Prepare to go boom
The nine-man strong development team Ragequit is aptly named: their debut game is one tough cookie to crack. An Unreal Engine-powered aerial shooter, Strike Vector has players hopping into jet fighters, blasting each other away. And crashing into walls - a lot.
Each jet comes in two modes and two perspectives that you can switch between at any time. Jet mode has you flying at breakneck speeds and Hover mode or, as I like to call it, Camping mode - transforms you into a floating robot. Hover mode makes it easier to aim but leaves you almost completely vulnerable as you can't move forward and can barely even move sideways. Knowing when to switch between the two modes is critical to success. Less critical, but useful, is the ability switch between first and third person viewpoints.
Before entering a map, you can visit the garage and customize your jet by changing its weapons loadout, choosing bonuses like more defense, extra speed and so on. You can also select special moves along the lines of temporary speed boosts, cloaking, or putting up a temporary shield. You only get to choose one and you can only use it every so often.
Joining a game in Strike Vector feels like stepping back into the early 2000's. There is no matchmaking system of any kind. All you get is a list of servers from which you simply choose one manually, and hope it works. It doesn't always. Many, many times I joined a game that claimed to have multiple players already duking it out, only to find that I was the only player there when it loaded. Other times I'd try joining a Deathmatch game and inexplicably find myself in a Bounty Hunter game. Frustrating.
The lack of matchmaking makes it impossible to end up in a game comprised of players at your skill level, which in turn makes it more difficult to improve. Many of the games I played were dominated by a select few experienced players who mercilessly slaughtered the newbie majority. Even if you've found the right players on a server, finding them on the map poses yet another problem. Strike Vector features a total of eight relatively small and spherical maps - many of which could have been twin brothers. Maps are limited to a maximum of 12 players, all of whom are moving so quickly and in so many directions that you'll only encounter them for incredibly brief stints. The mini-map radar shows the map as a 2D plane, and as such is absolutely useless: players can be so many miles above or below you that you have no way of seeing them even if the map displays them as being right next to you.
If you're expecting Star Wars style aerial dogfights, prepare to be disappointed: getting behind another player is extremely difficult. It's much more likely you'll see them whizzing above you for a split-second, and by the time you can even come close to aiming for them, they're long gone. This is especially problematic in Bounty Hunter mode: it's hard enough getting close to any player at all. Tracking down one in particular gets just plain annoying.
The real menace in all of this are the clunky controls. This isn't the slick flying combat of, say, Crimson Skies, or Transformers: War of Cybertron. For one thing, you don't steer your jet with WASD as you would expect. Rather, you steer your jet with your mouse, which is also how you aim, which in turn means that aiming for your opponents often means colliding into a wall.
Jets also take too long to turn, or to veer up or down. There is no button that allows for a quick u-turn, no button to level your jet and no ground to use as a reference for flying level. All there is, is more open sky filled with floating mechanical structures, none of which give you any idea of whether you're level or flying straight up. You do get a button that allows you to look directly behind you but there's no free-moving camera, even in third person mode, so your vision is limited to the same direction you are moving and aiming towards.
There is no doubt in my mind that these design choices are completely intentional. Ragequit clearly wants players to feel like they are flying a realistic, hard-to-control jet. They want to give players a harsh challenge so that every success feels truly earned. This really comes to the fore when looking at the scoring system. Expect to crash a lot - especially in the beginning and every time you crash you lose a point. If your score is zero, crashing brings it into the negative numbers. Even if you have been on a killing spree, your score can still end up below 0 for accidental crashes. Brutally, during Team Deathmatch, your crashes will bring down the score of your entire team. Some players will enjoy how unforgiving this system is. Others will feel that it makes their fragging achievements both literally and figuratively - feel pointless.
A love it or hate it game
Graphically, the game looks pretty slick on a high-end rig, but thankfully it scales well enough that it can run on lower-end machines without too much lag. Textures do sometimes pop-in seconds after the game has loaded, but this isn't a huge problem. The menu features a grunge-rock soundtrack that doesn't really fit the game's futuristic visual style but strangely enough the music disappears during the actual matches. A pumping electronic score could have increased the sense of excitement for the games pilots and might have fit the aesthetics better.
Strike Vector is multiplayer-only. There are no bots, no characters, and no story. This isn't a game for people who want to explore a new world. This is a game for people who want to climb leaderboards, a game for hardcore gamers who relish a challenge and don't mind taking time to get skilled at a unique control scheme. After all, there aren't many games that mix intense shooter combat with 360-degree flying. Those who excel at this game will find it an addictive rush. Everyone else, however, will be left in the dust, baffled and overwhelmed by the punishing difficulty and the general lack of reward.
Either way, you're going to crash a lot in the beginning.
Slick graphics, hardcore players will enjoy the challenge
Steep learning curve; unwieldy controls; lack of matchmaking makes finding a game a chore