Games developers, I reckon, usually follow one of two general paths. Either they look at the market and think “Hmm. These kinds of games are doing terribly well at the moment, I’d better program one right now that fits into the same trend so I can cash it in,” and then they trot out Diablo Clone #48 or what have you. Or they look at the market and think, “What has nobody ever done before? Because surely there’s a market for it, and it will establish me forever and ever as a creative master.”
Steampunk I like the idea of, I suppose. As long as they don’t start putting werewolves into it; I have a real problem with steampunk werewolves for some reason. And I was in fact dreaming not two days ago of playing one of those huge space battle games like Freespace or Sword of the Stars or something, only instead of flying sleek, deadly fighters or lumbering bombers, I was dreaming I could just sit inside a giant balloon, putting bandages over the holes when people shot me and running around inside the balloon like a hamster on a wheel from one crap gun to another in a frenetic dance of… oh sod it, I’m not fooling anyone. Nobody dreams of this, do they? Congratulations, Muse Games, you found a niche in the market. An empty one, that nobody wants. All right, bring out the blimp.
In Guns of Icarus you crew a steampunk zeppelin against swarms of droning pirate fighters. You can tell we’re in a steampunk future, because everything looks a bit second-world-warrish, and there are great big spinning cogs at the back of the ship. You’re a cargo zeppelin, of course, that’s more exciting. The way you upgrade between levels is by keeping the airship in good running order for long enough to reach the next trade depot. It’s the future, the post-apocalyptic one, because the little loading screens tell you it is.
Actually, they’re quite good, telling a story in the single player campaign of empty desolate cities, feral tribes and doomed outposts. I’d have liked to see more of this world. But I can’t, because you can’t interact with the loading screen. You can choose your path across the map, and if you make it to the other side, you unlock the most pointless reward of all time – a survival mode. The last loading screen describes how the depressing monotony of his existence drives him to choose a one-way trip into a pirate infested desert. I quite understand why.
Your airship has several areas that take damage as the tiny silhouettes of the attacking pirates drift lazily round you, occasionally spraying you with fire. They don’t seem to need to line themselves up, they just pepper bullets randomly from their general location, as if the game is hoping you won’t look too closely at the lazy programming. Lose the engines, and you stop progressing through a level. Lose the cargo hold, and your cargo falls out, so that you don’t get as big a bonus if you survive. Lose the rigging or the balloon and game over. You can repair any of these damaged bits by swatting them with a wrench, the same school of engineering as the chap from TF2. I tried it on my TV at home. It’s not at all realistic.
So the time management of the game is: do you keep the airship running, or do you shoot down the enemies? It has potential. Add in a bit of, say, scary weather like ice that slowly forms on the deck and threatens to slide you off the edge, or the threat of snapping rigging that turns the ladders into a deadly jungle gym, and you’d have a challenge.
But not in Guns of Icarus. Right up until the point the annoyingly tiny damage bars fill up with red, there’s little changing on board. Smoke and fire pour out of damaged locations, but it doesn’t look or feel real. You can run into the inferno of the blazing hold without flinching.
It also feels amazingly static. The only thing letting you know you’re moving is a decreasing timer bar at the bottom of the screen. New enemies spawn into the crowded skys continuously, so there’s never an obvious moment to stop shooting and start wrenching. You do have to make choices in terms of which area to repair first. But it feels pointless, just a question of banging the dials back to green. In the singleplayer, with only you to man the six guns on board, you have to rely on there either being few enough enemies that you can pick them all off and then fix stuff, or (much less excitingly) avoid the guns altogether and just pray you can glue the damn ship together long enough to live. Maybe there’s a clever balance, but I didn’t find it and I don’t want to give this game more of my time to do so.
The sound is dull, nothing but gunfire and a single, relentless music track that sounds like someone dropping xylophone bars onto a chamber orchestra. The graphics are cheap and functional – you know what you’re looking at, but you don’t really care. Given that every level is an endless sky, without any landmarks to be seen anywhere, you’d think that’s where the money would go. And yeah, the skyboxes are sort of pretty. But they’re usually masked with really bad cloud, smoke, massive flareouts or plain darkness, all of which stop you seeing a damn thing. I like to see a bit of obscured vision in a dogfighting game (and make no mistake, this isn’t one, it’s a turret shooter on invisible rails), as it adds character and skill. Here, it adds squinting and frustration. The lighting effects change to give an impression of time passing. But the sun and moon move way too fast, and change colour from red to blue. It’s like the zeppelin is held up by lighter-than-air hallucinogens.
There’s multiplayer, where you’d expect this to shine. You really need more than one person to give it much of a shot. I don’t know if it shines or not, because the European servers on Steam had only one player on them: me. A year after the game was released, I am the last guy at the party. A short-lived and boring party, I suspect. This would have been better with other people, but I’ll never know. Playing as the pirates might have been fun, so I bet you couldn’t.
What can’t I fault? Well, the controls, I suppose. They do let you hop round the ship and switch from gun to spanner pretty niftily. When you get near enough to a gun, it says ‘click to mount gun’, which I get a cheap laugh out of. And it’s inexpensive, as it should be. ‘Support Indie Gamers!’ says the Steam blurb chirpily, in the same tone of voice that the bloke by the cash machine says ‘give us a tenner, guv!’ Yes, do support Indie Gamers. Support good ones who make good games. Let the ones who churn out tedious nonsense learn the hard way, and save your precious three pounds fifty for a pint somewhere.
There’s only one last thing to say. I took this screenshot of the inside of the cargo hold, to show you what priceless goods you risk your life to bring to the forsaken cities of the nuclear desert.
Look at that box. I kid you not, your freighting warm milky drinks for the dying survivors’ post-apocalyptic bedtimes. Still, to be fair, that’s one of the most exciting features of the game. ‘The future is not what I expected’, says the title screen. Yes, I expected it to be fun.