There are a lot of bad games on Steam, but last night while browsing the new releases, I encountered a game that is beyond bad. It's not that Air Control is buggy or poorly designed: Air Control is basically just one giant bug, and I'm not sure you could call it "designed." Do not buy Air Control for $6. Do not buy Air Control for £4.79. Do not even buy Air Control for a laugh. But while you're here, let's have a look at Air Control, and see what the developer has to say.
Air Control's Steam page calls it "the best flight simulation in the history of computer games today." The trailer, however, is a mess of static zombie models, shooting, and brains. The rest of its description is equally hyperbolic. "Air Control is a new gen airplane simulator," it reads. "It is the first airplane game, where plane compartment is visible."
I often poke around Steam's new releases to find games worth reviewing, and sorting through the Putt-Putts and Freddi Fishes and mobile ports with "deluxe" and "HD" in the titles is taking longer and longer. I'd usually ignore a game like Air Control, but it looked too special to miss. I had to try it, to find out if it was a joke or...what it was.
It's immediately apparent that Air Control is not the best flight simulation in the history of computer games—or possibly even a flight simulation. The modes in the menu's placeholder-looking UI are: "Casual mode part 1," "Casual mode part 2," "Realistic mode," "Killjoy mode," and "Coming soon." We wouldn't want to get ahead of ourselves, so let's check out "Casual mode part 1" and "Casual mode part 2" in order:
This is going wonderfully. This is someone who downloaded Unity and some assets and thought "airplanes." With the missions bugged in part 1, I can't seem do anything but walk around. In part 2, I can't do anything at all: it just shows me a message explaining that the developer doesn't know how to handle the mouse cursor.
After a few more tries, however, I manage to get "Casual mode part 1" to load some actual flight attendant gameplay. I walk back and forth delivering food (clicking on passengers) and picking up pillows (clicking on pillows), and when I do enough to advance, I'm teleported to a plane full of zombies.
Walking by certain zombies cues interactive text dialog. I tell one of them that I'm "a stripteaser," and a minute later I stumble into the real meat of Air Control's casual mode: it's a first-person shooter, too. And, for the first time in the game, I fly a plane... kind of.
It's especially frustrating to play Air Control knowing how developers used to struggle to release even good games on Steam. To be fair, that put Valve in a difficult spot: it was seen as the arbiter of who succeeds and who fails. But even after it launched Greenlight to crowdsource Steam's curation, Valve remained watchful for a time. We used to report on batches of Greenlight approvals , because they included a small number of notable games.
Today, over 900 games have been approved through Greenlight, and Air Control is one of them . The gates are open, so let's try "Killjoy mode."
I should note that, most of the time, loading into Killjoy mode just renders an ocean: no ground, no plane, no controls. It took about six tries to get it to do this (who knows why I kept trying despite no indication it would ever work). And if you're wondering what "Y to fly up when plane is ready" means, it's what I was pressing every time the plane achieved vertical take-off and then went end-over-end.
At this point, I decide to take a break to look up the developer's website . It makes a lot of claims about the things you can do in Air Control, none of which seem possible in a game that can barely display a menu. I email the contact address and ask how they can justify selling Air Control, including my video of Killjoy mode. Then I email Valve to ask for its comment. And then I load up "Realistic mode."
Realistic mode, and reality
If you make it past the loading screens, you'll find audio taken from Delta's air safety video . I have minor doubts that it's being used with Delta's permission, but I had to ask, and this morning I was pleased to see that someone named Ramil Nassyrov from Air Control developer Killyjoy Games responded to my email. According to Nassyrov, the blog contains outdated information, while the Steam page is correct. And despite the smiley emoticons, he's unimpressed by my Killjoy mode gameplay video.
"Also, I found your video about gameplay uncorrect," writes Nassyrov. "Now it is a bit hardcore and you need to practice a lot in the game to finish flight in Killjoy mode. We are going to make it more user-friendly in time with updates. =)"
I respond with some follow-up questions about how Nassyrov made Air Control and got it through Greenlight. It also feels important to know if I'm talking to a teenager, so—admitting that it might be rude to ask personal questions—I ask if he minds sharing his age.
"Firstly, it is rude to ask such questions," replies Nassyrov. "I have a feeling that you are going to write a bad review on my game." He tells me that he's 20. "OMG it was too rude. I am so shocked. I hope you will sorry at least."
I apologize, but explain that I don't think Air Control should be sold. I also bring up the audio taken from Delta's air safety video. Nassyrov ignores, or doesn't understand, the content of my email. "Thank you for understanding!" he writes, smiley emoticon omitted. "By the way, I am going to release regular updates."
I'm not sure what to think of Nassyrov. He's eager and confident, and seemingly immune to criticism. I want to encourage him to keep making games, but I don't think it's wise to sell a game in Air Control's state. To Nassyrov, though, perhaps Air Control truly is "almost perfect, starting from the design and ending with a gameplay," as it's described on Killjoy's blog.
Or maybe it's all a joke. Either way, Air Control shouldn't be sold for any amount of money. It's not an unpolished game that will get better with regular updates, it's a learner's experiment with the Unity engine. Valve has some responsibility here, too: turning Steam into a self-publishing platform doesn't excuse it from selling, and taking a cut of, games which offer no value outside of disbelief and bemusement.
Greenlight has had a lot of successes. When it works, it benefits developers and consumers, bringing good and honest games like Strike Vector, Papers, Please, and Rogue Legacy to Steam's giant audience. I believe it has generated a net positive effect so far, but I fear it may soon reach the height of that parabola. In the case of Air Control, it's pretty easy to see from the trailer and screenshots that it's a risky buy, but given how little oversight is displayed here, I have to imagine it could easily have been misrepresented further. Steam's new user reviews might help, but they still require consumers to waste money before warning others away, which is far from ideal commerce.
At the time of writing, Valve has not responded to my request for comment.