The Infinite Zenith

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Among Trees: Reflections on Introspective Survival and Thoughts About Returning Home at Journey’s End

“Going away won’t change anything if you’re running from yourself.” –Joyce Rachelle

An adventurer begins a new life in a pristine forest somewhere over the horizon. After bringing a derelict cabin back to running order, the adventurer explores the surroundings and locates the materials to craft an axe. As the days pass, the adventurer begins learning the different plants and mushrooms in the forest, identifies several landmarks and gathers the materials for expanding the cabin. Over time, the cabin becomes outfitted with a crafting room, kitchen, storage room, sewing room and even a brewing room, allowing the adventurer to cook delicious meals and build the materials needed to further explore the forest. Meanwhile, the adventurer has learnt to fish and successfully evades bears that patrol certain parts of the forest. As the days turn to weeks, the adventurer begins travelling further into the forest, befriends a fox and encounters rare materials required for crafting a new coat and backpack. Eventually, there is no corner of the forest that has remain untravelled, and the adventurer is now thriving, having mastered the art of fishing and cooking wild edibles into delicious meals. The fox becomes an old friend, faithfully accompanying the adventurer on their adventures into the furthest reaches in the forest. With a fulfilling adventure under their belt, the adventurer crafts a hiking pack for returning back to civilisation and home, where others are awaiting them. This is Among Trees, a highly relaxing and cathartic survival simulator developed and published by FJRD Interactive. Released in November 2021, Among Trees is a vibrant and colourful experience that represents a departure from conventional survival games in that, beyond the existence of a pair of bears on the map, and the risk of potentially freezing to death if one were out too late exploring the forest, there are no tangible threats to the players. While the game is polarising owing to its lack of content, it represents a wonderful portrayal of the universal fantasy of packing it up and escaping one’s obligations – in a temperate forest by the summer, there’s no distractions from the hustle associated with living among people. One spends their days gathering wild edibles and materials to better their existence, and one is enveloped in infinite solitude. However, there is a gap in starting out on this new journey: in the very beginning, it is immensely difficult to know what one’s next move should be, and without any a priori knowledge, making it on one’s own in a completely new environment can feel intimidating, even overwhelming. However, the feeling of discomfort begins lessening after one puts their home together, and has a place to consistently return to. In the beginning, Among Trees gives very little indicator as to what exactly players must do to survive, and leaves said player to work out what their biggest priority should be.

Among Trees conveys the feelings associated with starting out extremely well – in the beginning, things can seem quite difficult because people are hardwired to operate within routine, and worry about the outcomes of one’s actions, as well as the route it takes to reach said outcome, can make a journey feel insurmountable. Once one takes the plunge and overcomes the initial hurdle of starting, things become significantly easier. Armed with my own knowledge of Survivorman, I approached Among Trees as Les Stroud might: having the right items in my kit would doubtlessly have been helpful, and so, I set my sights on putting an axe and lockpick together with the materials scattered around points of interests. Now that I had access to enough resources to begin crafting, my ability to survive opened up considerably. In this case, the combination of having some idea of what to do, coupled with the knowledge that things do get easier after one can get past the beginning, allowed me to make headway into Among Trees. In this way, Among Trees acts as a very visceral representation of why things always seem to become more straightforward the longer one is in the game – as one becomes more experienced with how things work, one can make increasingly better decisions to improve survival. There are obvious analogues in reality, grounded in the fact that with experience, one is able to see patterns and optimise their solutions for things. For instance, six years ago, I struggled to understand how information from one view controller could be sent to another in an iOS app. In the present day, I would immediately suggest using delegates. In Among Trees, once players survive the toughest first few days of the game and gain access to the three most essential tools (the axe, lockpick and map), the game really opens up. A water canteen allows one to wander the drier parts of the map without worrying about dehydration, and a tent lets one overnight outside. The storage attic lets one hang onto a much larger amount of materials for crafting, and the kitchen allows one to turn even poisonous or low-nutrition foods into a delicious meal. Fishing becomes a reliable and enjoyable way of acquiring protein, which sates hunger effectively and even heals the player to some extent. As players become more familiar with the resources available to them and how far they can travel, a new routine forms. Gradually, the mystery of living in a tranquil forest is replaced by effective survival – food is no longer a concern, there’s always a supply of fresh water, and knowledge of where resources are allows one to craft the game’s more effective gear, extending travel range and eventually allowing players to fully explore the world and discover every bit of flora available to them. Having now survived, and thrived in such a location, there hardly seems any new experiences to be had, and so, Among Trees offers players one final note: it’s time to head back to civilisation, where one’s loved ones and responsibilities await.

In its portrayal of an ending, Among Trees provides a very meaningful and unexpected message to players; no matter the sort of adventure one goes on, one will eventually need to return home, back to their loved ones, and back to their responsibilities and obligations. As enjoyable as living in an idyllic forest is, and how calming it is to foraging for wild edibles and enjoying a campfire under a setting sun in the great outdoors might be, one cannot escape society and other people forever. There comes a point where every journey, no matter how grand, must draw to a close, and a major part of making this palatable is knowing that there is a home for one to return to when they leave. In Among Trees, there’s a sort of finality after the hiking kit appears; one knows they’ve know become sufficiently versed in the game such that they can easily craft all of the resources needed to prepare for a trip back home, and that their time in the forest is finite. Folks who take this route will end the game and learn that while a break from routine is pleasant, if such excursions were to be for the long-term, then a new routine would inevitably form. This speaks cleverly to the idea that the novel soon becomes the familiar if experienced with sufficient frequency, and the charm wears off. In Among Trees, for instance, it is initially a thrill to catch one’s first-ever Perch, but as one becomes comfortable with fishing, one will soon acquire a stockpile of trout. Exciting first experiences, like camping outdoors for the first time, or creating the first Wormwood brew, similarly become routine with enough time. Going home is a part of the journey, as well, and this is what makes things like travel and vacations worthwhile. Given this message, it stands to reason that Among Trees also vindicates one of my own thoughts – some of the folks I know who’ve become expatriates haven’t done so out of a genuine desire to broaden their horizons and find the sort of fulfilment that their home nation could not provide. Instead, they became expatriates to escape something that had hurt them, hoping that being in a new country would help them to rediscover themselves and dull the pain of past failures. However, in the long term, this isn’t viable because the weight of one’s problems will always follow one around. In short, it is impossible to run away from oneself because no matter where one goes, their self will always be present. Becoming an expatriate might be helpful in the short term, allowing one to gain perspective, but there comes a point where one must return home and deal with what was troubling them. In Among Trees, the game gives players a chance to take this route: whether it was to try something novel for two months or escape a problem, spending time among trees helps the player to understand that, as relaxing such an existence might be, the same kind of fortitude and courage to have started such an adventure is also what one needs to face their problems. This is an encouraging thought, and Among Trees suggests a route of moderation: when faced with adversity in life, taking some time off to regroup and reassess things is helpful, and it is among nature one can accelerate this process.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • When players start Among Trees for the first time, they’ll be met with a derelict cabin. Scattered around the cabin are a large number of sticks and fir planks. Once gathered, they can be used towards bringing the cabin into a livable state. The cabin acts as the player’s home base: the game can only be saved here, and for the first while, is the only place one can sleep.

  • Among Trees offers players with no instructions beyond restoring the cabin, and so, one is left with the freedom of choosing what their first priority is. I ended up playing Among Trees using the knowledge I picked up by watching Survivorman, so with shelter taken care of, I decided that the next order of business was to deal with water and food. There’s a stream just north of the cabin that provides unlimited, fresh and clean drinking water. Conversely, food must be gathered. It is scattered throughout the world, and range from mushrooms to berries and root vegetables.

  • The button mushroom was the first bit of food I found, and while the game indicates that cooking the mushrooms will make them more nutritious, eating them raw will refill one’s hunger meter on short order. Among Trees doesn’t have the best resource management system in that hunger meter depletes significantly faster than it should: players must eat with the same frequency that they drink water, whereas in reality, one could go for upwards of three weeks without food, but dehydration sets in within three days. I would’ve preferred to have seen the hunger meter drop at about half the rate of the thirst meter.

  • The health meter needs no explanation: if it drops to zero, the player dies. The sleep meter will deplete consistently and reach zero after every day, so in the beginning, it isn’t possible to stay up long periods into the night. Similarly, after night falls, the temperatures begin dropping, and the coat one is equipped with is unable to handle the cold effectively. This forces players back to the cabin, and early in Among Trees, it does feel as though one is tethered to their cabin, foraging for mushrooms and berries by day, as well as topping off on water.

  • Survival in Among Trees during those first few days is tricky for this reason – one lacks the ability to explore, and it feels like the act of keeping one’s hunger, thirst, warmth and sleep attended to can consume all of one’s efforts. As such, the initial priority in Among Trees is to get familiar with the area around the cabin first and get a feel for how long it takes to get somewhere and back. Once this is done, the next step is to get the crafting wing going. The rationale for this is inspired by Survivorman: the cabin has a kitchen as well, but the raw mushrooms and berries do a satisfactory job of keeping hunger at bay, and can be found in reasonable abundance.

  • Since Les Stroud always mentions the importance of a good kit, especially of having a good, sharp hatchet or axe as a tool for crafting survival items, I reasoned that being able to craft items would be helpful. To this end, I ended up travelling to nearby points of interest, marked by the presence of large, collapsed warden’s towers. At these locations, wooden crates, locked boxes and piles of raw materials lay strewn about. Things like steel wire, nails, bolts, rags and rope are survival essentials, but in order to get to these materials, one must have an axe or lockpick.

  • It therefore makes sense that the first item one should craft is the axe, and if there are enough materials on hand, the lockpick should immediately follow. Having access to these tools allows one to collect all of the raw materials to craft other items, and the axe also provides one powerful new capability – one can now chop down trees for wood. Larger trees yield three fir planks and three sticks, while smaller trees yield two sticks each. It takes a single stroke to fell a small tree, and large trees will take eight strokes to cut down. Wooden planks and sticks stop being a problem now, allowing one to quickly gather the materials needed to build other wings of their cabin.

  • Once the axe and lockpick are crafted, the next step is to begin visiting the other points of interest. Blueprints begin appearing, and these provide access to various items, including a tent, campfire, watering can, map, canteen and compass. Some of these items are more useful than others at the onset: the map is the biggest asset, allowing one to keep track of where they are in the world at all times. Initially, the map is covered in a fog of war, but as one explores, landmarks and locations become identified.

  • Having access to the map makes it easier to locate areas with specific resources: larch resin and limestone is only found in certain places. However, the map also has one additional advantage in making it easier to keep track of all of the spots one has visited, including especially scenic areas. Among Trees is a visually impressive game, and every part of the forest is gorgeous to behold. Here, I pass through a field of tall grass en route to my next destination.

  • The trickiest of the blueprints to acquire is probably the tent, which allows one to overnight outdoors for up to three evenings. It is found near a bear – there are no other threats in Among Trees, but bears are hostile by default and can kill players in two swipes of a paw. One can evade bears by crouching in the tall grass and sneaking around: when crouched in grass, players become nearly invisible to bears and can access valuable resources without being spotted. I took the same approach, but at the same time, crafted a first-aid kit in the event stealth failed. In this way, I managed to find all but one of the blueprints in the game.

  • Ten days into Among Trees, I’d become more familiar with survival, and I was surprised to find a fox in front of my cabin. Upon petting him, the fox became a pet of sorts. The fox only takes bleak fillets as food, so at this point, it became important that I master the art of fishing as quickly as I could. In exchange for fish, the fox will faithfully accompany players to the furthest reaches of the map and can even hunt down elusive loot for players. Of course, the biggest advantage about having the fox around is having company: my favourite act is to pet the fox.

  • As I began expanding out the cabin, Among Trees pushed me to explore more of the map, and in this way, I came upon some of the most scenic places in the whole of the game, including the larch grove. There’s a certain tranquility about Among Trees I’ve not found anywhere else, and how I came upon Among Trees is actually quite a touching story – I’d added the game to my Steam wishlist some time ago, and one of my friends, whom I’ve long lost contact with, suddenly appeared and gifted me the game as thanks for having been there with them through some tough times during our university days.

  • Said friend disappeared as quickly as they appeared – they dropped off social media and didn’t reply to my thanks for having gifted me a free title. Curiously enough, I was wondering how they were doing after getting back into Jetpack Joyride; after the move, I hadn’t set up my desktop and spent that evening play Jetpack Joyride, which I first learnt of after watching said friend playing it while we were waiting for Otafest Aurora to start many years ago. Jetpack Joyride still reminds me of the university’s downtown campus, and playing the game was a trip down memory lane. Here, I arrive at the larch groves; the trees are positively radiant, with a warm, golden glow.

  • Les Stroud has commented time and time again on the importance of having a good fishing tackle, so as soon as I was able, I crafted myself a fishing rod. While fishing initially was difficult, once I figured out that I could use mouse movements to control for tension, I was successful on all of my fishing trips. I now had no shortage of protein energy for myself, and I was assured of a food supply for my fox. Eating fish raw in Among Trees has no deleterious effects (the game abstracts out parasites and other pathogens), although cooking the fish greatly bolsters its nutritional value.

