Following a move into publishing with a re-release of Rock Band 3 last year, console peripheral giant Mad Catz recently announced its intention to exploit “targeted software opportunities.” Or, for those of us who don’t speak press release-ese, low-risk games that sell hardware. In the case of WWII air combat title Damage Inc. Pacific Squadron WWII, that’s the re-branded Saitek AV8R flight stick which is bundled with the Collector’s Edition. Unfortunately for the rookie publisher, Damage Inc is neither a good advert for hardware or games.
Its arcade focus is obvious from the outset, with default pad controls that clearly cater to the infrequent flyer. Despite a claim to historical accuracy in its authentic WWII Pacific theatre missions and aircraft, Damage Inc is no simulator. It’s about pulling off impossible, capillary-busting aerial manoeuvres while firing unlimited rounds at a sky full of enemies. Or at least that’s what it ought to be.
In reality, it’s a mess. What should be a fast-paced airborne thriller is so hamstrung by terrible handling and sub-par performance that it saps any excitement from the 12-hour singleplayer campaign. Aircraft control feels sluggish and imprecise (even with the stick) due to an unstable framerate that often drops dramatically, especially in the busier sections late in the game. As a result, dogfighting becomes a chore – though the game does offer a couple of conciliatory features to players.
To hit moving targets, you can aim for the helpful red dot leading them, as well as make use of Reflex Mode. This airborne bullet-time allows you crucial extra seconds to wrestle your crosshairs into position, and it’s telling that its use is both essential and unrestricted. The resulting experience is about little more than coercing a jittery, disobedient red dot into the centre of your sights and firing till your guns overheat. With each kill comes a perverse sense of satisfaction. You’ve done it against the odds; you’ve overcome the technical obstacles to achieve the improbable.
But it’s perhaps the lack of jeopardy that frustrates most. While Trickstar sensibly attempts to keep things fresh by throwing a variety of ground and air-based objectives at you, there’s little sense of danger due to toothless (and often witless) AI. You’re much more likely to die from misadventure than enemy bullets. The introduction of arbitrary time limits, a dead brother/revenge narrative and the occasional boss battle do little to improve the core experience and it’s only in the game’s multiplayer that things become more interesting. The Scratch One Flattop mode, for instance, offers a novel take on the team deathmatch, with teams battling in the air while also trying to sink the enemy’s aircraft carrier.
And yet, even when facing human opponents, the major problems remain and are, to some extent, amplified – try keeping an unpredictable human pilot in your crosshairs. Even at its best, when using the AV8R stick, Damage Inc feels clumsy, badly implemented and lacking in imagination. Mad Catz is unlikely to drive sales of its peripherals with a game in which every flight feels like work and every kill is, at best, a pyrrhic victory in a tedious war.