Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge review

Exotic aeroplanes and giant zeppelins which sport the skull and crossbones leave little doubt that the history revisionist’s pen has been at work here. Fanciful machinery, styled much like that of television’s classic Wild Wild West series, cultivates a vision of the 1930’s that is ripe for adventure. Grab the bomber jacket, and get ready to relive the heyday of ‘big air’ piracy – as a swashbuckling barnstormer in Crimson Skies!

Ladies’ man, gambler, heroic adventurer… lead character, Nathan Zachary, sounds for all the world like a classic Errol Flynn type (well, except maybe for that forgettable name). In fact, Crimson Skies’ storyline reads almost like a textbook lesson in the classic melodramatic action/adventure film style, and works as well today as it did then. A few dramatic scenes keep the audience immersed; forming the perfect glue that binds together copious dollops of action.

Some alterations were made to the formulaic path of film, which helps the game establish its own identity. Nathan and his band of pirates, known as the Fortune Hunters, sail the high skies to adventure aboard an enormous zeppelin (which also serves as their mobile base of operations). In a nod to the increasingly open-ended convention popularised by titles like Grand Theft Auto, each area allows the simple freedom to just fly around if desired. Icons identify key areas of activity – offering repairs, opportunities to race or steal another plane, and missions that advance the storyline. A classic touch to the videogame pastiche comes in the form of collectibles scattered throughout each area (and needed to earn aircraft upgrades).This complex framework adds depth to a game that unashamedly makes action its main focus. In this case, the action consists of flying and shooting – indeed, lots of shooting. Twisting through the skies, struggling to get a bead on the enemy, is a thrill that everyone should get the chance to enjoy. That chance has arrived. Unlike the intimidating flight controls and physics of many airborne games, Crimson Skies allows anyone to pick up the controller and play like a seasoned pro.

Flight control requires little more than moving the left stick. Planes respond intuitively, instilling a sense of confidence even in novice fliers. Clever controls allow the layering-on of more sophisticated techniques without ever being mandatory to enjoying the game. Barrel rolls can be performed with the right stick, and buttons allow momentary increases or decreases in speed for manoeuvring. Spectacular aerial stunts bring dogfights to life; like the Immelmann or Split-S, but many would fail to recognise the terms, much less the technical how-to of implementing them. Assigning such moves to button combinations – much like in a fighting game – makes them accessible to everyone.Choosing which plane to pilot and exercise these controls may prove more difficult. Nathan’s “Devastator” model, available from the start, serves well enough throughout the game, and is interchangeable with a good selection of unlockable models. Well, not so much unlockable as attainable. How else would a “pirate” acquire more planes?

Excellent balance between planes attests to the benefit of an extended development cycle (Crimson Skies for Xbox is actually a user-friendly remake of a PC game from a couple of years ago). Varying combinations of speed, attack power and defense offer the right fit for a number of playing styles. As a result, anyone can find a favourite but not everyone finds the same one. Regardless of choice, these beautifully-realised flying machines deliver an impressive visual package. Screenshots can tell only half the story; special effects and lighting tricks play across the planes to vividly bring their flight to life. Neither was any expense spared with the environmental details, all lovingly work to sustain the illusion of being in the game. Spectacular skyscapes bring an unparalleled sense of depth too, and placed within a picture-perfect framework. Speaking of frames: as with many of the current generation of Xbox titles, graphical splendour does not impinge on the “smooth” operation – meaning framerates are silky-smooth throughout.

Ditto for the seamless translation to the Xbox Live multiplayer arena. As is becoming the norm for Live-enabled games, play is effectively complimented by smooth updates and imperceptible lag. After enjoying several rounds of straightforward dogfighting, Gamestyle uncovered some more in-depth offerings – along with the expected Capture The Flag variety, this included the hilarious Wild Chicken game. In this contest, each team tries to grab the wild chicken and bring it back to their base to score. Only five multiplayer levels ship with the game, and this somewhat detracts from the long-term playability. However, the prospect of downloadable levels could soon compensate for that.

Numerous airborne games have sought to bring the much-ballyhooed PC flight experience to consoles – with mixed results. Crimson Skies is not a flight simulator, but ultimately that is why it works so well as a game. Matching the console’s strengths with pick-up-and-play action, gorgeous graphics and appealing story, makes for an unqualified winner, and a title worthy of every Xbox owner’s library.