  • As I became familiar with the game, and survival became more routine, I was able to really appreciate the graphics of Among Trees. The game looks its best during the sunset hours, and despite its simple visuals, Among Trees actually has steep hardware requirements – an i7-4770 CPU and GTX 970 is recommended. My GTX 1060 and old i5 3570k would’ve handled this game without, but on my current build, things have been very smooth with respect to framerates and visuals.

  • Among Trees became the first Steam game I’ve had where I was able to unlock every achievement after a single play-through – most of the achievements are pretty straightforward and come with exploration, while others require playing a certain way. Most tricky of all are the achievements to complete every bit of exploration the game offers, and surviving fifty days – it is easy enough to find all of the landmarks and build every cabin wing, but some plants can be quite elusive to find. I spent several sessions looking for the Black Void Mushroom. Similarly, surviving for fifty days is a challenge for players because after one learns to fish, survival becomes significantly easier, and most do not feel any inclination to continue playing.

  • I ended up focusing my attention on sewing a new coat and backpack to pass the time. The base backpack only has 12 inventory slots, and this fills up very quickly, especially if one’s carrying many equipment items with them. Similarly, the base coat offers no protection against the element and is only moderately comfortable. A better coat actually increases stamina and running speed on top of improving cold resistance. Once I had a better coat, I could run to locations for longer periods, and this increased my range to the point where I was now reaching places that previously would’ve demanded an overnight stay.

  • Because Among Trees‘ premise is such that players are treated to a purely cathartic game, and the only real challenge is the pair of bears that roam small areas of the map, some folks consider Among Trees to be a bit of a disappointment – traditional survival games are much more intense in that there’s a much wider range of threats that can prematurely end the game, and this creates an incredible amount of tension, driving the stakes up. The difference in aesthetic notwithstanding, most players are more concerned by FJRD Interactive’s original promise of adding more content to the game, only to rescind this promise when a new project came up.

  • While Among Trees might not have the best reception, I’ve not found any indicator as to what precisely people want out of the game – all discussions seems to be focused on how the developers were being unfaithful to the players, et cetera. Upon finishing the game, I found that Among Trees actually does a satisfactory job of creating a relaxed survival experience with the content already available: there’s a satisfactory gameplay loop, and the idea of the game becoming “boring” actually stems from the fact that, once the player has enough to survive comfortably, things do become more routine.

  • However, a creative player will find ways of making the most of their time, and in this way, one isn’t just surviving; they’ll thrive. Here, I throw a tent up as night falls – the tent is limited to three uses, and there’s an achievement that requires players spend three nights in the tent. I originally made use of the tent to explore the furthest corners of the map for chicory, a rare flower that only spawns occasionally. While a large number of guides out there suggest that chicory only spawns at dusk and by night, in specific part of the map, all of the chicory I’ve found were found during the mornings and day. Moreover, I found them in random areas of the map.

  • Attesting to how rare chicory is, I only ever found five during my entire play-through of Among Trees. While it can be cooked and eaten, it has a much more useful purpose: four are needed to craft the game’s largest backpack, which has a total of sixteen slots. There is an intermediate backpack with fourteen slots, and while two slots doesn’t seem like much, being able to hang onto two more types of material can make the difference between being able to bring back the resources one needs to craft something, or being forced to turn back around and leave resources behind.

  • As such, a backpack with four more slots than the base backpack would extend one’s range further. I decided to save my resources for the larger backpack. By this point in the game, I’d also began working on the brewing room. Although it seemed a bonus addition to the cabin, some of the elixirs that can be crafted are downright useful: the wormwood brew acts like a strong coffee and allows one to stay out for longer. This is a lifesaver, allowing me to travel far without needing to bring a tent. On some occasions, I’ve run into elk in the forest, although the elk are harmless and immediately take off upon spotting the player.

  • The feather larch outfit would become my preferred coat – offering some stamina increase, its biggest attributes are greatly increasing one’s resilience to cold, and boosting movement speed. These two properties make it possible to cover great distances quickly, and now, I was able to sprint across the map and reach a spot before the sun had fully risen where previously, it would take me a half-day to reach the same point. Coupled with the elixirs, there suddenly was less of a need to bring a tent with me on resource-gathering runs.

  • Upon completing the best backpack and coat for my play-style, I felt that Among Trees had reached a point where I was now able to not just survive, but thrive. At the cabin, I had a large stockpile of mushrooms, beets, radishes and fish. Thanks to the storage attic, I filled my other bins with wooden planks, bolts, nails, wire and pipes. With all of the essentials crafted, I had resources left over to begin really sprucing up my cabin – the game allows players to create decorative elements around their cabin, and in the beginning, such items feel extraneous.

  • As one begins to build the essentials and get the basics taken care of, they can turn their attention to creativity. Among Trees doesn’t provide these instructions to players by default, but the order in which one should get things done is reasonably easy to figure out. I have seen some guides suggest that the kitchen be built first so one can greatly boost the nutritional value of the food they find, but for me, the best order is the crafting room, followed by the storage attic. The brewing room and greenhouse should be the last elements constructed.

  • The further I got into Among Trees, the more the game’s message became apparent to me – things are always difficult at the beginning, but as one finds their flow and becomes familiar with routine, they become increasingly efficient. Things become easier, and over time, the unfamiliar becomes comfortable. Of course, the problem with this is that all experiences eventually stop being novel. Along this brand of logic, even travelling can become routine and unremarkable. This is what leads me to draw the conclusion that I do: some folks value creating memories and seeing the world, while others would prefer to establish their career and developing financial stability. The choice of choosing one or the other is a hotly-debated subject amongst millennials, and countless articles defending one side over the other have been written on the topic over the years.

  • I believe that early on, one should focus on their career and finances first – life is a game of momentum, and if one doesn’t get in the habit of conducting themselves with discipline, it can be tricky to do so later down the line. If one has a steady career and a game plan for the future, then with a bit of planning, one can still fit in windows with which to see the world with: one doesn’t need to spend a full year in a foreign nation to appreciate another culture. A lot of the proponents of travelling while one’s young suggest that one will have plenty of time later on to catch up, but many professional skills are analogous to lifting weights. Much as one needs to train consistently in order to make appreciable gains, one must constantly hone their craft in order to remain effective in their field.

  • However, in moderation, travel is indeed a form of catharsis, a means of broadening one’s horizons, and a pleasant way of breaking up the routine. When done appropriately, travelling and taking breaks leaves one better prepared to handle things. I note here that this is approach is what works for me: what I do may not work for everyone, and I do not presume to say that any one method is superior to another. I get that people tend to be quite vocal about their positions because their choices, and the path that it led them on, is very much a part of their identity. Ultimately, I maintain that, if one accepts responsibility for the outcome of their decisions, I will not challenge their choices or identity.

  • Back in Among Trees, I’ve finally reached the northeastern edge of the map. Here, a vast lake creates a natural boundary. Some guides call it the ocean, but mountains can be seen on the other side, and moreover, platers can drink out of this lake, indicating that it’s fresh water – drinking salt water is deleterious, with the high salt content accelerating dehydration to a dangerous extent. Conversely, since Among Trees lets players walk up to the water and drink it, it stands to reason this is fresh water. Here, I’ve set up a campfire and cooking kit along with my tent, creating a moment that is quintessential camping.

  • The eagle-eyed reader will have noticed that I’ve written two posts today; this time of year stands as my favourite, consisting of warm days spent enjoying the outdoors and savouring foods that are associated with the summer. This past long weekend, I took advantage of the Monday off to cook a Swiss-and-mushroom melt burger with a side of thick-cut fries (washed down with a tall glass of Ginger Ale and chased by freshly-picked cherries) for lunch. The day had been very hot, bringing back memories of the past two Heritage Day long weekends in previous years. However, since the move, I’ve been rather spoiled by the fact that the new place has air conditioning.

  • This prevents me from forwarding the ports my private server needs to run properly. This means that, in the foreseeable future, I won’t be able to revisit Stormwind by nightfall, or return to the Stonetalon Mountains. Having said this, there are many other experiences I’ve got on my plate. Back in Among Trees, I’ve thrown my tent up beside a pond as night sets in: after checking out the lake, I head back into the forest in search of the remaining plants that have eluded me, including the Death Cap and Black Void mushrooms.

  • To help with navigation, I’ve finally crafted a compass. While a map is superbly useful, having a compass allows me to travel in a direction with greater certainty, and here, I pass through a more heavily wooded area of the forest. It was quite amusing to know that, armed with the axe, food to replenish one’s energy and plenty of patience, one could hypothetically try to chop down the entire forest. However, in between sessions, trees regenerate, and some items respawn. The only exception are the crates and lockboxes at points of interest: if one visits and opens them, but leave the materials in place, they will disappear later on.

  • Towards the end of my time in Among Trees, I returned to the lake one last time while on the hunt for the elusive Black Void mushroom. I ended up finding my target on this run, and in the process, also caught a glimpse of an elk along the shore. With the Black Void mushroom, I’d found all of the plants in the game, explored every landmark and built every extension to my cabin. Among Trees awarded me an achievement for my troubles and alerted me to the fact I could now craft the hiking kit. This was the remaining item I was missing from my crafting library, and as it turns out, this is the last item one can assemble, being meant as an item that brings Among Trees to an end.

  • The Black Void, Death Cap, Dotty and Angel mushrooms are poisonous – consuming them raw runs the risk of poisoning the player, but cooking them renders them safe to eat in Among Trees. Real life, unfortunately, doesn’t work this way, and even the high temperatures of cooking aren’t enough to denature the proteins. It goes without saying that Among Trees is not to be considered as being a resource for outdoor survival. I tended to avoid picking these mushrooms in-game, knowing that the other mushrooms and berries can be eaten raw (making them more valuable for situations where I was not near my cabin or had a cooking kit on my person).

  • Armed with the best jacket possible, plus brews for bolstering body temperature and ward of drowsiness, I am finally able to explore the forest by night. For my troubles, I am rewarded with the light of a crescent moon. One thing I noticed in Among Trees is that weather patterns are quite limited, and cosmetic in nature. It’s either sunny or rainy, and rainfall does little to impact the player. In reality, rain and wind can lock people down, making it difficult to travel great distances. Additional weather patterns in Among Trees would add to the depth of this game, but I imagine it would also represent challenges from an implementation standpoint.

  • Towards the endgame, I’ve fully made use of every facility available to my cabin. The cook stove allows me to cook highly nutritious and delicious meals. Sticks are needed to fuel the stove, but they can be easily acquired by chopping down trees. The resulting meals can fill the hunger bar to a hundred percent, and I made it a point to eat breakfast every morning before setting out, and then along the way, I would top off with the various mushrooms, berries and roots I find.

  • Observant readers will have noticed that I’ve now got potted plants, sculptures and other artworks around the cabin. Once most of the essentials are crafted, any metal one finds no longer has any use, so it is perfectly okay to turn them into art for sprucing up the cabin interior. I spent most of the game travelling around, hunting for resources, but at the endgame, I stayed at the cabin to craft things, and also to tend to my greenhouse. Having now collected seeds from the points of interest, I planted them and waited a few days for the turnips and radishes to grow, all the while watering them periodically.

  • The greenhouse is the most photogenic part of the cabin, and when all of the visual effects are cranked to maximum, it is gorgeous in here. Among Trees only allows players to plant radishes and turnips, and upon harvesting them, they occasionally drop seeds that allow one to have access to more vegetables. These roots do take some effort to cook, and radishes can only be eaten cooked, but having vegetables means not being reliant on the mushrooms and berries that spawn throughout the world.

  • All adventures must come to an end, and after fifty days of surviving in the forest, I finally put my hiking pack to use – in real-time, I’ve spent about thirteen hours over the course of a month in Among Trees, and I feel that the game has proven to be a remarkable experience, both from a gameplay perspective and from a thematic perspective. The thematic piece proved to be quite unexpected, a consequence of my own experiences feeding into how I approached the game, and I would imagine that a different individual playing this very game would likely come out with a completely different set of thoughts.

