How often do I get to review plane games? Well, seeing how I don’t own a joystick or a license to fly a MiG-15, I have never gone after the likes of DCS. But something like Project Wingman is more my speed.
The place? Earth. The time? More than four hundred years into the After Calamity (sigh) era. The world, once shattered by super volcanoes and related tectonic upheaval, is back on its feet. It’s propped up by geothermal energy and a newly discovered mineral from the depths of Earth. Also, there’s a bunch of mercenary outfits flying late 20th-early 21st century fighter jets. You’re Monarch, a celebrity in your group, Sicario. And you’re quite accidentally getting employed to help Cascadia kick out the forces of Federation bent on its annexation.
This is the best the developers of Project Wingman could do to thread the needle between Ace Combat’s weird not-Earths and Hawx’s dumb technothriller Earth.
What if Chuck Yeager was a catboy?
I claim that it’s an apt comparison to make, because the game is aimed at the Ace Combat crowd, which doesn’t have many sources of succor on the PC. And it that regard, it works: Project Wingman is a great Ace Combat simulator. Sure, it’s not quite the real thing – no simulator is – but hey, it’s the best you’re getting.
It’s an arcade game, this Project Wingman, there’s no doubt about it. The flight model is very simple: unless I was high while testing it, your airframe doesn’t accelerate in a dive nor does it lose speed in a climb. In fact, you plane would love to do steady ~450 knots if left to it’s own devices. This is highly unsatisfactory, so you’ll be on that throttle constantly.
Each plane in Project Wingman is, by default, armed with STDM missiles, and you can’t change it. Nearly two hundred missiles are kept in Genre Convention Handwave Stores, and they reload at a decent pace. STDM are better than nothing – they’ll lock onto anything and they take down a regular jet in two hits, but you can only lock on a single target at a time, and they only work under 10,000 feet (3 kilometers) or range.
Macross Missile RWR
That’s not too great, so most planes have additional hardpoints that can fit additional weapons. Each hardpoint on each plane has what is essentially a bespoke combination of possible weapons, which I find to be the most important difference between one jet and the next. Some have fewer hardpoints. Some only have dedicated anti-air loadouts, while a few have expansive air-to-ground munition selections and even the very rare AShMmissile.
Of course, all of those toys are as fake as the extremely fake STDM, which is locked on by radar, but fired with a “fox two!” Semi-active missiles need you to keep the nose on the target, but can reach out and splat a regular jet up to 30K feet. Multilock missiles lock as many targets as you have missiles ready (combine two hardpoints for some dumb numbers), and they have better range and damage than STDMs. You can also use multilock to saturate a single target – great for bosses!
A2G arsenal is barely worth mentioning – aside from its own flavor of multi-lock, there’s a bunch of dumb gravity bombs in various boring flavors. If you ever salivated over ground loadouts in CMANO and all the KABs, BETABS, and JDAMs of the world, you’ll stay safely hydrated here.
Project Wingman: somewhat lacking in wings
In a similar vein, Project Wingman poses little danger to the genital integrity of plane fetishists. The options feel fairly restricted, with us mostly giving F-4 and all the other F’s from F-14 to F/A-18. That’s right – no stealth planes. The Soviet/Russian arsenal is a bit more varied – there’s the Frogfoot and MiG-31 – but a lot sparser. You also get the Viggen, Harrier, and… Avro Arrow, the meme “Canada will rise again” interceptor. The last two slots are taken by anime boss planes, one of them certainly being an Ace Combat expy.
By the way, all the planes have slightly changed names. It’s usually innocuous, like MG-21, but Harrier being renamed “Accipiter” stands out like a sore thumb. Why? Because a harrier is a type of hawk, and accipiter is a cousin genus to harriers. Of course, you’ve probably never heard the word in your life, so it’s just another point on the “Project Wingman is anime” board.
Generally speaking, you’re not too pressed to “tech up” in Project Wingman, and an old plane can take you a long way. In fact, you’ll run out of planes to unlock some ways before the end. Despite all the differences in handling stats, it’s the hardpoints and what’s allowed on them that matters the most. In the end, you can probably grind through any mission with STDMs, but it will take you longer and be mightily annoying.
Not as annoying as the dumb plot elements
Yes, the world of Project Wingman is subject to the kind of dumb stuff one would expect from Front Mission or Ace Combat. And it’s fine! The dumb stuff in Japanese games is usually a reprieve from dumb stuff in occidental games that’s invariably always the same. Sure, I can take these mercenary battles that are swatting fighter jets in numbers not seen since Battle of Britain. I’ll even accept “thermal fractures” causing electric disturbances that make long range communication unreliable. It sounds dumb, but maybe it’s not?
