Korean-model massively-multiplayer games have yet to trouble the highest ranks of our scoring scheme. Nevertheless, their attempts to make genres other than the straight roleplaying game work in the MMO mold is deeply admirable. This is one of the best. Air Rivals takes the character class leveling we’re perhaps a little over-familiar with, and then applies it to a third-person shooter, similar to console hit Starfox. Oh – and then throws in an enormous dogfighting player-versus-player element. Ultrowar!
The main obstacle that prevents it being recommended any more strongly is the endless grind. The vast majority – as in, 95% – of the available missions are just about killing a certain number of a certain enemy. These enemies fly and flap around the map. You shoot down each one. You kill enough, you go up a level. And so on, and on. Hell, you’re going to be in the mid-20s before you go up against an enemy which aggros without you opening fire first. The only reason for doing all this grinding is to improve your statistics and gain better equipment so that you can get properly involved in the player-versus-player side of the game.
While you’ll get arena games and duels, the central focus is on the constant war being waged between the game’s two factions. As well as casual raids into each other’s territories there are strategic point and mothership battles. The latter involve one of these enormous things spawning and an all-out war to defend or destroy it. The server goes wild and everyone piles into the frontlines, missiles and thrusters burning lines in the sky. And you will die a lot. Since you’re piloting and dogfighting, player skill is important, but it isn’t quite as crucial as some of Air Rivals’ advocates make out.
Sure, abstractly, a low level character can take down a high level one – as opposed to most MMOs, when a starting character isn’t even able to hit that bastard in the fancy armour. But in practice, the fact they can go quicker, turn faster, take much more damage and hit several times as hard means that being jumped by an experienced player is as instant a death as in any PvP-centric MMO. If they were idling, you may have a chance. If you had friends along too, maybe.
So: an uneven playing field plus a Korean-model grind. These aren’t exactly things which engender affection in us. But, in fact, we’ve been enjoying Air Rivals. Firstly, there’s nothing quite like it; an action-based MMO with enormous dogfights. Secondly, while the grind is long, once you hit level 22 – which is about a couple of days of determined play – you can go anywhere on the map and get involved with the big stuff. While most Korean-model MMOs demand much more effort to reach The Good Stuff, it’s almost accessible here. As noted, you will die a lot in the PvP, but just by being there, you’re helping out in a basic weight-of-numbers way. Even at the very worst, you’re an extra target for the enemy to worry about. Flying in groups of dozens, heading off into battle is exactly the sort of social moment competitive MMOs are all about.
Air Rivals nails it completely. It’s telling that even though you can go into safe zones to grind in peace, we’ve been playing constantly in the battle-ready instances, always ready to have a crack at the enemy before inevitably being shot down. But then respawning – in the zone where you were killed, mainly – is swift, with no significant punishment. Perhaps most importantly, while you’re grinding, the basic mechanics of flying, targeting and destroying are simply more interesting than most MMOs. It’s not a case of running up, clicking on the bad guy and then pressing 1, 2 and 3 in sequence on your keyboard. It’s flicking your ship around, chasing troublesome beasts into canyons and playing a fairly simple but compulsive arcade game.
And, of course, it’s free. Yes, there are optional payment systems, but you can play Air Rivals happily without ever giving up a penny. If you want to, you can swap real money for credits, and credits can buy a variety of benefits in-game, varying from functional (in-game services are cheaper, XP bonuses when grinding, changing your stat-setups) to decorative (markings on ships and fancier weapons). Since PlanetSide’s relative commercial failure, developers have been reticent about applying a more action-styled approach to MMOs. Air Rivals, in its own deeply flawed way, returns to that terrain and soars over it. It’s rough – bar the conceptual issues above, it doesn’t even let you redefine your keys. But it still makes you hope other developers will follow. Until then, if you’ve a bit too much time to kill and an obsessive-compulsive part of your mind you like to feed, Air Rivals is the only game in town.
Jul 16, 2008