Let's deal with the elephant in the room first. Warplanes: WW2 Dogfight on the Switch is a port of an iOS/Android free-to-play game, only with the money grabbing mechanics removed, and everything available through free play for a pretty reasonable asking price of £8.99/$9.99. And while you might expect a free-to-play mobile port to be more than a little bit naff, you'd actually be wrong, as Warplanes: WW2 Dogfight is a game that just keeps on surprising.
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An arcade flight sim (and one that's very light on the "sim" part), Warplanes: WW2 Dogfight lets you take to the skies in a bevy of the finest flying crates from the RAF, the USSR, or the Nazi Luftwaffe, to take on a never-ending series of randomly generated mission. Whether you're launching a daring attack on a train, or defending a fleet from attack, you have full control of which planes you take on each mission (although you can only ever have one of each model), and will need to tailor your squadron to suit. There's no point taking a Lancaster on a mission to see off a fighter squadron, for example (although it hasn't stopped us trying). While to begin with, you'll only have access to two planes - one fighter, and one bomber for each nation - as you play, you'll slowly earn the gold required to unlock more, and will soon start to build your very own arsenal of WW2 planes.
While there's no real campaign as such here to play through (and no actual end to the game), there's a constant resource managing/base building meta-game at play here that give you the impetus to keep playing - and which gives the game a real "one more go appeal". Each mission you complete will see you receiving a number of resources as rewards - fuel (used to take on missions), silver (used to buy aircraft and base upgrades), gold (used to buy new planes and pilots), and medals (used to increase the amount of other resources you get). While that may make the game sound like it's one big game of plate spinning, it's actually a lot easier than you might expect, as you never find yourself running too low on the bits you actually need to keep going. While every mission requires fuel to start, you'll earn so much fuel for completing a mission that it's hard to actually start to deplete your supply. The only real balancing act comes in when either your pilots get injured, or your planes get damaged, as repairing the damage costs silver, and waiting for your pilots to recover (they can't be killed) costs time (and buying extras costs gold). It's important to note there's no "premium" currency here - you'll wrack up gold nicely just by taking on missions and playing the game.
Rather than a proper campaign, the game instead gives you a choice of four missions each time, broken down into specific categories. Offensive missions see you taking the fight to the enemy (although we are a bit disappointed they don't just involve saying mean things on the internet), and usually involve launching a bombing raid on a fuel depot, a train, a convoy, or some anti-aircraft guns - although the odd mission can involve launching an attack on an already airborne fighter squadron, which does seem a bit of a misnomer. Defensive missions flip things around and instead see you having to take up your best fighters to protect a base, fleet or convoy from attack. Naval missions are all out at sea, and revolve around sinking, or protecting, ships (although whose aircraft carrier we were sinking in a mission as the RAF, when the Germans didn't have any, is anyone's guess), while "Special" missions - which were "one a day" premium missions on the free-to-play version - are larger, more involved affairs which usually tend to require you to launch a mix of bombers and fighters, for an all out assault.
But what's great about Warplanes: WW2 Dogfights is that it just keeps surprising. While the missions may sound formulaic, they're bite-sized enough that they work in a handheld format - and there's enough variety and options here that just as you start to think you've seen everything, it'll pull a whole new rabbit out of the hat that you weren't expecting. One of the best examples of this are the night missions - slotted in at random, you'll set out expecting a straight forward dogfight, only to find the battle taking place over a city in the dead of night, with dozens of searchlights piercing the skies, blinding both you and Fritz alike - and unlike real life, there's no such thing as radar here. Some missions see you having to take out barrage balloons over a town before your bombers can begin their raid; others let you destroy bridges to halt a convoy in their tracks; while we had a bit of a sad nerd out moment when we realised that when the battle took place over the desert, the attacking krauts changed their camouflage to suit. Maybe we've just been playing too much War Thunder, but it's nice to have actual targets to bomb, too, with factories, oil refineries and air bases having actual, specific buildings you'll need to hit if the mission is to be a success. It's the little things that count.
But by far the game's biggest strength is just how much it is to play. Despite a few odd limitations - you can't loop the loop, for example, and are instead limited to only pitching up or down ~45 degrees) - the dogfights are a heck of a lot of fun, and whizzing around trying to get on the tail of your foe, before letting rip with your cannons and tearing their plane to shreds simply doesn't get old. It probably helps that the combat looks so impressive, too - damaged planes start belching streams of pitch black smoke; downed enemies explode into streams of debris; while puffs of flak starts to erupt around your bombers as soon as you even draw remotely close to their target (at least until you realise you can bypass most of the anti-aircraft fire by swooping down low and dropping the bombs from 100 ft).
Each and every mission you complete earns you at least a little bit of gold, which you can then use to buy new planes, buy new pilots, or upgrade your base. There's a bit of a meta-game going on here, whereby you'll constantly need to be expanding if you want to buy new planes, but the new planes require not only a new hangar, and new pilots, but also some barracks for the pilots to live in, and maybe a new mechanic if the planes are regularly getting shot up. Periodically, your base will also come under attack - something which sounds cool in theory, but does only serve to highlight just how poor the game's AI can be.
