First Impression: TOP DOG
For the month of June 2023, I may very well be the target demographic for TOP DOG. Far away from my usual cocoon of flight related simulators, games, books, documentaries, podcasts and the like, my day job is in overdrive for the next few weeks. Having already worked two weeks solid with no days off, I feel fatigue preventing my longer flying sessions, but still want to do something.
Developed by MorfeoDev, TOP DOG is the second air combat related release from this studio. According to Filippo De Luca from MorfeoDev, the studio's goal is to "make super-easy-to-pick-up arcade games with rock-solid core mechanics and all the game-feel possible."
I've had a previous title of theirs in my Steam wishlist for some time, but just never got around to jumping in head first. Well, now is the time!
At the time of this writing, the game is in early access title (v.0.83a) with plenty of additions and adjustments in its near future. The changelog and list of known bugs or upcoming changes is displayed shortly after the game launches to let players know what's going on.
As it says on the product page, this game is a pure action focused flight arcade title that is built purely for high speed gameplay and furious firepower. This is especially present when using the very adequate aircraft cannon while using the focus aim function, which zooms the camera in closer to the gun sight. It does give a similar feeling to that of how a first-person shooter aims down the sights of firearms.
The sight of shell casing being ejected from the top of the aircraft, while tracer rounds hammer away at close range targets, is entertaining. Most importantly, the cannons are effective against all enemies and well worthwhile mastering as the primary weapon system players would select.
Beyond standard in game settings for volume, graphics, button remapping and other familiar options, the only other extended option is the leaderboard which shows the highest scores and stats of other players over the past 36 hours. The board is reset, and the competition restarts to see who is the next "top dog", if you will. With timed waves of hostiles, point multipliers and boss fights, every destroyed interceptor or smashed warship contributes heavily to reaching higher spots in the leaderboard. Knowing that the leaderboard isn't a permanent does entice me to try harder to see how high up my rank can get.
Its fictional fighter relies on a pair of main cannons and short-range missiles to cut through waves of fighters, interceptors, ace pilots and larger, dangerous enemies. The base performance is solid enough to survive against just about every enemy it comes up against, but it is clear that tactics and timing on behalf of the player is the only way to rack up points and overcome much heavily armored enemies. While playing with the game in "Stick Mode", which enables controls more in line with flight simulation controls, I was satisfied with how smoothly the aircraft handled at all speeds. Fully expecting a near uncontrollable roll rate, I was able to comfortably perform maneuvers without having to constantly over or under compensate.
My favorite part of its flight characteristics is the unusual replacement for traditional yaw/rudder control. Instead of the nose of the aircraft rotating horizontally, the entire aircraft somewhat side strafes - similar to a rotary-wing aircraft flying horizontally along the ground. This is done by a thruster placed on the underside of the fuselage. As the aircraft rolls in either direction, the thruster is activated simultaneously when a "rudder input" is made. Holding the sideslip for multiple seconds while not in afterburner causes the aircraft to rapidly slow down, eventually putting the aircraft into a near hover.
This odd movement works well for concentrating long bursts of cannon fire into the weak points of large enemies and deftly dodging close range cannon fire during intense dogfights. It took some time to get used to, but side slipping at key moments really changed the flight arcade gameplay.
Between my first and second day playing TOP DOG, the order in which enemies spawn and the types of enemies that spawned changed a bit. Not knowing what will pop up next time I reach level 3 does add a degree of replayability. The timers per wave aren't there to give players a failed mission if they do not clear the field of enemies. Instead, if enemies remain when the timer hits zero, the next wave comes in regardless, adding to the number of total units opposing the player at one time. In later levels, the numbers can be overwhelming. Consciously putting in effort to thin out as many of the smaller units before going one-on-one with warships is a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
As players clear the waves of hostiles, they receive mid-game upgrades. With no specific set of menus needed, players are presented with three upgrades before the next level is challenged. The upgrades are somewhat randomized and only carry over during the player's current run.
Once the run is finished or their aircraft is destroyed, the upgrades are gone. The upgrades can increase aircraft armor, turn rate, add the ability to repair using shards from destroyed vehicles, add a bullet time slow motion feature while in focus mode, etc. With no in game credit economy to worry about, it is as easy as selecting from what is available. Players are then sent to new locations. Amongst the clouds, deserts, space and other locations to come in the future.
It's easy to say that the game feels "short" and that it could do with some extra content, but that's not the scope of what the developer set out to do. By intentionally leaving out an elaborate story or set piece cutscenes, players can be in action within seconds of booting up the game. This game would benefit from more music and more sound effects, but overall the gameplay loops feels like it is near finalized.
I have had four days of relatively short play sessions with TOP DOG. With my sessions happening between work emails, service calls and whatever else pops up, I can say for certain that TOP DOG effectively fills the small gaps in my day with high-flying action. I plan on checking in with this game's updates as they come along.
About the Writer
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.