Forget pirates versus ninjas. Ludocraft’s AirBuccaneers introduces a newer, better rivalry, pitting buccaneers against Vikings in epic high-altitude battles. Released as an online cooperative first-person shooter for the PC, AirBuccaneers proves that the only thing more satisfying than sinking an enemy ship is watching it explode mid-air and plummet towards the ground in a smoking downward spiral of flame and failure.
At the start of the game, gamers are given the option of choosing to play as either a scrawny, superstitious buccaneer with slightly supernatural tendencies or a brawny, violent-looking Viking said to be a distant descendent of a long-lost heir to the throne. There are no heroes amongst thieves, and the lack of loyalty is reflected in the ease with which allegiances can be changed; players can switch sides between battles as many times as they wish. The aim of the game is simple: join a crew (or gather your own), crush your enemy, and survive to fight another day.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WB7yjvlFBVY&w=560&h=315]
Being typically a solo gamer by nature, I found it a bit discouraging that AirBuccaneers has no real solo option aside from purposefully picking a deserted server and attempting to run an entire airship armada by yourself. Which, for the record, is even harder than it sounds, though it is fun shouting orders at yourself and pretending to be all of the crewmembers at once (a la the multiple Jacks scene in Pirates of the Caribbean 3).
But AirBuccaneers is a multiplayer game for a reason: it is so much more rewarding to work together and cheer alongside real crewmates as you bask in the glow of a blazing triumph – or laugh together (and plot revenge) when you turn out to be the crispy critters instead. Of course, the game faces the same troubles all online games do, so unless you play with friends there’s no guarantee of the loyalty or pleasantness of your mates. Then again, when was the last time you heard of a polite pirate or a Viking who wasn’t vulgar?
Graphics and sound are good – not jaw-droppingly impressive, but they get the job done and do so with a certain epic-fantasy flair. The environments, which can be enjoyed at length whilst floating slowly towards battle in your lovely but somewhat speed-challenged airship, are especially detailed and picturesque, with a nice variety of locations to visit including a vast and treacherous canyon and a particularly fun field with a tornado spiraling through it.
On the other hand, the most disappointing feature was the lack of customization options when it comes to creating a character. Sadly, AirBuccaneers currently offers only two character models to choose from, each a basic (male) representation of either a Viking or a buccaneer. Though there is some delightfully barbaric gear which can be acquired by gaining experience, there are no body types to cycle through, no eye-colors to try out, and not even a female alternative as far as I can tell. So much for my virtual reincarnation of Anne Bonny.
Animations are also a bit on the less-than-awe-inspiring side. Though overall they are generally adequate and smooth enough not to be too distracting, the way the player character swings his sword is irksomely clumsy, more like an indifferent caveman with a club than a warrior wild with bloodlust and the need to survive. He also has a nasty habit of flickering in and out of existence while falling to his death, like a horror movie light-bulb on the verge of burning out.
Gameplay is a bit interesting to get used to. While there is a tutorial, it is not of the garden variety, hand-holding kind that walks a player peacefully through each and every step. At the beginning of your first match you are given the option to undergo a quick training session which, if selected, thrusts you face-first into the chaos of an airborne ship already in the fray, feeding you instructions to follow while cannons fire and ships explode all around you. It is one of the few games which actually managed to murder me during the tutorial. (I stumbled off of my ship like a fool and fell to my demise. It did, however, me an important lesson about using ropes and securing a line to the ship before falling too far out of reach.)
The oddest thing about AirBuccaneers is that it has an intriguing backstory outlined on the website, yet Ludocraft fails to make much use of it in the actual game aside from the basic idea of the face-off. Both the Vikings and buccaneers have their own distinct histories and motivations for fighting, which would add a nice sense of depth to actual gameplay if it could somehow be more thoroughly incorporated into the game.
Hats must be tipped to Ludocraft for coming up with a truly rollicking airborne adventure of a game. Though imperfectly crafted, AirBuccaneers is still a rousing good time worthy of at least taking a look at. The game is available for full download via Steam; while the full price seems a little high at $14.99, it is currently on sale for a slightly more reasonable $10.04. There is also a free demo version available on the official game website.[review pros="Good cooperative gameplay, beautiful level design, explosive battles, unusual approach to RPG" cons="Animations need polishing, extremely limited character customization, tutorial is hectic and could be a bit daunting for beginners" score=79]