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Luftrausers Review: Aerial Ace

S. Prell, @SamPrell

Question: When is a plane not a plane? Answer: When it's a UFO firing a laser, or a kamikaze ballerina, or a floating brick propelled by bullets, or a nuclear-equipped mecha-dolphin, or, or, or. Shorter answer: When it's in Luftrausers, where a sense of acrobatic grace and colossal amounts of customization are king.

Luftrausers is the updated version of Vlambeer's Luftrauser, a free arcade shooter in which players fly the unfriendly skies and attempt to take out as many fighter planes and boats as they can before meeting their inevitable demise. The two games share the same control scheme – up to boost, left and right to rotate, X to fire – but beyond that, the upgrades make Luftrausers feel totally distinct.

You'll begin Luftrausers as a simple fighter plane – you have a basic machine gun, a healthy frame, and a not-too-fast, not-too-slow engine. You'll launch from the deck of a submarine and engage in dogfights to take out enemy fighter planes, jets, boats, submarines, battleships, laser-spewing ... things, and a blimp so big it fills the screen.

Gallery: Luftrausers (3/17/14) | 5 Photos

The more enemies you destroy, the higher your score multiplier goes, up to a maximum of 20x. The time allotted between each kill before a chain expires is just long enough to give you a chance to hunt down off-screen enemies, but short enough that it never feels easy doing so. It's a thrill to hunt down enough cannon fodder to keep your score from dissipating, and satisfying to watch the numbers climb.

Scoring points and completing objectives – "kill a submarine at Max combo," etc. – unlocks more parts for your aircraft, and this is where Luftrausers begins to show not only its versatility, but also its addictiveness. There are scads of weapon, body and engine configurations that you can assemble to create the perfect flying machine. Or maybe it's a better diving machine. Or maybe it's not very good at either of those things, but it's got armor and a nuke tucked away in its body, so who cares if you go down, because you'll take everyone with you. Each combination feels different and well-balanced, while also encouraging you to try out different styles of play. So what if you started this journey as an airplane? Strap a water engine to the back of that puppy and go for a swim, because water no longer damages you. Keep running into trouble, literally? The melee body has less health overall, but you won't take any damage from crashing into your foes.

It's a testament to Luftrausers' design that changing the parts on your craft can so drastically alter the game's overall experience. There aren't multiple levels, and the world is always throwing the same enemies at you, albeit in random, varying doses. Yet playing with the melee body and super-boost engine feels dramatically different from playing with, say, the bomb-dropping frame and super-boost engine.

Customizing your plane not only alters how it performs, but it changes the background music as well. Each possible plane receives its own predetermined name and musical theme, giving each individual assembly of parts a sense of personality, which in turn helps you feel all the more attached to a combination you like. I particularly enjoyed the Turberauser's theme, as it gave off a Tron: Legacy sort of vibe. The Turberauser is built out of a laser weapon, armored body and super-boost engine, and looks not unlike an alien space pod, so the deep, synthetic beats matched it well.

While combat will no doubt occupy a large portion of your time, it's an immense pleasure just to exist in Luftrausers. Vlambeer absolutely nails giving players a sense of momentum, and cleverly makes it a vital part of the game. A plane's health doesn't regenerate while firing weapons, so if you want to stay alive, you'll eventually want to take your finger off the trigger. Luftrausers lets gravity do the work of slowing you down; if you ever let off the boost, your plane will go into a stall, falling listlessly through the yellow sky. The planes are no more than a handful of pixels, a minimalist impression of an aircraft, yet a stall gives the illusion of weight and makes you feel as though they're tangible objects with density and mass.

For all its strengths, however, Luftrausers is a bit on the short side, and the difficulty ramps up quickly. That's not much of a problem for a high-score enthusiast who still gets excited for their umpteenth flight, but it will likely only take an hour or two to complete enough objectives to unlock every customization option the game has on normal difficulty.

To be fair, there's a much harder mode with its own set of objectives that unlocks once you defeat a blimp, but trust me when I say this mode could very well cause your real-life death, either via a rage-induced brain aneurysm or a friend bludgeoning you with the nearest heavy object in retaliation for making them give it a try. It's a mode that turns the game into the ninth circle of bullet hell, and while I don't doubt that there are pilots out there who could survive in such a place, I found the experience more frustrating than challenging.

But even at its most infuriating, it's hard to stay mad at Luftrausers. The sense of flight and weightlessness is as intoxicating as the build-what-you-want nature of the game's war machines. And besides, dying is just an excuse to try out a new combo of parts, and I'm mighty curious to see how an armored, cannon-firing airplane with an underwater engine would handle.

This review is based on a Steam download of Luftrausers, provided by Devolver Digital. Luftrausers is also available on PS3 and Vita. Images: Devolver Digital.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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