Among Trees is able to tell a compelling story that speaks to the values I hold despite being a sandbox experience that never quite reached completion; I’ve heard that FJRD Interactive originally had plans to improve the game’s complexity and depth, but shortly after, abandoned development in favour of other projects despite wishes from the community to wrap the game up. As enjoyable as Among Trees is, there are numerous elements that appear that the game wished to add, including more options for backpacks and coats. A more complex system would allow one to choose their gear more carefully (e.g. a higher-capacity backpack might reduce one’s movement speed). The game does not allow one to pick clams off the beach from the forest’s northeastern corner, or lay down crab pots. Similarly, while one can spot rabbits and elk in the game, there is no option to fashion traps and snares to catch smaller critters for meat, or perhaps hunt larger game with a bow. The greenhouse only allows players to grow beets and radishes, but it would be nice to let players farm their own berries and mushrooms. Besides expanding the crafting and clothing system, as well as adding a hunting system, Among Trees also would benefit from providing players with a variety of terrains to survive in. The game currently sets players in a warm, temperate forest during the summer, when temperatures are comfortable, and wild edibles are in good supply. It would be enjoyable to see the game use its temperature, food and hydration meters more effectively by providing players with a tropical island, desert and arctic tundra map to mix up what one should prioritise in a different region of the world. In the arctic, hydration may deplete more slowly, but temperature will always deplete quickly. A desert setting may cause the sleep and hydration meters to wear out more quickly. This would force players to look more closely at different goals, and add considerably to the game’s depth. However, as previously mentioned, it appears that FJRD Interactive has ceased development on Among Trees, and as such, the items on my wishlist are unlikely to be realised. Although Among Trees has an incredible potential to become a sort of Survivorman experience set in beautifully crafted and highly cathartic settings, lack of future work means the game’s current state is likely all players will get for the present. In spite of this, it isn’t all doom and gloom – the game does have an excellent message for players, and for me, a single play-through from front to back, wholly exploring every corner of the map, collecting every plant and fungi I could, and building my cabin to completion, took a total of thirteen hours. Consequently, Among Trees is a worthwhile experience when it’s discounted; although steep at full price, it is a fun game that is quite unlike anything I’d played previously, and having now taken a break from my usual shooters, it’s time to return to my favourite genre with a fresh set of eyes.

Routine Feat: Remarks on the Importance of Structure as a Route to Success and A Calgary Rodeo Reflection

Late night, come home
Work sucks, I know
She left me roses by the stairs
Surprises let me know she cares

–blink-128, All The Small Things

Developed by Alexandre Ignatov, who had previously published ШХД: ЗИМА / IT’S WINTER, Routine Feat was actually written before IT’S WINTER, but the assets were reused to create a very moody and contemplative experience. However, unlike IT’S WINTER, Routine Feat has additional depth to it – it puts players in the shoes of an office worker who appears stuck in a routine of monotony: day in and day out, the office worker heads to a dreary job where, in his office, he’s scrawled onto a piece of paper “My work does not bring joy and is not so important for me and the people around me, but I cannot quit it. Otherwise, what will I eat?” Between his duties, the office worker toils away on his own novel, occasionally struggling to come up with ideas, but over time, his perseverance pays off: on a sunny, peaceful morning, the office worker submits his finished manuscript and heads to work. Coming home, the office worker spots a letter and a pile of cash in his mailbox – the publishers love his book and have already placed an order for a hundred thousand copies, saying that such a book will move millions. At first glance, Routine Feat appears to follow in the footsteps of IT’S WINTER in conveying a sense of melancholy and longing. Note scattered around the office worker’s home and workspace suggests someone who’s living day-to-day, seemingly without purpose or motivation. However, the office worker’s novel is the one ray of light in his life, and by investing time into this project in between his work, while at the same time, doing his best in a daily routine despite his boredom and melancholy, the office worker is able to create something of worth and find new value in his life. Among the monotony of routine comes new joy, and in this area, Routine Feat shows that there is nothing wrong with routine. While social media glamourises spontaneity and travel, and relationship guides claim (without evidence) that dating spontaneous people is the singular key to happiness, experts universally agree that routine is vital in maintaining one’s mental health, reduces anxiety and increases resilience against adversity. People who follow a consistent routine sleep more soundly, and may also enjoy improved physical health on top of mental wellness. Having a routine creates familiarity which allows one to do more – knowing one’s always going to have an hour in the morning means being able to lift weights before starting one’s workday, and being assured of an hour of rest before turning in means I’m confident that I could get some writing or gaming done that day.

The melancholy and monotony that is seen in Routine Feat contrasts sharply with the beautiful summer weather – when players open Routine Feat, they are met with the same apartment complex seen in IT’S WINTER. However, this time, sunlight fills the rooms with the warm golden glow of a mid-summer’s morning, and the sky is a pale azure. The landscape is verdant and lush with vegetation. Even though there isn’t another soul around (I’m the only person around), and it feels as though the weather is mocking me, it’s clear that Routine Feat is not trying to convey the same sense of hopelessness that only a bitterly cold winter’s night could. The change of seasons is what sets Routine Feat apart from its predecessor – long days filled with sunshine instills a sense of hope, and having light out increases the incentive to stop to take a breath and live in the moment. Although it might not be a life-changing journey to Japan, there is a certain joy about being able to feel the warmth of sunshine while waiting for the bus. Similarly, more sunshine means after coming home from work, it’s still light enough to enjoy the last rays of sun before returning one’s attention to their pursuits. It is therefore appropriate that here in Routine Feat, looking beyond what superficially appears to be a dull and dreary life, one finds a world filled with nuance and excitement. It is unsurprising that the office worker is able to write a book under such conditions – no longer trapped by the winter, one is really able to stretch their feet and allow the long days of summer to provide inspiration. The combination of routine in Routine Feat has its basis in reality; I am reminded of spending endless days during the summer of a decade earlier indoors with MCAT preparations while the world around me enjoyed everything the summer had to offer. However, even though I was not engaged in activities associated with the summer, the warm weather and beautiful skies gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance. This sense of well-being, coupled with the fact that I’d settled into a fairly consistent routine, of studying, lifting weights and unwinding, meant that what had appeared to be an insurmountable foe would suddenly look more manageable. On this day ten years ago, it had been a gorgeous morning, and while the family had stepped out to enjoy the Calgary Stampede, I remained behind to brush up on verbal reasoning. It had been a particularly fine day, and after hitting my quota for the morning, I walked out to the local sandwich shop for a pork rib sandwich. I was struck with a thought: appreciating small things in life is what makes things worthwhile. Routine Feat makes it a point to convey this, and while the game might initially seem repetitive and pointless, once players take the time to slow down and figure things out, there’s an unexpectedly uplifting and optimistic message about how, in the throes of routine, people can optimise their schedules and come to do great things with the time that is available to them. I managed to have what was, in retrospect, a pretty enjoyable summer ten years ago despite having spent so much of it on the MCAT (I would later go on to travel and even put out a journal publication). The office worker in Routine Feat may live a routine life, but in growing familiar with his day-to-day patterns, manages to optimise things and find the time to pursue his own interests, chipping away tirelessly until things finally come to a head, and his efforts are rewarded.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I became intrigued with Routine Feat after playing IT’S WINTER and discovered the game was free to download from Ignatov’s website. However, when the game became available on Steam back in May, I decided to pick it up to support Ignatov: both Routine Feat and IT’S WINTER speak to some of my own experiences with loneliness, of being trapped during both winters and summers during my time as a university student. In 2013, I earned my Bachelor of Health Science degree, but between all of my friends heading off to pursue their careers, and a one-in-a-century flood knocking out my summer plans (which entailed a kokuhaku), I fell into a mild depression.

  • As that summer drew to a close, I began dreading the imminent arrival of winter; the individual I had wished to deliver my kokuhaku to had left for an exchange programme in Japan, and I was left to pursue open studies while awaiting the results of my second shot at getting into medical school. In the depths of winter, my applications fell through, and I got a sneaking suspicion the person I was hoping to ask out would not wait for me. However, it was not the end; upon hearing about my applications’ outcomes, my supervisor immediately extended to me an offer of admissions into graduate school, as well as a position on what would become the Giant Walkthrough Brain project. Spotting an opportunity to walk a different path, and to immerse myself in something that took my mind off things, I accepted immediately.

  • This proved to be a pivotal moment for me, and I attribute my recovery to this turn of events – keeping busy with a project that would contribute to scientific communication in the community took my mind off the hurt of what had amounted to a rejection, and I thus focused my entire effort towards learning Unity. While I would slowly find my way again and ended up becoming an iOS developer as a result of my experiences in graduate school, I remained quite hostile towards winter for some time after. However, even this dislike wouldn’t last forever; I would come to take stock in the fact that, no matter how cold winters got, summers would always return, and until summers did come back, I had somewhere warm to return to every day.

  • IT’S WINTER spoke to me about this fact: while the game is supposed to convey an overwhelming sense of isolation and sadness, I found that the game actually captured something quite unexpected. To be able to wander outside in a bitterly cold winter’s night, and then returning to the warmth and comfort of the player’s apartment was quite reassuring: no matter how far my wanderings took me, I could always go back to somewhere with light, heat and food. It was with this mindset that I approached Routine Feat, which was similarly written to be a game that speaks to depression and melancholy associated with an unremarkable life.

  • When players start Routine Feat for the first time, they are met with blue skies and the light of a summer’s morning. I remember numerous such mornings in all of my summers, especially during the year I took the MCAT. Like the office worker of Routine Feat, I would board the bus and head for campus to either attend my preparation course or lift weights, before hitting the books and returning home. Buses to the university are practically empty in the summer, adding to my sense of isolation. However, while my MCAT year should have been lonely, I found that having a routine helped me to focus effectively.

  • The reason for this is simple: knowing what to expect on a given day creates confidence in having control. Having structure in one’s day provides certainty and reassurance, allowing one to know that they’ve got time blocked out to get certain things done. This is why, when the global health crisis hit some two-and-a-half years earlier, I was able to cope with things. I woke up early in the mornings, ate breakfast and got to work. Every day at 1030, I would stop for a yogurt break, and then I’d resume work until 1200, during which I’d break for lunch.

  • Lunch breaks would last precisely an hour, and then I would work until 1500. Here, I’d stop to enjoy the refreshing tang of a mandarin orange. Once this break was over, it was a straight shot until the end of the day. After work, I would either do light exercise in the basement or, if the weather allowed me to, go for a stroll around the block. Between my routine, I found enough time to game, blog and chat with friends. While I greatly missed being able to go to restaurants and my favourite places in town, knowing my days were well-organised, and that I was still getting things done, gave me some reassurance.

  • In this way, when restrictions began rolling back, I would come to look forwards to grabbing takeout from the local Cantonese restaurant, or spending some time in the nearby parks on weekends. This new routine has worked well for me: despite beginning a new position last April and moving house this year, old habits died hard; I ended up following the same work and life patterns I previously did, with the main exception that I’m doing more housework now. Curiously enough, doing housework is when I’m most at ease, as it gives my mind a chance to wander and unwind.

  • Having now moved for a shade over three months, I’ve formed a new routine by merging old habits with nuances of the new place, and this has in turn allowed me to acclimatise to life in a new part of town; there is enough time in a day for me to work, look after the new place, exercise, sleep well and on top of all this, continue to keep this blog going. Back in Routine Feat, I will note that the game gives players full freedom to do whatever they choose to. In mornings, a bus will appear at regular intervals, and boarding will take players to work.

  • One can choose to deliberately miss the bus without penalty: buses will keep coming ad infinitum, and the game will only advance if one boards, so one could spend as much time as they wish to explore the environment. Unlike IT’S WINTER, where there’s a soft boundary that will transport players back to the heart of the map, Routine Feat features hard boundaries at the map’s edges to prevent them from going further. The map is actually a ways bigger than it was in IT’S WINTER, and one can thoroughly explore the woods surrounding the office worker’s apartment block.

  • The lack of deadlines means Routine Feat is free to give players full agency over their decisions. This is especially important, since many things in the game can be interacted with. One can choose to cook a scrumptious breakfast with the ingredients in their refrigerator as a way to start the day, or go for a stroll in the woods surrounding the apartment. Reading the notes on one’s desk will also lead one to realise that the office worker is an aspiring author, and while he may occasionally struggle to come up with ideas, for the most part, the office worker can find inspiration to write.

  • One thing that I didn’t notice was that, in order to make any progress on the novel, one must type on the typewriter, and then when a page is done, it must be manually inserted into an envelope on the office worker’s desk at home. Every morning and evening, the office worker will produce two to four pages before calling it quits, and so, to finish Routine Feat quickly, one must make it a habit of writing every day, before heading for work, and then before turning in. However, there’s no obligation to move at such a breakneck pace: Routine Feat won’t punish players for finishing slowly, nor will it reward players further for finishing quickly.

  • Observant players will have noticed that in Routine Feat, mornings will look slightly different when a new day starts, and similarly, players arrive home from work at varying times of day. Sometimes, the sun is just setting when one gets off the bus, and at other times, it’s fully nighttime, with a full moon in the sky. On one of my mornings in Routine Feat, the sky was overcast and brought back memories of last year, when extensive forest fires a province over devastated entire towns and filled the skies with smoke.

  • This year, the weather’s been quite the opposite – we’ve been fortunate that no heat dome settled over British Columbia, keeping the forest fires at bay, and moreover, near-normal precipitation and temperatures have made for both green surroundings and comfortable days. July and August are the times of year best suited for summer adventures, and unlike the previous two years, this year, I am hoping to slowly ease back into planning out excursions on weekends to take advantage of the long and warm days that I’ve long expressed fondness for.

  • It suddenly strikes me that I’ve not yet shown a screenshot of the office worker’s bedroom. Although the quarters are spartan, especially for folks who’ve grown accustomed to living in a detached home of at least 1200 square feet, looking around the office worker’s apartment still gives a very inviting sense. Everything is reasonably clean and well-kept, and while there’s no living room, the bedroom is very large. Were I to live here, the only adjustment I’d make is to move the bed over to the right, closer to the heater by the window, and then put the TV stand underneath the tapestry.

