The First World War seems to get forgotten by video game makers, who invariably opt to turn to the sequel for inspiration. Which is a shame, because there's a relatively untapped seam of strategic possibilities within the earlier setting; a primitive chaos that, if properly harnessed, could provide a thrilling gaming experience.
For this reason we should perhaps be glad for once of a movie tie-in, for the 2007 release of Flyboys (starring that bloke out of Spider-Man and him out of Leon) just so happens to have been set during The Great War. As you may have guessed from the title, it chooses to focus on the pioneering exploits of the world's first aerial combatants. This was the time of The Red Baron, biplanes and tally-ho heroism. But can the mobile iteration capture the spirit of the times?
You play the part of a rookie American pilot who has volunteered to join the fledgling French air force of the early 20th century. Under the guidance of Captain Thenault you fly through a variety of combat missions, ranging from engaging a squadron of German Fokkers (stop sniggering at the back) to protecting a French base from a battalion of German tanks.
The game is played from a classic first-person cockpit perspective, with a crosshair in the centre of the screen and a radar at the bottom. And though the tasks you are set by Captain Thenault appear varied they basically consist of the same thing – point your plane in the direction of the red blip on your radar and hold your finger on the fire button when you get within range of your target. If it's a ground-based target you'll need to alter your orientation accordingly, but it's essentially the same process taking out an anti-aircraft gun as it is for a blimp.
The graphics are equally uniform, with a permanent painterly clouded sky hovering over the rudimentary trees and fields of continental Europe. There's not quite enough variation in ground detail to give you a precise idea of your altitude or speed, but as you're kept within a narrow vertical field of movement by the game's invisible barriers you won't have to worry about crashing into the ground or getting altitude sickness.
Unfortunately, given the game's focus, the combat suffers from a sluggish pace and jerky movement. As such it quickly becomes a chore, waiting what seems like an age to engage your enemies. When that engagement finally arrives it lacks any sense of drama or speed, as you slowly bring your foe into your sights. It seems to take an inordinate amount of lead to bring them down, too – understandable if it's a tank you're facing, not so much if it's a biplane, and pretty tedious in either event.
Nevertheless there is a certain amount of tension to each skirmish as you scan the horizon for a hostile speck. The missions where you are charged with protecting allied units go further towards lending a sense of urgency to proceedings, making up slightly for the wallowing pace.
In the end, though, Flyboys' combat simply lacks the necessary panache for us to recommend it as a worthwhile purchase. Were the game not so reliant on this side of things it would be forgivable. Unfortunately, in fluffing its one key feature, Flyboys is shot down in flames before it ever gets to take off.