Even its name is awesome. As a cel-shaded combat flight sim that plays like a slightly more authentic Ace Combat, boasting 260 aircraft and a huge number of modes, this one-man effort fills a void that's been cruelly ignored over the last few years. Arcade dogfighting. Beyond a couple of Ace Combat spinoffs and a few Sci-Fi efforts, we've had little to celebrate until now.
So naturally I jumped at the opportunity to review Vector Thrust as soon as it graduated from Steam Early Access to full release, being a huge fan of the genre and small-team boutique development. Sadly, it turns out that the celebrations are a tad premature, because what could have been a great combat flight sim launched far too early.
Vector Thrust certainly offers a lot of bang for your budget buck and a dizzying array of modes. Quick Battle throws you into an infinite selection of randomised missions, Free Flight lets you set up your own custom sorties against the AI, there are scenarios to take on, a full singleplayer campaign and even functional if under-supported online multiplayer with loads of granular options. Challenge Mode lets you unlock hundreds of planes by participating in unique challenge missions, while participating in any event rewards you with points to buy planes outright if you don't want to wait. As the cherry on the cake, there's even a map editor.
This wealth of content is deeply impressive for a one-man project, but would mean nothing without thrilling gameplay to back it up. At its best, Vector Thrust nails it.
When (and only when -- we'll get to that later) you're piloting a decent fighter, Vector Thrust evokes the exciting arcade furballs of Ace Combat and its ilk. Cel-shaded visuals pick out the planes in glorious detail as you jink, bank and juke through enemy squadrons. evading missile locks while squeezing off gun volleys and salvos your own. Controls are responsive and streamlined when using a GamePad and functional on keyboards, while there's a deceptively deep extra level of control hidden behind an in-game menu for those who like a little extra customisation. You can even switch your engine off should you feel the need for insane aerobatics.
However, Vector Thrust aspires to be more authentic and involved than Ace Combat. Missiles will only hit their target if carefully aimed to take enemy vector and thrust... oh, now I get it... into account, which has proven controversial on the forums but I personally relish as an extra layer of skill and strategy. Excessive G-force will damage your plane as you put it under stress, forcing you to balance risk and reward when the chips are down and enemy ace squadrons engage. There's surprisingly deep ECM to consider. Whether strafing hostile fleets or dancing through missile locks, Vector Thrust really can feel fantastic.
Unfortunately many fledgling pilots will ragequit, wander off or even seek a refund before ever appreciating what Vector Thrust has to offer. Most players will start with the campaign to learn the ropes and Vector Thrust has completely botched this all-important first impression.
In fairness the 13-mission campaign gets a lot right. The story and voice acting is just silly and hammy enough to capture the imagination, there are some fun sci-fi flourishes that bring back fond memories of the Strangereal setting and I'm thrilled that TimeSymmetry resisted the temptation to give our character an identity. We have a callsign, not a name and a voice, which lets us fully immerse ourselves in the experience. You'll also find a pleasing variation of objectives, from all-out furballs to ground attack and escort.
In practice, though, it's a thankless slog. Odds are so long, enemies are so numerous, escort targets are so fragile and enemy priority targets are so durable that it becomes an exercise in frustration and blind luck. More importantly, though, the starting aircraft are appalling. They handle like wallowing submarines rather than aircraft, incapable of holding their own in a dogfight, all while being the first taste of the game that most players will experience! I personally quit the first mission five times because I got bored of interminable dogfights against enemies that could effortlessly dance around my hopeless plane, exhausting all my flares and ammo in the process.
If I was a regular customer rather than a reviewer, I would have just assumed that Vector Thrust was terrible and sought a refund right then and there as opposed to soldiering on. This needs to be sorted, soon, preferably by just letting us use any unlocked plane and introducing optional difficulty settings.
Speaking of inconsistent handling, Vector Thrust definitely emphasises quantity over quality. There may be hundreds of planes to unlock, including some amazing X-Planes and WW2 prototypes, but in reality a great deal of them are redundant. Whether functionality identical to other planes you've unlocked or totally useless in a dogfight, I simply ignored the vast majority of the aircraft after using them just once. The same is true for weapons, of which there are 75 to choose from but realistically half a dozen that are ever worth equipping (usually you're best off with a quality A2A missile regardless of objective).
There's a difference between content and meaningful content. TimeSymmetry probably should have offered drastically fewer planes but ensured that they all feel viable and unique to fly, while spending the extra time on full cockpit views rather than a basic first-person HUD.
And then we come to Vector Thrust's lack of polish. To be fair, a lot of the little details are genuinely impressive, such as the gorgeous cel-shaded plane models and the sonic boom effect when you hit Mach 1 that so many simulators forget. But these delightful touches make so much of the game feel unfinished and rushed in comparison. The targeting diamond stutters about, making gunplay hit and miss. Campaign objectives can be confusingly signposted. Audio mixing levels are all over the shop. The aforementioned campaign issues betray a complete lack of meaningful playtesting.
Menus are the worst offender, however, poorly laid-out and stuffed full of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and what look like placeholders. I don't blame the developer, seeing as UI design is an art in and of itself and Iceberg should have sprung for the services of an experienced freelancer. More to the point, though, Vector Thrust should have stayed in Early Access for as long as it took to iron out these issues in the first place.
Ultimately you can make your own fun in Vector Thrust. When enjoying your own custom matches in a superb fighter you've unlocked, you can feel TimeSymmetry's obvious passion for the genre and the thrill of real arcade dogfighting, enough to tentatively recommend a purchase. And yet, to be perfectly honest, it's easier to recommend that you wait and see whether this fun, flawed and prematurely-released product can realise its obvious potential.
- Thrilling flight handling and dogfighting (when you're in a decent jet)
- Loads of modes, planes and unlocks
- Crisp cel-shading
- Brutal slog of a campaign with terrible starting aircraft
- Terrible UI and menus, total lack of polish
- Plenty of redundant (often useless) planes and weapons
The Short Version: There's a great arcade flight sim in here somewhere. Vector Thrust offers a huge number of unlockable planes, thrilling dogfights and a bevy of modes, but its abysmal campaign and wildly inconsistent quality should have been caught in Early Access.
More Mighty Wings than a Cheap Trick, but not the Top Gun we were hoping for. At least, not yet.
6 – CAPABLE: The key thing to remember here is always try before you buy. There'll likely be some rather glaring flaws or perhaps a distinct lack of imagination, but games that earn a 6 will generally be very capable indeed and probably still provide a good deal of fun to genre fans.
Platform: PC (reviewed)
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive