Game: Corsair/Jet Fighter Ace: Secret Wars
(Re)Release Date: March 3, 2011
Platform: iOS (Now Defunct(?))
Version Price: Free-to-play
Developers: Hypercube Games, LLC
Do Whatcha Want 'Cuz A Pirate Is Free (To Play)
Y'know, there's kind of a lot of shmups for play on app stores, like iOS and Android and stuff. That means you have to be really good or unique to get people to notice your game. The other thing phone games tend to be really good at is social gaming, which is why you have Farmville, Battle Nations, Boom Beach and all the rest.
I've only seen the two put together once, in this game that went by two names: the first was Corsair, created by Hypercube Games and powered by some service called OpenFeint. Then it went by a new name, called Jet Fighter Ace: Secret Wars, also powered by OpenFeint. Then, I saw this game change, and finally I saw the game kind of die.
You can't get it on the App Store anymore, not to my knowledge, but I think the lessons it had are worth passing on in, perhaps, the only way I know how: a snarky review.
Observing the whole life and death of an app in front of you isn't something I highly recommend, but hey, when are you ever going to see the entire life cycle of an online game like this?
Saying this game has a "story" would be grossly inaccurate...at least, in its first form. The title of this review was a barb from me because its name is "Corsair," right, so that means "pirates," doesn't it? Except evidently you're the worst or most bloodthirsty pirates out there, since your only prey are heavily-armed fighters that you get into involved dogfights with to destroy them, grabbing coins from blowing them the hell up...and then there's the confusion everyone will have with the F4U Corsair...it's a mess, is what I'm saying, and I totally understand why these guys went with dropping the name "Corsair" for the much less elegant "Jet Fighter Ace: Secret Wars."
With the new name, it picked up a story to justify the online fighting: players were cast as part of one of two factions fighting over control of the skies. I think they were called the Red Falcons and Black Tigers. Wins in one-on-one duels would count towards victories for the faction, and whichever faction was winning would, I think, receive bonuses and extra rewards. You'd think that would cause some pretty lopsided results once a faction gained a head of steam, but the way the fights were going, they were always pretty much even, so I would never get to see a stress test of the faction system at work. Kind of a shame, that, but on the other hand, games like this tend to explode when even the slightest balance issue gets detected, so maybe it was all for the best that I never got to see what happens when one faction really starts kicking up a hot streak.
Everything got very little explanation, so this is about as far as discussing the premise goes. I think the game was going for a fortified kinda Raiden look in how everything was apparently a jet fighter despite looking like you'd need to chuck them mightily through the air to get them to lift at all, everything was modular, and everything else I could possibly say is all conjecture on my part.
Though I could say that it would have been nice if the game had used the faction war and the cycling stages to its advantage. What I mean is, say that every other week or so, one of the stages meant something to the Falcons and Tigers, and winning over there provided, say, a faction bonus or something and could sway the bonuses and rewards further to one side or the other? That'd get players to tune in, and I know it works because Victory: The Age of Racing does it all the time with its theme weeks. Do something like win the most races, drive the furthest or participate in the most events in a week, win a huge bonus. You could've had the same thing going on: win as many battles as possible over stage X, win as many battles as possible using weapon Y, win as many battles with parts or loadout Z. It could've worked, I'm sure, and been incentive for players to experiment.
Summary: 6/10. The faction war stuff worked but a lack of any sort of information anywhere else meant it was all just set dressing to try to get people to play the game. Sure worked on me, but more incentive would have been nice.
Corsair (it's way shorter and I'm not typing "Jet Fighter Ace: Secret Wars" out this whole review) was a top-down shooter that was all sprite-based. It was an iOS game optimized to work on much earlier iPhone and iPod Touch versions, so the sprites couldn't be too hi-res and they needed to be tiny, too.
That was a surprisingly difficult job, you see, because each ship was built out of a bunch of parts: a fuselage, an engine, wings and weapons. I believe each one also had its own colors, which helped because there was a problem: all the parts did not have unique graphics. This was fine if you wanted to get a certain look for a ship, like I did because I wanted to make craft that looked like sleek, fast fighters, but with constant leveling creep and stuff I'll get into more detail about later, that never took. I had to abuse the game's mechanics to get the look I wanted, and again, I'll get to that later.
The rest of the graphics were okay, they were scrolling backgrounds with no animations, explosion sprites, all that good stuff, and there was next to no slowdown no matter how many sprites filled the screen, so the game was at least glitch-free and visually functional, which is honestly all I can ask from a game that's not all that pretty.
