Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge Review

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Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Microsoft Game Studios (FASA Studios)

Platform: Xbox
Reviewed on Xbox

The United States isn't what it once might have been. Or ever will have been. Crimson Skies' alternate version of United States history demands convoluted verb tenses but pays off with a sweeping tale of adventure in the skies. A fractured United States has sealed its borders, making air travel the easiest way to get around. The rise of airborne shipping leads to the rise of airborne piracy, and our hero, Nathan Zachary, makes a fine living as a sky-bound swashbuckler. But when Zachary's old friend Dr. Fassenbiender is murdered, Zachary puts aside sport to find the killer, get revenge, and save civilization in time for brandy and cigars.

Rob de los Reyes

Xbox owners have a reason to crow again, and Microsoft has a new holiday champion for its Xbox Live! service. Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge offers a stylish and fresh single-player campaign, but it's the standout multiplayer gaming that's likely to drive sales both of Crimson Skies itself and the Xbox Live service. As satisfying as it is in its own right, the single-player game feels like a cinematic introduction to the real show – blasting your friends out of the sky in the multiplayer game. Both halves of the game are well worth your time, but it's the multiplayer portion that earns Crimson Skies a place in your permanent collection.

I Believe I Can Fly

The single-player campaign is a whirlwind of activity (a feature that turns out to be both a strength and a weakness). You play as Nathan Zachary, leader of the Fortune Hunters, a mercenary troop of crack pilots. An alternate history storyline drops you in the middle of a 20th Century in which the United States is fractured into smaller countries, as scared of each other as they are of the rest of the world. That world is, consequently, dominated by airplanes and zeppelins, the better to bypass terrestrial roadblocks. The story, like the dime store novels and radio shows it evokes, is an epic tale of derring-do and rakish charm. Melodramatic villains and their goon squads hound a cast of golden-hearted rogues, brassy broads and a femme fatale with legs that go all the way to the floor. Top notch graphics and a soaring musical score turn camp into high adventure. It's a shame there's no option to go back and re-watch the cinematics after you unlock them.

That sweeping story relentlessly drives the action. Perhaps too relentlessly at times. Level design takes a page from the Grand Theft Auto model – each level features a few missions scattered around an open map that you're permitted to pick up in an order of your choosing or, in some cases, skip altogether. Maps are also littered with special hidden tokens, so there's some reason just to fly around and explore the maps instead of heading straight from mission to mission. The trick is that completion of the main missions triggers advancement of the story, and you're never quite sure how many sub-parts there are to the main mission on each level. As a result, if you don't get all your side missions completed, find all the tokens, and pick up all the planes before you settle in for the main mission, it's easy to unwittingly trigger a new chapter. Since you can't go back to replay a just-completed level, you might (as I did) accidentally miss picking up a new airplane and be without it for the remainder of the game.

In other words, you're rather less free than it might seem at first glance. Perfectionist players will grit their teeth at being unable to replay missions and levels for a chance to improve their performance. But if you're able to let go of the need to do everything with 100% efficiency, it becomes easy to appreciate the way such design keeps the story coherent and moving. Although the single-player campaign is on the brief side, it nevertheless has a just-the-right-length feel. Each level is highly distinctive, not only in terms of its stunning appearance, but also in terms of the tasks you're asked to perform, ranging from attacks on giant, steam-punk boss monsters to straight-up dogfights to – get this – a dungeon crawl. These tasks rely perhaps a little too heavily on fixed gun emplacements and a mini-gyro (the one helicopter-like vehicle at your disposal) for a game pointing to the glory of the gentleman flier, but, since there's often more than one right way to go about things, you certainly have the option to be a stickler for theme.

Shoot a Friend in the Six (He'd Do It to You)

Right length or no, and splendid or not, ten to fifteen hours of single-player game may not be enough to get some gamers past the rental counter. Where Crimson Skies earns a purchase is in the multiplayer component. In particular, Crimson Skies is a first-rate Xbox Live game. You can, of course, play via local system link or split screen, but it's in the frenzy of a sixteen-person Live! game that the elegant simplicity of the whole experience becomes clear. The game modes are nothing terribly new – deathmatch variants, capture and hold-type games, etc – but they don't have to be. What's compelling about Crimson Skies multiplayer is not its originality but its execution.

The airplanes are well-designed with an eye to the "cool" factor, and they perform differently enough that most gamers develop a bond with one plane over the others. Happily, not every plane in the arsenal is chosen with equal frequency, nor is everyone attached to the same plane. That attachment, that feeling of growing expertise with your weapon of choice is a compelling reason to play. So too, are the arcade-style controls and flight model. The arcane world of realistic flight simulation certainly has a place in the gamer's pantheon, but the arcade emphasis here (complete with pre-configured stunt moves) makes Crimson Skies every bit as accessible as a run-of-the-mill shooter. Accessible, but not necessarily easy. Some people are going to be just plain better than you, and it won't be luck or random button-mashing that makes them so. In brief, Crimson Skies delivers that easy-to-learn, hard-to-master gameplay that keeps you coming back.

As good as it is, a little bit more control over the game setup might make Crimson Skies even better. A button to auto-divide players into equal teams would save the ridiculous three-minute Dance of the Switching Flags that precedes each battle. Also, it would be nice to be able to restrict game elements like plane selection and the use of anti-aircraft guns. Neither the AA guns nor any particular plane model is especially unbalanced in play, but some things just aren't cricket. The Piranha's secondary weapon freezes a plane's controls, and too many of these planes in a single game can be frustrating. So too is the ability to escape death by taking refuge at the last second in an AA turret. Having the option to exclude these things would be welcome. The ability to restrict planes could also open the door to goofy things like an all-gyro match or otherwise restricting the toughest planes in favor of a match where people get a chance to use planes that don't otherwise hold up well amidst the stronger aircraft.

All that could come, and, in the meantime, its absence shouldn't dissuade you from hopping in the cockpit at the earliest opportunity. If you've been saving up some "points" you earned with your significant other, now might be the time to spend them on a new Xbox Live! connection.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 27, 2003 8:31 PM.

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