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The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces (Wii) artwork

The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces (Wii) review

"For anyone who has viewed the movie, the mere existence of the game may seem puzzling. There, the grand war was merely a backdrop, a meaningless cycle that only highlighted the Kildren's wasted existence. Nevertheless, Project Aces has moved these hollow encounters to the forefront in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces. The team behind the well-received Ace Combat series has created another game full of satisfying flight action, but they've subverted the thrust of the film's message in the process."

The Sky Crawlers universe originated in a series of Japanese novels, and was brought to life in a 2008 anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii, the acclaimed mind behind the screen adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. It depicts a peaceful world beholden to a manufactured war. For-profit corporations fight to a carefully managed deadlock, a perpetual struggle meant to occupy the masses. It keeps them content in their workaday lives, grateful for normalcy. However, even though the airborne battles are akin to an elaborate show, the deaths must be real to achieve the desired effect. That's why the overwhelming majority of pilots are Kildren, people genetically engineered to never age past their teenage years, then cloned for quick replacement. These unnatural children can only die fighting, and thus they live only to fight.

For anyone who has viewed the movie, the mere existence of the game may seem puzzling. There the grand war was merely a backdrop, a meaningless cycle that only highlighted the Kildren's wasted existence. Nevertheless, Project Aces has moved these hollow encounters to the forefront in The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces. The team behind the well-received Ace Combat series has created another game full of satisfying flight action, but they've subverted the thrust of the film's message in the process.

Innocent Aces is certainly not a technical flight sim, especially because of its major combat features: Tactical Maneuver Commands and manual maneuvers. TMCs are the most powerful, as they allow you to end up with an enemy plane directly in your sights. Each target in the 3D battle theater is surrounded by a small sphere. Break into that proximity, even for as little as a second, and these unlimited physics-defying moves become possible. During the TMC the computer will take control of your plane, flipping and fluttering into perfect firing position. The longer you're in range before invoking the command, the closer your crosshairs will wind up to the enemy. This isn't important against regular pilots; they're immediately dead meat. Slippery aces, though, will bail almost as soon as you fall into place.

Those aces move so quickly because like you, they can pull off manual maneuvers. Manual is actually a deceptive term; you're pulling the analog stick into one of eight preloaded positions, then pressing a button to pull off a devastating change of direction. Moves like the Immelmann and Split S will let you perform an abrupt about face. The Kulbit can loop you back behind a fighter that was on your tail. And what would you do without a barrel roll? All these advanced tactics are accompanied by small diagrams, so you'll know exactly what's in store. Seeing these hyper-evasive maneuvers in action will make it clear why this game doesn't include multiplayer dogfighting. No one would ever score a decisive kill.

At least part of that elusiveness, though, comes from the planes you fly. The world of Innocent Aces resembles early 20th century Europe, so you're controlling an ever-growing fleet of propeller-powered antiques that lack advanced weaponry. That means no heat-seeking missiles, and it can be incredibly difficult to line up an enemy without help. Though the GameCube controller is an option, the intended method of manipulation is with a nunchuk/remote combination. You begin by holding each level. Tilting the remote perpendicular will speed up the plane. Moving the nunchuk in space will direct the nose of your craft. Even though it's an intuitive setup, freehand precision is nearly impossible. It's not like you can easily skim along the ground without hitting the surface; I guarantee you'll dive-bomb more planes into oblivion than the computer will ever shoot down.

You'll have to try to pull off a few fancy maneuvers, though, because the game's seventeen story missions lay out a variety of challenging tasks. There's a lot more to it than dogfighting. Cruising over a shimmering blue bay, you'll torpedo a fully-armed naval fleet. Covert ops require you to hover along deep canyons, taking photographs of secret strongholds. High-value assets need protection from waves of enemy bombers and tanks, while unfriendly fighters swarm like mosquitoes. You'll be ambushed by anti-aircraft guns while firing rockets into an enemy camp, and also have to escort a VIP in an unarmed behemoth through a barrage of bullets and treacherous wind. I almost wish there were more strictly aerial battles, where you could just blow bogey after bogey out of the sky. (I guess that's up to the single bonus mission, where you have to shoot down 100 planes in half an hour.)

As well as Innocent Aces works as an action-oriented feature, it does cling to the themes of the movie's narrative. This portion of the story looks at a unique stage of The Sky Crawlers timeline, the point where Kildren are first introduced into the fight. You jump into the cockpit of a new pilot – call sign Lynx – welcomed into a squadron of normal adults. However, these veterans are shocked when some of the teenage soldiers join the team. With the parties unsure of how to respond to each other, tensions flare up immediately. Radio chatter before, after and even during missions becomes filled with bickering over their disparate views on battle, life and death.

That dialogue is engaging, but it doesn't encompass the core idea. That task is left to Lynx himself, even though the character is neither seen nor heard. Anyone who has viewed the film will immediately recognize this pilot as the one major concrete link between the game and movie. Before opposing fliers begin referring to him as the Black Cat, a familiar seal representing that moniker spins during loading screens. Couple that with his superior flying ability, surpassing even the Kildren, and it's obvious he is, or is at least inexorably tied to, a very important symbol in The Sky Crawlers universe. He is the standard bearer of the status quo.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, Lynx's perpetual silence still speaks volumes to that effect. When the respected commanding officer is shot down, Lynx takes over without a word. When members of the squadron face off in homicidal rage, he intervenes without a thought. When a promising newcomer becomes despondent, unresponsive and eventually disappears, he offers no reaction. Ultimately the story erupts into mounting betrayals and the need to stop a mad-scientist, but even then, Lynx simply performs his duties and goes right back to work the next day.

As gamers, we're used to this pattern of vanquishing the villain and saving the world. Outside of this game, though, The Sky Crawlers wants to shake us out of such creatively bankrupt, mindless repetition. Viewed in that light, perhaps Innocent Aces is the deft culmination of the film's cynical epilogue. It delivers exactly what we expect. Effortlessly swatting bogeys out of the sky makes you feel badass. The airborne combat action is fun and fast-paced; it may be the most well-executed ever seen on the Wii. But by assuming Lynx's role, we are literally defending our own fruitless cycle. Regardless of Innocent Aces' quality, this is just another fix of the familiar gratification we so desire.


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Staff review by Benjamin Woodhouse (February 08, 2010)

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zippdementia posted February 09, 2010:

Really? A Sky Crawlers game? Glad to hear that they can actually do that. That's shocking.

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