Guns of Icarus Online – PC
Publisher: Muse Games
Developer: Muse Games
Release Date: Oct 30, 2012
Genre: FPS
Reviewed by Mat Houghton

Review Score: 4 of 5

It wasn’t always so crowded up here. Used to be that the mists and clouds would pull apart like ginned cotton, the pure, dense white shredding in tendrils and snarls against the teeth of sunlight and sky. Beyond it the long arc of heaven and low line of earth met somewhere so far ahead it was a blur. The wind wild around you and the creak and roll of the boards beneath your feet was enough to make you walk to the edge, make you think about jumping out into that maddening air, smiling all the way down. It used to be that there was so much room.

Now though, now she hides as the air fills with more and more balloons. The roar and sputter of engines. The inevitable crackle of fire and the sharp report of cannon. We fight here now, over a space that seems so large despite the crowding. We fight over the pale broken things below, or towers, or ruins and no one stops just to breathe. No one looks up from the range finders or the rattle of malcontent engines. No one sees the skies we ply anymore. It’s fitting though. We are the Guns of Icarus, it suits that we die in fire and surprise.

If you think that a little flowery…well, it is, but this game inspires flights of fancy, or at least some fancy flying which is close enough. Guns of Icarus Online is a gorgeously meaty game that makes you long for a clear sky, a strong wind and the tang of gunpowder on the air. At base it is just like any other multiplayer PvP title. You pick your role — gunner, engineer or pilot in this case, queue up for a crew and have at your enemies. Simple, clean and to the point. What makes Guns special then, aside from skinning, is that instead of just making a floating platform with gun emplacements, the developers added just enough sailing mechanics to make things interesting and force everyone in a crew to work together for survival.

The result is one of the most compelling multiplayer games of recent memory with a gorgeous backdrop and atmosphere skinned and bleak and somehow beautiful. That being said, Guns does fall short where all such titles falter. The why. Oh, I know, it’s after the millennium and motives are incidental, but seriously, what possible value is there in blowing other ships out of the sky? Military superiority? Salvage rights? Victory over bad manners?

I know fans of the genre won’t care too much as it’s the struggle that matters with these games, not the setting, but it seems such a shame that a beautiful setting like this is so poorly fleshed out. There are ships sailing on the sky, men and women pushing metal and gas and wood by the strength of their arms and will and for what? What spurred this creation? Whence came the drive? This isn’t even to mention the tottering wreckage piled akimbo in the desert, or the arctic outposts and canyon spans that you fight over. What is this world you just brush the surface of with cannon fire? I’m dying to find out.

Cannon fire isn’t quite expansive enough though. These ships come armed with quite the assortment of wonderful toys, from machine guns to flak cannons to flame throwers and flare guns. There’s even a harpoon to spear a ship and drag it closer. Not only that, but gunners have about six different kinds of specialized ammunition to mod all those guns with (though most everyone just slaps the fire-proof rounds in to make the engineers lives easier). The guns also all have different ranges and rotations, which seems like a simple enough idea…until you spend time lining up the perfect shot…only to have it ruined when the pilot banks right and the target slips out of your firing arc.

Which is why you all have to work together. The gunners covering their limited firing arcs need to watch for enemies and shoot when they can, repair when they can’t. The pilot needs to steer, but not just maneuvering. Like all great naval conflicts, in Guns the successful engagement is all about positioning, so the pilot must watch the skies and give his gunners targeting angles. The engineer? He gets to put out fires. Literally as he usually is the only crew member with an extinguisher, but also figuratively as he hustles around slapping a hammer on anything that needs repairs. It all sounds easy enough until you get in the air. Then things rapidly turn into a shouting match as the pilot just ambles around aimlessly, the gunners can’t get anything in their sights and the engineer never stops moving. This being a multiplayer title, you can imagine how polite, helpful and actually co-operative people are.

This being an online-only game also means there are two big obstacles to enjoyment. The first is the inevitable problem of an awesome game without enough players, which is to say long queue times waiting for a crew. Yeah, you can chat while you wait, or Alt+Tab out to go check Reddit or something, but it’s still frustrating, especially after a match or two when you’ve got a good group. Suddenly the action will just dry up and there you are, all dressed up with no one to shoot. The second is lag. Looking at the size of the arenas and the detail of the ships, scenery and characters it’s no surprise that there’s going to be some slowdown, especially when you add about 16 players running about. Still having your ship suddenly disintegrate around you because of lagged fire, or just suddenly jumping to the side gets annoying.

Speaking of ships flying apart under a hail of lead and hatred, this is the only part of the game that looks terrible. It’s like watching Legos get stepped on. Large chunks break away and scatter, but always boxy and square. Considering the detail and beauty of the rest of the game, this always seems so out of place. Like someone put some kids toys in front of Starry Night for a diorama.

You may think I exaggerate, but Guns of Icarus Online absolutely nails the desire to fly. It’s like wind scraping through your hair at 100 miles an hour, and I’m just talking about the feel of standing still on the deck. The air seems to ripple as you pass through it, sand or mist floating suspended like the larger mass of keel and balloon. Mist and cloud envelop you so thick you want to shiver at the cold and hope the flare you just launched lights up enough sky to find the ship stalking you.

Clearly this game makes an impression on you, and for $20 can you ask for more? Sure there are micro transactions for different outfits and all sorts of insane achievement or leveling goals, but the long and the short of it is this: Do you want to fly?