To convey a sense of Warhammer 40K‘s enormous impact on videogames, all I have to do is say the words “space marine”.

The franchise’s iconic artwork and character designs are a natural fit for the highly militarized science-fiction settings that so many shooters and action games call home, including countless digital explorations of the 40K universe itself. However, the upcoming release of Aeronautica Imperialis: Flight Command sets itself apart from that crowd by taking its battles to the skies.

After getting a chance to put some time into the closed beta on PC, I’m cautiously optimistic…

Players familiar with popular tabletop games like Wings of Glory or Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing should be quite comfortable with Flight Command, which is a digital adaptation of the first edition Aeronautica Imperialis tabletop ruleset from 2007.

Players give orders to a group of planes through a planning phase, where they can be directed into various dogfighting maneuvers like loops and rolls. Once the planning phase is completed, the plans for both the player’s forces and the opponent’s are resolved simultaneously, which can lead to hilariously unpredictable results — planes circling each other in Immelman turns, death-defying rolls narrowly evading oncoming fire, or even mid-air collisions are all potential surprises that could pop up after a planning phase is completed.

This phase-based approach provides a solid mechanical framework for handling the offbeat flavor of aerial dogfighting where units are constantly in motion, but the tabletop ruleset isn’t always a clean fit for the digital realm when it comes to the UI. Players drag units around a fully 3D environment to chart their movement, but since the underlying rules are more rigidly hex-based, Flight Command’s UI will often ‘autocorrect’ the player’s movement by awkwardly snapping the unit into a different on-grid position that the player will then have to readjust.

The 3D minimap is useful for getting a sense of the terrain, but many of the pop-out menus for individual weapon and pilot readouts are large to the point of being intrusive, while some of the more critical buttons to initiate advanced flight maneuvers are tiny by comparison. The closed beta that was provided to us by the developers explicitly introduced this UI as a new control scheme, so the devs do seem to recognize that this is an area worthy of continued iteration and polish.

Despite those minor criticisms, the closed beta of Aeronautica Imperialis: Flight Command sparked a newfound appreciation in me for aerial combat strategy. The 3D control and simultaneous turn resolution help create a more locomotive and chaotic feel to aerial battles than I’ve seen from comparable tabletop or traditional turn-based takes on the genre.

The full game releases via Steam on May 28th, so 40K players looking for a change of pace and fans of turn-based strategy should keep it on their radar.

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