  • Because of variability in the weather, on some mornings in Routine Feat, I wake up to sunlight filling the bedroom. This is how bright my room gets in the morning during the summers – it’s gotten to the point where I don’t need an alarm clock to wake up on days where it’s sunny, and I’m always filled with a feeling of peace whenever it looks like this. I’ve noticed that sleep is never really a problem in Routine Feat; inconsistent sleep is often associated with depression, as depression can create feelings of regret, sadness and longing that result in thoughts that wholly occupy the mind.

  • Players have no trouble sleeping in Routine Feat, and falling asleep is as easy as looking at the bed and pressing “E”. Once asleep, Routine Feat treats players to fantastical dreamscapes. According to Ignatov, the dreams themselves don’t have any deep or specific meanings, being meant to represent spaces that are quite different than the office worker’s home and day-to-day life. I’ve always been fond of creators who step up to clarify things and remind folks to take it easy: it’s not lost on me that, perhaps as a result of North American literature courses, people are taught to pick works apart and focus on nuances like symbolism and literary devices over the overarching themes and character experiences.

  • As it turns out, the approach of analysing every last element in a work is known as the reader-response criticism theory, in which practitioners can interpret a work independently of the author’s intentions, and in this way, produce any end conclusion because the reader’s interpretation is treated as the main authority on things. A handful of anime blogs out there subscribed to this approach and at their height, took things one step further by asserting that works can be analysed independently of cultural and individual influences to produce an “objective” interpretation. Behind the Nihon was fond of this, but I found their methodology flawed on the grounds that it produces a very narrow and limited view of the work, since Behind the Nihon Review’s writers still brought their own subjective tastes and backgrounds to the table.

  • Conversely, I always strive to pay attention to what the author attempted to convey, since how they present and execute a work is influenced by how they perceive their experiences. Reconciling the differences between what I experience, and what the author’s intentions are, produces the richest understanding of things. Routine Feat, for instance, is a game that conveys sadness and melancholy from routine, but because the game chooses to give the player an end-goal (of writing a book) that they do succeed in, the game also shows the nuances of following a routine. This is Ignatov’s intention: “if you stop and take a breath of air, then you might like [Routine Feat]“.

  • On a quiet morning with blue skies, I managed to get all twenty pages of the book written out, and submitted the manuscript to the publisher. What awaits the player is another day at work, but this time around, there’s a faint sense of excitement this time around. Routine Feat doesn’t have a large number of goals, but the office worker’s act of writing a book does advance the story. However, it is worth noting here that Routine Feat does not have any save points, and as such, one must play through several days in order to write all twenty of the requisite pages: leaving the game at any time will reset one’s progress.

  • Earlier today, I had awoken to gorgeous skies and a forecasted high of 26°C. However, it was no typical day: I was set to attend the Calgary Stampede with the company, and to ensure I arrived in time for lunch to begin, I left earlier. Today marked the beginning of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, and this event traditionally kicks off with a large parade downtown. The light rail line runs right through the downtown core and intersects with the parade route, so the wisdom of leaving early became apparent. After arriving, I made my way to the Rotary House, which had been marked as closed for a private function (i.e. ours).

  • Once lunch ended, we moseyed on over to the Grandstand for my first-ever rodeo show, which featured Saddle Bronc, Barrel Racing, Tie-Down Roping, Steer Wrestling, Bareback and most exhilarating of all to watch, Bull Riding. The afternoon had begun with the entire grandstand bathed in sunlight, but a cool shadow stole over the venue as the afternoon wore on. While I’ve attended the Calgary Stampede in previous years, I’ve only ever checked out the midway and exhibitions, but otherwise, had never actually seen any rodeo events, so it was quite a unique and memorable experience to watch the events that are at the heart of the Stampede.

  • After enjoying the Unagi Sushi Taco, I ventured into the exhibition halls to see what arts were being displayed. This year, the BMO Centre is undergoing some dramatic changes: like the University of Calgary, which has seen massive construction projects, the Stampede Grounds are being upgraded. They had begun demolishing the Stampede Corral in 2020 after an assessment in 2016 found it was no longer viable to bring the building up to code. At present, the framework to the new structure is up, and it is expected that construction will conclude next summer. Fortunately, the exhibitor hall and Western Oasis art displays were still present, and I cooled off in here with a root beer before heading back home.

  • With today’s events, I’m reminded of why Calgary’s workforce jokingly remark that for 10 days of July, all work grinds to a halt as workers from all occupations take time off, whether it’s personal time or company events, to visit the Stampede. Today was quite far removed from my usual routine: I am usually found sitting at my desk and churning away at my IDE, or else pacing around whilst conceptualising solutions. This Stampede visit was a nice break from routine, and I’m left ready to relax this weekend before returning on Monday to continue with my current assignment.

  • Back in Routine Feat, I was pleasantly surprised to find a letter from the publisher and a pile of money in my mailbox after submitting the book. Players receive a small amount of money in their day job in Routine Feat, so to see this kind of money come in would probably be a shock. All of a sudden, melancholy and loneliness turns to joy. In reality, things would happen over a longer timeframe, but the outcomes are undeniable; hard work and perseverance is what brings about success, and having a routine allows one to be able to achieve their goals. Routine Feat works in a meta-gaming perspective: once players figure out the routine, they can easily advance the story and see the office worker realise his dreams.

  • I ended up taking the letter back into my room to read it, and it was a remarkably pleasant feeling: the office worker’s novel turns out to be a smash hit. The publishers have already ordered a hundred thousand copies and expect the book to sell very well. I did notice some HTML tags in the publisher’s letter, and in a few areas in Routine Feat, there are spelling mistakes, but these are comparatively minor, especially considering the rest of the game works smoothly. It felt fantastic to see the office worker succeed in his dreams, and the epilogue suggests that the office worker is able to pursue his own dreams freely now.

  • As a means of celebration, I gathered some of the items from the fridge and made the office worker a very nice meal: the usual eggs on toast was accompanied with sausage, cheese, tomato and cucumber, and then I decided to have an apple and banana, washed down with a glass of milk. Routine Feat automatically restocks the player’s refrigerator every time the player returns home or wakes up, so there’s always sufficient provisions. This aspect of Routine Feat was one I particularly liked, since it showed how while the office worker’s days might be monotonous, he’s still able to support himself well enough to pursue his own interests.

  • To wrap things up, I’ve climbed to the rooftop to get a look at the neighbourhood. There’s a bunch of beers up here, and after successfully publishing a book, it felt appropriate to crack open a beer and enjoy the summer evening. Routine Feat might be simple, but there is no denying that the game is successful with its messages. Further to this, aside from a few rough spots here and there, the game is polished. I’m impressed with how much fun I had in Routine Feat: while the game is not “fun” in a traditional sense, it was very instructive. I relate quite well to the environment and themes that Ignatov sought to convey, and so, Routine Feat became quite refreshing to play through.

Ignatov has expressed that the minimalism in Routine Feat and IT’S WINTER is deliberate: the game’s Steam Store description indicates that the theme is “overwhelming loneliness” that arises in a world dominated by isolation and abandonment. However, even on beautiful summer days with no one else around, Ignatov writes that one may find a sense of peace in taking the time to stop and smell the roses: the game was written with this in mind, and Ignatov has mentioned in an interview that the aim was to create a world that players could get lost in. Interactivity lies at the forefront of things in Routine Feat, and like IT’S WINTER, one can also deliberately choose not to hop on the bus and go to work. Instead, one could whip up a fantastic breakfast with the ingredients in their refrigerator, reorganinise their apartment and clear up the trash strewn about, or even go for a walk around the apartment block and take in the calm melancholy of a gentle morning. While Routine Feat offers this freedom to players, choosing to follow one’s routine by going to work, and then spending a little more time on the office worker’s novel, is where the game’s true genius shines: Routine Feat suggests that although one might seemingly be bound to monotony in their everyday lives, life is also what one chooses to make of things, and the familiarity offered by routine is what makes excitement so remarkable. This is why my own Calgary Stampede experience this year is particularly memorable: it was my first time attending the rodeo show as a part of a company-wide event, and after a lunch at the Rotary House, a rustic event venue, we watched the afternoon’s performances at the grandstand. I never imagined that, a decade after the morning I’d made the call to stay home and press forwards with MCAT revisions, I would have the opportunity to experience the Calgary Stampede in the most traditional way possible. On most days, my routine entails sitting down at my desk, reading through my day’s assignments and then opening an IDE to begin chipping away at my work. To be able to take a break of this sort was especially refreshing, although here, I note that things like the Calgary Stampede are so enjoyable precisely because they represent a break from routine.

Project Wingman: Reflections on A Virtual Reality Experience

“VR is so immersive, and when it works, it draws you into the story in a way that is truly unique and powerful.” –Doug Liman

When Project Wingman is launched in VR mode with Oculus Link, and one is in possession of an Oculus Quest, the resulting experience is unparalleled – Project Wingman was developed with virtual reality in mind, and unlike Ace Combat 7, offers full support for every mission in the game, from the opening mission to the final duel against Crimson One. Within moments of donning the headset, I found myself immersed fully in the Cascadian conflict. While I was lacking a dedicated HOTAS or even a controller, muscle memory allowed me to utilise my keyboard for flight, Upon entering my first mission, I found that the ability to shoulder check and freely look around may seem extraneous, this ability soon became an integral part of my gameplay as I look around to keep an eye on enemy fighters and missiles on my six. Behind the cockpit of a multi-million dollar combat aircraft, surrounded by panels of sophisticated controls, the landscape surrounds me as I fight to keep my gunsights trained on an enemy fighter. A short burst of 20mm cannon fire later, my foe detonates, and I fly through the wreckage. Although I know it’s a simulation, for a fraction of a second, I faintly feel the flash of heat from the explosion. However, there’s no time to celebrate the kill – my warning indicator lights up, and I glance down at the radar. A bogey has just launched a missile straight at me. I immediately bleed off my speed and break left. To my surprise, I’m not experiencing motion sickness: I’m comfortably seated, and my eyes are on the horizon. Fifteen minutes later, the mission’s completed: the Cascadians have finished evacuating Presidia, and I take the headset off, thoroughly impressed with just how smooth everything was. I’ve long been looking for an arcade air combat simulator for my headset, and while the Oculus Quest’s app store did come with a wide range of apps, the most impressive of which is SUPERHOT, I’ve longed for a chance to fly the skies, Ace Combat style. No dedicated app offering this specific experience exists for the Oculus Quest, and while there are some apps that come close, their experience feels decidedly limited. As such, Project Wingman‘s VR capabilities and Oculus Quest represents a chance to see what an arcade air combat experience is like – it is a gripping experience that takes things up a notch, to the point where one could say that it is the next best thing to Top Gun.

Virtual Reality technology has always represented a curious subset in video gaming – the technology had gained a resurgence of interest when Oculus VR launched a Kickstarter to build a virtual reality headset in 2012. The concept of virtual reality is not new: Sega VR had been exploring VR technology back in 1991, but primitive display technologies meant that they never took off. Oculus wasn’t doing anything particularly novel, but they had come during a time when displays were beginning to approach a point where they could render sharp images with a refresh rate approaching the limit of what the mind can perceive. Their early device was cumbersome and unwieldy, being little more than two screens strapped to one’s face. By 2015, the second iteration of the Oculus Rift had improved the resolution and refresh rate, making it a viable tool for experimental use. As a graduate student, I utilised the DK2 to create a 3D environment for my biological visualisations as a part of my thesis work, and towards the end of my programme, I would attend a Virtual Reality conference in Laval, France. Here, I had the chance to try the HTC Vive – this headset was leaps and bounds ahead of the Oculus Rift in capabilities. With room-tracking cameras, the headset was able to reliably respond to controller movements, and the high-resolution display allowed me to play something like Arizona Sunshine with ease. However, the drawback was that setup was especially cumbersome: one needed an entire room to set the environment up for usage, and the headset still needed to be tethered to a computer. Both Oculus and Valve would come up with competing headsets for use in the coming years, but Oculus would pull ahead with their revolutionary Oculus Quest, a wireless headset that came with built-in room tracking cameras. The Quest represented a major leap in the technology, and in practise, it proved to improve accessibility to VR in a way previous headsets could not – one was no longer tethered to a computer, and while lacking in processing power (the Quest has its own onboard hardware rather than counting on a computer’s hardware), it offered unparalleled freedom. While unable to play more demanding games on its own, the Oculus Quest opened VR up in new ways. When Oculus Link was introduced, this was the final piece of the puzzle in making VR accessible in an unprecedented way: one uses their desktop to stream the video feed over to their device wirelessly, providing the best of both worlds. Being able to play Project Wingman this easily shows how far the technology has come in a decade, and while we’re still a long way from the NerveGear in Sword Art Online, at the very least, I can now fulfil a childhood fantasy of hopping into the cockpit of a warplane and blowing stuff up with it, just like in movies such as Top Gun.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • What both Ace Combat and Project Wingman do particularly well is the reproduction of details in all of the different cockpits for each of the aircraft available in their respective games. When playing in VR mode, Project Wingman understandably locks players into the cockpit view. Previously, I only played Ace Combat and Project Wingman in third-person mode, since that allows me to maintain a better awareness of my surroundings and respond to threats more effectively.

