Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Curiously, Fractal Combat (Out Now, $0.99) has to be the first flight combat game I’ve played that doesn’t have a lick of plot. Whether it was Star Fox, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron or, on this platform, Galaxy on Fire 2, I’ve found the genre rife with narrative potential even if it’s the inanimate fighter craft that first draw players in. Regardless of what you think about games-as-story, you have to admit a good plot can be useful if it encourages a healthy variety of mission objectives, and if the writers’ creativity spurs the game designers’ own imaginations. In riding on cool sci-fi ships and upgrades alone, Fractal Combat misses out on the spice of what makes a truly great videogame.
Who knows whether the pilot seated in the player’s ship is a space vigilante, a galactic law enforcement officer or an outright terrorist; whatever the case, his or her mission is to hop from planet to planet shooting lots and lots of missiles. Without exception Fractal Combat’s levels boil down to destroying several targets widely dispersed over its maps — only their number and how hardened they are varies. Flying boss targets that aggressively give chase make for the game’s best moments, but these are too few and introduced too late in the campaign to mix things up sufficiently. Moreover, these differ from regular enemies in how many missiles they dish out and how many it takes to bring them down, rather than how the player should approach their destruction. The player’s ship is constantly under siege from less important foes, so the key to survival is to run it through energy upgrades left over from destroyed enemies, replenishing the fighter craft’s shields before the opposition can tear through its non-replenishable armor.
More problematic than the sense of déjà vu the player’s liable to get while taking down the same enemies time and again is his or her own limited repertoire. The fact that the player’s score flows directly into upgrade funds is appreciated, but there are no ballistics to play with other than an unlimited payload of fire-and-forget missiles. Only their power and lock-on range change with upgrades. The fact that the craft available for purchase fall into two very different classes would have helped if the helicopter class didn’t feel so incredibly ill-suited to Fractal Combat’s missions. I couldn’t wait to unlock a hovercraft that looked like it came straight out of Avatar, but I was dismayed with how deliberately the player has to dive and lose altitude to make it budge forward. Energy upgrades disappear in the time it takes for this type of vehicle to zigzag over, and its general lack of maneuverability leaves it as a sitting duck for enemy pot shots.
The fixed wing aircraft on offer handle infinitely better, although genre fans may be disappointed by the inability to pull off loop de loops or even crash — the player’s fighter kindly bounces off mountains unscathed. Fractal Combat’s HUD takes up a lot of screen space but I appreciated the amount of aid it provides. Air speed can be altered with a slider so the player doesn’t pass targets too fast, and targeting reticles distinguish between enemies in lock-on range from ones that have merely been identified, all well before the player can even make them out on the horizon. Level maps showing target positions and nearby enemies are essential for obvious reasons. Fractal Combat sports very smoothly working tilt controls, which can be recalibrated or swapped with a joystick at any time.
Fractal Combat’s various virtual buttons appear tiny, but I found them responsive enough. For the price range, Fractal Combat’s environments and fiery debris are certainly impressive. The weakest aspect of the game’s presentation is simply that its few nuances are locked up in a wall-of-text instruction sheet instead of live, contextual tutorials. Well, that, and the fact that there’s only one tune played during missions — it’s a nice, high octane track, but one can only listen to it so many times before it drives home the game’s fundamental repetitiveness. There are up to seventy extermination missions here by my count, so there’s plenty of content if the player happens to enjoy its style.
iFanzine Verdict: A very basic flight combat game, Fractal Combat suffers quite a bit for its repetitive missions and an upgrade system that has only marginal effects on gameplay. That said, it’s got lots of pretty explosions, a solid interface – for its fixed wing craft at least – and tons of missions to work through. Diehard genre fans can still safely entertain giving this one a go at such a low price tier, as long as they love missiles and aren’t looking for lots of gameplay variety.