Nothing like throwing off your flight helmet after a hard day's work.
The Sky Crawlers is an anime film based on a series of Japanese novels. It is set in an alternate history where armed conflict has been eliminated. In an effort to remind the world of the dangers of war and provide entertainment for the masses, the multi-national corporations Rostock and Lautern wage endless war in the skies while being covered by the media as if it were sport. The world is divided into a series of theaters, and the pilots of Rostock and Lautern duel for supremacy in each one.
The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is a side-story to the movie, written with input from the film's director and the novel's author. Apparently a prequel to the film, you play the role of Lynx, an up-and-coming ace assigned to Rostock's elite Cougar Squad as they are tasked with helping beat back Lautern's recent surge.
A big deal has been made of the team developing Sky Crawlers, and with their pedigree, the hype is justified. Project Aces is best known as Namco Bandai's go-to developers for the aerial combat Ace Combat series. Not only is their experience perfectly suited to the Sky Crawlers franchise, it is also the first time their work has appeared on a Nintendo console. The wait was definitely worth it.
For those unfamiliar with the Ace Combat franchise, it's pretty straightforward. You take the reins of a massively overpowered jet, cruise into a combat zone, and light the skies aflame. Most enemies range from inanimate targets to pesky insects. The ease at which they rain from the heavens and the scale and ferocity of the havok you can wreak is part of the fun and intensity of the experience.
The basic game structure of Sky Crawlers: The Innocent Aces closely follows that of its Ace Combat predecessors, with story segments bookending objective-based missions. If you fail to accomplish your goal, run out of time, or get shot down, your mission ends uncompleted. While generally slower-paced than Ace Combat titles, many of the same things that make those games fun also make Sky Crawlers a blast. In the world of Sky Crawlers jet engines have not been invented, so propellers rule the skies and the rocket barrages of past Ace Combat games are nowhere to be found.
Instead, Sky Crawlers asks you to get up close and personal with enemies, knocking them out with a burst of your guns. It's exciting to try to bring your guns to bear on a streaking enemy. Pursuit becomes a major factor of any fight. Without the luxury of radar-guided munitions, getting right on top of someone to open up is a new treat in Sky Crawlers.
While most threats come from the air, the game often tasks you with eliminating ground targets in order to complete mission objectives. For this, you get secondary weapons; most of them are a lovely variety of bombs and rockets.
The game features a variety of unlockable aircraft, each with different strengths. These can be augmented with the addition of parts that are unlocked by completing missions. Each aircraft has a defined set of secondary weapons, which can also determine which aircraft is best suited for a mission. This part of the game is fun, because each aircraft is both interesting and distinct. The only real negative is that some aircrafts are simply better than others in virtually all areas. Once I was able to upgrade it, I often stuck with a single aircraft (the Skyly-D), throughout the game unless I was forced to use something else.
The control scheme employed in The Innocent Aces is unique and ambitious. The Nunchuk is used like the control stick of an aircraft: tilting backwards makes the plane's nose climb, tilting forward makes it dive, and shifting to the sides makes the aircraft turn. Throttle is controlled by the angle at which you tilt the Wii Remote. The closer it is to being perpendicular to the ground,, the more open the throttle and the faster you go. An air brake can also be initiated with the B button. In an effort to further simulate the Nunchuk as a control stick, weapons are fired with Z. The A button is used to execute scripted aerial maneuvers, such as barrel rolls and Immelmann turns, that are selected using the analog stick.
Although there is a brief learning curve, these controls eventually became second nature. There is a good optional tutorial that - had I played it - would have settled all the issues I had before I got into combat. They aren't perfect - the Nunchuk's motion sensor is less precise than a true control stick, resulting in rolls sometimes feeling sluggish - but they are very solid. I was surprised that I had so much play on the pitch and roll of the aircraft using the Nunchuk, and the analog control of throttle is a nice change.
The game also features support for the GameCube controller. The aircraft is controlled with the analog stick, the A button fires, the triggers open the throttle and apply the brake, the C-stick selects aerial maneuvers, and the Z button executes them. The only issue with the GameCube controller is the decision to use the Z button, which is in an awkward position. It's especially tough to use when it is on the same hand that would be using the C-stick to select the maneuver you want to perform. That said, it works fine and takes seconds to learn.
Despite the GameCube controller support, there's little reason to forgo the motion controls. They work well, and they're far more immersive than conventional controls. Never once did I consider switching to the GameCube controller, and the only reason I did was for the purpose of this review. Use them. Get used to them. Own the skies, lieutenant!
Innocent Aces isn't going to stun anyone from a visual standpoint, but it is a competent effort. The landscape uses GeoEye images, as Project Aces is known for doing, to create landscapes captured from satellite images of the Earth's surface. However, they decided to use a more colorful pallette to complement the cartoon images of the source material, rather than the realistic terrain that the GeoEye system is known for. It is still great to fly over cities, deserts, forests, and oceans. The aircraft, while not highly detailed, are pleasing to the eye and there are plenty of them on screen at once. The game runs smoothly and properly conveys the speed of an aircraft in flight. Outside of missions, there are hand-drawn cinematics, created by the same team that produced The Sky Crawlers film. The character designs in these cutscenes are great, and the art is fantastic.
The sound is absolutely top-shelf work. Radial engines sound sufficiently grumbly and gruff, gunfire sounds just right and varies according to the type of gun being fired, and the sounds of explosions are a fitting climax for each encounter. The aural mastery extends to the music as well. When I first heard Innocent Aces' soundtrack I was convinced they had lifted it from the film; the core themes and situational variations keep the music interesting, fitting, and distinct. The music ranges from exciting to haunting to somber, despite reusing the same core themes. If that weren't enough to earn high marks, there are also hundreds of lines of dialogue, with story dialogue punctuating missions, cut-scenes, and briefings. Situational dialogue, be it praise for your mastery of your aircraft and ability to decimate foes or taunts and cries of fear from your enemies, can be heard throughout missions in response to your actions and, at times, even your presence on the battlefield.
One of the few negatives with Innocent Aces is that it only features 17 missions, and could be cleared by a determined player in a single day. However, there are three difficulty settings (and a fourth unlockable one) and various parts and aircraft to be earned through completing missions. There are also awards to be earned by completing specific tasks, such as completing the story mode without dying or failing a mission, and eliminating a specific number of enemies using your cannons.
The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is a great package. The unique control scheme is effective in providing a sense of connection with your aircraft that mere button-pressing cannot. The story, told both with fantastic movies and via in-flight dialogue, is great; while confusing at times, it has requisite twist and turns just like the film. The sound is amazing, and the graphics are solid. It's a little on the short side, but at its discounted launch price, The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is a bargain. If you enjoy flight combat games then you should be headed out the door to buy this game right now. Even if you don't, the control scheme and the exciting gameplay should be enough to make it worth your while.