Air Buccaneers sounds like it started life in one of those wildly speculative contemporary forum threads. You know, the kind that start out with a question like “Dude, what if Skyrim had pirates?” A few posts down, another person, perhaps caught up in the excitement over BioShock Infinite, then cracks that airships might make the experience even more enjoyable. Before long, the thread erupts into a half-serious discussion about how awesome it’d be if these pirates and Vikings use these ships to battle each other, and everyone would agree that it was perhaps the best idea that no one would ever make.
Except it was made, and several years ago at that. Air Buccaneers first appeared as popular mods for the 2003 and 2004 releases of Unreal Tournament that pitted Vikings and buccaneers against each other in dirigibles outfitted with cannons, and at its height, this outlandish formula enjoyed a respectable level of cult popularity that eventually inspired Guns of Icarus. It worked so well, in fact, that it’s hard to fault developer Ludocraft for keeping core adjustments to a minimum aside from the expected updates to the visuals and the UI. The few new changes tend toward welcome changes to accessibility, such as a new perk system and the way it ditches the need for two people (or, as in UT2004, shoddy AI) to man the cannons in favor of a simpler one-button fuse and fire system.
To win you need to work with your team.
But such changes do little to diminish the cooperative challenge so loved in the original; if anything, they heighten its intensity. Then as now, there’s no room for lone wolves in Air Buccaneers. It never lets you forget that this is a game about teamwork and the dynamics of battleship crews at heart, and few games do such a great job of hammering down the importance of all hands on deck pulling their weight. It’s worth mentioning that smaller ships like cogs and the aptly named kamikaze allow some personal glory, but they’re mere sideshows to the massive rickety battleships that lumber about the unfriendly skies.
There are no fixed classes; instead, players take part in roles that can change depending on the situation. For my part, I spent the majority of my time with Air Buccaneers as a Cannoneer, the guy who mans one of the cannons lining either side of the ship and adjusts their trajectories while the fuse counts down. Other roles include Defenders, who patch damage to the ship and shoot down cannonballs and airmines with muskets–not so realistic perhaps, but neither are Vikings with cannons–and Guerrillas, who grapple from ship to ship and take out enemy crews with sword and gunpowder (although, alas, with melee animations that rank only a rung or two above those found in Minecraft). It’s this visceral act of boarding enemy ships and fighting that goes a long way toward providing a marginally superior multiplayer experience to the similar Guns of Icarus Online.
And then there’s the Captain, who stands at the helm and steers the mighty gasbag across the wastes of the frozen north. This might have been a boring task in lesser hands, but in Air Buccaneers it emerges as the most essential and demanding job on the ship. It’s the captain who barks out most warnings about approaching ships, and it’s the Captain who dips and raises the ship to avoid incoming projectiles. In its best moments, no other role feels so rewarding. Catching an enemy ship by surprise from above counts as one of the most satisfying moments I’ve experienced in an multiplayer game this year, particularly when my crew used the extreme proximity to destroy the enemy ship by rigging one of the cannons with a flamethrower.