Down in Flames is a virtual card game involving World War II planes, focusing on turn-based aerial combat. Players do not take the perspective of a particular pilot, but instead steer a squadron of planes from an overseer's point of view. Represented by informative cards, each aircraft is rated in several categories, including Performance, Horsepower, Bursts, and Airframe, and these statistics help determine the actions it can take each turn. Gameplay involves maneuvering friendly aircraft into advantageous position, allowing them to fire on an enemy without winding up in his sights. As the campaign continues, the player's pilots gain experience and new abilities. Down in Flames lets players take command of United States, United Kingdom, German, or Japanese forces.
Let me begin this review of Down in Flames with a statement: I am not a fan of card games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon because they've never made sense to me. I expected something akin to a flight sim which allowed the player to pilot his planes and make special moves during the dogfight by queuing up "cards," sort of how Star Wars Galaxies originally worked. After installing Down in Flames, trying to play, reading manual, and trying to play again, I took it to a card-playing friend, but his reaction was the same as mine - this game is not intuitive.
The basic premise of Down in Flames is a recreation of World War II dogfighting as a card-based game, in which maneuver and attack cards are played much as they are in other games of this nature. I suspect the actual card game was much more accessible than this incarnation, as the rules of the cards are likely printed right on them. The assumption made in the electronic version of the game is that the player knows and understands them.
Play occurs over six turns made up of five phases each: wingman, altitude, leader discard and draw. During the leader or wingman turn, you can order your pilot to use available attacks or maneuvers by selecting any action that is highlighted in yellow on the right-hand side of the screen.
As an example, I opted to perform a "vertical roll" in order to evade the enemy pilot's shots. My next turn was for the wingman to attack, and an "in my sights" card was highlighted yellow. The enemy plane swerved around in its limited way and dodged the shots by using an "ace pilot."
This sort of gameplay continues throughout, with the altitude turn allowing your pilots to climb or dive to one of five altitudes (very low, low, medium, high, and very high) and allowing the discarding of cards and the drawing of new ones. After the six turns, you get a review page, which tells you how you did and declares whether the mission was a minor victory or loss.
Your pilots may suffer lasting damage effects to their planes, but they can also earn experience points which can be spent on buying specific cards with which to begin the next game. If this doesn't sound very clear, it isn't. At no point, even after reading a lot of the huge manual, did I have the slightest idea what I was doing or what was going on.
The graphics in Down in Flames are as unfulfilling as the gameplay. They amount to slightly animated planes wobbling their wings, swerving back and forth, climbing diving, or doing loops and rolls. The individual animations are fairly well executed but have no context in relation to the other planes, the environment, or each other. When a move is selected, they just snap from their static image to the animation with no smooth transition.
Usually, the moves are accompanied with a sound blurb that ranges from the radio voices of Japanese pilots to the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns or the sound of the planes diving or exploding. However, you tend to hear the same dozen or so sound clips repeated quite often. There are also radio blurbs you hear in the game lobby, which sound like actual clips from WWII newsreels. The audio clips from WWII were the most redeeming feature of Down in Flames, but they really have nothing to do with the game, other than lending some context and color. Otherwise, the audio is a little confusing; I've been attacked by Japanese pilots but was never certain about it because I'd have heard British pilots speaking immediately beforehand.
There is also a networking play option, which connects to online servers where you can play against real people. Apparently, there are a number of people who do play this game online, but I was unable to create pilots and play online, as every time I attempted to create a pilot, it lost the connection to the server. Additionally, I only ever saw one person in the chat room, but he appeared to be unresponsive.
There are probably some niche players out there who will love Down in Flames, but the steep learning curve, unfulfilling graphics and repetitive sound bites definitely rule out this title as an introduction to the genre.
People who downloaded Down in Flames have also downloaded:
East Front 2, Gary Grigsby's World At War, Divided Ground: Middle East Conflict 1948-1973, Dragoon: The Complete Battles of Frederick The Great, Gary Grigsby's Pacific War (2000), Desert Rats vs. Afrika Korps, Dune 2000, Dune 2: The Battle for Arrakis
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