What is it? An arcadey air combat game set on a devastated future Earth.
Expect to pay: $25/£19.49
Developer: Sector D2
Publisher: Sector D2, Humble Games
Reviewed on: Ryzen 7 3700X, RTX 2060 Super, 16 GB RAM, SSD, Logitech Extreme 3D Pro Joystick, Xbox 360 Wired Controller
Link: Official site
When I see an airplane combat game touting full HOTAS support, head tracking, and VR integration, I go in expecting something pretty hardcore. Project Wingman isn't really that, and it's not trying to be. It's more like a modern Top Gun game, sticking you in the cockpit of a jet as a superhuman mercenary ace for some pulpy, cinematic dogfighting action. There's lots of detail and variety in terms of different aircraft and loadouts, but it's definitely not a simulation in the sense of the games I grew up with, like IL-2 Sturmovik.
The controls are very arcadey, even without Novice Mode enabled. It's possible to land on about 100 feet of runway by coming to almost a complete stop mid-air and then barely kissing the ground with your wheels at the last second. G-forces are not a thing, as making hairpin turns in any direction while travelling hundreds of miles an hour won't bother you or your aircraft. Flying upside-down or sideways at top speed and maintaining a constant altitude, more or less indefinitely, is just fine. You can stall if your speed drops too low, but even that is pretty forgiving and easy to recover from. And accuracy is relative, since even small ground targets like tanks will take full damage as long as you land your high explosive rounds somewhere in their general vicinity.
That's not to say that Project Wingman isn't a lot of fun. Sometimes you just want to come in hot on a bandit and take them out with a well-placed burst of full auto, or swoop down over a geothermal power plant to carpet it in bombs before switching to the external camera to enjoy the Hollywood pyrotechnics. You want that radio voice in your ear yelling, "They're on my six!" It's just ambience. It doesn't really matter who's yelling, or what is on their six, or where "six" is. I'm just vibing.
If you're in the mood to fly jets really fast and blow shit up without having to worry about silly nonsense like structural integrity and blacking out, Project Wingman has you covered—as long as you have a controller or a flight stick. The mouse and keyboard controls, no matter how much I tweaked them, are just way too touchy and I can't recommend trying to fly that way. I definitely had the best experience with my trusty Logitech Extreme 3D Pro stick, but the controls on a plain old Xbox 360 controller work just fine, too. Throttle management can be kind of a pain since you have to hold down the shoulder buttons to throttle up and down at a set rate, but it's definitely playable.
Everything looks incredible, too, from the inside of the cockpit to the environments and volumetric clouds. I was able to cruise at 60-plus fps at max settings on my RTX 2060 Super, even with a lot going on. Every over-the-top explosion is satisfyingly bombastic, with flames and smoldering debris confirming your kill alongside a nice, bassy "boom!" that you can almost feel with surround sound headphones. Moisture will collect on the canopy and catch sunlight realistically. The terrain looks gorgeous whether you're flying over freezing taiga or a futuristic metropolis. And the aircraft themselves have been thoughtfully crafted, with full attention paid to the tiniest details.
The variety of real-world-inspired aircraft helps keep things interesting, and each of the 21 campaign missions encourages picking the right tool for the job. Supporting a heavily-beleaguered ground force, you might want to bring an air-to-ground assault plane modeled on the A-10. In primarily air-to-air battles, a dogfighter that takes after the MiG-29 might be more your speed. There are tons of different weapon types that are all good at different things, from smart tracking missiles that require you to stay pointed at a target but are almost impossible to evade, to ground-targeted cluster bombs for when you just need to scorch the earth. The hangar UI for building these loadouts is very clunky and unintuitive, though, and too restrictive about which weapons it will allow you to attach to which hardpoints.
The 21-mission campaign tells an interesting war story on a future Earth devastated by natural disaster, in which the west coast of the US has physically broken free from the rest of the continent, and is trying to do so politically as well. You fight for the underdog Cascadians against the imperialistic Federation, trying to help them win their independence so they can enjoy their garage rock and Voodoo Doughnuts in peace. Most of the characters are just war movie stereotypes with somewhat predictable arcs, but there are some neat plot twists.
Things can get a bit repetitive, though, and while the increasingly wild sci-fi super enemies add some much-needed variety, they can also be frustrating. For instance, the flying fortresses you'll start to encounter a few missions in require you to take out all of their discrete hardpoints before they'll go down. No matter how much firepower you throw at the fuselage, it seems, they're invincible until you've knocked out every single AA gun. This is the most gamey part of Project Wingman and it really wrecked what was already a shaky illusion for me. And regardless of the objectives, I still spent most of my time in every mission chasing down individual enemy fighters since my AI wingmen didn't seem that competent at keeping them off of me while I pursued priority targets.
What might keep me coming back to Project Wingman is the open-ended Conquest Mode. You start out all by yourself with a couple basic jets and have to run missions to earn new hardware and hire additional pilots. As your roster grows, you'll conquer your way across a map of the coast, building to a final confrontation. Managing your resources is challenging, and it scratches a certain strategy itch that the campaign can't.
I spent a lot of time lamenting what Project Wingman doesn't have: better physics, smarter AI allies, less predictable characters, and more varied objectives. But I also had a blast zooming around, painting targets, and banking hard to avoid missile locks. It's like a popcorn action movie in game form, and consistently enjoyable for a lot of the same reasons those flicks are. I think it would make me hurl all over my joystick in VR with its disregard for Newton's laws and human biology, but in good ol' 1080p, it got my heart pounding and left my lunch alone.