  • Sitting in the cockpit itself gave me an idea of how much spatial awareness pilots need to have: parts of the canopy can block one’s view of the airspace, and this was actually no different than when I first learnt how to drive: in video games, I have a much greater sense of comfort when playing in third person, and first person feels really constraining. Over time, one does end up learning tricks for estimating, with great consistency, where their vehicle is. However, my experience is with cars, rather than combat aircraft, and it did take some getting used to.

  • Remaining inside the cockpit made me appreciate the designs of certain cockpits over others, and here, I attempted a mission with the F/E-18, which has a relatively spacious canopy and good visibility. The frame around the HUD is light, so I can see more of the area in front of me. When I played my first mission, I crashed into a ground target because I’d grossly miscalculated my position: from a third person perspective, I can see clearly where my plane is, but this information is absent from a first-person perspective.

  • Once I got used to deriving information off the HUD and looking around, flying became much easier, and I really got to appreciate the subtle details that were placed into Project Wingman. When one flies through clouds or rain, water droplets and streaks appear on the canopy. They’re actually visible in this screenshot here, and similarly, sharp-eyed readers might also spot reflections from inside the cockpit in an earlier screenshot, as well. Similarly, small scratches can be seen on the canopy itself: these details first appeared in Battlefield 3 and impressed players greatly, showcasing just how much the Frostbite Engine was capable of rendering.

  • For my VR experience, I’ve chosen to play the earlier missions, where dogfights are less intense, and therefore, less likely to induce motion sickness – against Crimson One, there’s a plethora of aerobatics one needs to pull off in order to survive, and this might be a little much to handle for me – the most intense VR experience I’ve had until now was SUPERHOT VR, which has players stand in-place. While seated in a comfortable chair, and with my eyes focused on the horizon, things haven’t been too bad, but making sharp-turns and loops could be quite taxing.

  • For my second mission, I’ve gone with the F/D-14. The visibility in the cockpit is reduced compared to that of the F/E-18 because the frame is larger, and this makes it tougher to spot foes directly ahead. Seeing the complexity in each cockpit is a reminder of how much training it takes to effectively operate combat aircraft – video games are able to abstract out everything into a few buttons on a keyboard, or a HOTAS, because modern aircraft are designed so that most of the plane’s functions can be done without the pilot ever taking their hands off the throttle and main control stick.

  • The remainder of the switches and buttons are analogue circuit breakers for manually restarting systems that are a part of the aircraft, operate the landing gear, and communications equipment. Similarly to cars, aircraft have gauges for things like airspeed, altitude, turn coordination, fuel levels and the like, while more advanced aircraft have what are known as a glass cockpit and display the information on screens. The sheer sophistication in aircraft mean that a flight simulator for aircraft can cost tens of millions per unit, and even the most advanced flight simulator games cannot match the real deal in terms of detail.

  • Much as how first person shooters reduce the act of reloading a firearm to pressing the “R” button, arcade air combat games simplify controls significantly so players can immerse themselves in the story. I admit that operating every switch and button will be overwhelming, but having spent the past eight years playing Wolfire’s Receiver, being made to be mindful of every single step in reloading a handgun made me appreciate how much complexity there is in everything.

  • This would in turn heighten my awareness that every occupation has its nuances: this is why I tend to be understanding of mistakes that are occasionally made. There is exactly one occupation I do not count to be meritorious of this respect, but I will leave it to readers to determine what exactly this is, and back in Project Wingman, I remark that the single toughest part about the cockpit-only view was that it was tricky to keep an eye on my aircraft’s status: normally, I have an entire HUD that gives me all of the information I need at a glance.

  • Inside the cockpit, everything is condensed onto the HUD UI, and the biggest piece of information I found less accessible was the hull integrity. Ironically, while I tend to take more damage in VR than I otherwise would, I’ve never actually crashed or been shot down yet – I imagine that this would be quite terrifying. A subconscious fear of having this happen meant I flew with more caution than I otherwise would, which was a nice touch.

  • While I’ve yet to unlock every aircraft in Project Wingman, I now have most of the planes available to players early on, including the MG-29. In most arcade air combat games, I tend to go with American planes owing to their familiarity, and because American aircraft are built with survivability in mind. This means that compared to their Russian equivalents, American aircraft are generally superior in weapons capabilities, ergonomics and maintainability. By comparison, Russian jets emphasise durability and ease-of-production. In-game, these differences are not quite as apparent, but overall, I would probably be more comfortable behind an American fighter.

  • Project Wingman‘s MG-29, the in-game equivalent of the MiG-29, is a solid all-around fighter for the mid-game, with good performance in all of its categories and providing hardpoints for a mix of air and ground weapons. I ended up kitting the MG-29 out with multiple lock-on anti-air missiles here to simplify things – in practise, while being able to carry a good mix of weapons means having versatility for missions one has no knowledge of, once a player has finished the game, one can begin tuning their loadouts and optimise it for the mission at hand.

  • The deep blue skies in Project Wingman never grow old for me, and while missions give the most in terms of excitement, like Ace CombatProject Wingman also offers a free flight mode where one can fly around a map without the demands of shooting down enemy forces. Free flight modes are the single most enjoyable way of enjoying VR, and one can completely kick back without worrying about being shot down. In the absence of any foes, small details in the map can be appreciated.

  • One other thing I particularly enjoyed in VR was flying through explosions after gunning down enemy aircraft. In real life, one would never fly into a wreckage: pieces of fuselage can damage one’s airframe with the same viciousness as an exploding missile or 20 mm rounds. Project Wingman excels in this area – wreckage can one-shot players, and I found this out the hard way when playing through the game for the first time. To avoid this, I tend to bank and move away from destroyed aircraft now as a reflex: Project Wingman‘s lack of checkpoints makes the game very unforgiving.

  • With a VR headset, flying above the clouds and seeing the deep blue skies above felt even more immersive than it had when playing Project Wingman conventionally. When on an airplane, I’m particularly fond of looking at the scenery below and wondering what a routine would look like for the folks on the ground. On the ground, it’s also fun to gaze skyward and wonder what destination a plane is headed towards.

  • In reality, I’m not a big fan of flying because the lower cabin pressure causes some discomfort for my stomach – in recent years, I’ve taken to drinking flat beverages like water and apple juice, which has a tangible difference. VR eliminates this and lets me to enjoy flying without those challenges. Here, I’m rocking the Sk.25U for the assault on the communications facility. Thanks to the Gulf War, deserts are synonymous with ground attack missions, and while Project Wingman has no A-10 Thunderbold, the Su-25 Frogfoot offers an equivalent experience; strafing ground targets with its cannon is immensely satisfying.

  • The weather and lighting conditions in this mission is reminiscent of the weather in Calgary during the summer – back in March, I wrote of wishing to experience this mission on a hot summer’s day. However, I’ve not yet played this mission on a day where the thermometer rose above 25ºC; since the move, I’ve been busy capitalising on the weather to take walks around the new neighbourhood, visiting the local mall or browsing books at the local bookstore. I will likely revisit this mission on a day when I’ve finished tending to the housework, and it’s a shade too hot to be out and about.

  • At this time last year, we’d broken several temperature records as a result of the heat dome that had settled over interior British Columbia. The temperatures reached 35ºC, and I vividly recall heading out to get my second Pfizer dose under sunny skies. After taking the vaccine, I became quite tired and proceeded to spend a quiet Canada Day resting up. This year, heat is less of a concern; it’s been relatively mild in my neck of the woods, and the hottest days so far have been quite comfortable.

  • Having said this, the new place is a ways better equipped to deal with heat: we have air conditioning for when things get really hot, but the first line of defense is the fact that we have energy-efficient windows, which prevent radiant heat transfer. Because air conditioning is very power consuming, we’ll likely leave it off except for days where things rise above 32ºC, and for now, I am rather looking forwards to playing this mission on the sort of day where I could look outside and see identical weather from my window as I do on my screen.

  • We’re rapidly approaching the end of June now, and this means Machikado Mazkoku: 2-Chōme will be wrapping up. I will be writing about what my thoughts are for this series before the summer season kicks off. The Steam Summer Sale is also under way now, and while I’ve hit a sort of gaming saturation, a few smaller games have caught my eye. I am looking to purchase Routine FeatFirewatch and Симулятор Одиночества В Русской Деревне (“Simulator of Loneliness in a Russian Village”): my interest in these loneliness simulators comes from the fact that these act as very cathartic experiences that stand worlds apart from my usual games.

Having finished Project Wingman back in April, I’d unlocked about a third of all the aircraft. However, I’ve not even touched the conquest mode yet, which is where the fun is supposed to really begin in Project Wingman. Before I look into conquest mode, I aim to unlock all of the aircraft – of note is the PW-Mk.I, Project Wingman‘s super-plane, and the SP-34R, a fighter equipped only with guns. If the description for these aircraft are to be believed, these aircraft would fundamentally change the way one plays Project Wingman and turns Monarch, already a fearsome pilot, into an unstoppable monster. The developers have indicated that they are looking at adding more aircraft into Project Wingman, and even working in previously unfinished missions. New content for a game is always exciting, and I’ve long found that the promise of new content is always an incentive to finish things up so one has a clean slate for when an update does become available. Beyond this, it would be nice to cut my teeth with the conquest mode: this mode is supposed to be endlessly replayable and is a true test of a player’s skills. It is clear that there is no shortage of things to do in Project Wingman, and having now tried the VR mode out, I am quite impressed with how well things work. Beyond the initial work of opening Oculus Link, connecting my headset and then running Project Wingman for Oculus, the game runs out of the box without further effort. Project Wingman thus sets the bar for what Project Aces must accomplish with their next Ace Combat title – unlike Project Wingman, which was developed by three people and a budget of around a hundred thousand dollars, Project Aces has teams of talented developers and millions in budget. There isn’t really an excuse that VR levels need additional resources and effort to craft, now that we’ve seen how games can be made to work flawlessly in both traditional screens and with VR headsets. This represents a very exciting possibility, and at present, the anticipation for both Project Wingman‘s update and a new Ace Combat title is tangible.

Project Wingman: Dethroning Crimson One and Avenging the Fallen At The Endgame

“They say it was three men.”
“Bullshit. How could three men do this?”

―Radio Chatter in Kaffarov, Battlefield 3

With the Federation’s supply routes in disarray, Cascadian forces move to retake their capital city, Presidia, before the occupying Federation forces have a chance to fortify their positions. The Cascadians launch a joint operation with Sicario, swiftly destroying their air forces over the city. Meanwhile, the Eminent Domain takes on the Federation fleet stationed in Presidia’s port. Hitman team assists the Cascadian forces in sinking the Federation fleet, and, having now established both air supremacy and neutralising whatever naval forces remain, the Cascadian ground forces capitalise on the chaos to advance and capture strategic locations. The Federation forces find themselves pushed back to the Port Authority building, but before they can be surrounded, the Federation government manages to negotiate a ceasefire with Cascadia. Cascadian forces are ordered to stand down and allow Federaation soldiers to evacuate, bringing an end to the war. However, some Federation forces refuse to accept this, and collaborate with the now-rogue Crimson One to detonate Cordium warheads throughout Presidia. The entire city is levelled, and along with it, the whole of the Cascadian navy is sunk. Piloting the experimental PW-Mk.I, Crimson One engages Monarch in a mano-a-mano duel. Driven mad by the loss of his squadron and the resulting damage to his pride, Crimson One attempts to utilise the PW-Mk.I’s overwhelming arsenal in a bid to kill Monarch. Despite being outmatched technologically, Monarch manages to evade Crimson One’s weapons and deals enough damage to the PW-MK.I’s Cordium engines, causing the plane to explode and kill Crimson One. Before he dies, Crimson One warns Monarch of his own mortality. Although Cascadia ultimately wins the war and inspires other nations to secede from the Federation, much of their own nation now lies in ruin, and the survivors must grapple with the millions of casualties resulting from Crimson One’s final act of defiance. Monarch lives to fight another day, although the cost of this operation lingers long after Monarch downs Crimson One in a titanic battle of one-sided indifference. With this, Project Wingman‘s campaign comes to a close, and I was left with an unparalleled experience, one that speaks both to the capabilities of Sector D2’s excellence and the Unreal Engine.