Summary: 5/10. Unbroken but unremarkable, this game manages to just barely pass my marking style because it does that thing I hate, which is, in a shmup, force you to change what your character looks like on a fundamental level.
The sounds were all also just...kind of okay. The explosions were nice and meaty though, and there's still enough for me to talk about without my summary ending up shorter than my closer look.
The game had just one music track, which was at least sort of an earworm, but it was also maybe a minute worth of tune, and it didn't even loop properly. I think Hypercube thought that fights wouldn't be long enough for someone to listen to the entire song, but playing some matches where I stalled the fight for a long time because I had very powerful engines showed that yes, it would reach a definite end, then stop and go back around.
Every weapon had its own firing noises, which were okay and shmuppy enough, but they were always just a bit too quiet. Probably for the best since every shot was automatic, so you would have no control over when you'd be pew-pewing everything. There were those explosion sounds, too. Just the one explosion noise type, like I said, but it's at least not annoying.
Summary: 5/10. Unremarkable but functional. Beginning to notice a theme, aren't you?
Okay, here's the main event. Corsair's big selling point was that it was no normal shmup, but one completely focused around PVP duels over the internet. I'd say that takes effort, I mean, that requires servers and keeping them maintained and all that, even if you're using a service that isn't your own like OpenFeint. To do this in a shmup is also something I haven't seen very often at all either: I've only seen that in a couple other games: Change Air Blade and Senko no Ronde. I don't count Twinkle Star Sprites in that because it uses an entirely different system than these even though it's a vertical shmup. It also has a lot to do with arcade game Wing War. I'll explain everything in a minute.
Combat works like this: when you build a ship, it is saved to your phone and the game's servers. When you engage in combat with another ship, you take on that player's latest saved setup in a duel. You spend two rounds of a single fight shooting at it to try to destroy it, and in between you get a round where that ship shoots at you. If you shoot your opponent enough times in each match, you blow off...stuff, I guess, it's not quite clear what's exploding exactly when you smack an opponent enough times, that goes all Scott Pilgrim and explodes into coins, which you pick up kinda like medals and the like in the 194X games. That's your in-game currency, or at least the form you can gather for free. Point is, you don't fight other players so much as you fight their ships, so they don't tend to do anything too fancy as far as maneuvers go. The upside is that while the game was functional, you were never starving for opponents.
You're armed with three weapons: two fire forward, and one fires back during the defensive phase. You were always using autofire and you steered by dragging your finger across the screen, which your ship would follow. Supplementing this was your wings, which allowed you to carry heavier weapons, your body, which along with your wings determined how much health you had, and your engine, which determined how long your relative attack phases and how short your defense phases were. Basically, if you had more engine power than your opponent, you spent longer shooting at them, and you spent less time in their sights, and if they had more than you, the opposite was true. A bit like Wing War, these phases were strictly timed. You couldn't, say, fly forward and cut down your defense time or anything like that, so you just sort of shot at each other for a while and then the defender just sort of flew away or you randomly got bored and quit. You collected coins with every bit of concentrated damage you did, and if you shot an enemy down you got a whole bunch of coins.
As you can tell because I'm not going into very much detail at all, there wasn't really much sophistication to everything. You got more parts as you leveled up and they always went in the order of one balanced one, one with high defense that you would rarely ever use unless you were a poor pilot, and one with high attack which you would use very often because no fight in this game really hinged on survival more than it did avoidance, and every ship no matter its stats in speed or engine power was nimble enough that damage could be avoided if you were attentive enough. You also had a reactor that let you play this same sort of game except with offense or speed, and I believe I always took speed, since other parts of my ship were taking offense and I stubbornly refused to change my playstyle.
There were four forward weapons: machine guns that shot a hail of medium-speed bullets, homing missiles that curved into targets, a hard-to-aim laser that shot a bunch of beams straight forward but hurt real bad when they hit, and a homing laser that curved in 45-degree increments to hit opponents. I forget what the rear weapons were specifically, but if memory serves, amongst them there was one tail gun, a sort of homing mine thing and one funky EMP emitter that did very little damage but turned off ship systems if it hit. I think tail weapons were more to dissuade you from jackhammering an opponent to bits when you were on the offense rather than to allow you to deal damage during the defense. Or maybe they were a conspiracy by Hypercube to get people to buy homing weapons. I wouldn't know.
