Muse Games came up with a neat idea in Guns of Icarus, a rail shooter for PC/Mac built around the idea of manning a turret aboard an airship as it flies through a steampunk world. The game was released in 2010, and while it was brimming over with cool ideas, some of them felt a wee bit undercooked at the time.
Enter Guns of Icarus Online, Muse's expanded, multiplayer-centric take on the earlier game. Where the original Icarus focused on rail-shooting steampunk action, the successfully Kickstarter-funded Online re-jiggers the basic concept into a team-based multiplayer affair. It's also a bit more inventive than putting an entire airship in the hands of one person. Players instead fill different crew roles on individual airships, so the 8v8 match really amounts to triple that number in human players.
I learned all of this during a recent visit to Muse's New York City office, where work continues even now on the planned fall 2012 release. The trip afforded me some time to try out the game, which is currently in a closed beta available to Kickstarter backers. It's clearly not a finished game yet, but in general the work seems to be progressing at a solid enough pace to make Muse's targeted September release seem likely.
Creating a character is your first step to getting into the game. Guns will release with 30 or so costumes to dress your avatar in at launch, though players will also be able to spend actual dollars on new kits via an in-game store. Muse promises that any and all purchase-able items will be cosmetic only; don't expect to see any play-oriented boosts being sold there.
Once you've got your avatar squared away, it's time to jump into a match, and choosing a crew role is your first step toward getting there. Players can choose between Captain, Gunner, and Engineer roles, and that choice is fixed once a match begins. Gunners and Engineers will have an easier time joining, but no control over the airship they end up in or what it's fitted with.
Captains, on the other hand, will have to wait in a lobby until they have a fully staffed vessel, but they also have the option of selecting which airship will be used and which gun turrets will be attached to that airship's hardpoints. I'm told that the game will automatically fill out under-crewed ships with AI-controlled bots.
Nothing is necessarily locked to a particular class. A Gunner has the ability to repair ship components and even take the wheel, for example. It's best to stick to your class focus whenever possible, however, since each one unlocks skill-boosting abilities as it levels up.
Engineers, for example, can expect to be able to use more effective repair tools. Captains, on the other hand, unlock skills that can be used to improve the performance of the airship for a brief period, usually with some cost. A skill that beefs up the engine power might, for example, do light damage to the engines while it is active. A lot of the balancing on these concepts is still being fine-tuned, but I definitely got a good sense of things from my hands-on time.
Once you're squared away with a crew role and in a match, the action plays out from a first-person perspective. Controls fall in line with what you'd expect from other PC shooters, though since handheld weapons are unnecessary -- there's no boarding other ships in Guns of Icarus Online -- the number keys are mapped instead to your various action-oriented skills.
The trick to Guns of Icarus Online is going to be learning to work and communicate frequently as part of a larger group, much more so than you typically would in a more by-the-numbers squad-based shooter. Since you're one member of a ship's crew, success hinges on the combined efforts of all passengers. While each class might be ALLOWED to fill other roles, the most effective teams will stick to their jobs whenever possible.
I'll admit that my time playing around in the beta felt a little chaotic and disconnected, largely because there was no communication with the rest of my crew. Learning each airship's layout is important as well, since many of them are equipped with multiple components and turret hardpoints, each of which can be individually damaged under enemy fire.
There's a lot of promise here. The art design is immediately eye-catching, and the graphics improve immensely on what we saw in the original Guns of Icarus. The action itself remains a little bit choppy, but we're talking about an in-development game here. Muse has plenty of time to smooth things out and get the balancing just right prior to release.
Guns of Icarus Online will only offer the multiplayer-oriented skirmish mode at launch, though one of the team's long-term goals is to release an adventure mode further down the road. This expansion of the core ideas in skirmish offers an open steampunk world to explore and gameplay that echoes back to the likes of open-ended sims like Privateer. It's a killer concept, especially since it's going to be on what seems even now to be a solid foundation in the skirmish-based multiplayer.
Stay tuned for more on Guns of Icarus Online as Muse's September/early fall 2012 targeted release window draws nearer.