The desire to play a game that does justice to fighter jets is always matched by the unwillingness to import a full HOTAS setup from Belarus. Are there intermediate games one can enjoy? No, not really. But when it comes to arcade gen 4 fighter action, there’s Project Wingman.
The game is set on our own green Earth. But make no mistake — we’re emulating Ace Combat here, and this means building up incredible levels of anime nonsense, which includes Earth having undergone a massive tectonic upheaval 400 years back. The rebuilt world runs on geothermal energy — plentiful in the Federation that set itself up around the Ring of Fire. Cascadia, a nation best described as “West Coast literally broke off and is a country now” wants to secede. You’re Monarch, the top merc of the Sicario outfit, and you’re jumping into this mess for glory and money. For some reason, everybody is still flying fighter jets designed over 450 years ago.
The comparison to Ace Combat was not done idly. Project Wingman looks, swims, and quacks like a fan attempt to wash away the shame of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (which was the first time the series made an appearance on PC) by going in harder on insanity. Buckle up, we have inexplicable mercenary outfit names, extremely questionable military practices, a famed protagonist that never utters a word, warcrimes, warcriminals trying to have moral high-ground, modern military jets falling in Battle of Britain numbers, sky ships — the works! This game simulates flight less than it simulates a Japanese game.
At least we’re not putting white-haired teens in the cockpit
Project Wingman is also very much an arcade fighter jet game — emphasis on “arcade.” In fact, the plane physics don’t even reach the sophistication and the consequent difficulty of handling of the arcade mode in War Thunder. Your plane tries to maintain a constant (inadequate) speed, increasing or decreasing once your finger is off the throttle. As far as I can tell, the plane doesn’t speed up in a dive (RIP boom and zoom) or slow down in a climb. Just tape that throttle button down and go to town!
Of course, you could make an argument about braking being important in a turn-fight, but if War Thunder has taught me anything, it’s that turn-fighting is for wieners. Boom and run rules the day; firing missiles while approaching the enemy head-on is a surefire win tactic!
At the same time, the plane is very much an airborne FPS protagonist. One HP left? Then you’re still ready to party. Granted, this bit is very much excusable. In Project Wingman (or any Ace-like game, like Hawx — remember Hawx?), having systems degrade during the long missions would be very annoying. And you’re not here to be annoyed, you’re here to become a triple ace in a single mission.
Project Wingman may finally find you a date
Okay, so we’ve established that you don’t need to be much of a pilot to find victory in Project Wingman. Do you need to be much of a gunner? Yes, kinda. As per best Ace-traditions, your plane — all of them based on modern jet fighters with fake names — carries more than a hundred genre-standard “one-shot-no-kill” STDM missiles. Only a sane amount of them appear on the hardpoint. The rest of them are in interdimensional stores, which you reload during flight.
That’s just my flippant joke. Project Wingman steadfastly ignores any possible technological explanation of such marvels, even if the game universe contains a silly new mineral they could have used to justify missile shenanigans.
Your friends shouting “Fox two!” almost every time you fire normally indicates that the STDM is a heat-seeking missile, but it can also mean that you have a good radar lock to encourage you to fire. In the case of Project Wingman, STDM acts like the world’s cheapest, most plentiful, shortest-range, active-radar guidance missile. It’s able to lock on to any target, be it a plane, a radar tower, a cargo container, anything. As long as you don’t want to target anything further than 10,000 feet (or about 3 kilometers in sane units) away, you’re good.
So it takes one weird missile hit to take down most ground targets and helicopters (of which only one model exists in Project Wingman — the local faux Apache). It can take two for jets and hardened stuff like tanks, and more for fat planes like AWACS and B-52s, or bosses. But you’re not stuck with a nearly-infinite pool of the Miracle Wonder Missile. No, Project Wingman has you covered.
Sorry, all the Aim-9s locked onto the sun and flew out into space
Because every plane has more than 1 hardpoint aside from STDMs, the other slots can be filled with weapons of your choice, as long as your choice is one permitted for the hardpoint. This is the realm semi-active, radar-homing missiles (as long as you keep your nose on the target, you can snipe a jet at 30K feet), multi missiles, GROUND multi missiles, dumb bombs, more variety of dumb bombs, and way too many gun pods (you only want the heavy and only on the local Frogfoot).
Unlike STDMs, these babies can all run out pretty fast, but they save you the most precious resource: time. Taking down a jet that’s circling you can be a real hassle in Project Wingman. You’re better off using the multi-missile to just swat an enemy out of the sky so you could concentrate on ground targets. That’s because far fewer planes get the multi-ground missiles than the trivialized air-combat ones.
You can also aim to please the Dos Gringos fans in the audience and go in with guns. It’s not very easy, especially as your speed becomes an issue if you’re going against stationary targets. It is, however, a fun way to finish off a jet that already ate an STDM. Most importantly, it’s not mandatory. I still resent Assault Horizon for its dumb insistence on killing bosses via gun chase scenes in a game that features the most modern American toys and every Russian wet dream that ever came even close to being built.
