Hop into the cockpit and take to the blue yonder over the devastated landscape of a fictional 1937 America in Crimson Skies. Although well known for detailed, realistic flight simulators, Microsoft takes a slightly more arcade-style approach to flight combat in this release, with an emphasis on fast, furious dogfighting over the realistically sophisticated control schemes found in the Microsoft Flight Simulator titles.
As the notorious air pirate Nathan Zachary, players will defend their airspace from attacks by rival bandits. Zachary flies solo or leads his squadron of privateers through several objective based missions and is always on the lookout for new technology and fighter designs that will help to keep his team on top.
Up to 11 different models of aircraft become available to players over the course of the game. A detailed storyline, supported by mission-specific air chatter and cinematic cut scenes, fleshes out the plot and provides the context and motivation for Nathan Zachary's heroic exploits.
Sometimes, sitting down and paging through an encyclopedia-sized manual, working out complex controls, and going through countless technical details can be a rewarding process in a flight sim. Sure, everyone has wondered what it would be like to fly a lumbering 747 into the horizon or comprehend the intricate nuances of an F-18's computerized systems, and games that allow that hold a definite place in the gaming world. Crimson Skies, however, is not content to simulate anything. The planes are original, the history is masterfully skewed, Zipper Interactive's intense aerial action title doesn't create a realistic view into flying - it creates an experience far more memorable through storytelling, atmosphere and a combat flight model that may not score high on realism, but never fails to succeed in providing pure pulpy PC gaming fun.
Crimson Skies puts you in control of dashing air pirate Nathan Zachary. This protagonist is an over-acted bundle of radio drama clichés, yet it is clear the corniness of catch phrases ("Well, that was the cat's meow!") and certain overdone bravado in the voice acting is entirely intentional and part of the over-the-top heroic feel the game maintains throughout its 24 missions. The world of Crimson Skies is an engaging and original one. Set in an alternate timeline in the 1930s, the United States have become fragmented into multiple territories after sickness and economic collapse. Zeppelins become the prominent transportation with the railroads and highways unable to be coordinated between the many states.
Piracy is reborn as multiple gangs of air bandits coordinate daring attacks on precious cargo. As Nathan Zachary, a man with a complicated past and a yearning for glory and riches, you lead the Fortune Hunters - a group of pirates with nerves of steel (usually) and personalities straight out of some pulp radio show. With frighteningly close escapes, tense duels between long-time rivals, romances on the battlefield and unforgettable rescues above the city skyline, Crimson Skies' intensity level doesn't trail off until the credits roll when it's all over.
The story is told through two ways: occasional black-and-white cutscenes featuring more of the excellent, if cheesy, voice acting the game is rich with, and an innovative scrapbook updated after each mission with telegrams, newspaper clippings and the occasional scantily clad pin-up girl you just saved or fought against. Further events unfold in the battles themselves as rivals exchange heated words ("Take that, you monkey!") and puberty-stricken crewman Sparks squeaks a panicky warning as more enemies approach.
The CS setting is actually adapted from a FASA board game, so Zipper had a lot to work with to add depth to the already excellent combat engine. Planes of all varieties are available, from the sluggish but loaded Warhawk bomber to the maneuverable all-around fighter Devastator (which looks like some kind of WWI X-wing prototype). The aircraft handle uniquely and vary in carrying capability, gunner ports and overall design, and further customization is added by the option to tune up your plane with whatever you can cram into its payload plus a custom paint job free of charge. The zeppelins play multiple roles, serving as your willing prey in some missions or as opposing capital ships in others. Each airship is bristling with turrets in between the large vulnerable propeller engines that beg to be torn apart with your .50s. There are multiple ways to turn the aerial juggernauts into Hindenburg recreations, and you'll have to utilize them all over the course of the campaign, and somehow, watching the hulking airbags drop amidst the cheers of your wingmen after a perfect shot with an aerial torpedo connects never fails to satisfy.
Missions have a fair amount of variety in their objectives and certain levels take already mastered concepts a step further, i.e. rescue someone on the ground in an early mission and later rescue someone on top of an exploding blimp above a city with seconds to spare while dodging fire from a squadron of rival pirates. Stunt flying, zeppelin-to-zeppelin combat and straight-out dogfights all are seen within the game, and the "Instant Action" mode adds replayability by allowing you to custom-create a mission with objectives tailored to your wishes. Difficulty is perfect, as earlier missions take little skill and later ones will have you mashing the replay button in frustration as you challenge yourself to improve and take down that zeppelin 10 seconds faster so you can make it in time to save the girl, etc.
