Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge
Our review of Crimson Skies is almost as delayed as the game was itself. We've finally taken it for a spin to see if Microsoft has come up with the goods.
Flight games have come a long way. Ever since videogames have existed, there have been titles that tried to encapsulate the pure freedom of motion that flight can offer. Each new hardware generation has brought with it the blueprints for satisfying this most primitive of yearnings, to be loosed from Newton's shackles, to soar unfettered through the air. For videogames, the issue of control has always been an issue, as developers struggled to reach that La-Z-Boy plateau, where everything just feels comfortable, unencumbered, right. Crimson Skies serves as a marker for games to come.
Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, to give it its full title, began development at FASA Studio in 2002. The process of redesigning the PC game released in 2000 was not a smooth one, with the Xbox title coming close to being cancelled and the lead producer leaving midway through the project while the game steamrolled passed its due date. This all resulted in an atmosphere of doubt, with naysayers snickering, schadenfreude at the ready, that Microsoft might have blown it this time around. Much to their chagrin, the company has proved them wrong.
The most stunning achievement in Crimson Skies is how easy it all is. Your first couple hours in the cockpit offer perhaps the most well-balanced learning curve in recent memory. What initially seems like a baffling array of airborne trickery, in the form of corkscrews, barrel-rolls, loops, etc., soon becomes second nature. When a well-tuned Red Skull Legion fighter comes screaming behind you, you won't think twice; you'll click in the right thumbstick, and then yank both thumbsticks back, spinning you round in a looping twist to face your would-be assailant head-on as you ready your guns to blast him out the sky. Maybe you'll let off a satisfied cackle, maybe not, but I can tell you this: you'll be grinning ear to ear.
There are many games that profess to offer tight, responsive controls, but closer inspection exposes the marketing lies. There's a certain romantic feeling that permeates the game, like when you're flying around the second level, the Arixo deserts of New Mexico, with the warm sunset in the background, and perfectly textured canyons beneath you. Gently moving the thumbstick sees you banking off to the side. This feeling is like a calm breeze, wafting serenely throughout the game.
Good controls are all well and good, but if they're besmirched by sub-par physics, it's pretty much all for nought. That's not an issue here though. Your craft reacts realistically to all scenarios, leaving me to shudder with delight imagining the prospect of using a force-feedback flight stick. Perhaps next time. It's especially exhilarating whenever you hit a flat spin and you tumble out of control, the ground getting ever closer. The sense of "being there" when you're performing all the aerobatics you've only seen in airshows is incomparable.
Surprisingly, a rather substantial portion of the game takes place outside of the well-worn leather seats of the barrage of aircraft on offer. Several missions demand you take the seat of anti-aircraft guns, either ground-based or on your zeppelin, to mow down incoming baddies. Yet despite how boring the concept sounds on paper, even these missions are fun to play. The variety of guns on offer means that you have several effective means at your disposal for obliterating all those foolish enough to enter your sight. Most of the time, you can hop out of your gun at will and take to the air to finish up any stragglers, so you're never tethered down for too long.
The game's world is the U.S. of an alternate post-Depression 1930s. Global economies have collapsed and the ensuing chaos resulted in the balkanization of the country. New countries with names like the Nation of Hollywood and the Industrial States of America have sprung up, and criminals have taken to the air, ushering in the age of air piracy. Locales are varied and detailed to excruciating degree, ensuring that you don't get bored of the scenery too quickly. Most exhilarating is Chicago, home to the requisite mobsters and tall industrial complexes, which teems with life and energy.
Despite the freedom of the controls, there's a very firmly placed story here. You are Nathan Zachary, a sort of 30s Batman-cum-Indiana Jones. After losing his fortune on the stock market, Nathan joins the Fortune Hunters, a successful pirate ring, in order to recoup his losses. Yes, since Nathan's a thief, you could technically paint him as a bad man, but like the real world, things aren't nearly so black and white. He's on the wrong side of the law in that cool, alluring kind of way.
The story, which unfurls via pre-rendered movies that intersperse missions, takes Nathan across the mid-West and West coast as he tries to find the killer of his friend and partner, Doc Fassenbiender. Along the way, there are a few side stories, which help solidify Nathan's character. The plot is hardly original, but that doesn't matter because it's done well. The supporting cast, while collectively interesting folk, aren't humanized nearly as well as Nathan, but enough so that you're genuinely interested in helping them out.
A common feature in games of the current generation is voice acting, though most of the time it's pretty abominable. Not so with Crimson Skies: solid performances by a host of seasoned voice talent round off a stunning presentation. You'll be hard pressed to find games that look substantially better than this one. Going hand-in-hand with the stunning graphics is a perfectly suited orchestral score. Again, the Indiana Jones theme resonates, at least in spirit. For a game that seemed beset with problems during development, the finished product is a remarkable achievement that stands as a testament to the ability of software developers to turn a project round successfully.
One of the big selling points for Crimson Skies is multiplayer via Xbox Live, and for good reason: online play is excellent. There are a number of modes to choose from, including straightforward dogfighting and capture the flag, but there are also additional modes with unique twists, like Chicken Run, a sort of dogfight meets soccer where points are awarded for either kills or scoring "goals" by flying an actual chicken into a goal area. Live integration is excellent, and dogfights in particular are thrill-a-minute fun. It's supremely exciting to pick a patsy out of the bunch (up to 16 players can take part) and tail him as he flits in desperation trying to avoid his demise. You can tackle multiplayer at any time, but if you've gone through the single player mode already, you'll have built up confidence in the flight controls, meaning that you only have to focus on gunning down your next target.
Crimson Skies is good. Scratch that. Crimson Skies is damn good. Every inch of the game exudes quality, from the pitch perfect controls to the gorgeous settings and soundtrack. A short, yet thoroughly enjoyable single player campaign is coupled with adrenaline-inducing multiplayer modes that'll keep you coming back again and again.
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E3 footage - Lots of shooting action, looking a million times better than this time last year.