Gamers today are blessed with some amazingly powerful consoles, quite capable of things that were impossible just a few years ago. Unfortunately, along with such power comes a price. With the current wave of advanced boxes, were seeing record numbers of PC games being ported to home systems. No longer held back by inferior technology, more and more companies are seeing a new market for titles that were once only possible on thousand-dollar computer setups.

To borrow (and paraphrase) a famous saying: "Good game design is like pornography. I cant define it, but I know it when I see it."

In my experience, I generally dont see "it" when I look at PC games. While there are a handful of unquestionably excellent titles, there are scores upon scores of bug-ridden, shoddily programmed, loosely designed, malevolently difficult and inscrutably puzzling games that are partially redeemed only by plentiful cheat codes and the ability to save anywhere. Im not saying that console games are without sin, but in general they tend to be tighter, more focused and have a completely different relationship to the player than the majority of PC games.

Comparing the two is practically apples and oranges, really. Since I freely admit being a console gamer to the core, its pretty rare that I find a PC game thats worth spending time with. Savage Skies is a different kind of animal, however. Rather than call it a port, it might be a more appropriate reflection of the times to call it a hybrid. It retains heavy influences of its non-console origins, but it displays a different awareness of the expanding market along with a good amount of structure that appeals to console sensibilities.

Savage Skies is an aerial combat game that employs fantastic and frightening creatures instead of the usual military aircraft or sci-fi spaceships. The gist of the story is that an evil necromancer has usurped his king, and the kings soul splits into three pieces upon dying. Each of these soul fragments materializes as a powerful warrior fighting for a different faction in the kingdom, with the ultimate goal of conquering the other two in order to re-unify itself and retake the throne. You can choose to play as any of the factions, each one representing a different difficulty level. My personal favorite was the evil death-obsessed Pariah army (savage), but the bio-mutant Chrysalis swarm (hard) and knightly Virtwyn (easy) were equally enjoyable.

The game plays much like Namcos Ace Combat series, and shares a lot of the same energy. Control is tight, and works very well using the basic flight setup common to almost every title in the genre. Each steed has two different weapons ranging from defensive shields to fire breath or even poisonous vomit. The creatures also employ heat-seeking projectiles for minimal damage (to prevent "fire and forget" boredom) in addition to other pickups like floating mines or the super-powerful Decimator cannon.

Lighter mounts are capable of evasive loops and similar acrobatics.

Let me just say that I basically loved this game from the get-go. The first good sign was that there are 24 creatures in the game to pick from, though only three initially. After beating a stage, a new creature will be unlocked for use in any previous level. Unlike some games where the differences in vehicle performance are minor or trivial, the varying qualities of the creatures are stark and obvious. Looking at speed, agility, firepower and stamina, every mount is clearly distinguishable from the others. This is not only great design, but adds a lot of depth to the game. You may have to tough it out with the developers choice of creature the first time through a stage, but its very satisfying to come back and turn the tables on the enemies with one of the beefier monsters.

The variety in creatures was much appreciated, but it was nothing compared to the variety in gameplay. There were a small handful of "kill all enemy" levels, but the majority of them were unique with different objectives. One minute youre sneaking inside an enemy fortress, the next youre defending a caravan of airships from enemies. Switching viewpoints in the story was also great since you may defend a village for the Virtwyn, and then turn around and raze the same one for the Pariah. My favorite stage involved annihilating a huge floating biological fortress, but almost every goal was different enough that I never once got bored, even going through all three campaigns. Keep in mind that the creature you are initially assigned in each area might not match your style of play, so you have to be creative in planning out strategies and seeking holes in enemy defenses to capitalize on your creatures particular strengths. Marvelous.

To complement the satisfying objectives, the visual design of the assorted terrains and areas are extremely high-quality and look amazing. There are a number of ruins and castles in addition to murky swamps, pulsing lava reaches and some wide-open expanses set high among the clouds. With the huge size of the levels, there is a little fogging in extreme distances and some minimal pop-up, but never enough to distract or affect gameplay. iRock has done an excellent job of creating fantasy locales which not only convey the right amount of make-believe, but combine the right proportions of architecture, ground and open sky to make each stage interesting and entertaining.

Despite my obvious enthusiasm, Savage Skies does have its fair share of problem areas. None of the things Ive earmarked were enough to seriously rain on my parade, but theres definitely a bit of turbulence in the air. Fasten seatbelts.

A common error most PC games make is in the area of presentation and cohesion. What I mean by this is that its very common to see static loading screens or scrolling text instead of having uninterrupted transitions or cutscenes with character interaction. iRock makes this same mistake by skimping on the interstitial content, and its really too bad since theyve crafted an above-average story that could have been much more engaging. The action is great, but a little more immersion in the games world and characters would have been appreciated.

Another area where computer games tend to trip up are lopsided, poorly paced difficulty levels. In general, most missions here are balanced well, but there are a few stages where you simply have to shut the thing off and take a time-out. Its a bit frustrating to go from dispatching enemies with ease to getting the smack thoroughly and effortlessly laid down on you in the next level. It doesnt happen often, but there a few marathon stages where you can easily be picked off only seconds before completion. Others can be a little confusing in their layout, and the lack of mid-level checkpoints means that you have to try again from the beginning if you go down in flames. Its disappointing that the game throws some unpleasant curveballs like infinitely replenishing enemies or opponents that seem to appear out of nowhere, but the old standby of "trial and error" will eventually put you on top.

Looking at the technical aspects, the game lost points due to a number of rough edges, possibly due to a lack of familiarity with the PlayStation 2's hardware. For example, the framerate is stable, although its not as high as it should be. It doesnt jump erratically, but does tend to slow down evenly when indoors or when youre swarmed by flyers. The size of your character and his steeds are on the smallish side, too. Its good in the sense that you get a pretty clear view of your surroundings, but I think they could have upped the scale of your beast without compromising visibility. I also had problems with the poor quality of the audio. The game will sometimes give you spoken orders or prompts in the middle of a mission, but theyre often garbled or drowned out by the explosions, guitar and other random sound effects. Sometimes it seemed like they just cut out altogether. Lastly, its always annoying to be unable to reconfigure the controls to my liking. There are three or four setups to choose from, but none of them were optimal. In this day and age, a simple feature like that should be a given.

In total, Savage Skies is something of a surprise. While it doesnt completely leave its PC origins behind, its one of the first games of its kind to acknowledge the different needs and expectations of a console-oriented audience. Its fast-paced, fun, and has a lot of replay in the two-player versus and cooperative modes. Theres also a wealth of things to find and unlock, on top of superb mission diversity. Its too bad that a game with this much going for it will probably end up lingering silently on shelves before vanishing into the hall of underappreciated games. While its not as technically honed as other titles might be, do yourself a favor by overlooking the minor flaws and give it a chance—this is a bona-fide sleeper hit for fans of aerial combat.Rating: 8 out of 10

Brad Gallaway
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