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Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

Review By:  Nick Arvites

Developer:  FASA Studios
Publisher:  Microsoft
# of Players:  1-4 (1-16 Link & Live)
Genre:  Action
ESRB:  Teen
Online:  Yes
Accessories:  System Link, Xbox Live (online play, DL content, scoreboards), In-game Dolby Digital, HDTV 480p
Date Posted: 

11-19-03

The tale of Crimson Skies twists back to almost the launch of the Xbox Live service. Originally intended to be one of the original titles, it was eventually delayed several times and even almost cancelled. Now, after at least one development team and multiple delays, Crimson Skies has finally arrived. Was this title worth the wait and the positive hype, or did it crash and burn?

The Crimson Skies universe may seem confusing to someone new to the series. Crimson Skies takes place in an alternate 1930s. In this time period, the United States started to splinter with prohibition and finally disintegrated after the stock market crash. Regions of the United States are now independent countries. This led to the destruction of interstate railroads and road travel, and led to the rise of air. Zeppelins are now the major transport device used in this world, and people use planes more than cars or trucks. Air power is the main tool of the militaries in this world, and each country has its own air force. However, criminals soon took to the air to also gain power. These air pirates can range in effect from the petty bandits you encounter in the former Southwest to the Chicago-based organized crime head Jonathan “Genghis” Kahn. This is where you come in. Players take the role of Nathan Zackary, leader of the pirate group “Fortune Hunters.” Using their Zeppelins, the Fortune Hunters launch raids to further their gain. This does not mean that players assume the role of a bloodthirsty, ruthless criminal. The Fortune Hunters can easily be compared to the Crimson Skies equivalent of Robin Hood. The Crimson Skies product line originally started off as a tabletop role-playing game from the creators of Battletech/Mechwarrior. It eventually spawned a somewhat technical PC flight simulator titled “Crimson Skies” and followed the adventures of Nathan Zackary. After FASA games went under, the license was sold off to Wizards of the Coast, who started to make a collectable figures game based on the universe.

After that brief history lesson of the franchise, gamers need to remember the following about this title. It is not a flight simulator. There. I said it. While the PC game released a few years ago was a flight simulator in every aspects, Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is not. There are no in-cockpit viewpoints, nor are there all sorts of technical and physical limitations. The game was designed with action as the primary focus, and the developers intelligently decided that gamers shouldn’t have to memorize a 500 page flight manual (as seen in the PC’s Falcon 5.0 series) to have fun. If anything, this game plays much like the Rogue Squadron series. While you do have stalls every once in a while, and you do have different planes with different abilities, players do not have to worry about rudders, elevators, G-force, gun ammo or structural limitations of the planes. The differences in this game and the PC counterpart are similar to the ones present between the MechAssault and Mechwarrior games.

With this in mind, the control scheme is designed to be easy to learn and tough to master. The game uses a dual thumbstick control mode. The left stick steers the plane, while the right stick controls rolling. In order to perform some aerial acrobatics, you click on the right thumbstick and point the two sticks in a certain direction. These automatic tricks will do perfectly fine during the single-player campaign, but don’t expect to get too much success by relying on them heavily during Xbox Live. Using the right thumbstick properly gives a more precise control over the plane and allows for some tight and responsive flight tactics. The right trigger fires the primary weapon (guns). This weapon has unlimited ammunition, so don’t worry about conserving. The left trigger fires the secondary weapon. These weapons range from rockets to magnetic missiles to the telsa cannon (lightning). The X button allows you to switch into a different plane, or an AA gun, or activate missions. The Y and B buttons control turbo boosts and brakes respectively. The A button zooms in for the AA guns/Gyrocopter and switches to the rear guns on the Brigand.

This game looks beautiful. The worlds are actually alive, complete with air-traffic, other zeppelins, and living cities. Over the course of the game, players venture through the southwest, an island in the pacific, Chicago, and South America. Each environment looks amazing, and there are even weather effects like fog, sun-glare, and rain. The planes and Zeppelins look great, as do the cities. Even with the intense graphics, Crimson Skies still runs extremely fast and smooth. There are absolutely no slowdowns, which really helps the game’s fast-paced action.

