Until the Last Plane

“My longest serving pilot (he’s been with the squadron since Tunisia) Captain ‘Spud’ Marshall is two days away from a war bond tour of the States when his number comes up. During a strafing run near Mortain, Ol’ Snaggletooth, his faithful P-47, gets caught in the blast from an exploding ammo truck. He nurses the riddled machine back to base, using clouds to outwit the Fw 190s he encounters en route, but loses control when the undercarriage collapses during landing. Snaggletooth slithers into a passing fuel bowser, ending Spud’s life in a fiery instant and halving squadron morale at a stroke.”

“The Stukas return on day three of the campaign expecting another cakewalk. What they haven’t bargained for is the pair of new AA guns I’ve purchased and placed since their last visit and the fact that all four of my LaGG-3s are, on this occasion, assigned to airfield defence. Polly, the squadron hack, gets eviscerated by an SC250 early on, but after that the losses are 100% Luftwaffe. A morale-boosting rout becomes a laugh-out-loud farce when, in the raid’s closing moments, two panicking Ju 87s thoughtfully collide right over my base’s aircraft boneyard.”

These are the kind of stories I was hoping Until the Last Plane would tell. These are the kind of anecdotes I was hoping to sprinkle through this review. Ten hours in, with only one of the game’s nine operations left to play, the page of my notebook I’d reserved for recording colourful, dynamically-generated dramas is completely bare. This disappointingly basic £11 WW2 squadron management curio is, I’m afraid to say, incapable of producing them.

The dearth of unscripted stories would be less of an issue if there were more of the scripted kind. Last year’s demo suggested that the top-down combat mini-games and airfield orchestration would be lubricated by lashings of interactive fiction. In fact random events like test-flight crashes and morale-impacting missives from home are rare, and more complicated decision-demanding op enliveners such as the multi-episode tale of the elderly WWI ace keen to share his wisdom and the journalist eager to explore and photograph your warbirds, even rarer. That’s a great pity, because on its own the shallow sortie and aerodrome action struggles to keep boredom at bay.

While I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching UTLP’s lovingly fashioned aircraft sprites beetling along taxiways and bustling in and out of maintenance spots, the sight of them soaring over scrolling countryside or ocean now leaves me colder than mid-winter Murmansk. Having spent several days waiting for combat interludes to increase in complexity, challenge, and variety, I’m now resigned to the fact that the majority are irredeemably crude and insultingly easy.

To halt the shuttling targeting lines over the objective in level bombing missions requires a modicum of concentration and manual dexterity (wind, altitude, and various other factors impact the speed of the reticle elements). However, in the turn-based interceptions and evasions, choosing which of the handful of manoeuvres to employ usually takes a split second. Noughts and crosses is cerebral in comparison.

More sophisticated damage modelling and smarter AI could transform the game’s dishwater-dull dogfights. As things stand, all you need to do to down a foe is finish up (both parties have a set number of moves) with your aircraft’s crimson weapons cone overlapping the bandit’s outline. It matters not whether the overlap is whisker-thin or total, a kill is the result.

On the attack enemies regularly squander manoeuvrability advantages, using extra moves to slide further away from there-for-the-taking prey. You’re far more likely to lose a pilot to a repair delay (damaged planes explode on the ground if left unattended for too long) than a bullet or cannon shell. Landing prangs, flak, fog, and PoW camps aren’t modelled so never denude the flier roster.

The less said about the painfully primitive bomber escort, tank busting, and recon sorties, the better.

With the benefit of hindsight, UTLP might have been better sans interactive combat. If sortie results had been determined with a combination of bouncing bones and pilot and plane stats, developer CarloC would have had more time to devote to penning interactive fiction and designing engaging airbase activities. As things stand, because airfields never come under attack and are devoid of buildable structures, they’re little more than fetching animated menu screens.

The business of repairing, refuelling, and rearming aircraft only generates interesting dilemmas in the USAAF campaign. In the Russian and German sequences supplies are purchased automatically meaning no “Should I spend funds on ammo or avgas today?” chin scratching. I believe I’ve used one of the airfield facilities – the workshop – precisely once thus far. Like the medical centres on VVS bases, they feel like an idea bolted onto the design rather than properly embedded within it.

