Thrown into the air, hung up like a metal- tipped paper dart that’s now falling, falling through a sea of flak towards the unforgiving ocean. Then with improbable grace the ship rights itself to boost onwards in the direction of your choosing. This is the military-map brown world of Luftrausers, the latest fruit borne from Dennaton Games, those inscrutable purveyors of instant playability.
It’s actually something of a shock to the modern gamer upon starting up Luftrausers. What’s this? No seven minute intro movie? Just straight to an aircraft-carrying sub with the option to launch right into a 2D dull brown sky that’s presumably been designed by someone with a fetish for all things muted and drab?
But to play Luftrausers and complain about the graphics (which are distinctive and charming in their own way) is like going to a Hendrix concert and moaning that the vocals are a bit off. That’s simply not the point. It’s in the gameplay where Luftrausers (yes I’m going to say it) – soars.
Taking control of your plane you destroy enemies both in the air and at sea in a bid to get the highest score possible. The rousing music blurts out as you take out gunboats, battleships, jets and other units. Veteran gamers will have seen this all before of course, from the likes of Gradius and many others. The difference here is that you have full control over which direction you scroll the screen, with each twist and turn bringing up a new obstacle course of enemies and flak to pick your way through. The seemingly randomly generated enemy placements also ensure no two sessions are the same.
As well as chasing a high score you also get mission specific goals for certain ship-parts you equip. It could be anything from destroying a certain number of battleships to going an amount of time without taking damage. All add welcome variety to the gameplay without being over-intrusive into the core fun.
The interesting thing about this is that if you are going after an achievement with one ship part you will need to think about which other parts to equip. New parts affect everything from armour, to ship speed, to weapon output (a great classic range is available). The parts you choose also affect the outline and name of your ship, the ‘Laser Knight’ being a favourite of mine.
You can even design a ship that causes most damage on impact with other craft/ships, changing the style of play and shifting the emphasis to kamikaze-like hit-and-run tactics. It’s this sort of subtle game changing addition that marks out the care with which the game has been made.
Even with the sometimes largish numbers of enemies on screen you never loose track of where you are. This is down to the simple visual style and clear, distinctive ship designs. A triumph of gamer-friendly planning. If you fail it will be your fault, not the game’s.
There are dozens of grace notes that add up to a heck of an experience. Like the fact that you only regenerate health when you stop shooting, turning the hunter into the hunted. Or the way that the colour palette closes in on you as your health drops, and expands out again as you avoid damage for a time. Or the screen shaking, enemy eradicating, skull flashing nuke!
Later on there are several bonus unlockables (ship parts, groovy colour palettes) to get players to keep coming back. But frankly, these are not needed as Luftrausers lands pretty near the Holy Grail of replayability.
The only slight gripes are that, although the game does pull you into a ‘flow’ gaming state where it’s hard to gauge how much time is passing, it never really sucks you in quite as hypnotically as the studios previous masterpiece, Hotline Miami. And Luftrausers, whist being a another novel twist on staple genre of old, doesn’t quite have as many flashes of originality.
But these are minor, minor gripes. If you want to soar into the skies and get people telling tales of your courage, Luftrausers delivers a pure gaming experience that won’t disappoint.
Version reviewed: PlayStation 3
Luftrausers is out now on PlayStation 3, PS Vita and PC.