What amazes me about AirBuccaneers HD is the supreme confidence with which the developers, LudoCraft, have named their game. That any game can be worthy of such an awesome title, let alone one of their own creation, is almost laughably presumptuous. Fortunately – and incredibly – it works. This is a game with much bravado, clearly, but also the balls to back it up.
Gerrard covered ABHD a month ago by way of an earlier pre-alpha build, highlighting exactly what it was that made swashbuckling sky wars so fascinatingly epic. With this review, it’s worth me providing an update on how things are getting on in order to encourage any or all of you who read this to pick up a copy and play.
I’m aware that stepping into the game for the first time might seem a little daunting. Before becoming a standalone title, AirBuccaneers made its name as a cult Unreal Tournament 2004 team deathmatch mod. Between its outlandish setting and the departure it takes from presumed multiplayer action staples, it might take you out of your comfort zone for your first forays into battle. But then – then – it will likely click that the experience is basically a bunch of hot air balloons fighting each other with flaming bombs hundreds of feet up in the air and, well, why would you not want a go at that?
The set-up is simple: two teams (Buccaneers and Vikings), each with their own fleet of dauntless dirigibles have at it with gunpowder, rockets, mines and, when boarding enemy vessels, cutlasses. Each of the larger airships is equipped with four cannons, great big guns that require manual loading, lighting and aiming with nary a targetting reticule in sight. So, it’s about trial and error, but also having the captain hold the ship steady whilst avoiding attack in order that you and your crewmates can keep up the fire with any kind of accuracy.
I’ll admit right now that I never played ABHD’s predecessor, but I did take the liberty of asking around for an opinion server-side on how it differs to the original. The answer: things have been recreated pretty well within Unity. The updated graphics and accessibility that comes from a standalone version are two of the game’s biggest draws. What we have here is no longer a mod for a game that you don’t own. It’s a now free, hilariously frenetic combat simulation enacted aboard skybound battleships. Free – but, y’know, you could chuck the devs a dime or two if you’re after involvement in any future versions.
The graphics have indeed been spruced up, although don’t expect gorgeous vistas at every turn unless you’re happy to squint a bit and employ a moderate dose of imagination. There’s character here and plenty of it, but the animations and the appearance of certain low-res textures or models can often be jarring. As a testament to the artistic intentions of the developers, though, there are undeniably times when, with the air full of fire and mist, it’s hard not get drawn into the scene.
Bearing in mind that ABHD is still very much in alpha, it’s worth noting that some things aren’t quite up to scratch if you’re looking for a drop-in/drop-out multiplayer experience. Although the servers function well enough at this moment in time and the lag (in the UK, anyhow) is minimal, low server populations can make it difficult to put together a worthwhile game without devoting some time to hanging around waiting for the numbers to build. When there’s a capacity of thirty-two in any given match and you’re only playing four-a-side, the skies can feel pitifully empty.
Regardless, hitting that twenty-player sweet spot is where you want to be and, when it does happen, AirBuccaneers HD becomes an unbeatable team game in both deathmatch and domination modes. Refreshingly, for an online shooter of such numbers, flying solo is really not a viable option for anyone looking to thrill-seek alone or to grief people. It’s just not possible to make any particular headway without some sort of back-up and working together against the enemy in constructing a well oiled death-machine is easily the game’s greatest joy. If a shipmate spies a distant vessel, lay some air mines to gain the upper hand; should the swine have the jump on you, pack the cannons with gunpowder and allow your buddies to burn the sucker to the ground. Victory as an air buccaneer comes from precision, guts and playing the right part at the right time as efficiently as possible. It’s astounding how quickly you can slip into a role, however minor, and still feel like you made a difference when the enemy drops from the sky.
LudoCraft are clearly looking to build on what they have with ABHD in its current state. There’s already an XP system in place that offers promotions at certain limits and it seems to be the intention of the developer to provide upgraded equipment in conjunction with this in future versions. In time, as well, I can only hope that the servers build in popularity and a few graphical/animation tweaks provide us with the fully realised fantasy world it’s on the brink of becoming. That said, from the way things are looking right now, the sky really is the limit for this blimp-based battleground.
Please note that this review is based on Alpha version 0.51 of Air Buccaneers HD and is not intended to reflect any subsequent version of the game. A player account is currently free to set up but is also available for purchase via LudoCraft’s website, here, in both standard or ‘Booty Pack’ forms for €15 and €25 respectively. These accounts allows access to all future updates to the game.