“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 Combat: Ace 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.