Typically when playing a multiplayer game you have to maintain perspective of what’s happening on the entire battlefield. Points to capture, teammates to assist, enemies flanking your position, these are all things you don’t have to worry a whole lot about in Guns of Icarus unless you’re the captain of your flying zeppelin. It’s not so much that I neglected the other responsibilities aboard, so much as it simply wasn’t my role to manage and lead a crew in cutthroat air ship combat. As an engineer, I had enough on my plate keeping my ship in the sky.
When Jeff Burke and I jumped into our first game together we were presented with four groups of slots – each one representing the available positions on separate ships. We saw that two of the ships already had a captain and, naturally, joined one of those ships as neither of us were about to attempt the leadership role just yet.
The first few games felt entirely alien to me – Guns of Icarus is unlike any other game I’ve played. I tend to enjoy taking on a support role in class based multiplayer games, so I chose to be an engineer and left the shooting to Jeff. So there I am, wrench in hand on a flying airship with a captain trying earnestly to direct his crew of newbies using terms like “aft” and “starboard” to indicate where on the ship the chaos was ensuing. I’m not ashamed to admit that, after the first game, I looked up an instructional website for new boat owners filled with boat lingo and left the website open for reference on my second monitor.
Thankfully the captain was understanding towards our incompetence. After all, he had put hundreds of hours into the beta, and an influx of newbies was to be expected, since the game had just been released. We soldiered on through probably a dozen or so games that first night, I became comfortable with at least the fundamental duties of the engineering role and as I’ve put more time into the game I’ve begun to grasp the true depth of the gameplay.
The art of this game is in the synergy between your crew – each role is pivotal since there are only four people per ship. The captain steers the ship and maintains perspective of the surrounding battle. The gunner has more offensive capabilities making him/her ideal for manning the guns (the engineer can use guns but not as effectively), and the engineer is equipped with tools to repair and buff various parts of the ship such as the engines and the hull. While gunners have a limited ability to repair, the engineer has far more options and the ability to buff the ship in different ways is a key aspect of the role.
When you find yourself on a good, communicative crew, this game is an absolute blast. The concept really works, and you and your teammates will chatter away about tactics, the best loadout for the situation, what guns to try in the next match, and what part of the enemy ship to fire at. Unfortunately, when you find yourself on a silent crew–a microphone is a must in this game–it’s quite another story. With nobody to talk to and no way to effectively communicate with your crewmates, you’re going to find yourself bored and frustrated. I can’t tell you how infuriating it is to have an uncommunicative captain who refuses to turn the three degrees required so you can bring a gun to bear on an enemy you can plainly see, or the silent engineer who decides to man a gun instead of safeguarding the ship. The amount of fun in this game is directly tied to your choice in crewmates.
Any engineer worth his salt will tell you that buffing your ship is one of his most important duties. Depending on which parts of the ship the engineer buffs, a bonus attribute is applied which affects how the ship performs. If I buff the propellers, the ship will see an increase in speed; buffing the hull increases its health; buffing the guns increases their firepower, etc. It’s all pretty straightforward, but buffing should always be done before a battle, not during. During the battle the engineer rolls up his sleeves and get to repairing. The nature of the battle determines how the engineer should prioritize what he repairs and buffs, and in the heat of battle it can be quite demanding and exciting. When there is a lull in the action you have time to go around and buff everything up in preparation for the next encounter. If you enjoy playing a support role in the background, the engineer is lots of fun.
Gunnery in this game is fairly straightforward–point your gun or rocket launcher at the enemy until they explode into splinters–but there is a bit of depth as well. There are a variety of different guns, each with their own abilities. Some might be best used to destroy your target’s balloon, while others are better at destroying components. Two guns deserve special mention, though. The first is the hwacha, a korean multi-rocket launcher that sends 20 explosive darts toward your target. It’s an absolute blast to fire, and watching a dozen explosions blossom on your target’s hull is really gratifying. The other weapon of note is the field gun–a long range howitzer with a zoom function that’s extremely accurate at long range. Hitting targets at a distance isn’t trivial in Guns of Icarus Online, so pegging an enemy ship at 3 kilometers gives your a sense of real satisfaction, though the community is asking for this gun to be nerfed a bit for better balance.
If you want a real challenge, you can take on the role of captain, who are almost always pilots. Manning the helm of an airship is at once both exhilarating and bewildering. The hud is little more than a ship’s wheel and the kind of old time throttle that reads “FULL SPEED AHEAD.” The controls themselves are simple, though it took me a while to get the hang of them. Piloting is definitely the most difficult of the three roles, but the game fortunately gives you a chance to practice on an empty training map. In addition to their job manning the conn, Captains have a few powers that the other crew members don’t–they chose what ship to fly, and what weapons loadout it will carry, and can communicate with other captains to manage the grand strategy of the team.
Different airships have their own unique characteristics and layouts, so familiarizing yourself with each ship is as important as learning the maps of your everyday multiplayer shooter. When you don’t know your way around a ship, your movements are cumbersome. The ships are visually distinct, and after a few hours you’ll be able to tell each ship from afar, which will help you and your teammates figure out how best to attack it. The maps themselves are large and complex, so if you ever want to be a decent captain you will need to learn as well.
Guns of Icarus provides solid gameplay and a unique experience which, according to many of the players I talked to who sunk hundreds of hours into the beta, is extremely challenging and satisfying. It was interesting to hear how many of them had quit their previous multiplayer addictions, including games like League of Legends and World of Warcraft, to commit to Icarus full-time. Still, from my relatively brief time with the game I can safely warn you that it is still far from complete.
The graphics engine is not optimized – even on my mid-to-high range rig I was facing frequent framerate dips. This is even after I turned off some of the more advanced graphics options. The theme music is beautiful, but the sound effects range from dull to non-existent. It’s a normal thing to not hear a sound effect associated with some actions. Your character is controlled from a first-person perspective and feels somewhat slippery, it’s very reminiscent of Skyrim, and led to me accidently falling off the ship multiple times. You respawn back on the ship almost immediately but it still feels sloppy. On a similar note, when your ship is destroyed, the entire crew plummets to the ground to stare at one another on the floor of the map for a few seconds. It’s really immersion breaking, and kind of distracting–you get so caught up in defending your ship and chatting furiously with your crewmates about the best course of action, when all of the sudden you’re brutally reminded that “oh, this is just a game, after all.”
The main reason I say Guns of Icarus is not complete is, well, it’s not. Right now only the PvP component is available with the adventure/exploration portion still being worked on for a future content patch. The game’s website provides some details on what to expect from this missing component, but it’s far from an in depth preview.
Guns of Icarus is full of potential, but the gnawing skepticism in my gut tells me that potential may not be reached – at least not anytime soon. There’s still a boatload (pun intended) of polish needed before it can stand up to other, less expensive multiplayer games on the market without looking like a beta or a free-to-play. Those of you looking for a unique, niche experience may want to give the game a spin but otherwise I would let the game simmer a while longer and check back later.