If you've ever seriously considered the prospect of purchasing a roll of canvas, some twigs, a length of steel wire and a small petrol engine for the purposes of becoming airborne, then you're not alone.
A little over a hundred years ago, bicycle shop owners Orville and Wilbur Wright did essentially just that, and the world hasn't been the same since.
Nothing quite captures the rapid pace of technological achievement like the aviation industry. It's actually possible for the first person to have achieved controlled heavier-than-air powered flight (Orville Wright) to have been in the same room at the same time with the first person to fly faster than sound (Chuck Yeager) and the first person to walk on the moon (Neil Armstrong), as their lives all overlap. Now that's progress.
Admittedly, we owe a debt of gratitude to the millions who perished in the wars of the 20th century for our technological jump, as without their sacrifice we'd probably still consider boarding a ship to Australia as the height of transport technology. So if you want to go right back to the start of this meteoric tale of advancement, you'll need to start with World War One.
Often overlooked by game developers in the mistaken belief that The Great War was all trenches and dysentery, there have only been a few titles of note that have dealt adequately with the subject matter over the years. Red Baron, Wings, and arguably even the entirely arcade Sopwith were fantastic titles in their own right, however it seems lately that developers have all but forgotten about the pioneering feats of some of the bravest individuals ever to partake in armed combat.
Rise of Flight aims to change all that. It's a no-holds-barred war simulator. There are no respawns. No achievements to unlock. No bold proclamations promising "1080p, Online Leaderboards and Voice Chat!" - instead, this title speaks softly, and carries a big stick.
Unfortunately, when it does speak, it's usually in pretty poor English, as developers Neoqb appear to be based in a part of Russia where nobody speaks English as a first language. The tutorials are strewn with awkward voice acting and grammatical gaffes that would make Bruno blush, and sadly this carries over to menu descriptions as well. It would have actually been preferable to have the voice actors in the tutorials affect a German accent, at least that way I could have closed my eyes and pretended I was listening to a Hogans Heroes rerun.
The game interface, too, is wrought with problems. The menu structure is tree-based and not overly intuitive, and there's no way to change key bindings or graphical settings once the game loads. For a flight simulator, this is a major annoyance, as it's singularly impossible to remember every single key, and when you forget one, you'll have to exit the game entirely to be reminded of it. Top tip to potential purchaser - print out the key bindings the second you install the game.
But wait, there's more - load times are crippling. My SATA-II Seagate 7200.10 drive took just under a minute to load a single campaign level, and while that might not sound too bad, just try sitting there for a minute staring at the screen before reading any further. If you're using an older SATA or (gulp) IDE drive, the load times will probably be a game breaker for you, so if you've been planning on upgrading to that Solid State Drive, Rise of Flight will shove you out of the proverbial nest.
Looking past these concerns and on to the greater game itself, Rise of Flight essentially consists of a single-flight/skirmish mode, a career mode, and multiplayer. If you just want to take to the sky as quickly as possible, the single option is the best, and here you'll have you choice of up to five planes, the Fokker D.VII, Albatros D.Va, the Nieuport 17.C1 and 28.C1 variants, and the SPAD XIII. These are all flyable out of the box, with the exception of the Nieuport 17 which has to be bought as an add-on from the developer for US$7.62. The subtle reference inherent in that dollar value will not be lost on rifle enthusiasts.
Fortunately the AI in the game can fly any plane they like, and once you learn to control your wobbling pile of miscellaneous fabric and wood you'll be wanting to meet as many of them as you can. Most missions begin in the air, which is a good thing as taking off is fraught with almost as much peril as swooping low over an enemy trench. The torque from the engine at startup is marvellously replicated as you pitch wildly back and forth on the grass runway, all the while willing your contraption to edge ever slightly higher - or at least high enough to clear the trees looming on the horizon.
Once in the air, it's difficult to actually grasp how accurately modelled the world is. If you can cast your eyes past the meticulously detailed cockpit consisting of accurate dials, gauges and controls that replicate your own input perfectly, you'll find 125,000 square kilometres of stunning French landscape populated by small towns, flowing rivers, supply lines and mile after mile of pockmarked trenches and burned trees. If you afford yourself the luxury of throttling back and entering a steep dive, you'll hear the sound of wind in the rigging as each wire and notched join strain under the pressure of your primitive attempt to harness physics for your own private pleasure. By winding the power back up, you can balance the climb rate on a knife edge between ascension and a stall whilst listening to the laboured strains of an engine reverberating around the cockpit as it hauls you ever closer to the cloud line.
It's not a war without combat, and here again Rise of Flight excels in the realism department. You can actually set your machine gun convergence point prior to starting a campaign, and unless you enable one of the many flying aids (re. cheats) your machine guns will be prone to jamming. Taking on another plane is as straightforward as it sounds, and generally involves getting behind them and raking them with gunfire. The collision physics and damage model inherent in this game is nothing short of impressive, as pieces fly off your rivals airframe in exactly the manner you'd expect. Including wings, if you're lucky. Even attempting to land without all due care and attention will result in a sickening crack as your airframe splits and you find yourself nose-deep in a field.
You can strafe the ground too, and take on barrage balloons in various missions designed to replicate the latter stages of the war, and allow you to progress all the way through to the rank of Colonel, or so we've been told. Personally, I'm yet to make it back from a mission in one piece, because as I've mentioned, this is a proper flight simulator and generally speaking I'm rubbish at them. In my defence however, it doesn't help that the game likes to add detailed weather effects such as rain, sun glare and fog into the mix, along with clouds that you can actually use for cover. Oh, and throw realistic curve-balls such as variable engine revs during level flight, and the occasional requirement to tamper with the fuel mixture after the engine randomly cuts out just before you're ready to take off.
Those looking for their next multiplayer fix might be disappointed at this stage, as there weren't many online at the time of this review. This may change in the future as the game is still new, and there is still additional content planned. Another thing to consider is that unless you're equipped with something along the lines of an Nvidia 8800GT 512MB video card with a Core 2 Duo processor around the 3.0Ghz mark, you might find yourself playing it on the lowest settings, and that would be a shame because you'll be missing out on one of the most graphically pleasing titles you're likely to see this year.
There's plenty of YouTube videos available if you're toying with the idea of taking to the skies in a new simulator, and I've included one below that captures the spirit of the game quite well. A word of warning however - the flying you see can only really be replicated using a decent joystick - attempting to fly using the keys is an exercise in futility unless you basically disable all the realism and set everything to auto. Other than that, Rise of Flight has an incredible flying model that is let down only by a lack of polish, and I sincerely hope the developers issue a few patches to correct the issues highlighted in this review.
If they do, then Rise of Flight could well be the definitive Great War flight sim for a decade to come.
Our thanks to Neoqb for their prompt assistance in providing us with a review account for Rise of Flight.