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Viking battles in hot air balloons - what could be more fun?

From a mod into a full-fledged game

If I had a gazillion dollars, I'd spend all my time looking for indie games worthy of a big budget, and then I'd pour money down their throats. If I had a gazillion dollars, AirBuccaneers would be at the top of my “cash-cow” list. The game is surprisingly fun to play, as it manages to take bits and pieces of well known game formulae and combine them into a completely new experience. It's small, interesting, fun and challenging. Too bad it's also one of the ugliest betas I've previewed this year.

AirBuccaneers first saw light as a mod for Unreal Tournament in 2004 and it was made by the game research unit of the University of Oulu in Finland. The mod was set in mythical Finland and featured the air battles between peasants and forest bandits. The unit later turned into a company and, as the game was still very popular at LAN parties, they chose to turn it into a full-fledged game. Ludocraft invited us to take a look at what they are working on and, luckily, we have a fearless Icelandic Viking in our midst who was willing to take a hands-on look at the beta.

Simple gameplay with lots of action

AirBuccaneers is a multiplayer game that reminds me very much of Battlefield when it first came out. I'm not entirely sure why, though. You start off in your base and have to get onto an airship in order to attack the enemy. There are three types of airships to choose from: A normal slow moving battleship with four cannons, a fast moving cog with one cannon, and an even faster kamikaze ship with only a steering wheel and heaps of explosives. Whether you choose to steer the ship; man the cannon; act as a watchman spotting enemy ships in the sky; fix the ship when damaged; or simply stand on the deck, clasping your sword, waiting for your opportunity to jump onto the enemy ship shouting profanities as you hack your enemies into bits, is completely up to you. Chances are you'll end up doing a little bit of everything as the situation constantly changes and you'll have to step out of your comfort zone for the benefit of the team. I, for one, love being on the cannons, but if the action is taking place on the other side of the ship and both cannons are taken, fixing the ship becomes my responsibility. Anything to keep the bird flying.

Your character has an overall experience bar which determines his level. This unlocks items such as shields, helmets, beards and shoulder pets. There are no customisation options at least yet, so every player looks identical at level one. The items unlocked also look identical, so chances are that you'll always look exactly the same as other characters of the same level. The game also features a system similar to the Elder Scrolls levelling system where your character gains experience within four specific fields. The “Captain” field allows you to increase the speed and turn radius of the ship. The “Cannoneer” field allows you to increase the turning angle of your cannon, shorten the fuse, and reload quicker. The “Defender” field allows you to increase your personal health, upgrade your swordsmanship skills and the damage of your shotgun. Last, but not least, the “Guerrilla” field allows you to disguise yourself as an enemy and upgrade the distance from which you can rope onto a ship. With each perk, however, there is a flaw. Increasing the aiming angle of your cannon by 10%, for example, also decreases its turn speed by 10%. You will not be ably to choose any of this as it is automatically unlocked as you play the game. Hitting a ship with a cannonball gives you Cannoneer points; having one of your crew members down a ship while you are in the captain's seat gives you Captain points; killing an intruder attempting to board your ship gives you Defender points; and roping onto an enemy vessel and killing a member of its crew gives you Guerrilla points. These unlocks happen very slowly, however, and are completely out of your control. They all depend on how you play the game. This, coupled with the complete lack of character customisation, make you feel like the character isn't really “you”. Some aesthetic choice would go a long way in making this game feel more complete and I hope that the developers will pay attention to these areas as they finish the game for the official launch.

Heaps of fun

That minor criticism aside, AirBuccaneers is heaps of fun to play even at this beta stage. If you like manoeuvring an airship through a maze of cannonballs and cut-throats while shouting orders in the ears of your crew, just grab the wheel and take off. If you like playing Scorched Earth on a rotating ship while trying to judge the distance and speed of a moving enemy ship, take control of a cannon. If you prefer hand-to-hand combat, wait for a chance to board the enemy ship. He boards you, you board him; doesn't really matter. You'll get to sink your sword into his belly sooner or later.

This game deserves a bigger budget. If it got the same support as Battlefield did when it was first released as an open-beta, this game might actually be the next big thing. In its current state, however, its appearance, the scarcity of players and the complete lack of customisation may undoubtedly keep all but the most hardened enthusiasts away. Those of us who will keep playing, however, are sure to enjoy it for hours, if not days, having tremendous fun blowing each other up.

The release of the full game is set to take place later this year and we certainly hope that the developers put their effort into honing the customisation and graphics side of the game.