Seeing the “Jane’s” moniker attached to a game has always put me in mind of hardcore simulations, or highly intricate cockpits with more knobs and whistles than the common man knew what to do with. It was a brand that stood it apart from the Ace Combats and Top Guns, but it would appear that in the ten years since last it graced the front of a box this is no longer the case.
Jane’s returns with Advanced Strike Fighters and has thrown away its focus on simulation and has opted for a far more stripped down, arcade style of flying. There’s no trim to adjust or landing gear to raise, here flying is as simple as keeping your bird pointing away from the ground. With very little practise you’ll see yourself ably embodying the ace American pilot “Razor” – sadly you have no choice in this tag – soaring high in the sky, pulling off zero-g turns, before dropping low to the earth and skimming over the hills and plains of war torn Azbaristan.
Quite why a US pilot is in such a position is explained through a token initial news report and mediocre banter between you and the tower. The result, however, is that you’re caught up in the middle of a civil war between the North and South and are flying sorties with the pro-West South. Not wanting to let Uncle Sam down you strap on your helmet, fire up the afterburner and head up into the blue.
One of the issues I’ve always found with combat flying games has been the very limited group of missions that can be pulled from, usually ultimately involving a dog fight somewhere along the way. JASF’s strongest suit is that it manages to continually mix objectives up to prevent such feelings creeping back. From the initial covert starts of having to fly low and take out radar dishes to then ending a mission having to pelt it back to friendly airspace with engines screaming and weapons denied, Evolved Games keep things varied.
Even throughout a single flight you’ll find yourself initially flying low to avoid detection, before having to do fly-bys to collect data on enemy targets, topped off with then having to track and bring down a scout plane that happened upon you. With an enemy army packed full of aircraft carriers, warships, drones, bombers, tanks and supply convoys, throughout the 15-20 mins of each mission goals are happily diverse.
It is then a disappointment that this solid foundation is not built upon. Combat is predictable and perfunctory, if somewhat hampered by a poor and confusing heads-up-display. It’s the usual situation of attempting to wheel trying to get a lock on before launching a spree of missiles to blow your rival out of the sky. Whilst this is of course part and parcel of air combat games, JASF’s experience fluctuates between being overly easy to nigh on impossible.
Given the drop, enemy pilots seem incapable of dodging your ordinance. Their sense of self preservation all but absent, and generally the only way they’ll avoid a fiery death is if you’ve pulled the trigger at an inopportune moment. Conversely, your own evasive action, be it launching counter measures to distract missiles or showing off with some nifty flying, has similar negligible affect. Throughout the multiple hours of the campaign, not at any point did I feel I could competently avoid fire. Warning signs would flash indicating I should deploy counter measures, but despite experimenting at different distances from impact and a variety of suicidal, high-speed turns, I felt it best to put my fate in The Lady rather than my own piloting skills. At least the checkpoints are well placed.
During combat, the screen is scattered with a myriad of indicators pointing to potential targets, friendlies and incoming missiles. Though all is relevant the nature of presentation is poor. A good proportion of your time sees a host of overlaid and mostly unintelligible colour in the centre of your view, whilst at the same time your periphery is dotted with pointers to airborne threats which are rendered too small and too far out to be considered easy to digest. It is such an innocuous aspect but one that has a great impact as you attempt to keep an eye on the fighters behind you at the same moment you line up a strike on a cluster of targets. It’s a symptom that continues throughout, with the plane select screens, camera controls and bombing runs being equally functional but no more.
With Azbaristan liberated and Razor’s spell in this fictional country complete, I walked away feeling very little towards Advanced Strike Fighters. It had provided a cluster of compelling missions that had piqued my interest, but equally it had offered very little in the way of memorable moments when supposedly fighting for my life a mile above terra firma. It felt very much as though I were going through the motions.
Quite how Jane’s became attached to this competent but inspiring project I am not privy to. If it were to try and break out of their more natural sim dominant world, they may wish have stripped it back a little too far.