DATE RELEASED: May 23, 2003
This is one of the most under-hyped games on the Xbox, truly a hidden gem. Almost no one has ever heard of this game due to the publisherís curious decision to release this game only in Europe. Yager is a game in the tradition of Wing Commander or Battle Engine Aquilla. You take the role of Magnus Tide, and pilot his unique convertible plane/hovercraft into combat in a series of missions that all fit into a larger plot.
First, however, a word of warning: this game is hard, in fact, too hard in my estimation. Even without going out of your way to accomplish special tasks and receive all the unlocks for each level, it is difficult just to pass the missions. If youíre the type who has to get every last thing in a game, well, good luck, I canít even imagine how good youíd have to be to do that.
The graphics in this game are, in a word, stunning. Take a look at screenshots on the web to see what Iím talking about, this game is a thing of beauty. Water glistens beautifully, while from the battered and worn pirate ships to the pristine and precise DST military vessels, details are gorgeously rendered. Likewise the models are wonderfully animated. Missile racks unfold, and wings fold in. One only has to look at the unlocks which let you view the models for each ship in undistracted detail to see just how much care and attention went in every last bit of the artwork.
The game itself takes the form of a campaign of about twenty-something ordered single-player missions. Cutscenes between every mission forward the plot and develop the characters and their relationships. If youíre familiar with Wing Commander or Battle Engine Aquilla, itís just like those. You play ace pilot Magnus Tide, who has fallen on hard times due to circumstances beyond his control, and now is climbing his way back up the ladder. The plot of the game is good, much much better than Battle Engine, though maybe not quite as gripping as Wing Commanderís. Still, itís good enough to keep you playing to see what happens next.
Your ship is unusual in that it can transform between two modes, a jet fighter mode and a hovercraft mode. In jet fighter mode your ship moves forward constantly at a (comparatively) fast speed and you can do rolls and gain more altitude and dogfight with other fighters. In hovercraft mode your ship becomes a slow moving, stable gunboat, able to unleash all of your firepower with pinpoint accuracy against slow moving capital ships, as well as capable of strafing from side to side and up and down to dodge incoming fire. In both modes you have access to your full range of weaponry, which evolves through the game as you get access to upgraded parts. Due to the large size of the maps, some people have made a big deal about how slow your ship is even in the fighter mode, but honestly it wasn't an issue to me, and things definitely aren't slow once you're in the middle of a dogfight.
In the game, youíll encounter a great variety of units, both friendly and hostile. Each side in the game has its own unique arsenal of weaponry, each designed as befits the philosophy behind their faction. These include buildings and naval, ground and air units for all sides. In addition, these units run the whole range of sizes. Most impressive is the incredible modeling of large units, such as the floating battlecruisers that dominate the skies. Unlike in many games where you pump round after round into an enemy capital ship, and it is pristine until the moment it suddenly explodes, these models are fully realized, with every individual section of a capital ship capable of taking damage and being destroyed on its own. A blast to a cannon may silence its fire, but wonít contribute to the destruction of the vessel itself as all, just like youíd expect in real life. One of the first missions has you neutralizing a runaway freighter ship by disabling its engines to slow it down before taking out its super structure. I was blown away when I first saw the engines first extinguish, and then collapse off the main structure of the ship before falling into the ocean below with a mighty splash.
Each mission is designed with the same care that the designers put into the unit models, and it really shows. Just as much as the units, these maps are works of art. Over the course of the game, youíll travel to several different zones, and each of them has its own distinct character that is readily discernable, and solidly pulled off.
The missions consist of a variety of objectives both primary and secondary, and vary in length. Later in the game, these missions get longer and longer, and will contain checkpoints in the middle so that you wonít lose everything if you die. They made the decision to limit you to 3 lives per checkpoint however before you get kicked out of the mission back to the main menu. While this does accomplish their intended goal of including checkpoints without losing the sense of urgency while playing, thereís nothing more frustrating than playing through a long difficult mission only to fail on a checkpoint towards the end too many times and having to restart the whole thing. On the later missions I found myself praying at each plot point that the mission would end instead of going to a checkpoint, since the first few times around it frequently simply isnít apparent what you should be doing to accomplish a particular objective. At one point I gave up on this game for over a month simply because I was tired of playing through a particularly long mission only to die at a part where I didnít know what to do. Another time, a single mission took me over two hours since it had been a very long and very hard mission, and the hardest part was at the end and I was unable to take any risks whatsoever due to the risk of having to do it all over again. Fortunately, for people who aren't willing to invest that much time or energy in a game, there are cheat codes available that address a large part of these difficulty issues. I wish those had been out when I first played the game.
My main complaint with the game besides the difficulty would probably be a question of taste. I simply donít like the cheesiness prevalent among many console games of having ďbossesĒ and such. They just donít make any sense in the game world usually, and they detract from the suspension of disbelief. I felt Halo was incredibly well done in this regard, in that it didnít need to resort to cheesy gimmicks like bosses in order to have tension and a stunning finale. Unfortunately, for a game so realistic in other regards, Yager falls a bit short here. While not as bad as most other console games, Yager still has quite a bit of the cheesy boss syndrome. For a game with bosses, they pull it off tastefully and comparatively realistically, but I still would have preferred a more creative approach towards building a climax.
While it may seem like I picked a lot of nits with this game, I actually heartily recommend it. I only picked these flaws out because I like the rest of the game so much. In a lesser game, these things might not have even made it into my list of flaws. As a flight combat game, Yager is in a genre that is under-represented on the Xbox, and itís a damn fine representative of the genre. If youíve been pining for a (fairly) realistic flight combat game with a compelling plot and dramatic graphics you should definitely give Yager a shot.