A Quick Look At Iron Aces

War is hell. So said General William Tecumseh Sherman way back in 1864, apparently. War was undoubtedly about as close to hell as human beings could get going way back to pre-history and antiquity, and still happens to be so in the modern day. With this in mind, the last major worldwide conflict was World War II, and this is the theatre which acts as a backdrop to the Dreamcast's only dogfighting, dive-bombing, kamikaze-preventing flight sim: Iron Aces. Sort of.
See, Iron Aces from Xicat is very much a game that is set during the height of the 20th century's most deadly conflict, but also one which takes place on a fictitious archipelago made up of islands which bear striking resemblances to Great Britain, Germany, the United States and Japan. These are the main belligerents featured in Iron Aces, but the names of the countries have been doctored somewhat, even if the geographic shapes of the islands haven't. So, Great Britain becomes Trincer, the United States is Valiant, Japan is Yamato and Germany is Blocken. This is initially quite puzzling - especially since the actual countries involved in WWII are name checked constantly, and the Royal Air Force constantly referred to; however, the slightly fantastical setting undoubtedly gave developer Marionette the freedom to create missions and scenarios which, in reality, did not take place.
With this in mind though, there are numerous instances where real life events are clearly the inspiration for mission types and objectives, so the puzzlement remains intact. Anyway, I'm jumping the gun a bit. Join us as we take a quick look at one of the Dreamcast's hidden gems in the form of a true Battle of Britain simulator - Iron Aces.
The Dreamcast isn't short of decent flight sims and flight-based arcade shooters. There are the outstanding Aero Dancing/AeroWings titles if realism is your bag; and likewise there are games like Propeller Arena, Incoming and Air Force Delta available if you prefer more arcade-styled aerial thrills. Iron Aces however, sits slap bang in the middle of these two styles. It really isn't a simulator and it has a couple of mechanics that prevent it being classed as an all out arcade experience, and so it's pretty fair to class it as both a sim and an arcade shooter at the same time. And also one that takes a few liberties when it comes to historical accuracy. Don't let that put you off though, as to write Iron Aces off due to its slightly fabricated pseudo-WWII setting would be doing it a disservice.

At this point, it is probably quite pertinent to point out that the game was released in Japan as Imperial no Taka: Fighter of Zero. In the PAL version of the game (on which this article is based), you assume the role of a pilot on the side of the Allies and so you are tasked with taking down adversaries from the German and Japanese armed forces. Quite how the NTSC-J version of Iron Aces differs from the PAL and NTSC-U versions (if at all) I cannot say, but it strikes me as a little bit of a sensitive topic, for fairly obvious reasons I'm not going to spell out. If you've played Imperial no Taka: Fighter of Zero and note any differences in the main story I'd be intrigued to hear about them in the comments.

Anyway, the main game sees the player assume the role of a rookie pilot tasked with defending the British territory of Trincer, taking orders from an American squadron leader named Baker. There are a bunch of optional training missions that attempt to teach you how to control the period appropriate planes which - rather awesomely - includes both fighter planes and also huge lumbering bombers. The training missions are totally optional, but I would recommend giving them a look just so that you get a feel for how Iron Aces plays: there are no 'fire and forget' missiles here - it's all about manually aimed machine guns and dropping bombs that aren't laser guided. In this sense alone you are expected to score kills (both in dogfights and during bombing raids) with about as little hand holding as it's possible to give.
Once you get out into the main game proper, you're eased in with some fairly simply recon and patrol missions, pootling along Iron Aces' equivalent of the white cliffs of Dover with very little to report. It doesn't stay so idyllic for long though, as just as you might think the game might involve you absent-mindedly taking a pleasurable sojourn over the green and pleasant land of...er...Trincer, the Germans launch an attack and the archipelago is plunged into all out war. From here, the missions introduce you to defending tactics while zipping around above cities as spotlights arc through the sky, to performing bombing runs on columns of ships, to seeking out submarines and dropping torpedoes to weed them out. The missions are really quite varied and as you progress different aircraft types are unlocked depending on the task in hand.

