Damage Inc, the Metallica song, is a cool track from an outstanding album (Master of Puppets). Aside from that bit just now, however, this is not a review of that song. Instead, it’s a critical appraisal of the upcoming flight simulator of the same name, published by perennial plastic peripheral proprietor Mad Catz.
There are two versions of the game coming out; one that’s just the software itself (available on PS3, 360, and PC), while the second bundle edition also packs in a Saitek AV8R joystick. That second version of the game was supplied for review, so I’m also going to talk a little about the joystick. The score, however, reflects just the game itself.
The included stick, if you’re not familiar with Saitek, is typical of the quality we’ve come to expect from the brand. It’s very good for the price, with loads of well-placed buttons and a few nifty switches and hats, all of which allow you to stay in complete control whenever you take to the virtual skies. It also includes some (optional) leg attachments that allow it to comfortably grip your leg; an excellent (and thoughtful) addition for a console-oriented device. You can easily slide them on and off, too, so if you want to switch between desk and beanbag play, it’s no chore to do so.
The stick is also compatible with a host of other Xbox 360 flight-based games, including the HAWX and Ace Combat franchises, and is about the only option you’ll be able to find anywhere should you wish to play these games with something a bit more realistic than a standard Xbox 360 controller. The reverse is true, too, as the stick will work just as well on PC as it does on your Xbox. This versatility makes for a pretty swell deal, in terms of return on your investment.
The game itself is rather less successful. In fact, it seems - all guns blazing - to set out to turn you against it, right from the outset. The presentation is poor and, by the time you’re setup in the cockpit for the first time, your expectations as to what this game has to offer will be dialed right back down from the high you experienced when assembling your joystick for the first time. It looks, in other words, rather awful.
Things don’t improve at all as you get underway, with no particles or special effects to help you feel like you’re moving around in a rickety World War II-era aircraft. In fact, you can see the poorly constructed graphics of the game all too clearly, allowing you to see just how simply constructed and low-budget everything looks.
Still, it’s all about the gameplay; not even the greatest graphics could save a game that plays like a pair of worn out old trousers. Unfortunately, there’s nothing compelling here either. The missions, while there is some variation, are repetitive and dull. Shooting planes down is all but impossible (thanks in no small part to the janky framerate) until you discover that you can slow down time at will - and for as long as you like. Once you do figure that out, the game simply becomes an ad-nauseum rotation of fly to general area of plane / building / boat you need to destroy, slow down time, get a bead on the target, fire guns, repeat.
Still, things do improve once you get a few hours in; the terrain gets a little more varied and you start getting some more interesting, tiered objectives. Don’t get carried away, though; it gets better compared to itself - it never compares well to any other flight simulators on the platform.
And that’s another thing; simulation, this ain’t. You can perform countless maneuvers that are just plain impossible (even if you choose “simulation” difficulty, which varies little from “arcade”), and are frequently tasked with outlandishly unlikely tasks. Dogfighting Japanese Zeros in a Catalina? That wouldn’t happen in reality, but you’re frequently required to do that here. Got Torpedoes and are tasked with sinking a battleship? You’ll have to shoot out the AA guns with your machine gun first; until then, your torpedoes will do no damage.
Also, what’s with the respawning torpedoes? Why not just set mission objectives in such a way that I need to score hits with the ones I have, or switch between flying different planes? The setup suggests it’s trying to be a simulator, but the gameplay details reveal any such intent is only skin deep.
While the difficulty in this review is pegged at “Hard”, don’t be fooled into thinking that means you’ll be shot down a lot. I wasn’t shot down once; instead, the challenge is merely a product of bad design. Each “mission” is made up of a number of sub-objectives, each of which you’re provided in turn as you complete the one before it. Go here, shoot these guys. Done? OK cool; go over there, protect those buildings. You get the idea.
Sometimes, you’ll be on one side of the island, shooting the aforementioned guys, only to be given a mission on the other side of the island, to protect those buildings we talked about. Tough luck; by the time you get there, they’ll be half destroyed. That sort of thing happens a lot. Even with slow-mo and turbo boost, you’ll be hard-pressed to complete protection-based missions without having to restart a bunch.
Despite the fact it looks a bit crap, and plays like mostly worn-out pants, it does become strangely compelling. It’s got poor framerate, and loads of little bugs (like the pilot that floats in the air by himself when you choose the “invisible plane” camera with one of the bombers), but once you get into the groove of it, it’s strangely addictive; a bit like grinding in a Korean MMO, perhaps. Mastering skills like dive-bombing and skimming along the surface of the water, while they bear no resemblance to reality, become oddly rewarding in their own right once you give up on trying to extract any real fun from the title.
If you’re looking for a decent multi-purpose joystick, buying one with this game isn’t an entirely bad idea. The game’s not as good as, well, any other flight sim on the platform, but it does have its own charm. Buying the game alone, on the other hand, would be hard to recommend for all but the hardest of the hardcore who have simply exhausted all other options and are looking for something different. If you'd like to check it out for yourself, there's a playable demo available on Xbox Live.