The high seas were't high enough
Pirates and Vikings have a lot of things in common. Pillaging, raiding, exploration, and adventure -- these are their shared loves. One could be forgiven for assuming that they might even be able to get along, but that is most certainly not the case in AirBuccaneers.
Relieving themselves of their sea-trapped ships, they took to the skies in rickety wooden airships, suspended in the clouds by patched up balloons. Unfortunately, there was not enough booty to go around, and there was only room in the sky for one group of raiders. War was inevitable.
As AirBuccaneers contained three of my favorite things -- namely pirates, Vikings, and airships -- I didn't find it hard to get behind its ridiculous premise. Underneath the absurdity and, let's face it, pandering, there is a surprisingly robust multiplayer experience to be had. There's depth that I never expected when I first started playing, and, more importantly, it's immensely fun.
I like to be in control. Sometimes it reaches the point of being a character flaw, I confess. It is almost certainly too late to change the habit of a lifetime, however, which is why I spent the greater part of my time with AirBuccaneers at the helm of an airship. Flying my fellow Vikings into battle against the honorless pirates was the perfect role for me. Strictly speaking, being at the helm didn't make me the captain, but I was definitely the captain.
I could man the cannons if I wanted, or perhaps jump onto an enemy ship and start slicing pirates up, as there are not set classes, and anybody can take on any role. That would require me to leave the helm, unfortunately, possibly even letting someone else take control, and that was not something I was keen to do. I have trust issues.
Flying one of the rickety airships requires patience and good timing. They are just bits of wood with a tiny rocket stuck on the back and a balloon floating above, after all, so they aren't particularly maneuverable. Pilots have to rely on quick boosts to get them moving, before waiting for the inevitable cooldown.
This can make getting to the action a bit of a slog, but it also gives crews ample time to get their vessel into the perfect position and plan an attack. While I'll admit that I often wished my airship would hurry the hell up so I could get back to burning pirates, I did sometimes find myself appreciating the ominous calm before the battle.
Considering the lighthearted nature of the title, it does a lot to build genuine tension, often in subtle but effective ways. I recall a particular battle -- like a grizzled Viking boring the crap out of people who are too stupid to flee -- where my solitary cannoneer and I found ourselves completely enveloped in fog. Behind us, invisible, were our allies, to our sides stood imposing cliffs, close, but also invisible, and in front of us, nothing.
There wasn't anything for us to do but keep pushing forward, regardless of what waited for us when the fog cleared. It couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes, but it felt like hours. Every time I used a boost, I wondered if I should have waited for just a second in case we were about to bump into a foe.
When we finally escaped the fog, we were greeted by a downright unpleasant sight. Two full-sized enemy airships, dead ahead. The cry went up, "Enemy ship. 12 o'clock. Level!" I was too focussed on turning the ship to even roll my eyes at the faux Norwegian accent. The flash of gunpowder lit up our foes, four cannons fired, and I dived, placing our flying longship beneath the cannonballs. I still thought we were goners, until two fellow Viking vessels erupted out of the fog behind us and immediately launched a barrage of cannonfire at the despicable pirates. I bravely flew to safety.
Though the ships may look like they were constructed by school children, especially those of the pirates, the cannons are not so slipshod. While small in size, they manage to pack quite the wallop, and have a variety of devastating ammunition. The basic shot is your standard cannonball. It has decent range, but since it flies in an arc and is only, let's face it, a ball, cannoneers must be quite precise when firing. However, cannons have multiple firing options, like putting a spin on the cannonball, making it swing left or right, or even making it launch in a helix pattern, and this goes a long way to making it more flexible.
The second ammunition type is a tad more dramatic: rockets. Firing them launches off a barrage of speeding projectiles directly at your target, and it fires several times, giving you the opportunity to alter your aim or target more than one part of the enemy ship.
Option number three, and my personal favorite, is the flamethrower. Useful only at close range, it lets forth a constant stream of toasty death, melting enemies and consuming timber. When two ships collide, AirBuccaneers is undoubtedly at its best. Fire pours from both vessels, flamethrowers being pushed to their limits; men dare to jump the gap between them and their foes, swinging their swords at anyone who gets near; while more cautious warriors stay behind, throwing grenades and shooting foes with their personal guns.
There is a surprising amount that one can do when not either piloting the ship or manning the cannons. Extra crew members can keep an eye out for targets, using their telescope, or they can get to work on fixing any damage the ship has sustained. During beta players would hammer away at the ground with a strange stick, but now they just wave their hands, mystically. It's rather odd.
During combat they are just as important. They can support their comrades on the cannons, waving their magical hands to augment their fellows' firing ability, and they can protect their airship from invaders with their sword and gun.
