“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 Combat, Project 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 Feat, Firewatch 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.