I suck at Luftrausers. I do not soar though the skies with the greatest of ease; it's more of a slow lurch, biding my time until a stray bullet ends my run. I'm not quite sure why this faux-German military group wants me to pilot their experimental aircraft, but at least I'm having fun doing it.
Luftrausers is the newest game from Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing developer Vlambeer. "Newest" is a bit of a misnomer, as Luftrausers is an extensive update of Luftrauser, a Flash game released for free on the internet some years ago. If you want to get a very basic idea of what to expect from this game, Vlambeer still has the title on its website.
So, what does $10 buy you over the free Flash version?
Right from the start, the retail release of Luftrausers gets out of your way. There's publisher and developer logos, two cards explaining the save system, and then you can launch immediately; you already bought the game, so Vlambeer doesn't need to tell you what you're playing or why. It's kind of refreshing, though it may be confusing to some players.
This decision to minimize anything that would get between the player and the game extends to the game's overall visual design. The unfriendly skies and the oceans below are all rendered Super Game Boy-style, with only a few colors for contrast (you'll unlock more color palettes). You and your enemies are all rendered in silhouette, having only the minimum amount of features needed to help you differentiate between a battleship or a fighter. Your fighter's damage is intelligently indicated by a transparent circle that closes in on your ship as the world fades out. Score and combo meters hover on either side of the screen, and the numbers on the combo meter fill-in with color to let you know when your combo is about to run out.
In your early sorties, the game isn't all that different from the Flash original. Your fighter is operated with tank controls: you can rotate in 360 degrees, and boost in any direction. If you're not boosting, you're falling from sky, albeit with whatever momentum you had before you stopped boosting. There's an upper limit to the sky and the ocean damages you (at least in the beginning), but otherwise you can fly in either direction for as long as you want. Outside of that, you have one button that shoots your chosen weapon.
Even if the gameplay is mostly the same, the devil is in the details. Where Luftrausers really takes off is in the customization. The game features over 100 missions, which see you completing certain tasks: killing 10 enemies, taking down an ace, or killing a certain number of enemies without shooting. They get crazier as your progress in the game. Finishing missions and leveling up gives you skulls, which in turn unlocks new fighter parts. Each combination of guns, fighter bodies, and propulsion systems - Vlambeer says there's over 125 combinations - plays differently, has its own nickname, and its own remix on the excellent soundtrack by Jukio "Kozilek" Kallio.
The game itself is straightforward, so customization is a player's personal outlet, allowing you to tailor your fighter to your playstyle. Do you tend to run into enemies? Choose the Melee body which negates ramming damage, but realize you're losing a bit of armor in the trade-off. Dying because of fighters on your tail? Equip the Gungine, which is slow, but always firing behind you. Once you've unlocked a good assortment of parts, the game really takes off.
When you've settled on a combination that's for you, Luftrausers becomes very rewarding. It's you versus an endless number of fighters and ships, dodging bullets, skimming the water, and blowing up ships as they cruise past you during a stall. Luftrausers feels great, even if the play sessions only range from 1 to 3 minutes (for me, you might be the Red Comet for all I know). Each launch is different: sometimes you'll run into an battleship immediately, other times the battleship is nowhere to be seen as an Ace and a few jets swarm you. The short sorties also mean death isn't much more than a stumbling block. Every time you launch, you'll learn your way around the game. You'll turn tighter or find that right mix of stalling and boosting to dodge a hail of enemy fire. There's such a great feeling of flow in Luftrausers once you feel comfortable with the controls and the game world, similar to some unforgiving Roguelikes.
It's also essentially a score attack game. After every death, you'll be reminded of your last score and your best score. If you want, you can even check the global leaderboards, which shows the top 10 worldwide, how you stack up against your friends, and the four players closest to your best score. Luftrausers' sublime gameplay and quick game sessions give you that "one more turn" feeling, making you feel like your new best score is just within reach. It's like popping another quarter into a classic arcade machine.
Is it worth $10 with the free version out there? Hell yeah. If you're ready for a dogfight, Luftrausers is the game for you. And hey, the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions are cross-buy active: buy one, get both versions.
One warning: There's no resolution or framerate changing in Luftrausers, you can only change whether the game is in fullscreen or not.
Vlambeer improves on one of its smaller, free releases with Luftrausers, expanding an excellent dogfighting game with a ton of customization and a great soundtrack. Short play sessions means it's the perfect game to play on the bus, between classes, or even during your boring meetings. Just don't scream out loud and pump your fist in the sky when you finally beat your high score. That's rude.