The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is a new air combat game by the developers of the popular Ace Combat series. Based on a popular anime license, it's unique in that it marks the first time this particular subsection of Namco's development team, Project Aces, has worked on a Wii title, and while it doesn't carry the Ace Combat moniker, you can definitely see some similarities, especially in the accessible pilot-to-pilot combat. If Wii fans have been lamenting the lack of a great fighter pilot sim, then they'll be pretty happy with Sky Crawlers.
The story follows the plot of the film pretty closely, which was adapted from a set of five manga novels. Set against the backdrop of an alternate history version of Europe, the plot focuses on a group of youngsters who join up with a squadron of fighter pilots. You take on the role of a pilot, who is only known as Lynx, a silent protagonist throughout the majority of the game. The plot isn't particularly important in relation to the gameplay; it's mostly featured through various cut scenes and some random chatter that occurs during the combat sections. Instead, most of the focus is on the simple flight mechanics and the really addictive combat system. If you're coming in to this expecting to get information beyond the somewhat-deep plot of the film and manga, you're going to be slightly disappointed. While it does features some original animation and dialogue from the same team responsible for the film, it's really just a highlight reel of what was already covered, and it even ignores some of the deeper moral quandaries presented in the movie.
Sky Crawlers makes use of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk as your default control devices, but you can also play with a Classic Controller or a GameCube Controller for a more traditional control scheme. The Wiimote and Nunchuk combo is an interesting setup, as it tries to mimic simplified flight controls, with the Wiimote acting as a throttle device and the Nunchuk controlling your direction, pitch and weapons. Using the Wiimote, you can tilt forward and backward to accelerate and decelerate or hold in the B button to brake. With the Nunchuk, simply title left to right, or forward and back to control your actual direction, while using the Z button to fire. Along with that, you have special maneuvers that you can instantly pull off by holding a direction with the analog stick on the Nunchuk and pressing the A button on the Wiimote. These maneuvers allow you to pull off quick loops or reverse direction, which becomes very helpful in some of the tougher combat situations that you encounter later in the game.
With the Classic Controller or GameCube controller setup, you're looking at a more traditional control scheme. You pilot with the left analog stick, special maneuvers are controlled with the right analog stick, and the buttons control the guns. There's definitely a loss of involvement when switching to those two setups, but at the same time, you get a little more control over your movement and aiming than you do with the motion-based controls. Both modes work fine, though, and you can easily adapt to either one.
For combat, most missions give you specific goals, whether it's to simply take out enemy planes, destroy ground objects or intercept cargo ships. There are a variety of goals presented across all the stages, but the format tends to get a little repetitive. To help you identify your goals, you'll get special markers on the key enemies you're trying to destroy, and you can zip through some of the missions by simply focusing on these key enemies and taking them out. At the end of each mission, you're graded in a few different areas, including total kills, so if you're looking to achieve an S rank in every mission, it'll be worth your time to take out a few tertiary enemies as well. This will help net you some better rewards, including gun and aircraft enhancements, or additional aircraft and colors. There are enough unlockables here to keep you pretty entertained throughout the campaign mode, with plenty of upgrades to try out along the way.
The combat is definitely the highlight of Sky Crawlers. While the flight mechanics are easy enough to perform, I don't feel like there's enough variety in the controls to allow more experienced video game pilots to really spread their wings. In part, this is due to the use of the special maneuver mechanic that I spoke of earlier, which allows you to pull off loops and reversals. However, the turning and overall maneuverability of your aircraft feels a little sluggish compared to titles like HAWX or the Ace Combat series. Shooting down enemy planes is really fun, and the interface and head's up display are well implemented so you can easily mark targets and switch between priorities. Even though I feel that the combat gets repetitive over time (there are only so many ways to shoot down an enemy plane), I found myself pretty addicted to the combat and other objectives.
From the visual side, Sky Crawlers doesn't really impress that much. The textures are a little bland and muddied, and when you check the ground view from the air, there's not enough variation or detail to make anything stand out. The only way I know that I'm bombing tanks over antiair placements is because my on-screen radar tells me so; even when I'm buzzing low to the ground, they all kind of look the same. A little more variety in the appearances of enemy aircraft would have gone a long way to making the game a little better on the eyes, especially since there are so many different aircraft in the title.
The cut scene work, which is anime from the film, is pretty nice to see, along with fully voiced sections in the cut scenes and the chatter you pick up when you're flying around. The overall presentation is actually far better than the in-game visuals, so it's not a complete wash. You can tell the focus was on the gameplay over the visuals, but a little more balance between the two elements wouldn't have been a bad thing.
One nice touch on the visual side is the ability to replay each completed mission from different camera angles. Think of this like a racing game that offers replays in the same fashion, and it can be pretty entertaining to watch. This mode offers up a slightly spruced-up version of what you just performed, and checking things out from cockpit view or the nose of the plane is pretty darn cool-looking.
For those who are hoping for some type of multiplayer mode, though, prepare to be disappointed. This is definitely a game that seems to scream for a multiplayer mode, but there's no online, co-op or even local multiplayer available. This definitely lessens the appeal of the title for some, myself included, and once you've completed the campaign mode and tried for the best scores, there's little else to check out.
Overall, The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces is a great flight combat title on the Wii, and it's definitely something that Wii owners should check out. Yes, it's a budget-priced game and the visuals are a little underwhelming, but the actual gameplay feels really exceptional. It's not going to provide you with a technical experience that's akin to Tom Clancy's HAWX or Namco's Ace Combat titles, but altogether, I think it's a really solid introductory game for Wii owners. I'd like to see another game or two in this series or perhaps another Wii title by the Project Aces team, as I think the controls are pretty unique for the system and work really well here. Whether you decide to purchase or rent it, Sky Crawlers is a game that you simply shouldn't pass up.
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