Review: The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces (Nintendo Wii)

The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces
Developer: Namco Bandai / Project Aces
Publisher: XSEED
Genre: Flight Simulation
Release Date: 01/12/2010

When I first heard about Namco-Bandai’s Wii bound flight sim, The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces, I was at that time unfortunately not familiar with Hiroshi Mori’s novel series, or the recent Mamoru Oshii (of Ghost in The Shell fame) animated film that the game was derived from. I was very interested however, as the game was developed by Namco’s Project Aces, the team behind the successful and acclaimed Ace Combat series. I’ve been a fan of the series for years, and I was hoping that this game would carry on the tradition of quality Project Aces is known for. So does it?

Story:

The events of The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces take place in an alternative history that one could assume, based on the characters’ garb and the propeller operated planes, is set during what would be the second World War. In this alternative Japan, the world is seemingly at peace, but in attempts to excite and stimulate the bored country, two weapons corporations stage elaborate aerial battles with adolescent genetically engineered pilots known as “Kildren”, who never grow old, and are expendable in favor of the “game”. Your character, identified as call sign “Lynx” (and later, call sign “Cheetah”), and the other adult squad members are caught in the expected drama and lack of morality of the Kildren’s situation.

During story sequences, the plot is presented by way of fully animated cutscenes created especially by the studio that handled the film, which develop the characters and appropriately set the stage for the next mission. The storyline in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is tailored after the recent animated film in regards to plot and pacing, and both Mori and Oshii were involved with the writing and overall plot of the game. The heavy concept and story elements don’t weigh too heavily on the actual gaming experience, and the plot gives you just enough exposition with its twenty or so minutes of animation to potentially get you interested in seeing the film or reading the book. Regardless, it’s an interesting concept, even if the plot presented here is only a sample serving of the main course, and it does a terrific job of keeping you interested and caring about the eighteen missions you’ll be flying through.

Graphics:

As I mentioned previously, the animated cutscenes in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces are created by the studio who worked on the associated film. The cutscenes are passionately animated and look terrific. The interesting character designs appear as static images during mission briefings and radio transmissions during the actual missions, which, though only a small addition, helps integrate the gameplay with the animation. However, regarding the actual 3D graphics, admittedly, The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces would probably have been better suited for the Xbox 360 or PS3. It’s not that the visuals in the game are bad, but a more immersive visual presentation goes a long way in a flight simulation game, and the game simply doesn’t quite pull it off. Ace Combat 6 for example, is a considerably more effective experience overall, as the level of graphic detail and other various effects push the aspects of aerial dogfighting to the next level. The same could be said about pretty much any game, but a flight sim is one of a few types of games that really needs a good amount of detail to make it shine, and The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces can’t quite manage to pull this off as often as it should.

While the graphics are certainly not terrible, and they do the job well enough, those who have played Ace Combat 6 prior to playing through The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces will most likely think of how the experience could have been all the more vivid if on a console with more punch in the graphics department. If the Wii was the only choice available, perhaps a more stylized approach to the graphics would have been a good choice. I could easily imagine a light cel shading filter applied to the existing unimpressive Wii 3D graphics would have worked well for the game. This would have given it an element of visual flair that could differentiate it from similar games in the genre, and would have helped tie the game closer to the animation on which it’s based on. That, of course, might just be my opinion. The point is that, while the visuals aren’t bad, they’re not impressive either, and they’re not the best quality in the genre or on the system.

Sound:

Much like Project Aces’ Ace Combat series, The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces features an epic soundtrack that always paces itself well with the aerial dogfighting action. In addition, the game is fully voice acted and the almost constant stream of radio chatter during missions is well acted, and very effective. The sound effects are spot on as well, with various explosions, machine gun fire, and whooshing engine noises complimenting the in-game action at every point. The game sounds great overall, and this adds a lot to the experience.

Gameplay:

Ace Combat fans will feel right at home with The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces and its particular flight simulation mechanics. Things will feel familiar, but some interesting and very cool innovations have been added to Project Aces’ tried and true formula to makes things new and exciting in the gameplay department here on the Wii. Generally, The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is an Ace Combat game. You’ll tackle missions in various aircrafts, which can be customized and upgraded with new and better parts and weapons as you progress. Radar indicators similar to those seen in just about any Ace Combat or flight sim game will identify enemy aircraft types, ground units, and so on, and each mission usually will have a specific objective to accomplish. Along with your computer controlled squad mates, you’ll evade and attack the enemy across eighteen story missions, which can be played in a free mode upon their completion. Though a little more character and story driven than the Ace Combat games of the past, The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces can essentially be compared to those games with little difficulty, as most of the mechanics from those games are used here.

The innovative feature that Project Aces put into play here would be the very intuitive and useful Tactical Maneuver Commands, or TMCs for short. If you can keep on an enemy aircraft’s tail long enough, a meter will begin to fill to a maximum of three levels. Pressing the TMC button during this time will execute a dramatic maneuver that will see you maneuver to the enemies’ rear, and give you an almost foolproof opportunity to fill them with hot machine gun lead. Activating the TMC at a higher level will put you at an even greater advantage. You’ll need to stay on the enemy to achieve a level three TMC rating, but they’re usually as good as toast if you can manage that. This feature adds a new dynamic to the traditional dog fighting formula in place in the Ace Combat games, and though simple in concept, it puts a considerably different spin on things. The TMC actually removes some of the more hardened simulator aspects one would expect from a typical Ace Combat title and replaces them with a simple function that guarantees the player sees more action and feels even more like a master pilot. As the innovative cover system found in Gears of War added to the standard third person action format, the TMC system in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces achieves a similar effect for the flight simulator genre.