No, the real bullshit comes when you interact with your Designated Antagonist Squadron, Crimson. It’s not Gelb Team, but hey, its named after a color. It’s part of the Peacekeepers, the Federation elite.
They suck. You meet them like three times, the first of which involves you running away immediately. You don’t even know their names, only that their leader is… Crimson 1. They have no defining characteristics outside of dumb anime patriotism that makes them angry at country-less mercenaries.
Oh, and Peacekeepers (not Crimson) get to do warcrimes of the likes that nearly fuck up all humanity. You eventually shoot down Crimson – Crimson 1 goes down with the last plane, and laughs. Think he’s down? No!
As the last mission ends with a sour note of a ceasefire getting signed just as you’ve nearly planted a STDM in the head of the last Federation soldier on Cascadian soil, Crimson 1 pulls a limit break and you’re thrust into a boss fight against him where he’s piloting a multi-stage (it even changes name after destruction) plane you’ve seen once before that allows him to pull boss powers straight out of a Drakensang ending.
He’s also berating you for being a mercenary, blames you for making this happen by being so good a pilot you turned the tide of the war, and all sorts of other nonsense. It’s super dumb and grating.
Even after you shoot him down the last time, you still have to fight him, and my suspicion is that the last segment lasts until your plane reaches 1 HP – I will not try to verify, as the boss fight is terrible. Then Crimson fires off a dumb line “Monarch, whenever you heard thunder, think of me” and explodes.
This whole thing is not only extremely eye-roll inducing and dumb, it’s also unearned. Nothing the game did ever made a solid connection between you and Crimson 1. There was no long-standing rivalry, you trading of quips and barbs, nothing. He was there, presumably flying the last plane to be shot down in any of the showdowns between you and his squadron (wouldn’t be dramatically appropriate if you shot him down first). There is nothing that would warrant the feeling of pathos Project Wingman wants me to pull.
If anything, that last bossfight serves as a great reminder to game reviewers to finish the game before reviewing, because it retroactively tainted my whole experience with Project Wingman. It’s a generally OK game with its own merits and flaws, but the ending just shits all over everything. Fuck, I’m getting angrier as a type!
SPOILERS END HERE
Well, aside from the plot campaign, you can play Conquest mode. It’s conquering (heh) a Risk map one area at a time. Each area has its own special mission, and as you destroy targets, the campaign-wide alert level rises, which means facing ever more powerful enemy forces.
But don’t worry – you’re gaining resources not just for unlocking planes. You’re also hiring reinforcements that will go with you on the missions! You’ll get wingmen of various level of experience, and even air ships to help you.
Project Wingman warns you that this mode contains SPOILERS, but as far as I can tell, it’s just that you can see the dumb boss fight/Ace Combat expy planes in the hangar, even if unlocking them would take a really long time.
I didn’t play much of this mode, because… well, that boss fight soured me right and proper.
Yeah, my radar screen runs on a 3080
Right, onto the more technical stuff. Project Wingman is a pretty game. The cockpit models may lack a certain crispness to them, but most of the time you’re looking at the outside (if not playing with 3rd person camera). And what do you know, the skies and the vistas are generally nice, while the geothermal nonsense allows the developers to bring in sights you wouldn’t expect in a flight sim.
And the battles look fun as well! Planes dart around, leaving
chemtrails and missile contrails. Explosions are really nice and shake the plane. You can viscerally experience the transition from fighting in the rain to rising above the clouds to duke it out under the sun. As long as you’re not spending too much time looking at the ground, you’re solid.
The audio design throws a few pleasant surprises as well. The biggest is Prez, Monarch’s WSO. Now, not all planes you fly are two-seaters. But when you do fly one, Prez can have mission-specific dialogue, even interacting with other characters. Neat!
It’s also fun when Galaxy AWACS calls for CSAR after your CFIT. More like “Combat Scrape and Reconstruction,” am I right, fellas?
Unfortunately, Project Wingman is also saddled with some annoying and repetitive battle chatter. Who the hell says “adjusting IFF to new parameters” in the middle of a dogfight? Isn’t it a bit too late to say “make sure your plane is in optimal condition” when you’re already dodging missiles? Bah!
If you can read the spoilered section and says to yourself “no, I don’t feel like that would ruin my enjoyment of the game,” then good on you. Project Wingman is a decent game, filling a niche oft left unserved. It’s generally competently made as well – too bad the writing lets it down.