Got bogeys on your six? Quick! Shake them, and read this preview!
E3 2006 marked the year of the flight combat game for the Nintendo DS, with rivals DS Air and Natsume's Freedom Wings going at it one-on-one dogfight style. Both games venture into new territory for the DS console, filling an obvious void that most handheld consoles rarely get to fill during their lifespan. I was able to spend considerably more time with Freedom Wings in Natsume's small, yet roomy booth space, which was a far cry from Nintendo's sardines-squeezed-into-a-can setup that seems to be getting worse with every passing year.
I consider myself to be fairly up to speed on the whole concept of air-to-air combat, seeing as that I'm a pretty big fan of Namco's Ace Combat series. Thus, I suppose I was going into my experience with Natsume's creation expecting it to be a seamless affair. Five minutes into playing the game, I enlisted the assistance of the Natsume agent walking me through my play test of their various titles. My troubles stemmed from the game's auto-pilot mode, which initially left me wondering exactly how the controls worked. After successfully switching to manual mode, things went a lot smoother. The main gameplay is witnessed on the console's top screen, with a map, and some additional touch screen control elements mapped to the lower screen. This setup proved to be very intuitive, as it didn't take long for me to fully adjust, and start taking down bogeys that had the audacity to lock on my six. The D-pad adjusts your plane's main controls, the B-button fires your main weapon, while the shoulder buttons adjust your plane's rudders accordingly. The bottom screen features a touch screen throttle control, and a map which allows you to direct your plane towards the enemies on your radar.
Control, while intuitive, suffers from the same sensitivity issues that plagued DS Air. Over-steer was a definite annoyance, making it difficult to remain locked on your enemy's tail, even with minimal shake and bake from the opposition. Thankfully, it's still early in the game, and I'm sure that both titles will address this with added sensitivity control options. The aforementioned auto-pilot mode, while initially aggravating to an experienced gamer, will surely prove to be a life saver for those inexperienced or new to the genre as a whole. This mode gives players minimal control over their planes and provides the opportunity to concentrate on your marksmanship.
Depth is something that you probably wouldn't expect from a game like Freedom Wings, but I was pleasantly surprised with some of the RPG-esque elements featured in the game. Before heading to the airport to take to the skies, you can head to the cafe to take in gossip, or shop at the store for parts to upgrade your flying contraption. Taking out opposition while flying, awards you with experience and gold to purchase various upgrades from the store. Upgrading your plane is a must considering the power, or lack thereof, of your initial flying machine's weaponry.
Freedom Wings, is certainly not going to win any awards for graphical prowness, and there is plenty of work to be done on improving the game's visual engine. Like Nintendo's foray into the genre, the actual plane models look decent enough, but the landscapes and the environments leave something seriously to be desired. Hopefully Natsume can clean up some of the pixilated mess, and I'm confident they can do so with additional development time. Freedom Wings flies into stores this July, and like always you can expect a full review from us around that time.