Review: Airships: Conquer the Skies

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Review copy provided by developer

There’s been a sudden and delightful explosion of simulations in recent years that let you build things specifically to be blown up. I don’t know if it was Kerbal Space Program or Besiege or what that kicked it off, but it’s here and I love every bit of the mess. Games that spark creativity should always be lauded, and there’s nothing wrong with inspiring people to build rockets or castles just to have them destroyed. Airships gets that, and displays its understanding with great gouts of black smoke and towering infernos rising from doomed ammo stores. It’s a wonderful simulation of the chaos your can wreak in the unfriendly skies, limited only by its scope and graphical presentation.

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You won’t find much of a plot to Airships, hence my comment about its scope. The extremely comprehensive tutorial takes on the tone of a Victorian-era commander at a naval academy, and the wood and steel flying monstrosities you construct definitely suggest steampunk trappings. Whatever the case, Airships is a game about building airships and having them blast each other to pieces. Your creations are boxy assemblies of corridors, action stations, and cannons that zoom through skies filled with floating islands and lofty beasts to rain destruction on your foes. You can do so in two different skirmish modes, or take charge of an entire empire seeking to conquer the world through air power.

It’s the designing and commanding that take center stage here, and both are smartly crafted to get you right into the juicy parts of the game. Building your dream dreadnought is as simple as dragging and dropping components onto a grid, with essential parts highlighted until you fulfill the design’s need. Your basic airship needs a suspendium generator to stay aloft, an engine of some kind to propel it, coal stores to fuel both, a bridge to command from, weapons and ammo stores to fight, and hatches to store supplies. These parts contribute to about a dozen different stats for your vessel, from maximum cruising height to self-repair capacity. With a dizzying number of components to choose from this system could easily become overwhelming, but the excellent editor design makes building airships a breeze after only a few minutes of practice. And that’s to say nothing of all the delightful paint and decorative options that have no bearing on performance and allow you to put great goofy eyes and flames on your bright pink murder machine.

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Figuring out how to build good ships is an entirely different matter, of course. Your weapons range from small arms and basic cannons to massive gimballed turrets and boarding parties. You can armor you ships as well with tiles of wood, steel, and even stone of different qualities, each best at absorbing different kinds of damage. There are infinite possibilities and not all of them good, and what works against one type of enemy definitely won’t against another. The strategy runs deep here, but is also tempered by a fair bit of luck. Because your ships are 2D incoming fire can hit any part of them, so it’s possible that the very first enemy volley punches through your bridge and leaves your airship without any means of control.

The end result is that most fights that aren’t completely one-sided descend into the chaos of great wooden flying machines bursting into flames, colliding, and crumbling to the earth below. Combat is real-time but your ability to issue commands is limited to how well your bridge is staffed, meaning some ships may only be able to take new orders every 5 seconds or so. That’s an eternity while a fleet is peppering you with shot, but your crews are at least smart enough to pick their own targets, fire at will, and attempt to avoid collisions. They’re not so good at that last part, though, so prepare to lose some ships to simple pursuit orders when their prey stops dead in front of them. Preparation is the real key to victory, and you’ll soon find most battles are won in the airship editor and not in the unfriendly skies.

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If all there were to the game was skirmishes between custom creations it might not have much staying power, but the developer has included an impressive campaign mode that plays like a light, combat-centric 4X. You take control of a nation on a randomized map, gaining resources in real time from your cities to build warships with. That money can also go to building terrestrial fortifications and sending spies to scout out enemy designs, both equally important aspects of forming your strategies. There’s also a tech tree to climb to unlock more components to build with, and even some basic management like pouring money into your secret police to root out enemy spies and insurgents. This mode adds infinite replayability to the game, allowing you to design ships on the fly and strategize your holdings around the robust combat system at the core.

Really this is the kind of game that motivated designers could play forever, and it would be the easiest recommendation in the world if not for its limitations. While the command system does a fine job of approximating the chaos and confusion of battle it does lead to bouts of frustration, especially when ships stop dead for seemingly no reason or mysteriously take circuitous routes to their waypoints that have them smacking into islands. Combat also doesn’t end until ships are completely incapacitated, which means you might knock a vessel out of the sky but as long as it can still shoot, the battle can drag on far too long. And while I appreciate the simple 2D graphics, the mechanics they force such as flipping ships to turn them around do add an extra layer of awkwardness to an already-hectic system.

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I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a blast with Airships, though. The key parts of the game are designed so well that a few battles going awry can’t dampen my spirits. Seeing cannonballs rip through hulls, shear off chunks of ships, and detonate ammo stores in spectacular fashion is all the delight I need, and that’s not even getting into the flamethrowers and bombs available. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the chaos I can sow, but the game includes even more possibilities like landships with tank treads or robot legs, and there are plans to expand it even further with naval vessels in the future. As long as you don’t mind the graphical limitations, Airships: Conquer the Skies is the dream title for aspiring airship commanders, giving you all the tools you need to do just what the title suggests.

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