Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China Review

By Andrew Ogley,
Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China attempts to bring an under-represented genre and an under-represented combat theatre to the console. Based on real-life history, it wishes to recreate the exploits of the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) recruited to defend China against Japanese forces over a period of seven months between 1941 and 1942. Often under-resourced and almost always out-numbered, the Flying Tigers fought a gallant and brave campaign and pulled off some amazing and historic aerial victories. It's into this theatre of war that the player is thrown, reliving some of those famous aerial battles from the short but very intense campaign.

FTSOC Screens

The dozen or so single player campaign missions capture some of the key moments of the real-life campaign. The missions are diverse and the player will find themselves in various aircraft performing various mission objectives. Missions may require bombing runs on enemy airfields, dropping torpedos on ships, or strafing ground targets. There are even occasions where the player will take on the role of a tail gunner keeping enemy fighters at bay. Of course, the key gameplay revolves around epic dogfights in skies buzzing with a dizzying number of planes.

Each mission consists of a number of sequential objectives, around four or five, often separated by checkpoints. Failing one objective resets to the last checkpoint without having to start the whole mission all over again. During some of the more intense combat sequences, it's not necessary to kill all of the enemies, just enough to make them disperse and run. This seems strange when the odds are stacked against you and frustrating when you're on a streak and the enemy scatters, triggering the next objective. Overall, the campaign is relatively quick, around six to eight hours, and provides familiarisation with the flight controls and aircraft.

On paper, this may all seem quite interesting, but it's only when you get into the body of the campaign that you see a few cracks appearing. Each mission begins with a cutscene that sets up the story, but here the dialog seems cliché and a little questionable in regards to the content of the dialogue in some respects. Cutscenes can also sometimes be triggered in between mission objectives, which can feel jarring as control is taken away from the player during those moments. Fortunately, all of the cutscenes are skippable by just holding down one of the buttons.

FTSOC Screens

The title does not try to be a full-on flight-sim and controlling the aircraft is relatively easy. There is a choice of arcade-like controls or slightly more complex pitch and yaw, which require a little more skill but reward the pilot with a more refined degree of control. More experienced pilots might also want to switch from one of the external third-person cameras to the internal cockpit view for the extra level of authenticity and immersion. Single player modes include the Dogfight, Challenges and Free Flight modes. In Dogfight, you're able to select the number and type of enemy you want to face off against, and there's even a wave-based horde mode available. The challenge mode will push you to achieve certain targets, usually within a time limit. To keep it competitive, everything is recorded on global leaderboards. All of the modes provide ample opportunity to practice and fine-tune your piloting skills.

Practice is certainly recommended as the aerial combat can be overwhelming and confusing when the skies around you seem to be full of enemy planes. Trying to keep the darting and weaving targets in the crosshairs can be challenging almost to the point of frustration. Couple that with the moment of panic as an enemy fighter lines up behind you ready to open fire and it all becomes quite intense. In arcade mode, a double tap on the d-pad will invoke an evasive roll or loop maneuver, but with advanced controls, you'll have to handle it yourself.

If you're in a bomber you'll need plan B as only the agile fighters can pull off the evasive combat stunts. Each plane feels and flies slightly differently, and you'll be locked to specific aircraft during the missions. However, in the other modes, you'll be able to choose from the fairly impressive roster, including the Japanese planes that you don't get to fly in the campaign. There are also multiple military liveries to choose from, representing the different flying forces both real and fictional.

FTSOC Screens

Graphically the game's environments look good. Close up the trees and shrubbery pop-in, but given the expanse of the combat arena, it could be forgiven. There are diverse geographic areas too, varying from the snowy Himalayas to the jungle and desert plains. The aircraft look sharp from the outside, although the cockpit camera showing the instrumentation is less flattering. There are even effects simulating blackouts due to the effects of GLOC when pulling steep climbs or loops. The weakest part of the graphics is the representation of enemy ground forces, a little ironic when you'll be focusing a fair bit of attention on them during the campaign.

Aviation enthusiasts will be better judges but the sounds of the engines, for example, the Merlin that powered the Spitfire, seem authentic enough. Strangely, as far as audio goes, it's the combat sounds that seem to be lacking. There is gunfire and explosions, but you'd expect an audio cue when your plane is being riddled with gunfire, yet it seems oddly quiet.

Sadly, multiplayer is currently a mixed bag and rather hard to assess. When it worked, it was extremely challenging and genuinely good fun, but therein lay the problem: it didn't always work as planned. There are various multiplayer modes, Dogfight Vs, Team Dogfight, Rocket Match Vs, Rocket Match Team, and Flag Capture, all of which support up to 16 players online. Unfortunately, the virtual skies were already quiet with only four or five players ever appearing on the European servers; more often than not, there were no online games to be found. The net-code also seemed to struggle on occasions with noticeable lag. Worse still, during a number of multiplayer sessions, the game crashed either with a complete lockup or returning to the home screen.

FTSOC Screens

There are 28 achievements, most of which are attainable through singleplayer, with just five for online play. Additionally, there are five zero-point achievements linked to challenges within the game. The single player achievements are relatively straightforward, with the majority being unlocked with just over five hours of play.

Summary

The aerial combat genre is a very under-represented and niche genre on the console. FT:SOC is a budget-priced game and it does feel like this; it might not be the title to bring in new fans but it gives existing fans a new title to while away a few hours. There's a fair bit of content, and the combat can be intense and challenging. However, the lasting appeal of the title will depend on the multiplayer arena, and given that the virtual skies were already relatively deserted and there is unreliable network behavior, this doesn't look too promising. This is a shame, because when it worked, it was good fun. Casual players might enjoy picking up the relatively quick achievements that are available, but this is mainly a title for those fans of the aerial combat genre.
3 / 5
Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China
Positives
  • Plenty of aircraft and environments from which to choose
  • Different and little-known theatre of war
  • Multiplayer dogfights are good fun but challenging
Negatives
  • Frequent crashes to home screen in multiplayer lobbies
  • Multiplayer is already very quiet
  • Single player campaign is relatively short
Ethics
The reviewer roamed the skies for about 15 hours, unlocking 19 of the 28 achievements. An Xbox One digital download code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review.
Andrew Ogley
Written by Andrew Ogley
Andrew has been writing for TA since 2011 covering news, reviews and the occasional editorials and features. One of the grumpy old men of the team, his mid-life crisis has currently manifested itself in the form of an addiction to sim-racing - not being able to afford the real life car of his dreams. When not spending hours burning simulated rubber, he still likes to run around, shoot stuff and blow things up - in the virtual world only of course.