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Joystiq presents

DS Fanboy Review: Spitfire Heroes: Tales of the Royal Air Force

Big John Games' Spitfire Heroes: Tales of the Royal Air Force is a simple game -- and I mean that in a good way. I'm not saying it's an easy game (far from it) or that there isn't enough to do. Spitfire Heroes is simple in the way that arcade games are: the controls are intuitive and easy to pick up quickly, and the objectives are clear. Despite its appearance as a flight sim (one of the most complex genres of all), Spitfire Heroes is an action game through and through, more After Burner than Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Unfortunately, some fairly major issues prevent Spitfire Heroes from an unqualified recommendation. Right up front: the game is too hard, which may prevent you from seeing the majority of the content. While it's easy to understand how to play, it is remarkably difficult to play.

Gallery: Spitfire Heroes

Spitfire Heroes takes place in a (seemingly) alternate-universe World War II during which Britain only built one plane. The player controls that solitary Spitfire in missions that involve tasks like shooting down a certain number of enemy fighter planes (all of which are faster and more maneuverable than the Spitfire), destroying tanks, or protecting a military target from bombers.

You fly using the D-pad, shoot with the R button, do a barrel roll with the X button, and throttle with A and B. There's a lock-on of sorts mapped to the L button, but it actually just locks the camera to an enemy without affecting your own aim. While there is a throttle display on the touchscreen that certainly looks like something that could be controlled with the stylus, the game uses buttons only. This is a pretty bold decision for a DS game, and also a welcome one.

Spitfire Heroes' 3D engine is of surprising quality for the DS, providing a consistent, high framerate and good visuals. The environments are extremely sparse, but you're mostly flying over flat land or water anyway. Significant pop-in of targets means that you have to be pretty close to something to get a good shot at it -- although enemy planes do not seem to suffer from the same constraint.

The missions usually involve shooting a certain number of targets. In the first mission, you are to shoot ten tanks on the ground within a generous time limit. There is also one fighter plane that comes after you, but in this early part of the game it is little more than a nuisance. The real obstacle against ground targets is accidentally flying into the ground while trying to aim so low. After a few tries, I got really good at shooting at these tanks, and began to relish the act of buzzing them. The camera pulls out a bit as a warning when you get too close to an obstacle (or the ground), which is an inspired and effective bit of feedback. If you're making a mess of the mission anyway, sometimes it's fun to intentionally go for the most spectacular, cinematic failure possible, taking full advantage of the dramatic camera move to perfectly frame your explosion as you take out a bomber with your own plane.

Dogfighting begins in the second mission and, "coincidentally," this is where the difficulty increases sharply. This may have something to do with the fact that planes are also able to fly and can shoot you while doing so. A gauge on the touchscreen tracks damage to your fuselage, tail, and wings; too much damage to any of these and you're down. And by "down" I mean "a fine mist." You do have an unlimited supply of machine gun ammo, should you manage to work the throttle in such a way that you can get behind the enemy plane.

Your performance is graded after every mission by a percentage. Every aspect of the mission is given a value: number of enemy planes shot down, number of tanks, damage taken, and other mission-specific variables like the number of enemy bombs dropped on your base. If you do well enough to achieve over 50%, you pass and can go on to the next mission. Fail and you have to start over.

Because this ranking screen only comes up at the end of the mission, and because there's no onscreen indicator of progress until then, it is not only possible, but likely that you'll complete the mission and still fail. And while you get two lives per mission, dying actually counts against your score, so you'll want to restart the mission if you die anyway. This scoring system is the major problem with the game. It gives you no feedback until you've completed your mission, and basically means that there are many more possible conditions for failure than there are for success. As if the odds weren't already stacked against you due to the number and maneuverability of the enemy planes, the surprise failure at the end of (almost) every level -- should you somehow survive until the end -- is an insult.

I don't want to seem too down on Spitfire Heroes. The truth is that there is a nice variety of missions -- and not in the terrible "escort mission/fetch quest" way that most modern games have variety. There are a lot of variations on the "shoot everybody" gametype, basically, which I approve of. I had a great time flipping around in the air, trying to get behind a fighter plane so I could shoot it down, or protecting a base from a massive squadron of dive bombers. But if you intend on attempting to play this game to completion, I recommend that you learn some breathing exercises or something to help calm you down. In fact, I just recommend that you don't attempt to play this game to completion. Just get to where you can get, and then replay those missions to improve your timing and score. You'll be a lot happier.

Final score: 7/10

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