By Tyler Lubben / December 10th, 2014
I’ve had an interesting relationship with flight simulators over the years. Even with Hellcats over the Pacific and Red Baron back in the day, it’s a genre with which I’ve always been fascinated. Yet, none of these games have ever been able to hold my interest for very long. The reason? The controls! It always seemed like flight sims had a very specific audience: people who were willing to shell out the extra money for a joystick, throttle and foot peripherals made specifically for these types of games. As a lowly keyboard and mouse operator, the controls that I had to deal with were way too obtuse for me to understand. This would ultimately scare me away within an hour or two after experiencing nothing but fiery crashes. However – possibly inexplicably – this is still a genre that I’m still extremely interested in, so, when the opportunity to try out TimeSymmetry’s new PC flight sim, Vector Thrust, presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Did the same demons rear their ugly heads once again or was I able to pierce the veil to find an experience that I was actually able to enjoy?
Since Vector Thrust is still in the alpha stages of development, many of its features have yet to be implemented. Even so, we can still talk about some of the key gameplay elements. As I just mentioned, my main problem with these games over the years was my inability to decipher the game’s controls and, initially, at least, my experience was no different here. Using the WASD keys to change my speed and roll the aircraft, but having no idea how to change my altitude left me a sitting duck, at best. I eventually gave up and plugged in my trusty gamepad instead. For some odd reason, the two sticks were flipped – with the left stick controlling the camera and the right stick being for movement. This was simple enough to change in the Options, though, and I was quickly on my way to becoming the top dogfighting ace. Or… at least not being shot down immediately after meeting an enemy pilot.
At its core, Vector Thrust feels very much like just about every other flight sim out there. You fly your fighter around a huge map, engage with enemy pilots and try to shoot down targets or destroy buildings and surface-to-air defenses to complete a variety of missions. Third-person and cockpit views allow the player to better target their adversaries whom can be shot down with only a few well-placed shots. Of course, that goes both ways, so players will need to be wary of enemy fire to avoid going down in a spectacular explosion.
I can’t help but feel that Vector Thrust was made for players who already had a deep knowledge of fighter jets and military jargon. Most of the jets and their weaponry were simply a jumbled collection of letters and numbers that probably made sense to people who followed such things, but not a lowly civilian like me. To me, it came down to an understanding that you have two main weapons to help complete your missions; rapid-fire machine guns and heat-seeking missiles. You’ll be using the missiles more often, as these can be used to more easily take out targets at long range. Your guns, on the other hand, are incredibly inaccurate from a distance, and are meant more for close-range dogfights. Other tools, such as chaff to disrupt the targeting of incoming missiles, can also be utilized, but, unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough buttons on a standard gamepad to map all these different features. I found that, even if I was using the gamepad to control the jets’ movements – up and down, rolling and pitching left and right – I still needed to use the keyboard for all my various tools. It isn’t the most intuitive setup out there, but at least it’s doable after messing around with it for a while.
At this early stage, Vector Thrust’s Campaign Mode doesn’t feel much like a story. There’s a brief mention of the player being a pilot in a mercenary group, but this is incredibly glossed over. As it stands, I see very little difference between the Campaign, Skirmish and Battle Scenario Modes. All task players with shooting down enemy pilots, destroying key land targets or chasing down cargo transports before escaping the mission area. The only difference between the modes appears to be the rewards. Whether it’s money to buy upgrades or more vehicles in the campaign, secret fighters unlocked in the various scenarios or simply feeling like a superior pilot in the skirmishes, there’s something to gain from all of them. I just wish there was a bit more variety in how the different vehicles handled. After playing around with a handful of them, I didn’t notice much of a difference in their performance, aside from slight differences in their weapons which, as I’ve already mention, still just boil down to missiles and machine guns.
Probably Vector Thrust’s biggest claim to fame, though, is the fact that TimeSymmetry gives players the ability to mod just about anything in the game. From what I’ve seen in pictures and videos, everything from the size and shape of the fighters to their combat abilities to the makeup of the battlefield and mission types is all in the hands of the player. Of course, this all runs under the assumption that you are able to decipher the features of this mode. For me, there’s no need to mince words; I simply wasn’t able to do that. Much like other games I’ve looked at in the past, this is not one of my strong suits. I played around for a while, but after being unable to even place a simple object on the map, I resigned myself to the fact that this simply was not for me. Of course, if you’re the type of person who likes really getting into the nitty-gritty of map and mission creating, don’t let my own limitations deter you.
Vector Thrust also features a multiplayer mode… or, at least, it will at some point. At the time of this writing, the option is still grayed out, so I was not able to explore the potential madness of playing with other people. It could either be a fantastic experience, with players from all over showing off their crazy jets, landscapes and missions, or it could be an exercise in disaster as everyone blows each other away instantly with their overpowered death machines and impossibly difficult maps. It will be some time before we’ll know which path the game takes.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m fairly certain this is the first ever cel-shaded flight combat sim. It’s an interesting decision to make in a genre that usually prides itself on its realistic graphics. But, then again, with the ability to make some truly monstrous vehicles, it doesn’t appear as though realism was Vector Thrust’s biggest concern. Joking aside, the cel-shading really seems to work in the game’s favor. With the stark contrast of lines for which this art style is known, it’s much easier to make out the shapes of enemy fighters against both the sky and the ground which, then, makes it much easier to target them.
There isn’t much to distract you from your targets, however. Most of the game’s maps, while enormous, are also quite flat and bland. There are different flavors of environments, like temperate foothills or arid deserts, but it still basically comes down to a collection of bumpy landscapes that really only serve to help keep track of which way is up and down. I guess I can’t complain too much, though. The game runs beautifully on the highest settings, with some simple, but satisfying gun, missile, afterburner and explosion effects. I found the music to be of particular note. It had that distinct epic military tone that really got me in the mood to blow some enemy aces out of the sky. There isn’t a huge collection of tracks, but the few that are there were wonderfully orchestrated, and got the job done just fine.
As I already said, Vector Thrust is pretty bare bones at the moment. It has some fine mechanics behind it with a nice variety of jets to fly and a collection of different missions in which to test them. Even in the face of all this, though, I’d still say the game is only OK at this point. The missions that players can fly are fine enough, but there just isn’t enough variety in them, and I got bored with most of them pretty quickly. I think once that online mode is implemented we may see and improvement in the game’s replayability, but, until then, it’s a good way to kill an afternoon, but not much else.
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