Looking like something of a cross between Jedi Starfighter (which is no bad thing) and Incoming (which is), with a twist of Battle Engine Aquila, Yager Developments has put its name to a game that promises originality and a rich storyline along with absorbing flight-combat. Sounds alright doesn't it? It is!
Make him shut up!
Nobody likes a smart-alecky hero. It's unfortunate, then, that your role in Yager is that of 'wise'-cracking Magnus Tide, a sort of futuristic airborne Duke Nukem. Tide is a freelance pilot working for the Proteus Corporation in a future where the world is - you guessed it - owned by corporations. A year previous to the one in which Yager is set, Tide was on a seemingly routine mission and downed by pirates, and instead of compensating him, Proteus simply attempted to cover up the incident by moving several senior members of staff in charge of the mission to junior roles. One such staff member is the game's love interest, Sarah McDavid. Cue mid-mission comms link banter between the bitter McDavid and Tide with his unrequited love.
Tide has finally seen an opportunity to get back into the freelance business, having plunged his year's savings into a new ship, the Sagittarius, and this is where the game picks up. Starting with basic training to get you used to the ship's basic talents, the game doesn't take long in getting you to work.
Control seems simple enough at first, with two main modes of function: hover and jet. Hover mode enables you to remain still in the air, or shift forwards slowly with the right trigger, or backwards when combined with a press of the left stick. You can move up and down or strafe left and right with the right analogue stick, and aim your craft with the left. Jet mode is where you'll spend most of your combat time, and is toggled on and off with a press of the right stick. In jet mode, your craft is fixed at full-speed, you are able to fly much higher and perform barrel rolls, nosedives and sharp turns. Shooting is a matter of vaguely pointing your nose in the direction of a target until the crosshairs lock on, and firing away.
Get back to work
Your first mission comes within about ten minutes of starting the game, and sees you and your wingman searching for an out-of-control freighter heading for the mainland. This first bit of exploration allows you to take in some of the absolutely gorgeous visuals on display - anybody walking through the room while Yager was on the screen instantly became an audience, without failing to mention the water in particular. And it really is beautiful, like you could dive right into it. Hover low over the waves and fire off a couple of laser rounds, and the water will reflect the coloured light with just the right amount of... well, reflection. Similarly, islets rise out of the blue and refract and distort across the surface convincingly, and stray shots and junk splosh into the water with convincing spray. What more can we say? It's lovely water!
Eventually you'll come across the hulking great freighter as it looms out of the mist (of which there is an unhealthy amount throughout the game, considering the otherwise beautiful graphics), and you set about taking it out of the sky before it flies above land. As you get on with bringing it down, the bodywork starts to break apart and explode until eventually it drops into the water in a spectacular display of fireworks. We hoped the game was going to continue along this vein. We quite liked the idea of hopping from island to island in our ship performing neat little tasks, almost like a futuristic air-based GTA, as opposed to a linear, campaign-based outing.
Eventually, though, it all gets a bit predictable. The pirates start flexing their muscles and launching large-scale attacks on Proteus for some reason, and it's your job to fight off all the little grunts and force their retreat. It's when the more hectic dogfights occur that you start to notice the problems with the control system. The lack of a real sense of speed combined with an inability to pull off some truly tight turns or slam your craft into reverse without having to fumble with the analogue sticks makes for clumsy combat, and success is a matter of luck rather than skill.
Come fly with me
Missions continue along the path of "Defend this big ship" or "Find this nest of pirates and get rid of them" for a while, and if it wasn't for the interesting bits of adventure in-between then the game would become a lot more tiresome a lot earlier on. However, given simple objectives like "Find Jane's Bar" (crap name for a pub), you set off hovering over an island chatting to the locals and fellow pilots over your comms link attempting to get some clues and gathering up nuggets of story. It's these portions of the game rather than the epic battles that won us over, simply because the epic battle portions are so bloody hard.
The first time we really got frustrated with Yager was on a mission that started out with a nice bit of stealth-recon. To begin with, you pilot your craft in hover mode around an island, marking out coordinates for an air strike on missile launcher locations. Keeping below radar and getting close enough to lock in on the launchers requires a fair amount of skill, and eventually you'll get noticed. Cue jet mode and a rush to get the rest of the sites marked. The captain of the ship you're based on is constantly nagging at you to get the job done, there are pirates all over your arse, there's machine and anti-aircraft gunfire peppering you with holes and your ship is about as responsive and speedy as a tar-coated brick-shaped Volvo.
In moments like this, it's easy to panic and completely lose it. But the key is to focus on your specific task, fulfil your objectives while making an occasional stop at nearby repair points, and get the hell out. This is easier said than done though, with the game throwing a horrendous amount of crap at you all at once and your fellow pilots offering precisely sod all in the way of support. You often feel as if you're left to get the job done completely alone, despite apparently flying alongside some big guns.
Sometimes it all gets a bit too much. Too often we've just walked away from the game because it becomes so incredibly demanding and frustrating that it would have Mother Theresa cursing at the screen and stamping the controller into the carpet. Often the game takes a break from the flying and sees you manning gun turrets of some sort, knocking targets out of the sky. The first instance of this is all good-humoured fun, with commentary from characters and bizarre targets to shoot at, including furniture, pool tables, remote controlled speedboats and even an enormous floating carnival cow. Yes. But later on, halfway through the absolutely hellish Bitterfeld stages, you're fighting off hordes of oncoming droids, attempting to avert the destruction of the platform you're sitting on, and failing time and time again to do so. Lose all of your three continues here, and it's back to the beginning of the frankly tedious flying sections for you.
Nope, the mixture of save points and a lives system doesn't help matters much. Each episode is split up into a few smaller chunks, the beginnings of which you can continue from should your craft come crashing down. However, the developers have an annoying habit of placing these continue points just before an incredibly tedious section of play, or in the middle of a particularly nightmarish one, so you either just can't be bothered to play all the way through and get murdered once more, or you're scared to continue for fear of dying within 30 seconds and losing your place in the episode.
For all these almost show-stopping issues though, we still have a hard time really disliking Yager. Magnus Tide can come out with some utterly cringe worthy quips, but at least his role is well-acted, as is the rest of the cast involved in the gently unravelling plot, and we dare say you could actually warm to him eventually - especially because of his amusingly impotent attempts to flirt long distance with the sub-zero Sarah. The brilliant visuals we've already mentioned, and the exploration elements are a welcome introduction to the otherwise basic flight-combat model, and all combine to form a very compelling game.
However, criticise it we must. Had the learning curve not been so ridiculously undulating, and had more care been taken to craft a less clumsy, clunky control scheme, Yager could easily have gained a couple more points. There also would have been plenty of room for a split-screen co-operative mode - this would've been a welcome addition that could have made some of the more frustrating stages far more pleasurable. Starfighter had one! As it is though, you can't do much better for challenging air-combat shooters on the Xbox, just as long as you bear in mind how teeth-grindingly steep that challenge is.