Guns of Icarus Online

A Review

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Multiplayer Steampunk action in giant air balloons!

The steampunk genre is defined by its amalgamation of Victorian era clothing and architecture, and the notion that if one has enough gears and pipes they can create any modern (or future) device. Steam powered cars and watches are common, as well as the odd steam powered iPhone. All these and more are possible in the universe of Guns of Icarus Online by developer Muse. In this case, we are granted commission onboard a heavily armed steampunk dirigible and commanded to take our battles to the sky.

Guns of Icarus Online cannot be easily described as one type of game. It is very much part flight game, part rail shooter, and part of something else entirely. The player is given the choice between three roles to fill on the dirigible (big balloon airship for the rest of us), each role having its own very different style of gameplay. There is the pilot, who must steer the ship through the sky. Also there is the gunner, who occupies the various mounted weaponry onboard. Lastly, the engineer, who runs about the ship banging on damaged machinery with his wrench to perform repairs. Together, the crew performs their duties in cooperation with other ships on their team to destroy the other team of ships bent on the same objectives. This seems simple enough and in practice works decently well.

Steady as she goes.

Naturally, like in other team games, the crew that behaves as a collective will fare better than a group of players playing individually. This is the case here, as the pilot is expected to turn the ship in directions that give gunners the ability to fire the proper weapons upon their enemies and engineers are expected to scurry quickly to the site of a damaged weapon or engine as the situation occurs. However, as in some team games, the very enterprise of teamwork is collapsed by, ironically, the team. Because the engineer’s job of running about whacking machinery is not fun, they are instead often found operating the weapons. As a gunner, all too often the pilot will not point your side of the ship towards the enemy, forcing you to run to the other side to attempt to get a better shot. Worse still, the weapons have a small turning radius; so many times an enemy ship will be just beyond the reach of your cannon. Players of Battlefield are familiar with this frustrating concept (with helicopter pilots who may have a friend as one of their gunners and leave the other side in a lurch). For a gunner in this game, sometimes whole matches can feel this way, and there are no parachutes in this steampunk world.

The pilot role feels somewhat better and has a fair amount of freedom to drive the airship about the sky. There are various throttle speeds and the ability to move the ship up and down in Z space makes it feel how one would think piloting a dirigible should feel. However, this means the ship is slow. In fact, this might be the single most salient sort of experience that this game has to offer. And it is already a game that takes a snail's pace. Reflexes are hardly needed; gunners fire at slow moving targets and have plenty of time to aim (the reloading time is boringly long), and only the worst pilots will hit the wreckage and mountain obstacles. Only engineers would have some speed or excitement as they run from one damaged component to the next, if their task wasn’t so sublimely uninteresting. The Star Trek engineers seemed to be more excited and they didn't even have to run from one end of the Enterprise to the other!

Perhaps this pace would be less palpable if there wasn’t the constant impression that no one on the ship REALLY knows what they are doing. The game does a very poor job at spelling out its finer mechanics. It is unclear under what circumstances the ship is actually destroyed. There are two separate health ratings for the hull and balloon, and also a rating for "ship", which is not a combination of the two values. Engineers sometimes seem to be able to repair sections of the vessel but its effect on the ship’s health remains untold. The HUD does a little to assist the player by showing what components need repairing, but it tells nothing about the ship's total health. Information about class equipment can be found on the loadout screen but the tool tips are long and are not color coded. I expect that the number of apparently AFK crewmen found on my ship are in fact combing through the tooltip text in the game searching for guidance!

I dont know what I'm supposed to do...

The game has numerous opportunities for customization however. A character customizer lets players chose the gender of their crewman, as well as hair and skin color. Ships are customizable to the point where weapon placement can be assigned in various slots and the ship can be given a name. Strangely it seems players take more pride in naming their ship rather than their own online handles. The game also features a cash shop where players can use real world currency to purchase steampunk outfits for their characters. Some of the most interesting and elaborate costumes can be found here, however I didn’t see anyone actually wearing them in game.

Guns of Icarus Online is powered on the Unity engine, which does a good enough job of rendering the aerial world that the game inhabits. Smoke and clouds look nice and materials have quality. Some textures are rather low resolution, such as the various terrains but there is little interaction here compared to the mountaintops which have more attention paid to them. Visually the game is appropriately steampunk with interesting looking vessels constructed from wood and metal held aloft with giant balloons. There are nice stylistic touches such as the sailing ship steering wheel that can be found at the helm. The player characters are stylized to be tall and lanky and seem to be the only "unrealistic" portrayals in the game, but they by no means feel out of place. Some of the weapons feel a little boxy, which wouldn't be a big issue except for the fact that many of the weapons and helms take up much of the screen space when mounted. This causes much of the game to feel very visually cramped as you peer through the holes to see your surroundings. But what is seen does enough to sell the game environments.

It would be easier to see without this wheel in the way...

The audio of the game manages to capture the flavor of the steampunk world. The ship creaks and hisses with the stress of wood and steampipes, and the cannonfire is very reminiscent of firecrackers. Most of the maps have a compulsory wind filled ambience but there are some musical scores, which are often somber and brooding. The inclusion of a drum cadence is highly annoying and its slow beat unfortunately underscores the game's glacial pace.

While I cannot attribute many bugs found in the game to the Unity Engine, I would be a dishonest reviewer without making mention of some of them. While I didn't see any show stopping bugs or crashes, there are a number of oddities that regularly occurred. Many times when the ship was destroyed, I would find myself falling to the ground and remaining there until the ship respawned. This occurs often when the match begins, and while it doesn't have any effect on the score, it breaks the atmosphere due to the player suddenly being snapped up to the deck moments later. Collisions are also highly irregular with ships sometimes bouncing off each other or rubbing right up together, as well as colliding with mountains. There is also a fair amount of lag which is frustrating since many weapons are very slow to reload and often miss under these circumstances.

There are a few different maps in the game ranging from the sky above a desert, to the sky above the mountains, to the sky above the arctic. While most of the maps are not very functionally different, they are very visually different and a good effort has been made to make them take place not only in different locations, but at different times of day. The maps, however, are mostly empty except for the occasional wreckage or mountaintop, making the game void of clever geometry based ambushes. Only distance is the factor to consider when attacking the enemy.


When confronted with a game like Guns of Icarus, it is easy to see that simulation is the order of the day here. I expect that if steampunk dirigibles existed, battles might take place in the same manner. This game IS interesting; however, only when it works correctly (when everyone does their job). On a dysfunctional ship, often times players will be abandoning their posts to try to fill in a role that another player previously had abandoned, ensuing chaos and players disconnecting, and in the end leaving one sole survivor alone on a vessel with horribly stupid AI crewmembers. When it works, the pilot aims the ship so that the gunners can fire, and engineers can sometimes man minor guns and hop off in time to repair vital components. Even better if the pilot uses their VOIP to issue commands or reassure their crew. This is when the experience that the developers clearly intended emerges and a well-oiled crew will often wipe the floor (or sky in this case) of the other ships who are very likely dysfunctional. That said, I have had FAR too many bad crews and this game is quickly becoming the sort that one simply cannot play without friends, unless he is willing to lose much of his hope in humanity.


  • 5y
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    I'm guessing the letdown is the dependence on other players and the inability of the AI to fill said roles efficiently.


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Pros & Cons

  • Interesting Premise
  • Well done steampunk universe
  • Good teams make the game fun
  • Being on this ship is really cool
  • Gameplay is often opaque and confusing
  • Pace is slow
  • Lots of irritations
  • Bad teammates make the game horrible


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