Right, on to planes. Project Wingman features a surprisingly restrained hangar for a game that’s supposed to be a JDAM targeted at the pleasure centers of a plane fetishist. In fact, it’s even smaller than you’d expect, as MiG-21 and F-4 Phantom II get “training” models that differ by having fewer hardpoints, and those are the two planes you can choose from at the start.
Aside from the Best Hits of the Vietnam War, you’ll eventually get your F-14s (Iran approves), -15s, -16s, and -18s, a couple of Soviet/Russian planes, and a smattering of Euro choices. You can also get two anime planes you don’t unlock till the end of the campaign (including what I assume to be an expy of CFA-44 Nosferatu), and Avro Arrow(?). This game doesn’t have any of the stealth jets, none of the French goodies, none of the cool Swedish jets (come at me, Viggen fans, I can take both of you). But we get Canadian meme jet Avro Arrow?
Remember when I mentioned that all of them are renamed? Usually, it’s something simple, like turning a MiG-21 into a MG-21. But not for the humble AV-8B Harrier II. He’s called the “Accipiter.” Why? Because Harrier the plane is named after Harrier the bird, a bird of prey from the Accipitridae family, which also includes the genus Accipiter. This is a very anime-brained renaming, because, outside of half-remembered high school classes and terrible dates, you’ve probably only ever heard them called goshawks and sparrowhawks and such.
Considering that Project Wingman only imitates their loadouts with its own homebrew weapons, that’s half of the charm of running a certain system gone. But what you can do is play the game from the cockpit view. Sure, third-person camera is nice and you can get the “nothing but the green HUD” option as well, but the cockpit is the most immersive, and it makes you appreciate how obstruction-free the views from an F-16 are.
The planes have a bunch of stats associated with them, but I found that the loadout is king in Project Wingman. You not only want to get the best toys, you also want the most toys. And while I won’t check if it’s possible to beat the final mission with a Fishbed, it would be a slow process nonetheless. I only ran out of STDMs once in the game — I’m sure it would be more of an issue on a plane that has nothing but.
Incidentally, I checked what upping the difficulty from “Normal” to “Mercenary” does to the game, and it only seems to result in highly increased enemy forces. For instance, the starting pirates suddenly have cruiser support, multiple flights of fighters, and a few civilian ships converted into the SAM-equivalent of a technical with a rocket pod in the back (similar accuracy, too).
Opening a new LockMart design office in Akihabara
But, as I mentioned, anime runs free and wild in Project Wingman, and it’s a better Japanese arcade flight game simulator than it is a flight simulator. Everything feels like it comes from Ace Combat, down to oddly chatty mission controls, hearing the enemy banter, and your antagonist saying some extremely dumb stuff about patriotism.
It all comes crashing down with the end of the game, which contains the most nonsensical boss fight in Project Wingman. The antagonist wasn’t developed enough to merit the emotional weight the game tries to squeeze out of it. The boss combat abilities, though glimpsed at once in the game, are out of the left field and extremely annoying. Had Project Wingman ended without that fight and the last mission just placed a conventional endnote to the game, I would have been a lot happier.
Of course, you can engage in Conquest, the other game mode aside from campaign. You’ll slowly conquer a Risk map while doing various missions, accruing money and prestige to upgrade your plane and the support you bring with you. Project Wingman warns you that this mode contains story spoilers, but the only one I noticed so far is that the boss-fight planes are already in your hangar. Good luck earning enough money to unlock them.
Fly the well-rendered skies
Project Wingman looks nice. It’s not spectacular, no, but it has a lot going for it, especially the effects when fighting in the rain or flying through clouds (matched by appropriate vibration in the cockpit). By default, you control the plane with the keyboard and use the mouse to look around, switch targets and fire guns, so that allows you to take a better look at the cockpit. And while it’s not War Thunder-good, it’s still well done. And it’s a classic of the genre, going back to Falcon in 1987 and possibly further. The interface is also nice, and the various game menus have a good theme going for them. If there’s one thing I didn’t like, it’s the font selection in the Files section (that’s where the ‘deep lore’ lives). The font makes it easy to mistake commas for periods, which doesn’t make for a smooth reading experience.
The audio does have some surprises. And I’m not talking about the music or sound effects, as those are generally good. What I mean is voice acting. Sure, enemy and friendly chatter will soon become repetitive, especially when they pull stuff like “make sure your plane is in optimal condition” and “adjusting IFF to new parameters” constantly and it never makes sense. However, some of the planes you fly in Project Wingman are two-seaters. For those situations, Monarch is joined by Prez, his WSO, and she gets her own mission-specific lines that the other characters react to. Neat!
In the end, Project Wingman is a fun arcade plane romp. It’s definitely not meant for people who love DCS and the “my plane just turned into the world’s angriest glider because my fuel tank got a glancing hit 5 minutes ago” gameplay that it offers. However, it’s perfect to scratch that Ace Combat/Hawx itch that most companies don’t even dare approach. It’s a shame about that ending, though.