Review by James Archer
When you score a kill in Call of Duty, you're left with a single ragdoll and +100 XP. When you score a kill in Air Buccaneers, you're left with a cataclysmic fireball, a crashing airship and the piercing screams of the men you've just sent plummeting to their ignoble deaths. I like the second one better.
Team-based Air Buccaneers is all about manning a slow, lumbering battle-balloon, but it manages to be a lot more tense, exciting and funny than that might sound. You crew your balloon in first-person, sprinting around the fuselage to fire cannons and line up shots.
Most ship-on-ship battles are surprisingly pacey, with crews racing to load and fire their cannons while cursing their captain – who's trying to perform evasive manoeuvres with a ship the size of a cottage – for not keeping her steady. Every cannonball volley has to be adjusted for height and distance, and it's this total non-reliance on freakish twitch skills that makes sinking an enemy vessel an immensely satisfying experience.
Having terrible aim isn't an issue either, since all ship types bar the Kamikaze (a single-person hot air balloon, which causes a hilariously oversized explosion when rammed into a foe) offer a handful of different roles. Most sought-after is the helmsman, who pilots the ship while barking out orders, but who can also use an enchanted staff to support the gunners (by magically shortening their fuses) or to repair structural damage, in what appears to be some kind of shamanistic massage ritual. Everyone also gets tools to set up floating mines, shoot projectiles out of the air, and even grapple-hook onto other ships.
Even though each specialisation (Captain, Cannoneer, etc) has its own skill tree, you're never forced to choose one and stick with it, so you're free to play however you like. The skill trees aren't very appealing, since each perk is balanced with a debuff ('17% chance to commit suicide' when using a cannon and other, equally stupid choices), but they're entirely optional and seldom dictate the outcome of a duel. More importantly, that fact that everyone is largely dependent on everyone else in their balloon allows teamwork to occur organically, which often leads to a rapidly developed but deeply enjoyable sense of camaraderie.
Still, not every adventure with your creepily identical wingmen will be a good one. Melee combat is atrocious, using a single sword swing that feels about as swift and brutal as slapping a cloud with a cardboard tube. Which is a shame, because the moment when two ships collide – opposing boarding parties leaping the gap in a tangle of ropes and bodies – could have been a dramatic highlight rather than an awkward strafe-dance routine.
Making things worse is the autobalance system, because there isn't one. Players can flick between the Vikings and Buccaneers at will, with the game never noticing that one team has at least double the manpower of the other. This sucks even if you're on the winning side – there's no glory in spending 10 minutes at an understaffed enemy's base continuously flamethrowering empty ships. This, along with infrequent but irritating crashes and framerate drops, suggests it could have used a few extra weeks spent inflating the balloons.
But these are minor problems. Melee combat takes up only a tiny fraction of a match, and technical snags are still a rare occurence. Like its own war machines, Air Buccaneers is a little creaky in places, but certainly worth climbing on board.
Expect to pay: $20 / £12
Release: Out now
Multiplayer: Up to 32 players
An excellent idea, not perfectly realised but still ambitious and compelling enough to deserve your attention.