allies, enemies and mission targets. You'll see subtitles for in-game conversation accompanied by images of your colleagues and messages relating to mission status or letting you know if that bomb you just dropped hit its target.
You'll have a choice of controls from four different schemes using the Remote and Nunchuk – including a non-motion alternative – as well as Classic Controller or Gamecube controller support. The motion control scheme is unusual, but actually works really well: you hold the Nunchuk in your dominant hand and the Remote in your "off" hand. The Nunchuk acts like a flight stick using tilts in different directions to control your plane's attitude whilst the remote is tilted along a vertical axis to control the throttle. We did try playing with a Classic Controller Pro after playing with the Remote and Nunchuk, but using dual sticks and combinations of buttons just felt clunky and overly complicated compared to the smooth and intuitive motion controls.
Whilst this isn't a flight sim, there are a couple of options that present a tradeoff between trouble-free arcade-style flying and more realistic controls. Under the normal control scheme left and right tilting of the Nunchuk will cause the plane to bank left or right, and it will automatically level out, providing a good arcade feel to dogfighting. Using the expert setting changes things a bit by adding yaw controls via left and right on the D-Pad whilst tilting the Nunchuck rolls the plane instead, allowing players to fly upside down, pull off 360-degree loops and tighter turns. The expert controls can take some getting used to and require a steady hand, making us wish there were settings for motion sensitivity, but we liked the greater range of movement afforded. Ultimately it's all down to personal preference and we enjoyed both both normal and expert control schemes.
Targeting enemy planes is fairly straightforward without the need to compensate by leading fire. Your targeting reticule will increase in size when an enemy plane is in range and fill in with added detail when they're in your sights and hittable. You can change targets on the fly, though you will also automatically target any plane you follow for a length of time. Targeting surface-based enemies like tanks and ships with bombs is likewise extremely simple: changing to your secondary weapon displays a reticule on the ground and clicking Z to fire when enemy targets fall within it as you would your normal machine guns. If you run out of bombs or ground-targeting weapons, not to worry, you can destroy surface targets with regular weapons too. Whilst allies are indicated on your radar and will have bounding boxes like enemies, they cannot be targeted and there is no "friendly fire" aspect to worry about (this should compensate for the fact that your radar uses blue for allies and green for enemies if you have that form of colour-blindness).
You can pull off some impressive stunts using a combination of analogue stick movements and pressing A to evade enemy fire or quickly change orientation. There are various rolls, flips and u-turns available to start and still more to unlock, so you'll want to try them out as you progress through the game, remapping the stick directions once you figure out what works best for you. Enemies will target you – especially later in the game when your rep starts to grow – and you'll often find yourself getting tailed by two or more planes. If you get shot or collide with other planes or skim the ground, your damage indicator will gradually change from white to yellow to red; flashing when you're one hit from getting shot down. If this happens you'll get a replay of events leading up to your demise and the option to keep your current plane or change it out; during lengthy missions you'll be pleased to note that you can retry from the last checkpoint rather than starting from the very beginning of the mission.
In many dogfighting games things can start to feel a bit stale given the action invariably boils down to trying to get behind another plane to shoot it down, but Sky Crawlers keeps things exciting through the use of Tactical Command Manoeuvres, which execute an impressive bit of aerobatics that places you on your selected target's tail. You need to remain in proximity to your target and build up your TCM metre before tapping A to execute a TCM which will then cut to an external camera view of your plane getting into position. Flight sim fans will be disappointed you cannot execute these moves with the controls provided, but we liked the fact that it kept the action tight and allowed us to take down a string of enemy fighters without a lot of monkeying about.
There's a decent level of variety in the missions, though most of them do involve shooting down as many planes as you can. Thanks to the excellent controls it's quite a lot of fun, though not without challenge. Higher difficulty levels will see stronger enemies on offer with enemy aces indicated by special call signs rather than simple plane type identification and a ranking in stars to reflect their skill level. Even on the Easy difficulty setting the last three missions in particular will test players' skill and the use of TCMs won't substitute for getting to grips with the controls when you're up against the toughest opponents. At the end of each mission your performance will be indicated via letter grades for the number of kills and successful TCMs, with a final grade that also takes into account the amount of time it took you to complete the mission. Before your stats are tallied you can view a nice representation of the mission events with planes represented by colourful trails over the model map seen in the briefing, highlighting every one of your kills; you can also optionally save a replay of the mission highlights for future glory-basking.
The gameplay focus is on making the player feel like a real air ace which is reinforced by praise from your colleagues and admiration from your enemies. It becomes quite immersive to the point where we were disappointed that there's no way to send messages to your wingmen. Use of animated outtakes from the feature film (the description on the box refers to them as "unseen footage") and in-game dialogue makes the characters really come alive. At times the dialogue is as awkward as an anime film from 10-15 years ago, though the voice actors do their best at delivering their lines with the appropriate feeling.
The visuals are quite excellent and the aircraft are nicely detailed. Mission areas are large and there's always plenty of action, with you and your teammates competing to see who can get the best kill count. The textures on the scenery look quite good from the air; it's only when you get close to the ground that you'll realise many of the terrain features are merely 2D images. Everything is tied together with an excellent soundtrack (unlocked for casual listening after you complete the game) and immersive sound effects. There are medals to earn for various in-game achievements in addition to extra planes (more than a dozen all told), special weapons and colour schemes that unlock as your total score increases.
Though the seventeen missions won't take that long to play through, you'll have replay incentive via the three difficulty levels, achievements and said unlockables. Shooting down enemy aces will give you access to the special equipment on their planes and increasing your level rank will providing further incentive to replay missions via the Free Mission mode. Unfortunately you cannot change difficulty levels once you've started Story Mode, meaning you'll have to replay the entire game at Normal and Hard difficulty levels if you want to play individual missions using those difficulties. Also disappointing is the lack of multiplayer dogfighting, either local or online. A second player can jump in and fire at enemy planes using their own Remote, but in the end this is a solo experience, though a solid one.
Whilst everyone may not be a fan of the film, the game inspired by it will surely please any fan of the air combat genre. It might disappoint fans of Microsoft Flight Simulator, but if you want to play a game with accessible controls, an engaging storyline, well-developed characters and great arcade-style action that makes you feel like an air ace you can't go wrong here. Whilst we would have liked to see some kind of multiplayer option and the ability to replay missions at varying difficulty levels without replaying the entire game first, it's a lot of fun and a game we'll be playing for quite some time.