Assuming you resist the temptation to over-commit (a single successful sortie per day is all that’s required to ‘win’ the nine operations, none of which last longer than a week) failure, even in the “hard” ops, is close to impossible. Does thoughtful use of the squadron emblem option at the start of an operation stiffen the almost non-existent challenge? A smidgen, yes, but I doubt I’m alone in hoping traditional difficulty settings are amongst CarloC’s patch priorities.

In a world where games about WW2 aviation generally require impeccable hand-eye coordination and complete mental and digital commitment, perhaps there’s room for one that can be played with one eye on the telly and one hand wrapped around a beverage glass. Ego-kind and easy on superannuated peepers/PCs, while Until the Last Plane doesn’t have what it takes to woo Tally-Ho Corner’s fussy proprietor, a quick perusal of the Steam reviews reveals many satisfied customers.

Me? I’m off to install something more interesting (Graviteam Tactics: Leopard’s Leap?) and day-dream about the as-yet-unmade airfield sim (Until the Last Plane II?) that leaves stories like this in its wake:

“Beaufighter or bulldozer? In the end I settle for the Beau – a decision I’m ruing within five minutes. A surprise raid by Me 262 ‘Sturmvogels’ moonscapes the 604’s grass runways shortly before my pricey purchase is due to touch-down. I immediately switch all groundrcrew to crater-filling duties, but without mechanical assistance progress is slow. The landing nightfighter manages to snake between two unfilled holes, but plunges into a third, catching fire for good measure. By the time my otherwise-engaged (the control tower was set ablaze by the Messerschmitts) fire truck reaches the burning Bristol it’s a total loss – my hard-earned 2000 Spanners has gone up in smoke. Next time I’ll buy the bulldozer!”

8 Comments

  1. This seems a little like a Wargame version of New Star Soccer, just the arcade sections aren’t as good and therefore it kind of falls apart?

  2. That’s a damn shame. It looks wonderful visually, and tricky turn-based dogfights and base management/defense would be totally my jam, especially at that price. But from what you’ve reported it seems like it should still be in Early Access.

  3. Ok, whew, so it’s not just me then. I was really looking forward to this release, but have found the game to be very thin and repetitive. I thought maybe I was missing something or, perhaps, hadn’t gotten deep enough into the campaigns.

    Presentation? Brilliant.
    Premise? Excellent!
    Gameplay? So thin you barely notice it’s there.

    It pains me to say it because, clearly, a lot of loving care went into crafting this almost-gem, but I just can’t justify devoting any playtime. I need to wait for Tim’s review next time.

    With the right enhancements, it could go from dud to blockbuster, but I really don’t know if that’s on the horizon since it doesn’t feel like the kind of stuff that’s fixable via a DLC model. The core gameplay itself is flat.

    • Yup, I got exactly the same vibe from playing the demo a while back, and it sounds like the full game is the same. It looks great and it’s a cool concept, but the missions are too simple and take too long, and the base management side is too thin.

      I think they would have done better to go with more of a Carrier Deck style gameplay – Tim covered that game in the past leading me to pick it up, and despite being fairly simple I found it engrossing. A great game if you don’t mind time pressure and a little bit of fast clicking needed.

    • It went cold for me when I realized if I slap any lateral move in a dogfight repeatedly I almost always successfully evade. It was a nice little timewaster but if that’s what I’m looking for, Loop Hero does more to keep me engaged.

  4. thanks for the read 🙂

  5. Unfortunately agree with the review and the other comments. The sprites are beautiful, the presentation is great – but playing through the tutorial on dogfights I assumed this was an over-simplified model for learning purposes.

    I’ve played some great RPG’s and tabletop games in this space that are capable of some of the “story telling” mentioned in the review. The Warbirds RPG by Outrider Studios squeezes more drama out of 1D6 and an initiative ladder than this does, which is extremely disappointing. Mercenary Air Squadron by VBAM games is another that’s absolutely crying out to be made easier to play (full disclosure, I have a 50% completed prototype that I wish I could find time to get back to) – but again squeezes much more emergent gameplay out of a handful of D20 look up tables…

    I want to like it….really badly want to…the presentation is crying out for a better game. One that helps you connect with your pilots, understand their strengths and weaknesses and feel the ups and downs of the brutal life of being a combat pilot…

  6. One of my dream projects (to either tackle or play) is a moderate-depth zeppelins-and-skypirates management game. It’s a bit disappointing that this isn’t more worth cribbing from.

    Ah well!

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