System requirements: Windows XP SP2/Vista/Win 7, 2.6 GHz CPU, 2 GB RAM, DirectX 9.0c-compatible graphics card, DirectX-compatible sound device, DirectX 9.0c, 1 GB hard-drive space
ESRB rating: Not rated
Release date: Available now
Review by Peter Gore
One of my favorite all-time games combined tanks, combat and racing. Treadmarks was an indie multiplayer game that had you racing your tank against others in wide-open vistas and enclosed tracks, allowing for combat as well as a race to the finish line. It never made the big time, but it had a cult of online followers that still plays today, even 10 years after it was published. So when I was assigned to review Air Buccaneers, I was reminded of odd combinations that could work. Buccaneers have been known to have a cannon or two. How is any self-respecting pirate-buccaneer type going to plunder the high seas without one. But Vikings? I’ve seen my share of Viking movies (13th Warrior remains an eternal favorite), and I don’t remember Vikings having either cannons or gunpowder. And neither buccaneers nor Vikings had hot air balloons in which to tool around the skies. But Air Buccaneers throws the entire mish-mash into one place, creating a sort of “chocolate meets peanut butter” collision with the hopeful result of an entertaining gaming experience.
If you’re looking for some deep backstory regarding how the protagonists have found themselves in this position, then you need look somewhere else. Yes, there’s some narrative on the loading splash screens, but it’s irrelevant. This is pure PvP with a touch of skills role-playing thrown in for good measure. In researching the game, I was surprised to learn its origin comes from a relatively popular mod created for Unreal Tournament 2004 a few years back.
In Air Buccaneers, you choose a team (obviously either a Viking or a buccaneer), grab a glider and head to the skies. You land on a hot-air balloon and engage in a variety of objective-based aerial combat scenarios. There’s no single-player aspect to Air Buccaneers. There isn’t even an option for SP. What’s more, newcomers face a somewhat steep learning curve. There’s no real tutorial on how to play (although the online Wiki set up by the community is a helpful place to start), but it’s not rocket science. Movement and glider/balloon flight is accomplished by the typical WASD setup, and the mouse controls appear to be reasonably intuitive. I found the character and balloon graphics to be pretty good; in fact, the aerial views are really nice. There are no set class systems; you play your role on the balloon based on the situation and your personal preference. Flying feels like flying, but the real challenge is figuring out the correct cannonball azimuths to become a good shot. Leading a target is one thing; leading a moving balloon in your moving balloon, while figuring out the correct trajectory to score a hit on your opponent, is quite something else entirely. This takes practice. After awhile I got to the point where I could, using the winds and movement, toss a cannonball curve ball. You feel a sense of accomplishment the first time you do that in the heat of battle.
You feel that accomplishment because this is a team-based game first and foremost. This is Air Buccaneers‘ greatest strength, and also its biggest weakness. The learning curve is off-putting. Your newbie mistake can cost your balloon or your team the match. But once you play a few rounds, and understand the different roles and nuances, it becomes one of the most enjoyable multiplayer games released in ages. To be successful, each player has to contribute, and that includes more than just captaining the ship or manning the cannons. The player who assumes command is critical to success; their orders determine victory or humiliating defeat. But any player on board can contribute, including repairing the ship, assisting the cannoneers, repelling boarders or laying air mines.
Is there glory in these back-up roles? Not necessarily, but there are experience points to be gained. These points give you access to perks (and an accompanying flaw), as well as new accessories for your character. But more than anything, the game gives any player access to any role, and that, along with just being plain-old fun, is an excellent selling point. Want to shoot down the opposition? Grab a cannon in one session. In the next, be the captain and take the wheel. Learn to function as a team and you win. Lone wolf it and get used to that hilarious death scream. If there’s a weakness in Air Buccaneers (and it might not be a fair criticism, but it’s a reality all the same), it’s that there aren’t enough people playing to really get your sea legs, so to speak. On most nights I was lucky to find one populated server, and even then if we had a dozen players we were lucky. This could be caused by a variety of factors, many of which are out of the control of the game developer. Regardless, if you can’t learn to play a new game because of a lack of players, or the folks you’re online with that session are a bunch of chuckleheads, you aren’t likely to stick around, nor come back. And that’s too bad, because Air Buccaneers is a winner.
Like my first experience with Treadmarks, I went from a skeptic to a convert when it came to Air Buccaneers. It takes an investment of time to recognize that it’s more than just a run-of-the-mill PvP experience. It truly has those exciting elements I’ve found missing lately in the many retreaded tier-one shooters available now. What it needs to truly succeed are players to enrich the experience. Ten years later, people are still racing tanks, so there’s hope for Vikings and buccaneers.