Everything culminates in a perfect grand finale that I'll spare description of so as not to spoil anything, but there seems to be no lull in the action through the entire campaign. The locations begin in mostly featureless areas like a Hawaiian jungle but also touch in places designed for maximum daring value like an infamous Hollywood movie set, complete with pyramids, a miniature New York and a vast studio lot complete with defenses galore. For the expert barnstormer, danger zones are an added incentive to replay missions. Flying through areas like the "O" in the Hollywood sign or under two fallen trees just above the forest floor score an automatic snapshot for your scrapbook as well as the occasional praise from your comrades. Risks are encouraged and the arcade-like flight mechanics are fairly forgiving, with stalls being negligible and turns fast and sharp. The weaponry doesn't disappoint, with four types of basic ammo and a vast selection of gadgetry to be fired from the hardpoints mounted on your plane.
The visual presentation of Crimson Skies succeeds in conveying the atmosphere with excellent plane models and decent in-game cutscenes but falters some on the terrain itself. Urban levels obviously have limitations as to how much can be on the screen at once, but even with viewing distance turned to maximum, the pop-up effect is strange and disorientating as many buildings will only appear at not only a certain proximity but a certain altitude too. Prominent skyscrapers can still be seen and fog effects help to hide the pop-up on other levels, and the detail seems fine when one gets close enough to the ground, so overall the minor graphical complaints really don't detract from the game much. Unfortunately, even with the options toned down some, the minimum system requirements are questionable, as even high-end PCs labor in some of the more city-like maps and flying close to a zeppelin can sometimes bring about a bit of choppiness. Crimson Skies' graphics may not be the most impressive to grace store shelves (800x600 is the maximum resolution), but there's nothing particularly wrong with them. Chances are you'll be more concerned with getting a bloodthirsty air pirate off your back than doing tests to optimize your framerate anyway.
Sound adds to the overall feel of Crimson Skies perfectly. The music has a certain heroic zest to it and sound effects are up to par, but it's in the voices that the game really shines. Even the common nameless enemy squadron member doesn't go down without a taunt or prohibition-era curse or both. The constant chatter between you and your Fortune Hunters and challenges from the enemies add a certain life to the game that makes it feel more like you're dogfighting real opponents with real motives and not just firing at bits of code. The mission briefings are just like a radio show with lots of suspense and laughable little puns all acted out as a chart of the upcoming mission unfolds. At first, the pulpiness of it all seemed to be a bit of a turn-off but by the end I found the voices had really grown on me and I could recognize my teammates and foes alike by their audio personalities.
Multiplayer has a variety of game modes, ranging from plain old aerial Quake-type fragfest deathmatch to zeppelin warfare and of course the necessary capture the flag. Balance is a little iffy, as can be seen by the thousands of "turrets sux0r!!!!" posts littering all Crimson Skies message boards and the testimonies of players that planes with automatic turrets give an unfair advantage, but the fact is that there is no one best plane and a variety of aircraft are used in games played over Microsoft's Gaming Zone. Games are fairly easy to get into currently and all the modes of online play are very tolerable latency-wise even with a modem connection. The Zone does have occasional stability problems, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any online gaming service for free that doesn't have its share of issues, and the fact that I could get into game after game consistently as long as I picked ones with decent pings is encouraging. More than some thought-out sim, CS multiplayer has the style of an aerial FPS, and for action gamers wanting a quick adrenaline rush that's usually a positive thing.
Crimson Skies has action, it has adventure, and it has... bugs. Yes, sadly, the RNPL (Release Now, Patch Later) plague has afflicted this otherwise almost flawless game. The only reason such bugs do not lower my opinion of this game is that Microsoft QA has been very attentive in rectifying the problems as soon as possible and Zipper Interactive has held dev chats on the Zone in which they promised near-future fixes for some of the less fatal flaws. One extremely crippling bug the game shipped with was a nasty tendency to wipe save games when custom planes were made or multiplayer games were entered. A small download makes this problem non-existent now. The only real other irritating bug (and yes, it's been admitted to be a bug) is the extreme loading time and slowness between menus. While hitting replay after dying in a mission takes a while to reload the level, such a waiting time seems appropriate, if a bit irritating. The obscene time between menus, on the other hand, struggles to find justification. To merely go into simple option settings provides an annoying wait. It may seem like a minor complaint, and truthfully, it is, since this didn't prevent me from highly enjoying this game. Hopefully a fix will be out for this soon as promised.
A final reminder: Flight sim enthusiasts, either temporarily forget your quest for the perfect flight model or go elsewhere. The rest of you, don't pass up this title. Crimson Skies puts gameplay first and realism second, and the end result is one of the most playable free-flying objective-based action games since the classic TIE Fighter. Undoubtedly one of the best releases of 2000, Crimson Skies will provide hours of thrills, spills, and the occasional erased save-game (patch before you get anywhere!). With a fast-paced storyline, a strong atmosphere, intense gameplay and a high fun factor, the only thing Crimson Skies needs to make me happy is a sequel.
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