17 Reviews

Review: Luftrausers burns bright, burns out

By Rob Crossley on Friday 21st Mar 2014 at 12:41 PM UTC

Scattering the sky with fighter planes is quite possibly the squarest concept Vlambeer can muster. It's a departure to more conventional surroundings; a well deserved holiday away from the signature strangeness that sometimes overshadows the studio's raw talent.

Let's not forget the Netherlands based dev duo broke onto the scene with a Mario Bros-style game laced with crate boxes and bazookas, followed by an award winning iOS fishing frenzy that flips out into an airborne seafood massacre.

Hardcore Asteroids, which is what Luftrausers represents at an elemental level, doesn't subscribe to Vlambeer's reputation for the unexpected and super-ridiculous, which is perhaps the smartest mistake the studio could make.

Luftrausers stands as proof that Vlambeer can throw off the clown costume and still show everyone a good time. There's still the odd idiosyncratic character dotted here and there, thankfully, but the core gameplay itself is no cat gif.

This is clearly the work of a young games studio at its most confident. No fat, no script, all fun

Luftrausers is hell. A brutal, unremitting, glorious airborne onslaught. It plunges the player into a sepia-toned purgatory; a strip of air occupied by an infinitely spawning fleet of randomly generated enemies.

The resistance is at times a spectacle in itself - a miasma of bullets and suicide attacks, flanked by zippy fighter jets, with warships peppering torpedoes into the sky and submarine missiles slugging across the screen. Explosions flower like beautiful Roman Candles and gigantic zeppelin-like airships shower shrapnel from the heavens.

Together these foes try to expunge the player as though it were a virus - encircling it, darting at it, sputtering bright bulbous bullets through the sky, rushing in from off-screen, relentlessly, until you're gone.

Vlambeer's death-trap is compressed between an overcast sky above and an ocean below (both of which are unsurpassable, and in fact cause damage if touched). This letterboxed strip of airspace is inescapably boundless too; flying far to the east will only create more east.

The only choice is to not go gentle into that good night. Luftrausers wants to share your last seconds of life; your defiant charge against the inevitable. It cheers you on, tells you to never give up, offers dramatic glimmers of hope, then it kills you.

Entering an environment as murderous as this means the player will peak, lull, and find some luck on any given go

Your fighter plane splutters bolts and coughs engine smoke as it bursts through clouds, spinning imperfectly as if dizzy, flopping gracelessly into the sea with a fleet of foes on its tail, bouncing back up into the chaos.

That's as far as it goes. By the third hour you'll realise Luftrausers won't offer more than that glorious dance with death. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Melody maker A hangar section, accessible from the title menu, allows players to modify and outright overhaul their fighter craft. A chemistry set of thrusters, plane bodies and weapons offers up more than a hundred variations to an aircraft.

Luftrausers' party trick is that the melodies and instruments of its soundtrack correspond with each aircraft part the player chooses, giving each possible ship its own soundtrack.

Some combinations, such as one where the player carries a nuclear payload, creates impromptu shortcuts to specific objectives such as downing warships that usually withstand tremendous levels of conventional attacks.

Despite the intrigue of mixing aircraft parts, players will likely stick to their most comfortable choices in the long run.

It was Mark Skaggs, of the polemical social games firm Zynga, who said during a GDC 2011 talk that "you can't solve gameplay problems by just adding depth". It was one of the smartest quotes that, for some reason or another, was not repeated or heard again.

Luftrausers is a testament to that philosophy. It hinges everything on its core dogfighting mechanics, set against a harmony of procedurally generated AI, and resists the temptation to add in level 2.

This is clearly the work of a young games studio at its most confident. No fat, no script, all fun.

But sometimes that confidence spills into complacency. More thorough-minded developers, the likes of Nintendo and Valve, wouldn't even release a bowling game without some kind of tutorial guide.

During my first two hours on Luftrausers, I was unaware that letting go of the fire button (something one should never do in a state of perpetual panic) recharged your airplane's health. Such advice flashes once, like legal text, at the foot of the screen.

Luftrausers is available on PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, Linux and PS Vita. The graphics are their most attractive on the Vita's OLED, but controls better with a console pad

While Vlambeer fans probably don't need their hands held, Luftrausers outright absconds from its responsibilities once you're in. During the gaps between games, in particular, it should be chatting with the player a little more, relaying tips and reinforcing controls.

An RPG element (completing certain objectives will level the player up) at least gives Luftrausers a sense of progress, but the action is so hostile that players do not improve as deliberately as they should.

Entering an environment as murderous as this means the player will peak, lull, and find some luck on any given go, but Luftrausers' inherent randomness means gradual improvement is not so perceptible. Moments of glory are sandwiched between frustrating injustices.

There is only so much hostility a player can tolerate, and eventually it feels smarter to put Luftrausers away than keep it in your hands.

Vlambeer's ambitions are perfectly understandable, but one wonders how far its latest curio could have gone had the gameplay been more orchestrated, and less randomly generated.

The verdict

An electrifying dance with death, absolutely, but the same song is on repeat

  • Masterful core design
  • Smart soundtrack layering
  • Thrilling airborne brutality
  • Unpredictable enemy attacks
  • Tends to be unhelpful
  • Lacks long-term ideas
PlayStation Vita
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