It’s the 1920s. The USA is gone, split into regional nation states and the militias formed to defend each region haven’t stopped fighting each other. Roads, railways and bridges have been demolished, leading to airplanes and zeppelins replacing cars and trains. As the nations make war in the air, so too have air militias and air pirates taken to the skies to seek and steal fortunes. Nathan Zachary – your alter ego – is a Great War veteran and leader of the Fortune Hunters. You glide through the sky in your zeppelin, the Pandora, launching operations from it as you go. Thus we enter the world of Crimson Skies.
Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is – as you’ve probably guessed – an air combat game and focuses around several main gameplay elements; dogfighting, stealing planes, utilising anti-aircraft emplacements and robbing other zeppelins. The plot, which I won’t spoil for you, takes you through various regions in which you launch mission from your mobile mothership, the Pandora. The game is open-ended, but keeps you on track as far as the storyline goes. When you reach a new region, you’re allowed to explore it, stealing planes, racing fellow flyers and picking up missions as you go. Most of the time you can come back to the Pandora to repair your plane, and if not, garages provide a quick fix service for a charge. During missions, you’re still allowed to interact with the environment; landing to man an AA gun or to repair your plane. AA guns are extremely useful when you’re outnumbered or outgunned, allowing you to concentrate fire on enemy planes for a short period of time.
The planes themselves handle like the ships in Rogue Squadron games, with the left analogue stick used for climbing, diving and banking. The right stick rolls the aircraft and pressing down on the stick while in combination with the left stick results in special moves. These special moves are tight rolls, twists and turns which allow you to quickly get on top of the enemy planes in a dogfight. Planes come in three types; Dogfighters, Interceptors and Zep-Killers. Each covers a handful of planes with each type having distinct advantages and disadvantages. All planes can be upgraded in the Pandora for a price, that is if you manage to steal them and take them back there. The planes look great, obviously inspired by the Star Wars movies, various historic planes and of course, pirates. Arrrr! Ahem.
Dogfighting is relatively simple, as you’d imagine. Each plane has a primary weapon and a secondary weapon. The former is your main weapon and is usually a set of machine guns which have an infinite supply of ammunition – very useful. The latter usually starts off as missiles and can be upgraded to a more potent weapon, such as a Fireball Cannon or Rocket Swarm. They’re as good as they sound. In addition to pointing your plane at enemy planes and pulling the trigger, there’s a turbo function which when activated zooms your plane along as far as the fuel allows. Dogfights can last anywhere from five seconds to a minute, and that’s when it’s only one-on-one. Most missions see you in battles against five or more enemy planes at once so you’ll need to check your ‘six’ constantly. Dogfighting is the core component of the gameplay and I’m pleased to report that it’s damn good fun.
During your travels you’ll visit around different regions, starting in the beautiful Sea Haven, a lush island settlement in the Nation of Hollywood. Arixo is next, run by Indians of the same name. A desert hangout for pirates, it consists of what used to be Arizona and New Mexico. Chicago, in the Industrial States of America is packed with shimmering skyscrapers, planes and elevated trains. Its narrow streets make flying a hair-raising experience to say the least. Finally, the Lost City is a mysterious abandoned settlement with a maze of tunnels and chambers. Although the level count is relatively low, the variety is excellent and the missions are a pleasing assortment of assault, defend and dogfight tasks.
Fighting A.I. planes is bound to get boring eventually, so the developers have included three multiplayer modes. Split screen allows up to four players to fight side by side on one TV, System Link lets you connect two Xboxes together and Xbox Live raises the bar to 16 player matches online. All three have the same gameplay modes; Dogfight, Team Dogfight, Flag Heist, Keep Away, Team Accumulate and Wild Chicken. The first three should be self-explanatory, while Keep Away and Team Accumulate sees individuals and teams respectively trying to hold onto an artifact for as long as possible. Wild Chicken has both teams fighting to kill – you guessed it – a chicken! It sounds mad, and indeed it is, but it adds a bit of spice to the otherwise unoriginal game modes.
Of course, unoriginal doesn’t mean unenjoyable. Fighting against real people on Xbox Live has got to be one of the game’s highlights, especially if you find a 16 player, lag free session. The usual features have been incorporated – voice communication, Quick Match, Optimatch, Create Game, Friends List, Stats, Download Content – with the usual seamless interface that we’re seeing with all Live games these days. The variety of game modes and wealth of features makes online play what it should be – user-friendly and fun.
Graphically, Crimson Skies is impressive, with detailed planes shimmering in the morning sun, enemy aircraft exploding in arching clouds of smoke and debris. The scenery is beautifully done, each region having its own distinct atmosphere and landscape. Buildings are equally striking, especially in the Chicago level where the sun glints off each skyscraper with a distinct glare. Cutscenes are also extremely good and convey the singleplayer plot effectively. The game suffers no slowdown whatsoever and the framerate remains high throughout, even when the skies are swarming with planes. The audio is suitably themed, the dramatic score and decent sound effects complementing the action perfectly. All in all, Crimson Skies is one of the best presented titles out there, and that’s no easy accomplishment.
Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is one of those games that does pretty much everything right but isn’t really revolutionary in any way. However, the game mechanics are well thought out, the storyline is decent and dogfighting is great fun. Oh, and it’s got pirates in. If you haven’t got Xbox Live yet, then it’s still worth your money for the singleplayer and the offline multiplayer modes alone. For Xbox Live owners though, it’s really an essential purchase. At the end of the day, Crimson Skies‘ fast and furious gameplay, excellent graphics, top-notch presentation and lengthy lifespan make it a great all-round package and one of this winter’s must-have games on Xbox.