AirBuccaneers HD preview

As a kid I had a fairly solid idea of what I *though* multiplayer video games would be like in the future. They would be all about cooperation on a grand scale; players working in harmony with one another as cogs in some grandiose social machine. Like a tank crew, each player would do their part to ensure the continued effectiveness of their team as a whole, with the most efficient team being declared the winner at the match’s end. Yes that’s right, I thought multiplayer games were going to turn into Commie’ simulators.

You may have noticed that, with a few notable exceptions, things kinda went in the opposite direction to my Soviet fantasies. Games became far more about personal glory rather than teamwork, with only high tier players even acknowledging the existence of their allies. But that’s what gave me an instant affinity towards Ludosoft’s AirBuccaneers HD, a game where I can finally live out my dreams of coordination and unity. Also it’s about combat blimps, which is totally badass.

As expected for a title that’s in a early alpha state, the thing’s pretty clunky right now. Controls are slightly awkward, certain mechanics don’t function quite right and the graphics are rather underwhelming. But even in this relatively early build, one thing above all else is abundantly clear: this game is so damn fun*!

*Provided there’s enough players around.

The basic idea is that each team serves as crew aboard a small armada of cannon equipped blimps, which are all styled as pirate ships and viking longboats. While one player acts as the ship’s helmsman, the rest of the deckhands run around taking care of other vital tasks such as loading different kinds of ammo, spotting enemy vessels, laying air mines, lighting fuses, aiming said cannons or even boarding nearby ships for a bit of hand to hand combat.

These tasks aren’t quite as straightforward as they may sound at first though. For one thing, the cannons have no cross hair or other such aiming aid, so firing on enemy ships requires you to be constantly accounting for each ship’s speed, height and trajectory in order for your shots to hit anything meaningful. Yes, sometimes it can become a tad frustrating when you miss your mark ten times in a row. But this trial and error approach also creates a rising sense of tension that slowly builds up every time your aim inches ever closer to that optimum firing angle, a sensation that’s only heightened when you realise your counterpart on the opposing ship isn’t too far off the mark either.

And that moment when you manage land the killing blow before he does? Man, It’s honestly one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a multiplayer game. The glory ain’t just reserved for the gun crew though. As the captain, correctly out maneuvering a rival skipper while giving your gunnery boys a clean shot is just as good as landing the blows yourself. And so too is plunging head first into the melee a part of a boarding party or any number of other tasks that further the war effort in your team’s favor. When everyone plays their part, everyone reaps the reward…….. comrade.

While the visuals still have a long way to go on a technical level, that doesn’t stop the large scale multi-ship battles looking absolutely glorious! Just think of it: a half-dozen or so ships sailing through the clouds, each filled with soldier dudes working feverishly towards a single goal while cannonballs and rockets fly across the battlefield like a medieval fireworks display. All this, interrupted only by the occasional roaring battle cry as one of the vessels descends to the earth in a gigantic fireball alongside the bodies of her vanquished crew. It’s a sight like no other, one that I reckon could make AirBuccaneers HD a must play multiplayer experience once it goes gold.

The only thing that’s really capping its potential right now is the player count. Even more so than most multiplayer shooters, AirBuccaneers HD requires a relatively decent number of players on each side for it to really come into its own. From my experience with it so far, I’d say that number’s around 8 or so players on each team. That might not sound huge, but being a relatively low-profile alpha game, it’s rare to see more than a handful of players online at once outside of the occasionally prearranged showdowns with the developers. You can play with less players if you really want, but I’ve found that those games tend end up as zero sum slogs that’re no fun for either team regardless of who “wins”.

I assume there might be some AI bots or something in the full version, which would go a long way to mitigate this issue if they’re smart enough to put up a decent fight. Regardless, in its currently unfinished state AirBuccaneers HD is already an absolute blast to play, and manages to provide a special kind of gratification you just don’t get very often in video games. Shooter fans with a heavy cooperative bent better keep a close eye on this one and make sure to give it a whirl when it finally hits. Hell, play it right now while it’s still free! The more scallywags the merrier!

You can currently join in on the AirBuccaneers HD Open Alpha over on the official site. Alternatively you can pick up the original Unreal Tournament 2004 mod here.

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