IGN Review of Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces
As a closet fan of both anime and flight games, Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces instantly had me interested from the first time random screenshots and snippets of info hit the web. When publisher XSEED – responsible for other Japan-to-US conversions such as Rune Factory, Little King's Story, and the upcoming Fragile Dreams – to it upon themselves to team with Namco and bring the game to US shores, I dove into the movie, read up on the series, and happily hopped into the cockpit of Innocent Aces. And while the anime feature film itself was a mix of entertaining action and some depressing (and admittedly slow) storytelling, Innocent Aces kept pulling me back in. Players eager to explore a well-crafted Wii flight game will find the best offering on the system with the release of Innocent Aces next week.
While the Sky Crawlers film is as much about characterization and storytelling as it is intense dogfights and blazing fast visuals, Innocent Aces does a nice job of taking elements from the film and crafting a compelling design out of it. The game is developed by Namco's Project Aces – the team responsible for the Ace Combat series – and it shows, mixing in some of the tried and true elements from those previous games into an authentic feeling Sky Crawlers experience.
The story within Innocent Aces puts players in the cockpit as a young fighter code-named Lynx. Lynx, later taking on the name of Cheetah after your in-game success bumps you into squad leader status, is more a vehicle for your in-game action, rather than a truly integral part of the story. As with the Sky Crawlers movie, the world revolves around an alternate past where the world is at peace and war is no longer necessary. Rather than leave it at that, however, gigantic corporations realize that there's cash to be made off war, and decide to set up a league of sorts to continue battling despite there being no real threat. Pilots run missions, blow each other to smithereens, and the battles continue in an endless loop, sacrificing human lives for newspaper headlines and publicity for the corporations. In order to supply enough soldiers for the fight, genetic technology has created "Kildren," young children that never age and are immortal unless killed in battle. It's an interesting story, but with the in-game plot centered around 20 minutes of total animation and very little text between missions players are expected to enter with some sort of background of the Sky Crawlers world. Luckily if you just read what I wrote, you're all set.
Lynx, then, is really just a pair of eyes to watch the action from. You'll be introduced to the enemy Lautern forces, you'll greet the first Kildren ever to be brought into the war, and you'll lead you squadron into battle across the game's 18 missions.
The overall presentation for Innocent Aces is pretty impressive, though it won't rival what players have already gotten with the best of the best Ace Combat offerings on even PS2. Many of the concepts return, and they've got their own style, but there's also a simpler overall look to it all. Still, what's there is great, including mission briefings with full voiceover, a pre-launch map where all the friendly and enemy forces can be seen on a flat paper map as if they're playing pieces in a board game – you can zoom around and check out the overall mission before deploying – and then post-mission replays that were a huge hit in the Ace Combat series. During your debriefing you can watch the mission from a half dozen different camera settings, and even watch flight lines of every friendly and enemy unit in the mission in high speed mode, showing little colored lines loop and intertwine over the mission map like streamers. Replays can also be saved and watched over again, which is a nice touch.
Those are all bells and whistles though. What really matters is the flying, and it's simply awesome. Sky Crawlers has always had a sort of over-the-top feel to it, with pilots pushing uncanny flight paths and maneuvers out of their aircraft that seem truly impossible even today. And while most of Innocent Aces looks and plays like a typical Ace Combat game, its got its own series-influenced additions that make you feel like a complete badass when in the air. General fight is controlled with either motion (using the nunchuk to turn and the Wii-mote as a throttle) or with more traditional settings via GameCube controller, Classic Controller, or Wii-mote and nunchuk. After struggling a little with the tilt control I moved to more traditional settings, but the tilt options are still compelling; they just have higher learning curve and change the game up substantially. For players that are familiar with Ace Combat everything looks and feels as it should, though you won't find lock-on missiles to rely on.
The main control settings allow for a pretty nice level of depth in control, letting you bank, dive, increase and decrease speed, control horizontal yaw, and switch weapons and targets at will. This is Sky Crawlers though, and the Project Aces team included more tricks for players to really get the feel of an ace pilot in action. At the forefront of the game's dog fighting system is the new Tactical Maneuver Commands system, which is basically a more arcade-inspired way to approach enemy fighters from behind. When within a specific distance of enemy planes a small TMC meter will begin to fill at the bottom of your screen, raising from empty to level one, two, and maximum level three position. When executed, the game takes over with a swift, cinematic maneuver that puts you directly behind enemies and in perfect position to take them out. The higher the level you charge up, the better position you'll win when executing it. At the outset this seems like an unfair advantage, but by the second half of the game you'll be pushing to get maxed out meters in order to lay devastating blows on enemies. They end up using the same maneuvers on you, so mastering the technique is not only really entertaining to watch, but also vital to good piloting.
In addition to the tactical maneuver commands players also can set up their own manual maneuvers to assign to the analog stick (default controls) or the d-pad. Depending on which direction you hold, one of eight custom maneuvers can be executed at any time, displayed within a tiny box at the bottom of the screen. Sweeping through directions shows each move possible, so it's as simple as picking your move and hitting the action button to kick the game into an automated maneuver, similar to loops or u-turns in the Star Fox franchise. You can customize your own set of moves as well, with everything from barrel rolls and loops to more advanced maneuvers such as the Split S, Kulbit turn, Slice Turns, Chandelles (basically inverted dives) and many more. You'll get diagrams of what the move looks like not only between missions but also during play, so even newcomers that may not know the moves or terms can still execute them with ease. Once pulled off these manual maneuvers go through a recharge state and then become available again. It's a nice system that adds plenty of depth and cinematic feel while avoiding becoming a crutch during play.
And despite some decent visuals and a nice audio effort across the entire package, it's really the core gameplay that'll keep you coming back. Innocent Aces incudes some well-crafted animated sequences and decent in-game action, though the environments are pretty basic, and tend to look better or worse depending on the number of enemies intended for that stage. During a few of the game's one-on-one bouts the visuals really impress, but scale areas up to include dozens of planes at the same time and you won't see as much attention to environment detail. That being said, there's still an impressive sense of speed throughout, and plenty of intense action to keep you going from mission to mission. The audio offering is surprisingly strong considering the sheer amount of voice work included. Everything is voiced in the game, and amidst the hundreds of lines of dialogue (some a bit iffy, but most well-delivered) are some great tracks that really push the action.
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