DogFighter is an aerial combat simulator from Dark Water Studios, built for high-flying multiplayer action. Consider it a cross between Crimson Skies and a power-up-heavy casual title like Mario Kart or Star Fox 64. The multiplayer-only title, available for download on Steam, is a fun, frenetic experience that injects some fuel into a genre long thought to have stalled out.
DogFighter’s controls requires a bit of an adjustment period,- but once understood, you'll be barrel rolling, shooting, and turning with the best of them. That isn't to say this is an entirely skill-based game: judging the distance to a target is guesswork, even with radar, so it's difficult to determine whether you should open fire or wait until you're closer.
I played with an Xbox 360 controller and found it much easier to maneuver my plane than with the awkward keyboard configurations. Advanced maneuvers like knowing to deploy the airbrake take time to master, and if you know how to best use the power-ups you have a huge head start on the competition.
You start with a conventional machine gun with unlimited ammo, but you can grab power-ups by flying through various red, blue, or purple icons. Red icons grant you weapons like Vulcan cannons, homing missiles, and something called the Bobcat shotgun, which is exceptionally fun to use. Blue power-ups grant you defensive countermeasures, and purple power-ups will either sabotage you or your opponent's planes. You can automatically stall your plane or have its controls reversed on you, so I found it best to avoid the non-red power-ups entirely.
DogFighter currently offers seven maps and over six planes to pilot. The aircraft are all inspired by real planes, including the P-51 Mustang and the Red Baron's iconic Fokker Dr I triplane. The world seems to be more steam-punk than historically accurate, with each plane modified in some way to ensure they exist in a level playing field, while retaining some individual characteristics. With DogFighter's exaggerated tribute to air combat, the differences are obvious and easily identifiable. When you see an enemy craft, you immediately know what you're up against.
There are a variety of modes to play through, including survival, lone wolf, deathmatch, and team deathmatch. The game is meant for multiplayer with human opponents, although the bots can give you plenty of challenge. With 15 bots available to fight against in a given map, the combat can get quite intensive.
That said, the glaring omission here is a single-player campaign. The world that Dark Water Studios has created is actually a weirdly compelling one. I want to know about the huge airships that you're zooming around and I want to know why that Sopwith Camel has a jet engine now. What kind of society exists in this strange world?
The lack of a single-player campaign aside, the game is strong evidence that independent developers take more risks than the big boys. It's a daredevil act to put out a game in a genre that's long out of fashion and it's even more impressive that Dark Water Studios made the game so well-balanced and fun. It's a steal at at this price and a great throwback to the glory days of flight and fighting.