In late March, independent Swiss developer David Stark released an early access build of his game Airships. I was able to secure a copy for this preview and while there is obviously still a lot of work to go, it’s a game that has a great deal of potential for fun once it’s finished.
Airships is a real time strategy game in which you build your own custom airships and then use them to fight other airships. These fights can be played in multiplayer, against other players online, or in a dedicated single player mode. The single player mode includes a campaign in which you can invade towns on a map.
You build airships out of modules and the layout matters a lot. Your airship’s crew need to be able to get from point A to point B efficiently to run your airship effectively, and a poorly designed airship can cost you precious seconds in battle. In this way, the game feels almost like SimTower, in the sense that you’re building something in sections and trying to make it work well.
The game also features what Stark calls “an authentic-ish system of heraldry” which allows you to design your own coat of arms. It’s a neat touch of customisation which helps the game impart upon you a real sense of ownership and, dare I say it, pride.
Being an early access build, the game isn’t without it’s problems. Trying to navigate your way around the game sometimes feels like trial and error. The menu system is functional at best, and the buttons are quite small, especially on larger monitors.
If you begin a single player campaign you’re thrown straight at the map screen with a bunch of AI airships flying around the map and towns which are clickable but don’t do anything when you do click on them. Eventually I realised that I needed to click on my own town and build an airship to get started (made sense in retrospect) but then things get even more confusing. There’s a wide array of airship modules to choose from and building your first few airships is, again, a lot of trial and error. There is a tutorial on the website, but I can’t help but feel that this is the sort of thing that would be of more use inside the game.
In some respects this is commendable; a lot of games these days don’t allow for experimentation, preferring to hand hold your first steps in the game. Sometimes this can be annoying; 10 hours of hand holding in Assassins Creed 3 comes to mind. But done right, it can help relieve the natural frustration that comes with learning a new system. Airships deserves praise for giving you all that it has at the start and saying “Go for it kid!” but frustration creeps in slowly when you wonder if the time you’ve invested building what seems to be a great airship is going to be well spent.
The lack of a story at this point also makes it hard to get into the game. Being an early access build, this is entirely forgivable, but I hope the final version will give me some kind of context as to why I want to build airships and invade towns, beyond explosions and the sheer fun of it. A story mode would also probably help eliminate some of the confusion I felt when building my airship; it would allow for progression and perhaps give me more airship modules over time, rather than giving me them all at once and leaving me in the deep end.
Airships has an incredible amount of promise. I can see a time when I’ll be taking my uber-airship named “Devastation 1701-A” into battle while explosions go off all around me and an entire continent falls prey to my strategic brilliance. Right now, it’s fun but its learning curve is steep and at times, this makes it frustrating. But for what is an early acccess build, it is remarkable for what it has accomplished, for what it is trying to accomplish, and the promise of what’s to come makes it worth keeping an eye on.
The early access copy of the game is available at the Airships website and currently costs a mere US $5. Buying the game now gives you all future updates for free, so it’s well worth getting in now on the ground floor. If Stark can translate the promise the game has into a great final build, a $5 investment now will pay dividends later on.