War is hell. Apart from when you’re playing Rogue Aces. Then war is awesome! It’s as if the Infinite State Games have managed to bring the 2D shoot ’em ups of my youth kicking and screaming into 2018. Drawing on a wide range of influences from the heyday of the arcade shooter, Rogue Aces does more than enough to stand apart from the classics of yesteryear.
Let me just get this out of the way early on; Rogue Aces is brilliant. In fact, I challenge you to play this arcade shooter and not have a smile on your face the entire time. From the opening title screen, it’s as if the 1990s never went away. A cry of ‘ROOOGGUUEEE AACCEEESS!!!’ descends into thumping music worthy of inducing a severe case of air guitar on any who listen to it.
The game itself is a wraparound 2D shooter. Initially it feels and plays like Sky Kid with the aesthetics of one of Sensible Software’s finest, Cannon Fodder, yet Rogue Aces is very much its own game. Your fighter plane launches from an aircraft carrier to travel from left to right, destroying enemy targets on its way along a procedurally generated landscape. Just make sure never to go right to left upon take-off, or at least not until you’ve severely levelled up both your abilities your plane.
There’s enemy fighter planes to dog fight with, troopers to mow down with machine gun fire, and tanks, buildings and AA guns to bomb into oblivion. There’s a vast space above the battlefield, allowing the player to loop, roll and spin like Maverick on amphetamine. Just be careful you don’t stall.
The flight mechanics and controls achieve the difficult balance of being both simple to pick up and having great depth. It is this that makes the game so satisfying to play. On a first run through, most players will spend an inordinate amount of time crashing and exploding in spectacular fashion – I know I did – but then it all starts to click. Steering the aircraft is mapped to the controller’s left stick whilst the throttle is controlled by the right. It doesn’t take long before you’re dropping your throttle to perform tight manoeuvres close to the ground and put you in prime position for a bombing run, or managing to glide your way to a safe landing despite your plane spewing black smoke and flame like a vehicular extra from Mad Max: Fury Road.
Gunplay is fast and frantic, but I always felt in control of my plane and aware of its position, despite countless explosions, enemies and bullets. This is certainly helped by the smart design decision of allowing the player to fly through enemy vehicles and buildings without taking damage. Crashing into the ground is, of course, fatal, but otherwise the player is free to zip through the air to their hearts content, unperturbed by the possibility of a mid-air collision.
That doesn’t mean that Rogue Aces is easy, however. The game wears its arcade sensibilities on its sleeve and, whilst the difficulty does ramp up gradually, at its hardest Rogue Aces is crushingly difficult. If you think that you are a master of 2D shooters, then Infinite State will do its very best to change your mind and make you realise that you are rubbish.
There’s a decent tutorial here that covers the basics of flight, combat and the infuriatingly difficult and unnecessarily precise discipline of landing your plane. Thankfully, to avoid frustration, there is an auto land feature that will see your plane touch down safely at the expense of some points from your high score, but seeing as you’ll be landing a lot to rearm and refuel your plane, receive new mission orders and capture enemy airfields, it’s worth putting the effort in to find out how to do it for yourself. The first time I managed to land my plane on my own without any accidental self-inflicted death was certainly a fist pump moment.
However, most of what you need to know isn’t in the tutorial. This is a game of trial and experimentation. Can I leap from my plane to capture another aircraft? Can I drop a bomb on a fighter plane? Can I use my propeller blades to slice through paratroopers and save on bullets? In each case the answer is yes. It really is up to the gamer to play within the sandbox and discover new tactics to use and approaches to take.
In particular, the ‘sky jacking’ mechanic is thrilling. That life and death moment of leaping from one plane to another blows anything comparable, like the vehicle capturing seen in the Just Cause series, out of the water. You have three planes in any one gaming session but only one life. If your pilot is killed, then it’s off to the game over screen for you. This ensures that making that fateful leap is the ultimate case of risk and reward. It’s a defining moment in a game of stand-out experiences.
There’s replayability to be found here, as plentiful game modes are unlocked while you rack up your high score. There’s the long-term play of the ‘Frontlines’ mode, in which the player captures islands in a turn-based fashion to gradually make their way to the enemy base, but this mode unfortunately reveals the weakness at the heart of Rogue Aces. The ‘thirty seconds of fun’ gameplay model can soon become repetitive when stretched over a full campaign and the limited enemy variety certainly doesn’t help. This weakness, however, is well hidden by the pure frenzy of ‘Rogue Ace’, an arcade mode that sees a fully powered up player compete for a high score.
This is the arcade game the 12-year-old version of you was always meant to play. Fast, frantic, outrageously challenging and with the sort of free-form play that requires and rewards player creativity. Infinite State Games have created something very special here. I’ll see you in the skies, just try and beat my high score.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 – Also available on PS Vita and Nintendo Switch