It might be the in thing to bash Microsoft amongst computer users, but gamers know that the software giant deserves much more respect: It launched a successful gaming platform that is the most powerful console yet and it’s home to some of the most innovative and highly acclaimed titles of recent years. However, as their latest release, Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge, has shown, Microsoft is also determined to deliver high quality first party titles. After multiple redesigns, repeated team turnovers and numerous release date delays (all of which was captured in a Discovery Channel documentary), Crimson Skies has soared above this development turbulence and onto store shelves as an exemplary continuation of the cult PC title.
The setting of the Crimson Skies universe is one of the most unique concepts that gaming has seen in recent years. Set in an alternate history during the 1930s, Crimson Skies supposes two major changes to our world as we know it: The first is that America splintered into many separate nation-states following the global economic instability of the Great Depression. Secondly, Crimson Skies imagines that airplanes have become the most favored method of travel, much more so than automobiles (including Zeppelins-No Hindenburg here!), leading to an international dependence upon aviation for shipping, transportation and conflict. This new aerial freedom has also given rise to sky piracy, a sub-culture that, like naval brigands of old, roams the skies in pursuit of fame, wealth and adventure.
Players step into the bomber jacket of Nathan Zachary, infamous sky pirate and leader of the Fortune Hunters, a group of benevolent bandits. In true movie serial format, Nathan is a charming, “womanizing” rogue with a defined sense of right and wrong whose escapades often put him at odds with crime lords, mercenaries and other thugs. Even the opening scene seems like an Indiana Jones movie: Nathan wakes up from a wild night of partying and poker playing to a gun pointed in his face by a rival pilot, Thibodeaux. After reminding him about the loss of his zeppelin, the Pandora, Thibodeaux leaps into the cockpit of Nathan’s plane. Quickly chasing after the thief, Nathan grabs a hold of the plane’s wing as it takes off into the sky, and in true heroic fashion, ejects Thibodeaux from his aircraft by pulling the ripcord on his parachute. It may sound overdramatic with the description, but the scene plays out as if Spielberg himself had directed it.
This intro is actually a smooth transition into a quick training level, which explains how to pull off a number of acrobatic maneuvers, such as an Immelman or a Split S. You’ll also get a sense of your plane’s primary guns and secondary weapons before you take on your first enemy. Missions are scattered non-linearly through each level, and while most of the action consists of dogfighting, you’ll also engage in a number of escort, racing, assault and bombing run missions through various locations around North America. For some levels, staying in your plane will be enough to fend off incoming attacks, but some missions will require you to land and take advantage of anti-aircraft turrets or rocket launchers on trains, buildings or other structures. This provides an added twist of strategy, because pilots will have to decide if their aerial skills are better than their gunnery skills during major battles. Of course, as a pirate, you’ll constantly seek new conquest prizes, and Nathan can commandeer a number of various aircraft for his personal collection, all of which can be augmented to be faster, more powerful and more protected from enemy fire.
From the models of the planes to the individual character designs to the cutscenes, everything in Crimson Skies is simply amazing. Plane models, with their extreme angles and gun ports, accentuate the bizarre creations in this alternate history game. Cutscenes are particularly impressive, with fully expressive faces and accurate lipsynching. What’s more, Crimson Skies rendering of water is some of the best ever seen in this or any other title. Whether its firing bullets into it and watching the projectiles skip across the surface or simply admiring the sunset glinting off of it, you’ll fall in love with this element. You’ll also be impressed by the relative speed of the title without the hint of graphical slowdown, regardless of enemies that are on screen.
Sound is just as good as the graphics, with an orchestral soundtrack that tends to fade away as you’re searching the land looking for something to do, picking up during successful completion of missions or at the end of battles. This adds a great air of verisimilitude to the 1930s serial flair from the game, and makes you feel like you’re a swashbuckling pirate in the skies. Explosions and other sound effects are very nicely done, and unique based on each weapon. This means that a machine gun on the Devastator completely different than the distinct shotgun sound from the Bulldog, for example. Even better, the voice acting is perfect. Not only do the actors provide solid delivery on their lines during serious moments of the plot, but they also deliver a number of jokes and snide wisecracks.
Aside from the well-crafted plot, the intense action and the awesome atmospheric graphics and sound, Crimson Skies also features an incredible multiplayer experience. While it includes the standard deathmatch in the form of regular dogfights, you’ll also find typical fare such as team deathmatch, capture the flag, keep away and team keep away. The most unique multiplayer mode is something called Wild Chicken, an odd mix between a dogfight and Unreal Championship’s Bombing Run mode-only instead of carrying a ball, you carry a chicken to a goal to score points. With minimal lag occurring on even the slowest connections, this is where the replayability of the game shines through, and will keep you coming back since the developers plan on releasing updates through Xbox Live.
It may seem nitpicky, but while it’s almost hard to find faults with Crimson Skies, there are two possible ones that I can think of. The first, and possibly most stringent, of the two is the lack of returning to previous missions to attempt to find all available secrets or items. Crimson’s predecessor on the PC allowed you to play and replay missions that you’d passed, giving you the option to practice your skills or complete an adventure with a better score. However, once you’re done with a mission in the Xbox version, you’re done, which sucks if miss an aircraft in one stage and you’re looking to collect all the planes in the game. Secondly, you don’t have the option to save at all mid-level. While there some stages are rather short, there are some that are rather huge and expansive. I can’t count the number of times that I thought I’d reached either a checkpoint or a section that I’d thought the game would save, only to return to play the game a day later and discover that I needed to replay the entire mission.
However, these two issues aside, Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge is a masterpiece for the Xbox. Players should thank the gaming gods that Microsoft refused to release this game until it did the series justice. This is a game that no Xbox owner should be without, and you’ll probably wind up playing it over and over again. I simply have one request for Microsoft: Make more of these games! The Crimson Skies universe is way too rich to merely be restricted to only two titles, and if Microsoft could repeat their success with this game for future sequels, they’ll have a runaway franchise on their hands.