Reviews

The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces

The game employs a lot of clever solutions to problems that have always been present in the design of third person console flight sims. However, the rest of the game doesn’t offer you a chance to actually use these improvements.


The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces

Publisher: XSEED Games
Players: 1
Price: $29.99
Platform: Wii
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: 2010-01-12
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The console flight sim has always had a tough time balancing the complex controls necessary for this type of game design with controllers that rarely have enough buttons -- or even a proper joystick. Some design conventions transfer more easily than others: putting someone in a cockpit works fine for flying in space because the player doesn’t really have to worry about the ground, while a third person perspective is usually more effective when a player needs to keep track of a surface in relation to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s also a lot harder to dog fight in the third person. The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces suggests a lot of innovative solutions to these issues with mixed results.

The game’s control scheme might be the most clever thing that I’ve seen anyone use for the Wii. You hold the thumbstick controller in your steering hand, holding the Wiimote in the other for controlling speed and secondary attacks. Tilting or raising the thumbstick controller itself steers like a joystick would. Raise the Wiimote and you accelerate, lower it to a horizontal angle and you slow down. The trigger brakes, the A button launches special attacks. The system generally was very responsive for me once I got used to it. I ended up holding the thumbstick controller loosely in my hand and tilting angles by just rotating it in my fingers, but it still had that satisfying feeling that a joystick gives you.

The basic problem with third person flight sims is that whenever you have to make a sharp 180 degree turn the control scheme inherently results in slow movement. This must be done to make the ship manageable. If the ship turned on a dime, the controls would be too sensitive. This becomes a problem when you’re trying to dogfight because dogfighting is nothing but tight turns. A first person flight sim can usually manage to be more sensitive because of the immediacy of the perspective, but third person viewpoints tend to adopt shortcut maneuvers like a speed boost or just a button that automatically makes you flip around.

Sky Crawlers is different because it gives you four different maneuvers that you can pick with the thumbstick and execute by pressing A. If you’re about to run into a bridge, there’s a swooping option along with three other choices that will get you to immediately face in a different direction. It’s still a shortcut, but it’s a really well-organized one after you figure out what they’re offering. The instant maneuver option even applies to dogfighting. In Sky Crawlers, once you get behind someone you start building a meter. At level one, you’ll swoop behind them and will always be right behind the weaker fighters. If it’s a stronger ship, you’ll have to adjust your aim. Building the meter higher means that you will get a better shot at their tail for a longer period of time. It speeds the game up and keeps the controls feeling fluid because dogfighting is now more about pointing yourself in the right direction than precision aiming.

It’s also a bit problematic because it unbalances the rest of the game. Most of the game is spent flying towards objectives, using the auto-attack to rip apart the enemy and then flying to other parts of the map to repeat the process. Only the last few missions are actually challenging. Two of them cross into being genuinely well made, an elaborate fortress attack and an ambush. Unfortunately, the rest of the hard missions feature the awful “Fly the Most Inappropriate Plane for the Mission” design. The fact that a few of the missions are really clever makes the blandness of the rest all the more irritating. While the controls for the game are interesting, they don’t give you too many fun times to use them.

None of this is helped by the fact that the plot is pretty hard to follow if you’ve never seen the anime that the game is based on. It all takes place in some kind of alternate reality where corporations stage mock battles for some reason. You’re the leader of an elite squadron fighting for the blue side, and you’re eventually paired up with a group of kids who are all ace pilots. I stopped following the plot at about this point because all of the cutscenes consisted of long, slow shots of people staring out at the sky or talking about mundane things. Skipping them along with the briefings, didn’t make game any harder to play, and it got to be a relief once the story became impossible to follow.

The Sky Crawlers suffers from a few other basic issues. The tutorial is a long series of hand holding sections instead of a more fluid and engaging experience. It makes the already complex system even harder to learn. Secondary weapons never seemed particularly useful because bullets on any plane are infinite and can destroy anything. Your best bet is always to go with the fastest plane and just use that advantage heavily. The game employs a lot of clever solutions to problems that have always been present in the design of third person console flight sims. It’s just that the rest of the game doesn’t offer you a chance to actually use these improvements.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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