Project Wingman shows you don’t need a triple-A company to make a blockbuster.
Namco Bandai’s Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown just released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and is set to land on PC February 1st. If you’re looking for an indie alternative, however, Project Wingman is by far the most impressive indie game the Ace Combat series has inspired. The product of three developers, the screenshots and playable demos we’ve seen so far demonstrate how Australian company RB-D2 know exactly what makes Namco’s franchise tick, but also how they can set themselves apart in key ways.
The three “Scenario” missions in the demo act as a comprehensive overview of the Ace Combat-esque basics, balancing air and ground targets nicely while also including some fantastical airships as special enemies. The demo comes with three selectable planes, one suited for each mission. It’s clear here that RB-D2 has all the fundamentals down; the controls, the radar system, the special anti-air and anti-ground weapons mean you can bring the skills you honed in Ace Combat straight into this new experience.
It even has a missile warning visual effect similar to that introduced by Namco in the latest Ace Combat instalment. Dedicated Ace Combat fans might notice some minor balance decisions on RB-D2’s part, equipping planes with two special weapons instead of one, for example, or the added cooldowns to missiles.
RB-D2 have also impressed with just how close to the highly-polished graphics of Ace Combat they reach. Considering the team’s fractional size and budget in comparison to that of Namco, Project Wingman’s graphics can certainly hold their own against the triple-A powerhouse, even including that cool water droplet effect of flying through clouds.
Maybe the most surprising things Project Wingman has right so far are the story and thematic elements. The demo missions already showcase multiple voice actors, and RB-D2 hints at a substantial storyline in which countries are engaged in a vicious war over geothermal energy. Composer Jose Pavli’s music even evokes the memory of its influences Metal Gear and Nier Automata without feeling like an uncanny remix. Instead, the audio provides an empowering rumble of building tension and badassery – a combination perfectly suited to Wingman’s tactical yet sensational gameplay while remaining relevant to the global crisis in which it takes place.
The demo also includes a prototype for what is arguably Project Wingman’s biggest unique feature: its “Conquest” mode. An indie roguelike spin on the classic Ace Combat formula, Conquest sees you complete various missions on an expanding world map, acquiring cash to upgrade and maintain your gear and hire extra mercenaries to fight alongside you.
Project Wingman was specifically designed for PC. While Ace Combat Skies Unknown has ported well to PC, Wingman has gone the extra mile, particularly in regards to the controls. The control customisation goes further than I’ve seen any Ace Combat go, with a full calibration suite for controllers, mouse and keyboard, and flight sticks. The menu interface feels designed around a mouse, and although RB-D2 suggests playing with a controller, the mouse and keyboard controls feel surprisingly natural.
One major issue, however, could be that RB-D2 doesn’t currently plan to include a multiplayer mode in Project Wingman. Their focus is wholly on their single-player offerings, stating that multiplayer options aren’t in the scope of the project. Streamlining their single-player experience also means the company hasn’t yet confirmed whether modding or a mission editor is on the horizon, though RB-D2 have expressed an interest in these avenues.
That said, a single-player focus has served Project Wingman well, with a recent trailer unveiling their VR offerings in full. While Ace Combat Skies Unknown carries VR support, it’s only for PlayStation. A comprehensive fighter pilot VR on a PC game could be a central selling point for Wingman.
It’s this VR aspect that has truly captured the hearts of virtual fighter pilots everywhere. Full VR support throughout the entire game and compatibility with HOTAS peripheral joysticks will prove an intensely engaging experience. While we haven’t had the chance to witness it for ourselves yet, the latest reveal trailer from RB-D2 shows a promising level of quality.
Although extremely similar to a big-budget title barely grazing the shelves this month, Project Wingman has the potential to soar to success. So far, RB-D2 have proven that quality titles don’t need to come from triple-A powerhouses, accomplishing much of what makes Ace Combat shine with a fraction of the muscle behind it. Indie homages to living franchises have carved out niches before. There’s XCOM, but there’s also games like Phoenix Point. There are new Fallout and Wasteland games, but there is also Underrail. Project Wingman could be that for Ace Combat.