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Project Wingman makes air-to-air combat thrills as accessible as Call of Duty

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The big, greasy explosions don’t hurt either

A missile connects with an enemy plane over the clouds in a blue sky. Image: Sector D2/Humble Games

The developers behind Project Wingman don’t want you to call their game a flight simulator. Instead, they refer to it as an “action flight game.” But I think that really undersells what this tiny Australian team has achieved.

Project Wingman spent a good portion of this week on top of Steam’s best-seller list — second only to Cyberpunk 2077 — by not dumbing down the art of combat flight simulation. Instead, Wingman embellished the action you’ll find on complex combat flight sims like DCS: World with the kind of over-the-top spectacle common in modern first-person shooters. Developer Sector D2 also treats players to the same kind of visual and audio feedback that makes games like Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War so much fun to play.

It all adds up to a virtuous feedback loop that turns new players into killer pilots.

A close-up of a plane exploding.
Hulking transport planes make for huge targets, but there are bigger and even more dangerous things flying around in this game.
Image: Sector D2/Humble Games

It all starts with the presentation of the game itself, which features modern-day military aircraft fighting battles across a scorched, post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s Mad Max in the air, with more dogfights going on in 10 minutes than the entire United States Air Force has seen in the last 10 years. Basic ammunition is unlimited, and includes rapid-fire cannon shells and air-to-air missiles.

But it’s not all spray and pray. To excel requires timing and precision, just like a modern first-person shooter. It’s just that the player isn’t running around on the ground and ducking behind cover. They’re free to fly in any direction, adjusting their speed as they go.

In the same way that you can’t simply run into a room guns blazing in Black Ops Cold War, you can’t just hold down the trigger and hope for victory in Project Wingman. Instead, you need to learn how the game’s different weapons all work, and then fly in a way that makes those weapons most effective.

The best way to explain what I’m talking about is to describe how the game’s missiles function. If you fire on an enemy plane passing in front of you from left to right — called a deflection shot — your missile will be traveling too fast to hit the target. Unable to turn in time, it will always overshoot and fly right by. But, if you can maneuver yourself just behind and above your enemy, then the missile will have plenty of time to adjust its flight path. Position yourself correctly and you’ll have a much better chance of landing your shots.

That is, until the higher-tier enemies show up.

An F/A-18 flying low on a strafing run.
The red triangles in the foreground show the path of incoming missiles, which you need to jink away from at just the right time to evade.
Image: Sector D2/Humble Games

Think of these end-of-mission fighter planes as the up-armored soldiers that appear later on in arcade-style first-person shooters. You can be in the perfect position to land a missile shot, but those more competent enemies will use their flares — countermeasures that confuse guided missiles and cause them to veer off course — to cause you to miss. As a result, players will have to fly closer and closer to their target before switching to guns.

Air-to-air gunnery in Project Wingman is extremely satisfying. Hits register with a flash of sparks that can be seen at any range — much the same way that hits are registered with a small cross in Call of Duty. They also have the same audible thump that lets you know you’ve hit your mark. The hit boxes are huge, to be sure, but given the number of targets in the air and the speed at which they’re moving, it never feels unfair. And the payoff for destroying your target — big, greasy explosions with multiple, secondary detonations — is exhilarating.

The experience was even better in virtual reality, where my eyes were able to linger on the wreckage as my own plane rocketed past the point of impact. The action was smooth and lag free, although you’ll need a hefty rig to get solid frame rates.

The view from inside the cockpit.
The cockpit can be a little cozy on a traditional screen, but in VR it’s just the perfect size to see outside and around your plane.
Image: Sector D2/Humble Games

Playing through the single-player campaign’s third mission, which takes place over an airfield in what was once known as Alaska, I suddenly felt like Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I was rolling and banking, diving on and destroying one enemy before moving gracefully on to the next, scoring one kill after another. Project Wingman also includes multiple difficulty levels which, when coupled with its high-stakes roguelike mode called Conquest, can help players of every skill level reach that same kind of flow state.

Project Wingman plays equally well with a gamepad as it does with a high-end flight stick, throttle, and rudder pedals. For $24.99 on Steam, I simply can’t recommend it enough. Here’s hoping it finds its way onto consoles before long.