Having now beaten Project Wingman, it becomes clear that this game is the ultimate love letter to Ace Combat, albeit with several critical changes. In three key areas, Project Wingman actually surpasses Ace Combat. The first of these is the weapons and loadouts that are possible. Aircraft are permitted up to three special weapons in some cases, greatly expending their versatility. Ace Combat limited players to only a single special weapon type per aircraft, and this in turn made aircraft highly specialised of a certain role. If a plane could only carry anti-ship missiles, it would only be valuable on missions with anti-fleet operations. Similarly, carrying a tactical laser would reduce one’s ability to shoot down larger numbers of individually weak foes. Project Wingman has no such limitation: one can carry a mixture of weapons for anti-air and anti-ground combat alike, allowing them to remain effective in any situation. For instance, were a player to fly a fighter into a mission with large numbers of ground targets, having bombs would provide an additional option beyond the standard missiles. The guns in Project Wingman are also better thought-out compared to their Ace Combat counterparts; the integral cannons are more powerful, but different planes actually come with distinctly different cannon types. Most planes come with the M61 Vulcan or an equivalent 20 mm cannon, but the Sk.25U is equipped with a 30 mm cannon. With a lower firing rate and capacity, each 30 mm round does considerably more damage. Further to this, there’s four different kinds of gun pods, each with a specific use-case, and the guns find applicability in situations where missiles are less effective, making them a true part of the game: it takes skill to make full use of the guns, and Project Wingman encourages players to make full use of their aircraft’s capabilities. Finally, Project Wingman‘s presentation of devastation is nothing short of impressive: entire maps show the cost of large scale warfare, as forests burn and buildings crumble. Of course, Ace Combat has its own strengths. The progression system is deeper, with more options for aircraft, and there is significantly more mission variety. Similarly, Ace Combat is also better polished. However, the fact that Project Wingman gets so much right speaks volumes to the competence and creativity of Sector D2’s three-man team, showing that one doesn’t need a multi-million dollar budget to put together a memorable and engaging experience.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • In Project Wingman‘s final act, Monarch returns to the Cascadian capital of Presidia for one final titanic clash against the Federation’s remaining forces. For this mission, I’ve opted to fly the F/S-15 again: it’s the most advanced aircraft I could afford entering the endgame, and my goal is to ultimately pick up the PW-Mk.I, the ultimate aircraft in the game. Until then, the F/S-15 has proven to be more than adequate: the mission to re-take Presidia is a combination of both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, and efficient ammunition use is key here.

  • In a way, this mission represents the culmination of all of the experience a player has accrued in Project Wingman. By this point in time, I’ve completely adjusted to the missile mechanics in this game: while it took a little getting used to, once I acclimatised, the missiles of Project Wingman are reliable and effective. They’re most useful against foes approaching one head on, or, if one is flanking their enemies, then they work best between 1200 and 1600 metres. Any further, enemy planes will be able to dodge them or deploy countermeasures, while at closer ranges, the missiles won’t be able to track.

  • The F/S-15 is able to carry a ludicrous amount of multi-target missiles: if the first two special weapon slots are outfitted with these missiles, players will be able to lock onto up to ten targets simultaneously. This gives the F/S-15 the ability to clear out entire squadrons in seconds, although the extremely large volleys mean that if one isn’t careful, their entire store of missiles could become depleted very quickly. Here at Presidia, I was finally able to try out how a prototype aircraft handles in dogfights, and it becomes clear that the higher cost for prototype aircraft is for a reason.

  • While the F/S-15 is the most inexpensive prototype in Project Wingman, it still surpasses all of the previous aircraft: it accelerates and can maintain a top speed comparable to that of the interceptors, while at the same time, possesses handling traits befitting a fighter. Aircraft in Project Wingman are well-balanced against one another; prototype planes tend to have good all-around traits and excel in all roles. Interceptors have great acceleration and top speeds, while fighters are highly manoeuvrable. Strike aircraft carry weapons suited for anti-ship combat, and attacker aircraft have a large number of hardpoints capable of carrying a range of anti-ground weapons.

  • Multi-role aircraft perform well in both anti-air and anti-ground operations, and prototypes fit into the spectrum as being extraordinarily powerful multi-role aircraft. Strictly speaking, prototype aircrafts are not necessary for beating the campaign: the standard missiles and integral cannons in any plane are enough to get one through any mission. This was especially true in Ace Combat games, where players could complete entire missions, even on higher difficulties, without relying extensively on their special weapon stores.

  • The use of the stock missiles and gun is a trait I call the “stock weapons paradigm”: this is a concept that dates back a decade, and it states that any well-balanced game will be designed such that a player will be able to do just fine with the starting weapons a game provides them with. This came about in Team Fortress 2, when I noticed that the default weapons were really all one needed. In some games, like Agent Under Fire, weapons are clearly tiered, and the endgame weapons are definitively more powerful than the weapons found early on. In a balanced game, weapons all fit specific roles, and one should be able to do well enough with what’s available to them from the start, whether it be the start of a match, or the start of one’s journey through a progression system.

  • Planes in Project Wingman all handle slightly differently and carry different special weapons to give them an edge under certain circumstances, but overall, a competent pilot will be able to make any plane work with their default loadouts. This speaks to the excellent design in the game, and accounts for my wish to go back through the campaign a second time so that I can unlock the remainder of the aircraft available: I’m particularly keen on flying the F/E-18 again. For now, I’ll return the focus to whittling down the Federation’s remaining airships. Despite their railguns, downing airships are old hat at this point, and their presence is hardly intimidating now.

  • During this operation, I was blowing things up left, right and centre: even this late into the game, the visual effects for destruction look superb, and I found myself admiring my handiwork every time a plane or airship was shot down. At this point in time, I’ve become versed enough so that I’m not slamming into wreckage of destroyed aircraft, but there have been occasions where I will be strafing an airship with a M61 Vulcan, only to smash into it because I neglected to check the distance indicator. During combat, enemy combatants can be closer than they appear, and this really gives a sense of how scale can be misrepresented in the skies.

  • It suddenly hits me that the pressure waves in Project Wingman are much more visible (and a little more rudimentary) than their counterparts in Ace CombatAce Combat 7 has fair-looking pressure waves, but for me, it is actually Ace Combat: Assault Horizon that had the best-looking pressure waves from an explosion. There, explosions created a subtle lensing effect. I would imagine that Ace Combat 7 simply increased the emphasis on these blast waves so they’d be more visible, but the end result was that explosions look a little less realistic. In Project Wingman, there is no lensing, and no refractive effects from explosions.

  • Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was my first Ace Combat experience, and while it was a fun game, looking back, it was also quite unlike anything I would later play: the game’s use of “Dogfight Mode” took a lot of the control away from players, and the fact that there were multiple perspectives meant the overall story felt more disjointed. However, Assault Horizon‘s being on PC did mean that for the first time ever, I had a chance to really experience an Ace Combat game for myself, as opposed to watching YouTube playthroughs from other players.

  • Project Wingman is often referred to as a “poor man’s” Ace Combat. Hving now gone through the game in full, Project Wingman offers a tangibly unique and enjoyable experience such that I would say that it is a worthwhile experience for any Ace Combat fan, and similarly, anyone who’s wondering if Ace Combat is right for them could gain a modicum of insight if they go through Project Wingman. Had Ace Combat 7 not released on PC, Project Wingman would’ve been the definitive answer to players looking for an Ace Combat-like experience, but I’ve found that for the most enjoyable and complete experience, one would do well to give both a whirl, since both Ace Combat and Project Wingman have their own distinct strengths.

  • There isn’t one game that is decisively better than the other. Project Wingman excels with its weapon mechanics and design, as well as its ability to portray the scale of each battle, while Ace Combat overall provides a more polished experience, deeper progression system and mission variety. The perfect arcade combat game would therefore allow players to tune their planes like in Ace Combat 7 and equip a much larger array of special weapons, showcase battles of a grand scale and vary up the mission objectives while at the same time, having full VR support as Project Wingman does.

  • With this in mind, I am curious about what the upcoming Ace Combat title is going to be like: so far, all I know is that it’s the eighth instalment in the series, and producer Kazutoki Kono has stated that it’s going to be their biggest game ever. I wonder if Project Aces’ team would’ve seen Sector D2’s Project Wingman and saw what alternatives were possible; an Ace Combat game allowing players to vary hardpoint configurations and perhaps even feature different types of guns would be a major improvement on an already successful approach, furthering the level of depth to dogfighting in Ace Combat.

  • While the guns in Ace Combat tend to be more generic, later iterations of the game feature faster-firing guns for fighters and slower, harder-hitting guns for attacker aircraft. By Ace Combat 7, American aircraft utilise the M61 Vulcan, while Russian aircraft use the GSh-30-1. The guns do handle differently, but the differences are not as pronounced as they are in Project Wingman, and overall, the guns have a similar DPS. In general, guns play a large role both Project Wingman and Ace Combat, being an essential part of one’s arsenal, but the mechanics in the former are a bit more sophisticated, giving guns slightly more specialised scenarios where they are most effective.

  • According to the history books, the difference between American and Russian aircraft guns are simple: American designs favour the 20mm calibre because it’s light enough to be mounted on an aircraft without compromising handling, has a high enough rate of fire to ensure a target is hit, and good ballistic properties. On the other hand, a 30mm round can carry more explosives, so a few hits would be devastating. Differences in methodology resulted in different weapons, and I’ve found that, at least in Project Wingman, the faster-firing guns are more effective in dogfighting, whereas the slower-firing guns are better for strafing ground targets.

  • Once the air battle over Presidia is won, the focus shifts over to the Federation’s remaining navy forces. Since I was flying the F/S-15, I simply switched over from the anti-air missiles over to the anti-ground missiles and pounded the fleet into oblivion. The multiple lock-on anti-ground missiles proved more effective against static ground targets than they do against ships: while each missile is capable of knocking out a ship’s weapon component with ease, each missile can only deal damage to its target, and ships in Project Wingman only go down from direct hits to its main structure.

  • As such, if one were to get a lock onto a ship’s weapons, they’d destroy only the weapons. This would demand that one circle around and hit the ship again in order to sink it. For this reason, anti-ship missiles are exceedingly powerful in Project Wingman, and balanced accordingly so one isn’t sinking ships left, right and center. A reasonably experienced pilot will be able to optimise their runs so that they aren’t reliant on anti-ship missiles when fighting fleets, and indeed, the basic gun and missiles is, more often than not, enough to take out fleets of enemy ships on short order.

  • Like Ace Combat, particularly skilled pilots can fly though some features on a map that would be counted as foolhardy or unwise. In the middle of a battle, one is so focused on the objective that stunts aren’t likely to be the first thing on their mind. Doing this sort of thing is usually reserved for the free flight mode, which Project Wingman does offer, and while I’ve indeed pulled off these stunts in Ace Combat 7, my priority now remains focused on finishing off Project Wingman. Flying stunts are far easier to achieve than some would suggest: after Ace Combat 7‘s launch, TV Tropes’ “Imca”, a charlatan who claims to be from Osaka, suggests that he only took damage in Ace Combat 7‘s campaign twice and “flies through the wires of suspension bridges for fun”, implying that only Japanese players had the skill to perform trick manoeuvres.

  • Said individual has a propensity for acting like a big-shot at Tango-Victor-Tango’s American politics (despite supposedly hailing from Japan) and military threads. Imca’s latest round of fabrications include claiming that he owns a Tesla. Going from a rule of thumb, which suggests that one can afford a car that is equal to or less than 35 percent of their annual income, Imca would need to be pulling in around 135000 CAD per year (assuming we’re going off of the price of the entry-level Model 3, which costs 47000 CAD). Someone who “[plays] way more video games than westerners do and have more practise” and spends their time at Tango-Victor-Tango’s forums is unlikely to be dedicated to their career and advanced it far enough to make six figures, so either Imca is exceptionally poor with money management, or is being untruthful.

  • Fabrications always fall apart upon scrutiny, and while anonymity online makes lying as easy as breathing, I make it a point to never exaggerate my experiences and exploits, whether they be related to video games or reality. This is why I don’t have any objections to admitting when, in a given game, a certain area gave me particular trouble. In Project Wingman, a few missions did present to me a bit more trouble than usual (especially the ninth mission), but overall, my experience with the campaign was quite smooth, and I never died from sustaining too much damage from enemy fire.

  • Project Wingman does not have checkpoints, so deaths are particularly unforgiving: dying sends players back to the start of a mission, and while missions are of a moderate length (usually, 15-25 minutes), losing that amount of progress can be incredibly frustrating. This forces players to really keep an eye on their hull integrity and fly in a way as to minimise damage: making full use of the flares and keeping an eye on missile indicators, as well as taking care not to fly into the path of enemy aircraft or their burning wreckage. In fact, I’ve died more to colliding with enemy air combatants than I have from missile damage or gunfire.

  • In the end, after clearing out everything in the skies, on the ocean and on the ground, the Federation begins to realise they’ve been beaten, and a ceasefire is declared. This is the outcome that players were hoping for, being a close to what was ultimately a meaningless and brutal conflict. However, the astute player will have spotted that the battle for Presidia ended without a showdown with a fanatic foe in an über-powerful aircraft. Almost right on cue, the skies fill with a bright flash of light moments later, and when the dust settles, Presidia is in complete ruin.

  • The culprit is none other than Crimson One, who’s managed to acquire the PW-Mk.I, a super-plane whose capabilities surpass anything that Monarch had previously faced. Crimson One promptly uses the PW-Mk.I’s universal burst missiles to shoot down every remaining combatant who’d survived the Cordium detonations, intent on squaring off against Monarch, whom he holds personally responsible for the world’s evils. Besides the burst missiles, the PW-Mk.I is armed with multiple railguns and a plasma launcher.

