I never really thought much about getting my pilot’s license. A fear of heights and a natural instinct for keeping myself alive combined to keep my feet firmly on the ground. This past week however, as I soared high above the ocean in a lightweight, single engine aircraft, I couldn’t help thinking: I could get used to this. Then my fourth failed landing in a row reminded me why I should always trust my instincts.
Ultrawings is a brand new title for Oculus Rift that, much like me playing it, has high and low moments. The game straddles the line between cartoonish escapism and a realistic aerial simulator. The problem, however, is that it doesn’t commit firmly enough to either conceit. What you’re left with is a game that feels stuck in between two ideas, never truly realizing either. This is not to say that you won’t enjoy it though, so let’s start with the fun stuff.
Flying in Ultrawings feels amazing. Bit Planet Games built some truly incredible and immersive cockpits for you to enjoy. There are three planes for you to unlock as you play through the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Your beginning craft is the one you’ll likely use the most, however, and the little guy is simply a delight to fly.
Most flight games in VR like to focus on big, beefy spaceships or fighter jets, but Ultrawings puts you in an “Ultra Light” aircraft that manages to feel loose, airy, and exhilarating all at the same time. Taking off in this beauty makes you feel like you really could be at some resort in the Caribbean learning to be a pilot.
To control your airborne skiff you use the Touch controllers (or a gamepad) to manipulate the flight stick, throttle, gas and starter. While playable with gamepad, you lose a big part of what makes the experience so novel and engaging — I’d recommend using Touch if at all possible. Priming the gas pump before takeoff, flipping a switch, starting the engine and pushing forward the throttle using your hands is about as realistic as Ultrawings gets. They may be simple actions, but it feels good every time you run through your takeoff procedures, or cut the engine just in time to pull off that perfect landing.
The different planes you unlock will all differ in overall speed and maneuverability, but on the main the controls in Ultrawings are not turn-on-a-dime responsive. You’ll need to plan your routes fairly carefully in order to hit the right angles and execute with proper timing.
There are a variety of missions for you to take on once you complete the pilot license tutorial. To name a few there’s ring rush, where your goal is to fly through every ring on a course in a given time; balloon pop, a mode where you have to fire at an array of balloons with a dart gun while flying; and a delivery mode where you must take off and land at certain runways without spilling your cargo. Each of these game modes is moderately entertaining, but after a while the cracks in the Ultrawings foundation begin to appear.
The single biggest problem with this game is that it tries to live in so many different worlds. It wants to give you some flight sim mechanics, but those mechanics aren’t all that engaging. It’s set on a chain of tropical islands but the visuals are disappointingly grey, blocky, and dull. It wants to give you missions to keep coming back to, but never gives you any real reason for completing those missions other than earning cash to purchase new airports around the map.
There are just a lot of missed opportunities in Ultrawings, despite the solid foundation. For a game that is built around spending most of your time in the open air cockpit, you’d hope that the studio would build some truly beautiful and believable vistas for you to enjoy. Instead, the long trips between islands or mission waypoints lose their luster quickly in a world that feels like it could do with a nice tug on its brightness meter. The studio was clearly going for scale and persistence for its island locales, which chews up CPU performance, but it doesn’t forgive the weak visuals especially since earlier games like Windlands are able to look better earlier in the Rift’s life cycle with a similar art style.
There are also a few frustrating UX and mechanical issues in Ultrawings. Package missions, for example, tell you to “land in the zone” which could be the target placed on the dirt near the opposing runway or the glowing box hovering on the runway itself. It’s not made terribly clear and this confusion is made worse by a “don’t lose your boxes” mechanic that seems far too punishing. Even light, necessary turns can send your cargo flying which forces you to restart the mission.
It may sound silly, but I kept wondering why a pilot would take off without securing his cargo first? It’s a dumb question but it nagged at me. It became representative of a larger problem which is that Ultrawings never seemed to respect your intelligence enough to give you real motivations to complete your tasks. Why are all these balloons in the sky? Why am I shooting them? Why do I want to save money to buy new airports? There are a lot of questions to consider while you make your way through the great blue yonder.
Ultrawings provides a lot of upfront delight but unfortunately can’t back that up with meaningful gameplay or interesting mechanics. The joy of gliding around in a personal plane is compelling, but the dropoff in satisfaction once that sensation is mastered is steep. There’s enough here to justify a few fun moments and replayability for fans of lite sim experiences, but don’t expect this to replace any of the deeper games in your VR rotation.