Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Air Conflicts: Flawed Head Tracking
It's a "you get what you get" experience
To this day, I have so many mixed feelings about the Air Conflicts series. When describing it to friends, I find myself saying it had good ideas and rough implementation. Air Conflicts is a series of arcade combat flight simulators that started as a PC only release in 2006 with future games released on the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 with updated re-releases on the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch.
This is a rare instance where a majority of online reviews and my personal thoughts agree "below average" is a way to describe the overall experience. But there are times when I feel like I want to enjoy this series more than I do. If there is one thing I could give the series a shoutout for, its that the developers try things other game console flight titles rarely attempt. Like efforts to natively support more advanced flight control methods or features you would find in a full flight simulator.
The specific feature that comes to mind is in the Air Conflicts: Double Pack (2016) for the PlayStation 4 (PS4), which provides both Air Conflict: Vietnam and Air Conflicts: Pacific Carriers. These games that focused on the American involvement in the Vietnam War and the Pacific Theater of World War II were previously released on other platforms, but received various updates for their PS4 re-releases. Alongside new content, head tracking was an attention grabbing feature for me.
With the PS4 not supporting software like OpenTrack or hardware like infrared head trackers, the developer's decision to utilize the PlayStation Camera is a sensible alternative. The camera itself is purpose built for the platform with facial recognition, head tracking and gesture tracking being advertised functions. It is also used alongside the console's only virtual reality headset, the PSVR, to provide external tracking by monitoring the position of light bars/light sources from the VR headset, game pad and PS Move motion controllers. Though, even with a tailor made peripheral like this, it has always been lack luster in my experience.
The quality of the head tracking has consistently been laggy and overly sensitive. Even when perfectly aligned with the center of the camera, minor head movements either cause massive on screen inputs or seem to go unnoticed. A few degrees of head rotation can translate to dozens of degrees of in game input or a delayed input that turns the camera in ways your head most certainly did not move in. More often than not, this translates to unstable and somewhat unpredictable camera inputs, even when just looking straight ahead. This isn't great during a dogfight or flying at low altitude, or even just trying to take off. Going from casually glancing around to staring wistfully at the lower panels of the cockpit as terrain rushes by isn't great. Minor head motions that aren't picked up by the camera cause the player to somewhat exaggerate their head movement just to make sure the camera picks it up. This compounds the problem.
With no function to re-center the camera or set axis curves, it really is a "you get what you get" experience.
After having tried it a few times over the years with two different cameras, different types of lighting, different rooms and even in different houses, it's clear this isn't user error. Trying to visually track objects can become so tedious, just remembering where a target was last seen then maneuvering accordingly while looking straight forward is more effective. It's a shame that even a purpose built camera like this can struggle so badly in this application. I genuinely wanted this to function better than it did, as this would have meaningfully impacted the already somewhat troubled gameplay of the series.
Air Conflicts occasionally lives in my head rent-free, wrapped up with my thoughts of what could have been and minor things I did appreciate. Now that I've discussed one aspect of it, I'm bound to discuss other parts of the series sometime in the future. Until next time!
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.