  • For this fight, Crimson One’s attack patterns are broken up into four phases. In phase one, he only utilises the burst missiles, and these can easily be evaded, even without making use of flares. In the second phase, Crimson One adds railgun fire into the mix: his aircraft comes with multiple railguns, and if these impact simultaneously, Monarch will be devastated. By phase three, Crimson one utilises the plasma orbs, as well. Owing to the PW-Mk.I’s unmatched mobility, missiles are all but useless against him, and to this end, one will rely almost exclusively on their guns.

  • An aircraft with gun pods will have an easier time of whittling down Crimson One’s health: even the less manoeuvrable aircraft, one can still keep up with Crimson One and train their guns on him. Keeping up with him at close quarters can be tricky, but in order to engage, Crimson One will fly off and make some distance, and this provides players with a window to attack. Crimson One will spend the entire fight badmouthing Monarch, and while this is hilarious in bringing to mind the sort of trash talk that Aaron Keener treats players to in The Division 2, the choice of words suggests that Crimson One is someone who’s now fighting purely for revenge, having lost everything as a consequence of the player’s actions.

  • Moments like these serve to remind players that in war, there are no victors: there is a macabre truth to what Crimson One is saying, and even if Monarch does shoot him down here, it won’t change the fact that millions of lives were lost during the Cascadian conflict. Here, I narrowly dodge a railgun round from Crimson One: unlike the railgun turrets seen earlier, Crimson One can fire multiple rounds at players with every shot. In spite of the gap in technology, however, this fight never once felt impossible. I simply broke off my engagement when he was firing and capitalised on cooldowns to get my shots in.

  • This final boss fight was about as thrilling and challenging as the fight against Mihaly in Ace Combat 7: while Crimson One might have an incredibly sophisticated aircraft that puts all of the other aircraft in the game to shame, the fact that Monarch is able to go toe-to-toe with Crimson One is yet another reminder that technology notwithstanding, it’s ultimately the pilot that makes the difference. In the end, I beat Crimson One without too much difficulty, bringing the campaign to an end. At this point, I unlocked the player version of the PW-Mk.I: it’s the most expensive aircraft in the game and will likely take some time to unlock.

  • Besides replaying the campaign to unlock all of the aircraft (primarily for completeness’ sake), Project Wingman also offers two more avenues for replayability. The first is the conquest mode, which is a procedurally generated collection of missions where players must fight off wave after wave of Federation aircraft to secure Cascadian territory. Along the way, one can purchase new aircraft and even upgrade the reinforcements that come to assist them. Death is permanent in this mode, although one’s unlocks carry over, and this gives one a chance to really test their skills in a more open, sandbox mode. I imagine that I’ll start this mode once the summer arrives; May is going to see me revisit several iconic games, like Titanfall and Go! Go! Nippon!, as I reminisce about upcoming milestones.

  • The other avenue is VR: since Project Wingman has complete VR support, I would be able to free flight or revisit older missions using my Oculus Quest headset. My previous desktop lacked the CPU and connectors for such an endeavour, but with my new build, I anticipate that I should be able to utilise the Oculus Link setup. If Project Wingman‘s VR mode proves viable, I would be in a position to consider Half-Life: Alyx – my GTX 1060 60 GB is capable of running the game, and this would allow me to continue my Half Life experiences.  Overall, Project Wingman is a very impressive experience, and I have no problem recommending this as the definitive experience for what independently developed games could be like; with the right skill set, such games can easily rival triple-A titles in quality.

  • As it is, Project Wingman is a worthwhile experience for both Ace Combat fans and folks looking to try out the arcade flight combat genre. I’ve heard that a major update is in the works for Project Wingman, which Sector D2 is suggesting will add new weapons, introduce previously unavailable aircraft and perhaps even bring in some new campaign missions. All of this is worth writing about, and while my Project Wingman campaign experience is in the books for the present, I have a feeling that I am going to be returning in the future to discuss my experiences with the game’s super-planes, VR missions and conquest mode. The time is also nigh to return to Ace Combat 7: during my playthrough a few years back, I ended up unlocking the Strike Wyvern, and I picked up the DLC which gives me access to iconic super-planes like the Falken, so I’m now curious to see how my experience changes when I’m rocking the best planes in the game.

The very fact that Project Wingman exists speaks volumes to how much a competent team can do with the tools available to them: despite lacking the resources available to a Triple-A studio, Sector D2 was able to not only put together a polished and smooth experience, but they created a game that rivals the quality of something that ordinarily takes an entire team of developers, graphic artists, voice actors, composers, sound engineers and QA testers to accomplish. In fact, Project Wingman exceeds expectations because Sector D2 was able to implement a complete VR experience within the game. To put things in perspective, Ace Combat 7 only had a partial implementation of VR, providing the experience only across three levels. What Project Wingman is able to achieve is therefore a show to large studios that standards are increasing, and that as the technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, expectations correspondingly increase: having now seen what a three man team can do with a small budget, one must wonder why larger studios, with their increased human resources and funding, cannot put together stable, content-rich and fun games when three people, working with just north of a hundred grand (Canadian dollars) were able to assemble a title that plays well, immerses players entirely and possesses features that are absent in games from much larger teams. Project Wingman represents independent development at its finest, and with Ace Combat 8 on the horizon, expectations are now especially high; both Ace Combat 7 and Project Wingman have shown that the arcade flight combat simulator genre is still alive and well. Having now seen what’s possible in these games, it is fair to expect that a successful title must tell a compelling story, immerse players in a world that’s rich in details, provide a deep progression system that makes replay and customisation worthwhile, and above all, give players the feeling that they can single-handedly change the course of a conflict, much as Project Wingman and Ace Combat‘s past ace pilots have done. In the meantime, Project Wingman‘s thematic elements remain strong for a game whose strong suit is allowing one to fly cool aircraft and blow stuff up in cool places: it speaks to the futility of war, and how regardless of one’s intentions going in, even a desire to go good and fight for what one believes in can become distorted and twisted as one witnesses horror upon horror. Although not quite as direct as how Ace Combat presents its themes, Project Wingman nonetheless is successful in presenting a coherent story. In response to the question I posed about mercenaries, I find that Project Wingman is suggesting that at the end of the day, one should not be consumed by their ideology and continue to do what’s right so long as it doesn’t cost them everything. As Monarch, one gains the sense that while Monarch is successful in this assignment, there are things that they will need to live with in the aftermath of a conflict that has cost so much.

Project Wingman: Turning Tides and The Federation’s Fall Towards the Penultimate Act

“Responsibility walks hand-in-hand with capacity and power.” –J.G. Holland

Upon returning to their base at Rowsdower, Hitman team prepares to land, but immediately find themselves under fire from Klara Rask and a flight of rogue mercenaries. Monarch is able to shoot down these mercenaries and secures the airspace. While Hitman team had intended to leave Cascadia since their assignment had been completed, another squadron persuades them to stick around. Two months after the Cascadian Calamity, Hitman team participates in a strike against Brite Fortress, one of the Federation’s remaining bases. Upon dealing a crippling blow to Brite Fortress, the Federation deploy two Super Tauruses-class land battleships in an attempt to wipe out the attacking Cascadian and Sicario forces, but both end up being destroyed. Later, while assisting in an offensive to take back the Cascadian city of Prospero, Hitman team encounters Crimson team. Monarch single-handedly shoots down all eight pilots, including their leader, Crimson One. The Federation is pushed onto the backfoot, and Cascadia takes the initiative to destroy the Federation Navy so that they can create a naval blockade around Presidia. The Federation Navy proves no match for the combined Cascadian-Sicario forces and are utterly wiped out, paving the path towards taking back Presidia and liberating it from Federation control. Here in Project Wingman‘s penultimate act, the game continues to find ways of surprising players. The missions are slightly shorter now as the game prepares for a titanic operation to liberate the Cascadian capital, and in the process, players have a chance to shoot down Crimson team for themselves, as well as square off against yet another novel kind of foe in the land battleships. However, even though the Federation lays its most powerful remaining cards on the table, this is no matter: sustaining loss after loss has meant that with every passing operation, the Federation is backed into a corner, their chances of victory becoming increasingly slim.

By the time of the strike against what remains of the Federation Navy, it is clear that they have lost the war, even if they’ve not formally sued for peace just yet. Unlike the Federation players squared off against early in Project Wingman, with their vast fleets and capability of filling the skies with railgun fire and aircraft, the Federation here is beaten, broken and exhausted. The ships they have remaining lack the firepower of the vessels they once fielded, and the amount of air cover they can bring to bear is a far cry from what they previously had the power to muster. Gone is the confident and aggressive dialogue: Federation pilots and sailors alike speak with fear whenever Monarch and Hitman team appear. Some soldiers begin doubting what they are fighting for, and wonder when the war would come to an end. Historically, the aggressors in a war have come out worse for wear; Sun Tzu had stated that in war, a quick victory is preferred to a lengthy battle of attrition, as the instigator’s advantage lies in an early momentum. If the aggressor can be forced into a protracted conflict, the defenders usually gain the upper hand because mentally, they are prepared to resist, while the aggressors lose morale, having been denied a swift end to the conflict. Here in Project Wingman, the Federation completely underestimates the resilience of both Cascadians, and the force multiplier they have in Hitman team. Motives determine the outcome: Cascadians are fighting to preserve their very existence and prevent their natural resources from being utilised for conquest, while the Federation is determined to control Cascadia for their own gain: to continue harnessing the power of Cordium to dominate and subjugate. It is therefore unsurprising that people would be so opposed to such an action, and even the Federation’s own soldiers express their doubts that conquering and crushing Cascadia would be helpful towards them.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Upon returning to base amongst a burning world, a familiar voice rings in my ears. Project Wingman isn’t going to allow Monarch a peaceful landing as hostile mercenaries take to the skies in a bid to shoot down Hitman team for cash. Last I wrote about Project Wingman earlier this month, I was using screenshots from my old machine, prior to my move: I had been looking to at least get through three quarters of the game before moving day itself, and I’d been successful in that, having just survived the Cascadian Calamity event.

  • It’s been almost a month since moving day now, and I’ve finally begun settling in to the new place, enough to find a bit of extra time in evenings to take to the skies as Monarch and continue with my campaign against the Federation forces. For games like Project Wingman, the new desktop I’ve built doesn’t even break a sweat and delivers excellent framerates, much as my old machine did. However, it is with titles like Battlefield 2042 and Halo Infinite where the processor is making a difference. Although I’m still feeling the effects of the hard drive failure from a month earlier, I’ve recovered most of my music and the travel photos that I’d backed up to the cloud.

  • The most vital documents, like tax slips, were stored on a separate hard drive, so fortunately, those were not lost. At this point in time, I’ve settled in to using my new rig to about the same extent that I’ve settled in to the new place. Thus, I continued with my journey in Project Wingman, and immediately found myself in a confrontation with mercenaries. Lacking the patience to deal with them using the F/D-14, I ended up switching back over to the Accipiter and outfitted it with an all-guns loadout, allowing me to make short work of my foes.

  • In a matter of minutes, Frost and her wingmen are shot down, leaving me to wrap the mission up. Because autocannon rounds are much harder to dodge than missiles, they prove to be an incredibly valuable asset in missions where there are boss fights. Even if I were to equip the F/D-14 with my usual loadout, for this mission, I would’ve had enough ammunition in my integral cannon to shoot them down. With the rogue mercenaries down, Hitman team prepares to land, pick up their belongings and leave, but when Stardust, another squadron commander, appears, Galaxy is persuaded to stick around and listen.

  • Two months later, Hitman Team find themselves stationed at a different base. For this mission, I decided to pick up the F/S-15. This prototype aircraft is among the most powerful I’ve flown: it has a much looser steering than previous aircraft, accelerates and decelerates much more quickly, and is able to carry a good all-round loadout of anti-air and anti-ground munitions. Compared to ordinary aircraft, prototype planes are significantly more expensive, and the most powerful prototypes have fixed loadouts. The F/S-15 allows players to select their preferred weapons for three slots, and entering the next mission, I ended up going for a different weapon in every slot, giving me capability against all targets, including elites.

  • The seventeenth mission marks a turning point of sorts in Project Wingman in that this is the last point in the game where the Federation is able to deploy large numbers of foes and superweapons. The level opens with a large number of ground targets, and here, the F/S-15’s anti-ground missiles come in handy. Although I’m only able to fire four at a time, compared to the six available to me were I to take the Sk.25U, the F/S-15 more than compensates with the fact that it’s a faster, more manoeuvrable aircraft with considerable anti-air capabilities as well.

  • The wisdom of saving up for a reasonable prototype aircraft soon became apparent as I tore my way through the mission, utilising my munitions to wreck havoc on all targets in the ground and skies alike. Being able to accelerate swiftly, close the distance between an aircraft and tear it up with my guns makes dogfighting even more intense than it had been previously, and I suddenly found myself wondering if I would now have the power to square off against Crimson squadron in mission six. Against surface targets, the F/S-15’s manoeuvrability meant that I was able to evade even railgun shots.