The theory here is that you essentially have to scramble everything you have available, and shoot down the waves of incoming fighters and bombers before they can do too much damage to your base. The problem is, it's really an all or nothing affair. The first few times we tried this, our entire base got completely obliterated within seconds, because - try as we might - we just could not shoot down the first wave of three bombers before they released their payload. Turns out the way to do it is simple enough - just buy a single barrage balloon (so long as you have the silver available) - and the bombers will refuse to attack your base. Even though the barrage balloon is actually positioned behind your base, and even though the enemy fighters could easily shoot it down, they simply don't bother, and instead just fly around taking in the sights. Hmm...
Similarly, the enemy AI isn't that great in the missions, either. While you'll have to work to get on your enemy's tail, they very, very rarely do the same to you. Of all the times we've been shot down in the game, hardly any were due to an enemy fighter getting on our six - instead, we kept falling foul to rear gunners on Ju-87 Stukas, who seemingly had replaced their titchy machine guns with 40mm cannons. What's weirder is that the tail gunners on a Stuka will tear you to shreds (requiring you to constantly attack from slightly below them), but you can mostly attack a He-111 (with much more turrets) without having so much as a single bullet being fired back. Bizarre, right?
The choice of planes here is pretty impressive, though, with a really nice mix of the common, and the more exotic planes for the aviation nerds like me. For the RAF, you have Spitfires and Hurricanes (several marks of each, with and without cannons), along with more interesting planes like the Blenheim, Lancaster, Halifax, Beaufighter (including the one with six machine guns and four cannons, making it the most heavily armed plane in game), Tempest, Typhoon, and even a Meteor to give the RAF a jet fighter, along with the Switch exclusive P-40 Warhawk - the only American plane in the game, which comes under the RAF banner as a presumed lend-lease.
For the Germans, along with their bomber contingent, which stretches from dive bombers like the Ju-87 (although they never actually dive in game - remember what we were saying about iffy AI?), to level bombing heavy hitters like the He-111, Do-17, and He-129, and Fw-200 Condor, there's also a pretty strong fighter line-up, ranging from the Bf-109 and FW-190, to the heavy fighter Bf-110, the bizarre push-me-pull-you Do 335 Pfeil (with propeller engines on both ends), and jet fighter Me-262.
For the USSR, meanwhile, you have a few planes I've actually never heard of (like the starter bomber, the Jer-2 - which seemingly should actually be down as a Yer-2, as a potential mistranslation from the Polish devs), with only a handful of fighters (the stubby I-16 Ishak, Yak-9, Mig-3 and Lagg-3 amongst them), and an extensive bomber line up, ranging from multi-engine heavies like the Pe-2 and SB-2M-100 to the infamous "flying tank", the Il-2 Sturmovik and its successors. Each of the planes costs gold to unlock, with the more basic ones costing orders of magnitude less than the largest and/or fanciest (a bog standard Spitfire will set you back 100 gold, the Meteor is 400, while the Halifax at the top of the bomber pile (?) weighs in at a whopping 550), and playing until you have enough to unlock every plane going is pretty much what keeps you coming back for more.
However, there are also a few weird bugs. For starters, the Beaufighter's rendered almost useless by the fact whoever fitted its forward-facing cannons seems to have been a bit cock-eyed, as despite firing out of the nose, they inexplicably shoot slightly upwards at a ~10 degree angle, like some naff version of Schräge Musik, rather than straight forward where the crosshairs are, making them impossible to aim, while simultaneously giving you a weird advantage when you're being out-turned by a 109. For seconds, the armament of some planes seems to be inexplicably wrong. In game, the Meteor claims to have four machine guns, when in real life it had four cannons - and as cannons do substantially more damage than machine guns in game, that makes a big difference to its effectiveness. There's also a really sad issue with the gyroscope controls. While the game gives you the ability to use the Switch's Joy-Con effectively like a makeshift joystick, in practice, it doesn't work quite as you'd expect. Instead, you're expected to hold the controller at a 45 degree angle to stay flying straight and level, rather than holding it upright like a proper flight yoke. A missed opportunity to say the least.
Perhaps the biggest bug, though, is that of the never-ending waves of enemies. When you complete the primary mission objective, you'll often be asked if you want to stay on the mission to destroy the remaining enemy units, and offered a nice boost to your silver and medals for doing so. However, the problem is, that's an almost impossible task. Rather than only asking you to destroy the remaining units, the game seems to randomly keep sending extra waves of planes in, meaning that mopping up the last few stragglers often turns into a literal never ending battle. If the game offers you the chance to stay on - take our advice, and leg it.
While it may not be the most accurate game around, and although we do miss things like cockpit views (or gunner turret views), and take-offs/landings, there's no denying that Warplanes: WW2 Dogfight has playability in spades. Thanks to its dynamic mission system, there's so many variables at play here that you'll still be finding new mission types, and more great touches hours in, with that "just one more mission" appeal in spades. For £9, it's well worth a punt - this is game we'd have played to death when we were younger. We just hope it does well enough to warrant a sequel. With a proper dynamic campaign, and a bit more realism, it could be something really special.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch