By Dave Haldane
Luftrausers is a fast paced shooter that's easy to play and hard to put down. When I first fired it up I wasn't particularly "wowed". The gameplay was like a modernised classic shooter and the pixelated graphics, silhouetted in sepia belied just how enjoyable the game would be. I guess it must have been the cynic in me mistaking 8-bit styling and arcade-ish gameplay for lazy retro appeal.
In a way I was right though; Luftrausers is designed in much the same way as many phone, tablet or arcade games. It's simple interface and basic mechanics mean it has an almost nonexistent learning curve and is easily accessible right from the start. Sessions are short and fast with little changing between games but it has all the hooks needed to make you play "just one more game".
Gameplay boils down to a physics based shooter. You're given control of a Rauser (plane) and must survive as long as you can against waves of increasingly difficult boats, planes, submarines and blimps. Controls are very simple with you able to accelerate, turn left or right and shoot... that's it.
Simple controls don't make a simple game however and there are a number of additional factors to consider. Firstly you must control the vertical (any Outer Limits fans reading this?). If you fly too high or sink too low you take damage and must get back in the clear to let your health to regenerate. Secondly your health only regenerates when you aren't shooting. Thirdly you only get one life which can end pretty quickly, sometimes with just one or two hits.
You'd imagine this would lead you to conservative play style however Luftrausers has a scoring system that encourages you to take risks. Killing enemies grants a fairly small score however sequential kills result in a point multiplier. The point multiplier maxes out at 20x meaning those tiny 15 point kills you were getting at the start are now worth 300 a piece. Gameplay turns into a juggling act of trying to keep yourself safe whilst maintaining a high score multiplier and working on a decent score.
Aside from beating your high score there are a number of incentives to keep you playing. Each session's score is added to a grand total which grants you player levels and Rauser mods. Modifications include weapon, body and engine customisations each of which balances it's pros and cons nicely to ensure you've no "best" choice. Weapons vary in strength, spread and fire rate; body types offer nice special effects such as a nuke on death or negation of contact damage; and engine mods grant varying flight speed and bonuses like anti-gravity or the ability to submerge. Alongside the offensive and defensive attributes each mod also alters the way your Rauser handles. Acceleration and turning speed are just as vital as armour and firepower when trying to survive a dog fight.
Adding to this each mod also comes with it's own unique set of objectives. Whilst they're mostly "kill X number of Y" variants they provide additional goals and incentive to play "just one more round". This is a nice way to implement objectives as, if you're stuck on one, you can simply change a mod and attempt another. This is a very important feature for LuftRausers as there's no story or "end game" as such. Once you reach the highest level there's naught to do but try and beat your high score whilst contemplating the mystery of why you're still hopelessly addicted.
Where Luftrausers really excels is in its attention to detail. Difficulty and incentives are staggered well so you never feel too overwhelmed or far from your next milestone. The graphics are simple but effective with smooth animation and clear targets. Musically it has a single score however the instruments vary based on the components you've equipped. Combine this with the smooth gameplay, well designed objectives and control variance via customisable ships it and you get a simple title executed perfectly... well, nearly perfectly.
I only have two problems with Luftrausers, only one of which could be considered fair critique. The first problem is that enemies auto generate. In itself this is a great thing however I got stuck on a few objectives as I had to wait for a blimp, submarine, laser ace or other enemy type to spawn. This can be very frustrating as there's little you can do when waiting for a random encounter other than repeatedly try until you succeed. I believe there are tricks you can do to increase the chances of these occurrences but it wasn't overly clear what they were.
The second, some might say unfair, criticism of the game is that it feels overpriced at $15. Whilst $15 isn't extortionate I can't help but compare it to tablet equivalents like Jetpack Joyride ($3), Guacamelee ($19) or Hotline Miami ($12). That said you do get both the Vita and Playstation 3 versions for that price with crossplay enabled so they're not skimping on features. If you're still on the fence don't worry, with Playstation Plus the way it is, we'll probably all get it free in a couple of months anyway.
Luftrausers isn't going to be for everyone. It's simple design, repetitive gameplay and price will discourage many from investing in a simple "time filler" however, if it looks like your sort of game it's well worth the investment. A definite best of it's class and one that will surely provide you hours of entertainment.