  • The seventeenth mission thus became an immensely enjoyable romp to destroy all targets under the evening skies. From a visual perspective, Project Wingman is able to convey the scale of every mission through the amount of stuff happening on screen, whether it be electrostatic discharges resulting from geothermal activity, railgun rounds leaving ionised beams in the sky or condensation trails resulting from aircraft exhaust and missile fire. Despite the sense of being overwhelmed, Project Wingman never puts players in unfair situations: the aircraft players have access to are all capable of getting the job done.

  • The lightning effects in Project Wingman are impressive, and here, I fly close to a bolt while in pursuit of an airship. Lightning resulting from volcanic activity is the usually consequence of volcanic ash creating static electricity through triboelectric charging. Since there’s no active eruption, and therefore, no ash, one might suppose that the lightning seen here is the consequence of fractoemission, which occurs when heat breaks up rocks. Regardless of the mechanism in Project Wingman, the lightning is meant to show a world torn apart by hubris.

  • By this point in Project Wingman, airships are old hat: despite sporting an impressive amount of firepower, and becoming increasingly powerful as the game wears on, the trick to downing them remains unchanged. Having access to increasingly powerful aircraft corresponds to being able to target multiple weapons on a given airship and then eliminate them by firing on their superstructures. Destroying airships is easiest when using the anti-ship missiles, but these have a very long reload time, so it’s easiest to get comfortable with strafing an airship with multi-target missiles, ordinary missiles and even guns.

  • At the mission’s second half, the land battleships begin appearing. Despite being lumbering vehicles that are easy to hit, they bristle with weapons: attacking them from the top is tricky because they are armed with railguns, anti-air cannons and surface-to-air missiles. To avoid heavy fire, the strategy I adopted was to allow my weapons to lock on, fire, break away and then go for another run. The F/S-15’s performance and loadout meant that this was a viable method, and in this way, I was able to whittle down the land battleships’ arsenals.

  • Once their weapons are gone, land battleships become slow targets that one can pick apart at their leisure. While some reviewers had written that players would be fighting “mecha” during the course of Project Wingman, this is, strictly speaking, untrue: a mecha is usually biomorphic in nature, and the land battleships are more similar to vehicles. Listening to the dialogue that occurs during combat, the Federation calls these land battleships “old” prototypes, implying that they were constructed long ago, and it was only in their desperation that the Federation pulled these out of storage.

  • Small cues such as these speak volumes to how poorly the war is going for the Federation, and yet again, I find myself impressed with how much Project Wingman is able to do through just radio chatter. Even without cutscenes and fully-animated characters, Project Wingman presents an unexpectedly immersive and well-written story for a game whose primary aim is to fly cool aircraft around and blow stuff up. Here, I finish off the last of the land battleships with my machine gun pods to wrap the mission up.

  • With the Federation’s final base in ruins, Monarch returns to base and prepares to land under the evening’s last rays of light. Landing in Project Wingman is similar to what it was in Ace Combat: one only needs to line themselves up with the runway, reduce altitude and then bring their aircraft to just above stalling speed. Precision isn’t too high, since the aircraft will often drop out of the air and onto the runway. Easing back on the velocity until the plane stops will then bring these segments to a close. I’m especially fond of the facility Hitman team is operating out of here: a secluded base with a full-fledged runway wedged into a ravine.

  • While Prospero lies in ruins, Cascadia has determined that the location remains of strategic importance: it is to act as the staging area for mounting a full-scale counteroffensive on the battered and diminished Federation forces. Only a handful of Federation units remain in the area, so there’s actually not too much difficulty for Hitman Team during this mission’s first phase: unlike previous missions, there are a comparatively small number of ground units, and air targets are similarly fewer. Ordinary missiles will do the trick for this mission, but going from the briefing, it felt a little strange that the assignment would be so straightforward.

  • Because the Federation appears unable to muster forces quite to the same extent as they had previously, I imagined that this would be the setting for a confrontation with elite pilots. To this end, I brought the Accipiter and its gun pods to the fight: although the Accipiter is unable to equip the heavy gun pods, which fire high explosive round that can decimate enemy aircraft and ground targets alike, the medium gun pods it can equip fire 20 mm rounds, leaving it a viable choice for dogfighting. The canister gun pod represents an interesting weapon: it fires flechette rounds in a cone-like pattern and can deal as much damage as the heavy gun pods.

  • The erupting volcano in Prospero reminds me a great deal of Mount Fuji: both are stratovolcanoes, and here, the distinct conical profile of Prospero’s mountain can be seen. Having expended only a small amount of ammunition and missiles on the targets in Prospero, the wisdom of bringing the Accipiter to this mission soon became apparent: Crimson squadron arrives, and at this point in Project Wingman, it should be clear that there is no more need to pull punches: Crimson squadron has survived everything until now, even the destruction of the Federation’s other forces.

  • With their prototype aircraft, Crimson squadron is quite resilient against missiles, so having the Accipiter’s gun pods mean a much easier fight. The integral cannon other aircraft carry work just fine, but in a game where gun ammunition is finite on all difficulties, having reserve gun ammunition becomes helpful. Despite rocking the VX-23 and Sk.37 aircrafts, prototypes with high mobility, I was surprised that the Accipiter was able to keep up: once a Crimson squadron aircraft ends up behind my sites, sustained fire from the gun pods and integral cannon can quickly rip up their aircraft.

  • The key to winning dogfights against elite enemies in Project Wingman is therefore considerably different than what it was in Ace Combat: in Ace Combat 7, beating Mihaly simply entailed hitting his aircraft with missiles. However, here in Project Wingman, enemy elites make liberal use of flares or a special component known as the AOA limiter, which allows aircraft to perform high-G turns and post-stall manoeuvres. At close ranges (under a thousand metres), missiles become useless against elites like Crimson team, but guns remain effective.

  • It was with the Accipiter and its guns that I was able to wipe out the entirety of Crimson team. I wound up trying the canister gun pod out: the spread means that it’s quite wasteful at range, but on the flip-side, if all its shots connect at shorter distances, it can quickly shred enemy aircraft. Having extra ammunition to spare meant I was able to use the canister gun pods on what I imagine to be Crimson One: when elites show up in groups, their aircraft are not named, so the dialogue would suggest that no matter which order one destroys these elites in, story-related characters tend to last the longest in a fight.

  • The final mission against what’s left of the Federation fleet really drove home how far they’d fallen: all they can conjure up against Cascadian forces are a handful of light cruisers, frigates and a single aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, Cascadia brings airships armed with railguns to the fight, and with Sicario in their corner, the Federation navy stands no chance at all. For this mission, I ended up picking the Accipiter. Besides its gun pods, the Accipiter has access to a solid range of unguided anti-ground munitions. My personal favourites are the unguided triple bombs and small unguided rockets.

  • Bombing moving targets requires a bit of finesse. but when things line up, even the smaller bombs can be quite devastating. I’ve typically stuck to small bombs because one can carry more of them (at the expense of blast damage), and the triple-volley bombs cover a larger area, allowing more targets to be struck. Having looked at various aircrafts in Project Wingman, it is possible to carry a single large bomb which has a very large blast radius, but this comes at the expense of longer reload times and limited carrying capacity.

  • As it was, using the Accipiter’s rockets and small bombs proved more than sufficient to destroy what remained of the Federation fleet. On the topic of fleet destruction, I’ve been keeping abreast of current events, and given the nature of the mass media, I will remark it is exceedingly difficult to ascertain what is actually going on. This is why I tend to leave politics out of my discussions in general; without a complete picture, one cannot even form an informed opinion of what’s going on, because the media only portrays things in a way that favours whatever their narrative is.

  • For something like what happens in Project Wingman, then, it would be equivalent to the Cascadian media over-reporting on their successes over the Federation, whereas the Federation are more likely to downplay their losses. Because it is not possible to get a clear picture of what actually occurred, civilians in Cascadia and the Federation alike would have no idea how well, or poorly, the war is going at a given point. Nowadays, the problem is exacerbated by social media and so-called KOLs; when everyone is given the platform and audience they need to play make-believe and act like an expert, the amount of noise increases.

  • For folks who count on assessing multiple viewpoints to draw a conclusion, things can therefore get a little rowdy. On the other hand, people who do not have the time to sift through everything may be given the (mistaken) impression that one particular perspective, or narrative, holds true. I’ve noticed that this is becoming an especially prevalent problem at AnimeSuki; names like mangamuscle and ramlaen dominate all political “discourse”, and this talk has displaced even the anime discussion there. I fail to see the merits of such conversation, especially when there is a stubborn refusal to consider other sides of the coin. As it was, seeing the same sentiments, and same dubious sources being shared repeatedly offers nothing of merit; all it does is create an environment where critical thinking is not tolerated, and one where hatred is encouraged.

  • As it is, I have no intention of participating in such lunacy; the key to avoid being convinced of one’s own correctness is to appreciate that we are unlikely to get a complete picture of any news related to foreign affairs, and therefore, tread cautiously wherever such news is concerned – it is sufficient to keep one’s thoughts to oneself and not share/retweet news on social media. Conversely, things are considerably more black-and-white in Project Wingman: as Monarch, players can see plainly what the Federation’s been doing, and what both Hitman team and Cascadia have done. Here, I open fire with the unguided rockets on a Federation cruiser and cause it to explode spectacularly with a single volley.

  • One of the challenges I had entering the nineteenth mission’s second act was the appearance of the Federation navy’s second fleet. Having expended quite a bit of my ammunition already, I wondered if I had enough left in the tank to take on the marked targets. Missions like these demand that players purchase aircraft beyond the trainer planes one starts out with on the sheer virtue that all of the other planes in Project Wingman can equip more weapons, and therefore, possess the endurance to actually finish these missions.

  • The second Federation fleet includes an aircraft carrier that will deploy a number of F/D-14s into the skies, plus a handful of larger battleships armed with railguns. This represents one final hurrah for their forces: although the railguns are an impressive-looking weapon, they are easily dodged, and the plasma trails they leave immediately telegraph their position. In the end, I had just enough unguided rockets and bombs left to handle the fleet. The writing’s on the wall at this point, and the fact that this mission takes place during a sunset accentuates the fact that the Federation’s twilight has arrived.

  • This mission therefore has a bit of a finality to it: fighting the weakened Federation shows that the Cascadian conflict is almost at a close; at this point in time, only two more missions remain on the plate, and with the Cascadians now on the doorstep of their capital, I imagine that the final missions will entail taking back Presidia and bringing an end to what was ultimately a meaningless conflict, albeit one that allows players to fly cool aircraft outfitted with an array of cool weapons into battles over exceedingly cool locations.

  • It goes without saying that I’ve had an immensely enjoyable time with Project Wingman: the journey to complete this title has spanned a comparatively short two months, but even now, it is clear that I’m going to get a great deal of replay value out of this title as I work towards unlocking all of the aircraft in the campaign, and begin trying the conquest mode out, which is an endless mode that pits players against Federation forces in procedurally generated missions. Conquest mode is something that looks like it will give Project Wingman nigh-endless replay value, and together with the fact that this game has full VR support, I’m genuinely impressed with how many surprises this game possesses.

Having now brought the war back to Presidia’s doorstep, it does appear that all that’s left to bring the Cascadian Conflict to a close is one final, decisive defeat of the remaining Federation forces that still occupy Presidia. In the time since Project Wingman has begun, I’ve had a fantastic time with mastering the basics, and in this time, I’ve also accumulated enough funds to purchase the F/S-15, a prototype F-15 with an obscene number of hard points, excellent manoeuvrability and solid performance in both anti-air and anti-ground operations. With the F/S-15, I was able to flatten the Federation’s land battleships, although for other missions, I stuck with the Accipiter, which has proven to be an immensely fun aircraft to use owing to its ability to equip gun pods and a solid array of anti-ground weapons. In most games, late-game weapons and equipment tend to overshadow what’s available early in the game, and this progression is meant to give players more capabilities as they become increasingly learned with mechanics. However, the end result of this is that early-game options are rendered obsolete. In Ace Combat, early aircraft have a much more limited payload and reduced manoeuvrability compared to planes unlocked later on, so it becomes more difficult to use them in later missions. Conversely, here in Project Wingman, all aircraft have similar basic weapon capabilities, and while their handling traits differ, they differ in a way so that the endgame planes take considerably more skill to use effectively. The F/S-15, for instance, feels much more loose than does the F/D-14 or T/F-4 (one feels as though they could lose control and slam into the ground), and a careless pilot could empty out its multiple lock-on missiles in a heartbeat. However, pilots accustomed to the flight mechanics can take advantage of this to easily get behind other planes, and careful ammunition management allows one to effectively use the F/S-15’s weapons without running out. The planes in Project Wingman grow with the player, and in exchange for asking players to first acclimatise to the game’s mechanics, Project Wingman entrusts greater power to pilots with more experience. The basic planes work very well throughout the game, and as one improves, they are conferred access to the tools that make the process smoother.