June 5, 2015 12:00 PM | John Bridgman
I have a personal theory when it comes to combat in games. That being that games which have combat are always better when you can have a big hammer. This applies to shooters, brawlers, dungeon crawlers, even action platformers can usually be improved with the addition of a big hammer. Airplane combat is not something I expected to consider the addition of hammers to. But Air Brawl from Wilhelm Nylund, recently released on Steam Early Access, has made me apply my theory to the art of aerial team combat. Do hammers make dogfighting better?
That's right. Air Brawl lets you equip an airplane with big hammers to mid-air melee your opponents. This is just one of the really impressive and unusual weapons you can find in the game. One plane lets you choose between a giant sword to impale enemy planes with, and a teleporting orb that lets you have a blink move similar to Dishonored. In an airplane. The variety of weapons and abilities is fun and I think is a good hook for this game to stand out with.
At its heart, the game is a team arena shooter, with game modes like Capture The Flag (in a plane) and Free For All (in a plane). Putting these normally ground-based modes in the air makes for some interesting gameplay, and fortunately the game has some fairly tight controls in order to facilitate the sort of play that makes these modes engaging. Competing in various arenas featuring buildings to fly between and tunnels to fly within, there's actually a lot of freedom to move around while still feeling like you're close enough to the action to not get bored. They aren't the most visually appealing yet, but that hopefully will improve through updates.
The planes themselves look very nice, and have a variety and personality to them just as the weapons do. There's a viking themed airplane which features the aforementioned hammers, an old biplane, and even a sort of magic forest plane. All of these have their own selections of loadouts, and they handle differently as you would expect in this sort of game. While they do look unique, sometimes it can be hard to pick them out at a distance, and reacting to engage quickly is a skill you'll have to develop to play well.
The UI leaves a little to be desired right now, especially the menus out of game. The combat and physics of play were clearly the first priorities for the title, but the dull menus are a stern reminder of the Early Access nature of the game. The interface during matches is a little better, functional enough and provides necessary information.
Playing the game is fun and since the controls are tight and responsive, you'll find yourself navigating through the maps at a brisk pace quickly once you get used to how things work. You'll find your preferred style of play after a few times out in whichever plane you handle best, and you'll learn their strengths and weaknesses fairly soon.
The biggest flaw right now with Air Brawl is that because it just launched on Early Access, there aren't a whole lot of people playing. Also when you do get playing, lag can really ruin a game. Planes will start clipping through the environment and the tight controls really start working against you - you'll find yourself overcompensating and crashing quite often.
It's definitely a work in progress, and when it's not working well the game is really frustrating. But if you can get some fans of aerial combat together to play, you'll probably enjoy the variety of weapons and arenas you can play with. There's a lot of promise here, and so far they've focused on the most important parts of the experience - the flying and the fighting. That's a good sign, and I look forward to seeing where this goes.