When offered the opportunity to review the Damage Inc. Collector’s Edition, a new flight sim published by Mad Catz and packaged with an updated Saitek AV8R flight stick, I wouldn’t say that I jumped at the chance. I always have mixed feelings when it comes to Mad Catz. I’ve had good experiences with some of their stuff, but I’ve also been disappointed in the past. Those past experiences aren’t what caused my initial trepidation, though. No, what really concerned me was the nature of the product on offer: this wasn’t just a flight stick, this was also a flight sim/game published by Mad Catz themselves in an attempt to jump into the game publishing business.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the realm of flying games is a particularly tough and unforgiving arena to start in. After all, it’s not exactly a niche genre - there are many strong competitors in that segment with years of experience under their belts. Rising to the level of the current state of the art would be incredibly challenging for a novice publisher. We all love an underdog, though, so I decided that it would be fun to take a look and see how they, and the development team at Trickstar Games, did.
One of the more attractive aspects to me was the promise of historical accuracy. The game concentrates on the air war in the Pacific, and that is a fascinating piece of history. Because that aspect of WWII was fought over vast areas of empty water from bases separated by hundreds of miles, the entire theatre of war was primarily focused on air warfare. Consider Pearl Harbor: a land assault was clearly not an option, and an assault by sea could not have succeeded since the odds of pulling off a surprise attack were vanishingly small. No, that part of the war could only be fought by airplanes. While there were sea battles fought between large flotillas of warships, to a large degree those battles were fought with the goal of protecting our aircraft carriers or sinking theirs. Even most of the bloodiest land battles were fought in the interest of occupying islands to be used as bases for aerial attacks against Japan.
Because I had received the Collector’s Edition, there are actually two things to talk about: the flight stick and the game itself. Starting with the flight stick, the new one that came with the game feels pretty much like the Saitek AV8R of old, which is to say light and plasticy. The center return spring on the newer stick feels lighter than the old, which is unfortunate. I like a strong spring resistance on a flight stick because it helps to reduce over-controlling, but the spring on the new stick was so light that I immediately knew it was going to be a problem for me. Your mileage will vary, of course.
The new design does break away from the modernistic design of the older stick and looks very much like the kind of grip you would see in an actual WWII fighter. There are four toggle switches across the front face of the base of the unit, and two throttles on the back, although on the new stick they are joined in the middle to make a single throttle control. As with the original AV8R, the grip twists to provide yaw control. There are three thumb buttons and a mini hat switch on the top of the grip, and another hat switch in the middle of the toggle switches on the base. The face of the base also includes a headphone jack to allow for voice chat.
Jumping into the single-player story mode, the game starts with a first-person narrative that explains the devastation wreaked on the economy by a three-year drought compounded by the stock market crash and ensuing depression in the early 30’s. The narrator, who will ultimately be the character the player controls throughout the game, lived on an Oklahoma farm with his little brother Jimmy until the loss of the farm due to the drought caused the family to move to the city to find work. Meanwhile, Hitler was causing tumult in Europe and the Japanese were exercising imperialistic muscle in the far east. Because of this, the military was hiring. One thing led to another and our avatar ended up in the Navy as a pilot based at Pearl Harbor. And we all know (or should) what happened then.
That comes later, though. The first mission is much more of a tutorial, and we learn a few things from it. First, we learn that the flight stick works pretty well, although it does take conscious effort to avoid over-controlling. We learn that the graphics of the game are pretty good and that it can be fun to just fly around for awhile sightseeing. We also quickly learn that the historical accuracy of the game does not stretch as far as realistic performance numbers for the airplanes. I put it to you that no 1940’s era P-40 Warhawk could do 500+ knots of airspeed. Just sayin’.
We also learn that the flight physics, even in the ‘Simulation’ difficulty setting, are pure arcade and bear little to no resemblance to reality. But, as Donald Rumsfeld famously said, you go to war with the physics you have, not the physics you want. The ludicrous physics actually came in handy later in the war when I was tasked with dive bombing an aircraft carrier - I was able to fly directly over the target, pull into a straight up climb for as long as I wanted, and pull over right into a straight down dive. That made aiming pretty darn easy! Too easy, in fact.
And that is another hallmark of Damage, Inc. It is pretty easy to rack up fifty, sixty, or more than one hundred kills in one mission, at least in the difficulty setting called ‘Pilot.’ That’s pure arcade, of course, and again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it does definitely remove any degree of satisfaction one would get from winning a hard fought dog fight. It causes some logical inconsistencies in the story, though. Early in the game, I flew an overly lengthy me-against-the-entire-Japanese-air-force mission in which I was able to knock down an extremely impressive number of Japanese fighters, but never even got a shot off at one particular Japanese fighter that was then able to make an attack that altered my character’s view of the entire war. In another case, I had to make repeated target runs against a Japanese aircraft carrier to knock out its anti-aircraft guns in order to make it safer for me to torpedo it. The thing is, I could have launched a torpedo on any of those repeated runs and sunk the entire carrier, at which point the AA guns would have all been taken care of at once.
I mentioned an overly long mission. This was another game play aspect I think could have been done better. Many of the missions were structured such that you had an assigned goal, but other things kept coming up to extend the mission. It’s like when you’re just sitting down to watch TV when your wife says, “Hey, while you’re up....” You get back up, get her what she wants, and just as you’re poised to sit down again, she’s all “Hey, you know what would go good with this?” and off you go again. In some of the missions I got to where I just wanted it to be done, and often thought that the whole “American industry goes to war!” thing must have just been empty propaganda; after all, I was single-handedly fighting the mighty Japanese Navy and winning, so what did we need all those other weapons for??
The most challenging aspects of the flighting were turning out to be keeping the airplane steady on target, especially in the strafing missions or in air-to-air missions that had a limited amount of time available to kill all of the opposing fighters. This too eventually became too easy when I discovered Reflex Time. This is not precisely like bullet time in that everything slows to a crawl, not just the opponents. What it does allow you to do is quite casually knock out multiple targets in a single pass. And because there is no limit to how long reflex time can be used, it makes every battle or mission incredibly easy. At the end of the day, you’re left with a game that presents no challenge at all. And that, I’m here to say, is not really a game, arcade or otherwise.
Multiplayer might be the cure for that, but I wasn’t able to find out. There is online multiplayer for 2-8 players, but being a pre-release version of the game it is unlikely that I would have been able to find any opponents, and beside that I still would have had the problems with getting online caused by my child moving out of the house to go to college and taking our wireless adapter and Xbox Live login info with her. There is also an online co-op mode, but that would more than likely suffer from the same weaknesses of the single-player mode.
All in all, I’d chalk this up as a pretty good first effort from Mad Catz, but I would be hesitant to recommend Damage Inc. to an experienced flight simmer. That said, the packaging is attractive and the flight stick works well enough, so I could easily seeing it being a good way for someone new to the genre to get started.