It's also handy to have some crew to spare for your own little invasion. Leaping over to duel those pesky foes is fun, but damn is it messy. Melee combat is, to put it bluntly, terrible. The poor animation of the ugly character models makes it look like they are having a seizure, and all scraps devolve into spamming the sword attack and running back and forth likes you're suffering from terrible elastic banding.
There are more insidious and, frankly, less spasmodic ways to assault an enemy airship, thankfully. A particularly sneaky move is to employ a rope and dangle above the enemy, throwing grenades at them, then scrambling back up the rope should they start shooting. It's a good way to kill off the opposing crew and take it over, or even destroy the vessel itself. I fell victim to this tactic many, many times. So many.
Should a player lose both their ship and their life, all is not lost. New vessels are constantly being spawned at each team's shipyard, and quickly hopping into a glider allows players to select their new flying base. There are the standard four-cannon ships, smaller ones with greater speed and manoeuvrability at the cost of firepower, and even tiny kamikaze ships that explode upon reaching their target. Piloting the latter can be risky, obviously, as it has no defenses, though survival is possible if there's another ship you can leap onto or reach with the ever helpful rope.
In one map -- a large battlefield with huge floating islands hovering between the pirates and the Vikings -- there's even a large weapons platform. This ponderous behemoth can barely move at all, but its cannons have exceptional range. Unfortunately, trying to line up a shot in this thing is a lesson in frustration thanks to the incredibly slow boosts and the cannons's inability to aim down. I spent the greater part of one match attempting to get our platform into position, as our foes were hiding behind the floating islands -- it was like watching a game in slow motion. It's safe to say that this particular vessel is a better defender than an attacker.
This is not a game you'll want to play on your lonesome, as it really shines when played with a group that communicates well. Even a two-man airship has a distinct advantage over a much larger one if the pair is plotting away on Skype. When everyone is on the same page, a crew can really devastate their enemies. Although players could opt to use the in-game chat to strategize (they don't), and they can alert their comrades to the location of enemy vessels with the click of a button, such things tend to go ignored.
AirBuccaneers, much like the rickety airships, is very rough around the edges. There are occasional stability problems, movement is not accurate at all, and it's extremely easy to fall off your ship like an absolute buffoon, or, you know, like me. Some of the game's solutions to potential issues also leave a lot to be desired. For instance, to stop a poor cannoneer or helmsman from hogging all of the action, a higher-level player can just throw them off their station.
Unsurprisingly, this is rather irritating when it happens to you. Since it's essentially based on time spent playing rather than skill, and absolutely terrible player can kick someone off the helm just because they've spent more time with the game. Getting more experience relies on performing actions associated with the role you want to level up, so other players on your own team can actually make it harder for you to be in a position where you won't have to give up your place to a random fellow who just arrived on the ship.
With so many airships waiting at the shipyard, this luckily doesn't happen often enough to be a major frustration. Regardless, it's not the most welcoming mechanic for new players, especially when progression is rather slow at the best of times, and unlocking gear and perks can take a damn long time.
Said gear is the only way in which players can differentiate themselves from the masses. The two groups are a homogeneous bunch, with every Viking looking like your typical burly brawler complete with impressive facial topiary, while the pirates all look like the Vulture, enemy of Spider-Man. The pieces of armor you eventually unlock aren't exactly overflowing with character or color, but you'll at least be glad that you no longer look like a defenseless little lamb.
Maps are a bit of a low point, though this has more do do with their small number than the actual quality of the battlefields. They feature the most aesthetically pleasing elements of the game, and are appropriately large scale. The settings are quite different, as well, with eerie mist-drenched swamps, snow-capped mountains, and even a lake with a perpetual, fixed tornado.
Lamentably, there's just not enough of them. They are made even more lacking by the fact that they are all tied to a specific game mode, so you won't be playing a team deathmatch on the tornado level, and there's no chance of participating in a capture-and-hold battle in the middle of a decaying swamp.
The general lack of polish and limited maps are a shame, but manage to not detract from the overall experience -- one of immense enjoyment. Whenever something mildly irritating happened, it was usually followed by forgiveness, as the game's charm and fun consistently made me forget the problem seconds later. There are no complicated systems to get to grips with; controlling a ship is as easy as walking, and all of the avenues for conflict are organic, so you'll never feel lost: Close to another ship? Jump over there or blast it with flames. Multiple ships far away? Launch some mines or rockets and try to damage them all.
What initially seemed like a fun way to kill a few hours has turned out to be a highly entertaining time sink, and, if you don't mind, I've got a vendetta against some dirty pirates to get back to.
THE VERDICT - AirBuccaneers
Reviewed by Fraser Brown