Alongside the main campaign (which also boasts some fantastic stylised cutscenes and mission briefings that would be right at home as a Dad's Army introduction); there's an interesting 'versus' mode that allows you to either play against or with a friend against AI enemies. You can even assign AI controlled aircraft to your side in single player and engage in a full on bombing raid along with fighter escorts, should you wish. It's an interesting and fun addition, and if the main game is giving you issues then it's nice to have the option to jump out of the campaign and just practice sinking enemy dreadnoughts and carriers, or taking out radar stations.
Even with the slightly ambiguous setting for the campaign, this is most definitely a WWII game, and the aesthetic amplifies this well. The mission briefing hub is a fully rendered recreation of a period command HQ, complete with maps and a mission board; while the aircraft are all pretty faithful and genuine models are on offer (Spitfires, Hurricanes, Stukas etc). The game world isn't as well realised as the previously mentioned Aero Dancing games, with vast swathes of the landscape represented by flat geography painted with blurry, low resolution textures masquerading as fields and cityscapes. From afar they look satisfactory, but if you take a trip down to ground level then you'll see how rudimentary everything is - think Pilotwings 64 and you're on the right track. The sea too looks quite basic, with a fairly small tile set repeated over and over again. Enemy ships and other vessels also look quite poor up close. That said though, the aircraft all look good and there are some really nice effects (such as lens flares and lighting from machine gun muzzle flash) that do give a little bit of polish that makes up for shortcomings in other areas. Draw distance is also worthy of note - while it isn't as flawless as that seen in the Aero Dancing games, the horizon line does stretch quite a way off and this gives a fairly good sense of scale during battle...not that you'll have much time to gaze longingly into the distance when the action kicks off.

Perhaps the greatest attribute that Iron Aces has in its arsenal is just how easy it is to pick up and play; and by extension of this, just how easy it is to get right into the thick of some really exciting dogfights within about 10 minutes of starting the campaign. Controls are responsive and the analogue flight controls on the stick feel pretty much spot on. Yoke is controlled via the triggers and when used in conjunction with the pitch and roll attributed to the analogue, getting your plane around the battlefield (battlesky?) is really rather easy. As mentioned, the weapons are suitable old-skool, but aiming the default machine guns is quite user friendly (just line up the reticule and light 'em up), and taking down adversaries usually doesn't require more than a couple of hits. Dropping bombs is slightly more cumbersome as you have to hold down both the Y and B buttons at the same time while the view switches to a cinematic angle, meaning it's actually more difficult to judge where your bombs will hit, but it's not too difficult to get to grips with after a few raids.
The one area where Iron Aces is pretty poor is in the sound and music - the music isn't really appropriate for the time period setting, and the weapon sound effects are really quite shoddy. Engine effects are good though, and really give the impression - at times - that you're a lone pilot heading straight towards the enemy in a little single seater fighter plane. One big bugbear for me though is that there's no voice acting, which isn't necessarily a major blow, but if it had been done right and in fitting with the 1940s aesthetic it could have really added something to the overall package. Radios crackling, speech during cutscenes...it could really have added a lot more authenticity to the experience. Alas, all you get is weirdly out of place chirpy muzak, dialled in weapon effects...and some nicely varied engine hums.

In summary, Iron Aces is a decent, fairly late release for the Dreamcast that was initially launched as a budget title. It also one game that is a true Dreamcast exclusive (although a modern-day sequel was released on PlayStation 2 and a WWII themed sequel was released on PC) and one that a lot of Dreamcast owners probably haven't played. If a flight combat game with equal parts sim and arcade sounds like something you'd be interested in, then Iron Aces is well worth checking out. Not perfect by any means, and the visuals leave a lot to be desired, but as a lesser known period specific war game, it's well worth a look.
Have you played Iron Aces or Imperial no Taka: Fighter of Zero? Are you a fan of the game? Let us know in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter or in our Facebook group.

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5 comments:

Daniel Turner said...

nice one Tom, never knew this existed will check it out

Anthony817 said...

One of my favorite drinking games from back in the day! The cockpits were really detailed which I preferred in my flight sims/arcade fighters. Really gives you a sense of immersion.

hoogafanter said...

So a sim but an arcade game? Like ace combat series?

DCGX said...

This may be a pickup for me now the next time I see it in the wild. I also had no idea it came out so late in the DC's life.

Segasocks said...

I find this game twinned with the Spirit of Speed 1937 to be the perfect way to waste away a weekend! It should also be noted that taking off all your clothes and running round the room making aeroplane noises is completely optional but will almost certainly add to the experience!