Though I spent lots of time using purely homing missiles, I did use all four weapon types so I know how they all work. I can tell you that I didn't trust the machine guns, first off. They were unguided and medium-speed, firing in a slight spread, which meant that even with an enemy predictably juking left and right, my firing angles might threaten to put me in harm's way since I would put myself right in the path of enemy fire moving at a similar speed since the tail guns tended to move at that same kind of speed. Homing missiles were one of my favorite weapons for a reason: they had a good fire rate, good damage output and their homing capabilities made them very, very reliable. I had a good rhythm down to where I could dodge them fairly reliably. I wasn't the best pilot out there, but I had a better chance of dodging enemy missiles than most, I think. Unguided lasers were the best for pure damage-dealing, but they fired a bunch of linear beams that instantly traversed the screen in bursts in between a lagging charge time, so it was hard to aim and if you only got a glancing blow with a few beams you wouldn't do much damage. On the other hand, a good burst could instakill a target, which happened to me quite a few times and sent me trying to figure out a lot of things about what to do when it came to my loadouts. Finally, the homing lasers were weak versions of the straight laser that came out faster than homing missiles but were a little less elegant when it came to their homing, so they were a gamble and a slight gameplay shift. While you could technically mount two different weapons, one on either wing, I never trusted combined arms as I found them less efficient and generally less effective than doubling up on one weapon type.
You could also hire premade mercenaries or other players to give you a boost in battles, but the way the in-game economy worked I flew solo whenever I could, and there were also randomly-dropped powerups that could sway fights further in your advantage, except I really just looked for the ones that dropped more coins as more money was always the most useful solution to any problems I might encounter up there.
I settled into a very set rigmarole that worked for me when playing Corsair: build up stocks of better missiles, make very fast, pretty-looking fighters, hunt down opponents at the upper and lower stages of my level allowances, Oh yeah...and cheat.
Well, not cheat, per se, but since every fight no matter how good or bad got me experience, it was possible that I could level up numerous times and all of a sudden have targets that would jet away from me after a few seconds, keep me tied up in defense phases for way too long and snap me in half like a twig once they landed a hit because my ship overall was pretty pathetic, I had to take advantage of the game's economy, which meant I had to buy in-game currency. You can, if you don't want to use coins, buy crystals which let you buy stuff which was frankly above your station, and this way you could avoid going from being underpowered and overleveled to overpowered and underleveled, so at least you could sort of rebalance what the game tended to throw your way. I would almost still count it as cheating, but truth be told, the game wasn't very sophisticated at all, and it was kind of clear any advantage you may have wanted to have was an advantage you got from paying your way up. So if I was cheating, well, maybe so was everyone else. We were all cheating the system, I guess you could say. Or if the crystals provided such an advantage, maybe we were all playing right into it...?
In any case, this was a simple game and you could see how I could get bored with it very quickly. And bored of it I got, which is why I left it behind. You ground and leveled up to get more stuff, and that was pretty much everything that the game had to offer. You cycled through stronger versions of the few weapons types out there, and ground and ground and ground in a faction battle that really meant nothing except for a tiny rewards bonus. You didn't get anything interesting to fight with, no super attacks, no bombs, no specials or abilities, it was just turning the numbers up and watching the pretty coins fall.
Summary: 4/10. Balance issues, microtransactions exacerbating preexisting balance issues and really boring gameplay with no real subtleties wore away the novelty of this game really fast.
This is a game that seems like technology and social gaming had a long way to go before it would have been able to get anything like staying power. Games like Ingress show that social phone games work, and the hype Niantic's built for Endgame, its PVP title, shows that there's a market for it. I could see a game like this being fun with a lot of polish: intercept other players, shoot them down, take their stuff. That sounds like a fun game.
The problem is that Corsair wasn't so hot in the grand scheme of things. Weapons weren't balanced properly and they really wanted you to use Crystals for everything-I think they even had progress throttling going with a fuel allowance-and those are totally ways to get a gamer with patterns like mine, all about cramming as much gaming as possible into one big hours-long session, to pass up on a game. When there isn't much game to play in the first place except for the universal ego boost that is kicking someone else's butt, even if they're really not there and are just being controlled by the game's AI, that's a death knell.
It's also probably why Change Air Blade and Senko no Ronde did what they did with their super attacks: the truth is that for the most part player ships make really crummy bosses, so having an actual boss mode players can access is good for keeping things fresh. Without that, well, you get Corsair.
Final Verdict (not an average of above scores): 4/10. Would not play again. Seriously. Everything I know about this game, I learned from playing it last time.
"Enjoy a nice Brown Betty with DEATH! But, but mostly eat death." ~Crow T. Robot~