The other cool feature follows the lead of the TMC attack function. The player is given access to a great number of preset Top Gun quality aerial evasions with the flick of the Nunchuk stick. By pointing the stick in a direction you can select and activate everything from a reverse barrel roll to an awesomely badass triple diving dip on the fly. Again, this takes some of the simulator aspects out of the game, but in return offers a much more accessible and action oriented air combat experience. The accessible flight command innovations found in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces make it easy to recommend this game to those who might not be into flight simulation games, as the gameplay is balanced quite effectively with both the elements of satisfying action and traditional simulation in mind.

Replayability:

Unfortunately, the eighteen missions in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces don’t take to long to get through, and by the game’s end you’ll have access to all of the various plane models and upgrades. Unless you want to challenge yourself by playing at a higher difficulty, you’ll see nothing new in consecutive playthroughs. The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces does feature a free mission mode, which basically lets you play any of the individual missions you’ve cleared in the story mode, if you want to play around with specific missions without having to go through the story again. In addition, there is a co-op component that allows a second player work as a secondary gunner in your aircraft. By using another Wii Remote, the secondary gunner can fire at enemies with a machine gun while the first player zips around. The co-op concept is novel, and a fun way to get a friend involved who would simply be watching you play the game anyway, but as I discovered alongside fellow staffer Mark B., for two players looking to really take the highway to the danger zone together, it’s ultimately uninspiring.

Balance:

The TMC system in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces naturally makes the game somewhat easier that its Ace Combat counterparts, but as mentioned in the gameplay portion of the review, this introduces its own form of challenge by tasking the player with properly managing and activating the TMC. This can become especially difficult in heated dogfights with multiple enemy aircraft, thus simply relocating the escalating challenge of the game instead of removing it entirely. Even simple maneuvers that would have to be manually executed in Ace Combat and other similar flight sims can be performed here with no effort, which also changes the general formula of the gameplay. Ace Combat veterans might consider the modifications in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces stifling to the experience, but later missions, though not at an Ace Combat caliber of difficulty, will still put your flight skills to the test, especially on higher difficulties.

Originality:

Though The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is structured just like any typical Ace Combat game, the addition of the innovative TMC system and a more accessible and easy to understand interface set it apart from other flight sims considerably. Points are definitely to be awarded to Project Aces for implementing gameplay mechanics into a genre that usually is very difficult to make work outside of its mold. The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces has the weight and technicality of previous Ace Combat games, but plays ball in such a way that the experience is not just for pilot pros exclusively. The source material on which the game is based is handled very nicely, and unlike so many other games based on other properties, a few missions into The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces will confirm that both attention to detail and fine craftsmanship were applied when trying to maintain the integrity of the film on which the game is based.

Addictiveness:

Flight sim fans might find The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces to be over a bit to quickly, but are most likely to be glued to the entire product all the way through. For me, utilizing the TMC functionality never once got old at any point during the eighteen mission run, and the detailed and well executed story narrative made it easy to go from one mission to the next. While the game might not give you great reasons to come back to it once it’s completed, it gives you plenty of reasons to come back to it the first time through, as it’s an intense and action-packed ride the whole way through.

Appeal Factor:

I’m sure Wii owning flight sim enthusiasts will be all over The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces, but given its very reasonable thirty dollar retail value, I hope that others will be willing to give the game a try. Specifically, those players who might not think of themselves as enjoying a traditional Ace Combat style flight sim will find a pleasant surprise in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces. The film the game is based on is available on DVD, and thought I don’t own it yet, I’m sure an advertisement for the tie-in Wii game is inside, much like an ad promoting the film is on the back of the enclosed instruction manual for the game. Those who did purchase and enjoy the film will find the game to be a worthwhile acquisition, as it presents an interesting and, hopefully, faithful expansion of the film in interactive form.

Miscellaneous:

Much like many of the games publisher XSEED puts out, The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces can be played with the recommended Wiimote and Nunchuck combination, or the Wii Classic controller. I very much approve of being able to use a regular controller with my Wii games if that’s what I wish to do, and it seems XSEED is one of the few who can appreciate the fact that maybe we don’t want to flail our arms around at the TV anytime we want to play a game on the Wii. Both control schemes work well enough, so if you lack the Classic Controller you needn’t be scared away, but it’s nice to see a developer who understands that sometimes, you just want to hold a controller. Bravo, I say.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: CLASSIC
Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: GOOD
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal Factor: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GREAT
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary:
The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces makes great use of its passionate source material, and incorporates the dramatic story into a great flight simulation game. Outstanding gameplay innovations really make The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces stand apart from similar flight sims while still feeling familiar to fans of the Ace Combat series. The mechanics are designed in a way such that even those who don’t typically enjoy flight sims may very well find themselves into the over the top action found in the game’s eighteen missions. These gameplay alterations only slightly dilute the technicality of the genre’s typical structure, but Ace Combat fans will still be more than pleased, and less experienced flight sim players will find The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces to be a fun and accessible game that’s well worth its asking price.

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