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WWII fighter pilot game leans on Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy to get Kickstarter aloft

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Iron Wings stars black pilots, and wants to innovate video game air combat

By gameplay concept alone, Iron Wings would be difficult to stand out from the crowd of Kickstarted video games begging for your dollar. It's an air combat shooter proposed for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One, and there have been plenty of those, through all periods of history, on consoles and PCs down through the years.

What's eye-catching about Iron Wings, by Messina, Italy-based Naps Team, is the cast: African-American pilots. And women. In World War II. It's as if the studio — which dates to 1993 — understood how tough it would be to stand out using a bog-standard squadron of Allies, and the gameplay concepts they wish to introduce with Iron Wings wouldn’t be enough to set things apart.

"Developing the game, we watched a lot of real footage about pilots strafing, and we realized that every flight game since the beginning has been seek and shoot at a point in the sky or on the ground," said Fabo Capone, Naps Team's founder, in an email. "Instead, real pilots saw what they were shooting at — so close that they can easily spot troops. We wanted to bring that experience."

He's right about that. But authentic close-air support in World War II is a much more esoteric elevator pitch than "air combat game about black aviators, with an Indiana Jones-style story." The Tuskegee Airmen, as the 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces were called, have been celebrated in other media (notably the 2012 George Lucas film Red Tails) but not video games. As video gaming become more conscious of who is represented in starring and playable roles, the Tuskegee Airmen template provides a great opportunity to diversify a cast of characters while remaining historically true to the period.

And, of course, it’s a chance to build an air combat game that may otherwise have been passed over as too generic, or done before.

"During World War II, pilots developed a quick maneuver that allows the plane to spin back and point in the opposite direction — it's still used in air shows today," Capone said. "We use that trick (in the game) to look at the locked target quickly while keeping the action up." It can be seen in the gameplay video at the top of the page.

Iron Wings will feature an in-combat system of cinematic cutscenes that trigger when the player strikes a critical target. (Flight sim purists can disable this.) Chaff, a radar countermeasure invented in World War II, will be a part of the game, as will night-time raids in which a player may switch from a spotlight plane to an attacker, or give orders to the attacking plane.

Make no mistake, Iron Wings is well short of the $100,000 goal its makers seek to get the project off the ground, and it has 19 days to go. Naps Team's Kickstarter is less than a tenth of the way there, and scrambling for attention. But Iron Wings has been greenlit by the Steam community, indicating some acceptance of the concept and the will in Naps Team to take it forward regardless of the Kickstarter’s outcome.

"We read stories about Afro-American guys and women who became pilots in that time," Capone said. "We read how hard it was — sometimes even the simple travel to the training camp was hard," he said, referencing the difficulty of black citizens finding accommodations during the Jim Crow era. "Stories about the daughters of former World War I pilots who immigrated to the U.S. to forget the demons of the war.

"Even a friend of mine told me the story of her grandmother who was involved in many intelligence missions," Capone said. "Or the story of Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (commander of the Tuskegee Airmen; son of the first African-American general in the U.S. Army). They and many others were useful to build the story and the background of these two friends, Jack and Amelia."

Amelia appears to be based on one of the WASPs — the Women Airforce Service Pilots of the Army Air Forces, who flew combat-ready aircraft but not in combat missions. Her story, and Jack's, centers around a long-rumored Nazi plot to destroy Hoover Dam.

Still, the intriguing choice of main characters is what Naps Team is hoping will pull it through on Kickstarter. "Very few people know women were in the Air Force, and a lot fewer know that some of them actually fought," Capone said. "African-American pilots were some of the highest-trained — more than two years. When the U.S. entered World War II, most pilots trained for a couple of months before they were sent to Europe.

"We read a lot of historical documents, and the more we read, the more we thought, why not develop a game about those guys?" Capone said. "The less credited people in World War II history, but in the end, true heroes."