Missions set up similar to Grand Theft Auto or Tony Hawk 4. Players arrive on a stage and are free to explore the stage. Generally, there will be an initial even that the players are thrust into (shoot down something, protect something, etc), but after that, players have to discover missions for themselves. There is one major thing that you have to do on each stage, but there are several other missions you can undertake in order to earn money. You can race against a clock to win bets, earn money stealing cargo and running stolen goods, and earn money by helping clear bandits. Sure, there aren’t tons of missions like in Grand Theft Auto 3, but this makes the game much less linear and allows people to either explore every little thing or just fly through the missions by achieving the required goals.

Players only start off with one plane, but they almost immediately gain access to a new one. New planes need to be found throughout the game on the various maps. Some will be practically handed to you, while others are located in more obscure places. The planes all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some planes are Zeppelin killers. These move slowly and have the same turning radius as the Titanic, but have the heaviest armor and pack the most firepower. Interceptors are extremely fast, but sacrifice most of the armor and some of the firepower for this advantage. Dogfighters are the all-around general workhorse of the game. Your starting plane, the Devastator, is a dogfighter. It is balanced in every category (speed, firepower, agility, and armor) and can be used in all roles. There are two other planes: a seaplane and a gyrocopter. There are a few missions that require a gyrocopter, but there are very few uses for the seaplane. In all honesty, until I started playing on Xbox Live, I was only using the Devastator in the single player missions unless I was forced to use a different plane. The main reason why you should change up the planes is to use a different special weapon. You cannot change the special weapons or the regular weapons on the plane. This lack of customized features is sure to disappoint crossover fans of the PC game (which featured a build-your-own plane mode), but it does allow it to be kept simple and somewhat balanced in the online arena. One of the few problems with this title is found in the planes. MechAssault got around the issue of a limited number of planes by having alternate configurations. Crimson Skies only gives one set of planes with one set of configurations. Hopefully, this issue is resolved with content downloads, but as of now, players will have to deal with the selection of planes available.

The crown jewel of Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is the Xbox Live multiplayer options. Unlike many other games, this one allows users to take a guest on the Xbox Live service. Aside from Mech Assault, I cannot think of another title that contains this feature. This adds another dimension of playing with a local friend, since you no longer have to fight only each other. The game modes are Dogfight (deathmatch), Team Dogfight, Keep-Away (where you grab an artifact and must hold it for a certain length of time), Team Keep-Away, Flag Heist, and Wild Chicken (some sort of hybrid of all the other modes). While these may sound like standard multiplayer modes, they become far more enjoyable because Crimson Skies allows up to 16 players to fly against each other online. This shear amount of players makes the games far more interesting and harder for one player to dominate. There are only five maps available for multiplayer: Chicago, Arixo, Sea Haven, the Lost City (completely enclosed ruins), and the Windy City (nighttime, partially destroyed Chicago in the middle of a storm). The initial selection of maps may seem small, but the action is intense enough to make this lack of maps forgivable. Besides, the promise of downloadable content in a few months will eventually deliver new maps and planes. There is very little lag during sessions and the only technical problems with the online component of Crimson Skies are very minor. The voice chat features are not really up-to-par with some of the other titles. The voice does tend to turn off during full 16 player games, and it seems very cracky and distorted when it is on. However, given the choice between very small amounts of lag and clear voice, I’ll go with the almost lag-free games every time. The online menus and lobby system has an untouched feel to it. While they do contain the standard Quickmatch and Optimatch selections, the menu system does not allow you to see how many people are in a certain game. A network status light is also absent. There is also a glitch when returning to the lobby after a match. The game will reserve a slot for everyone who played in the last match, regardless if they leave or not. In order to fix this, the host needs to go in and manually change the slots to open. It’s a minor glitch, but it can wreak hell on the servers if the host doesn’t know about this glitch.

The online community is evolving quite nicely. Unlike MechAssault, where matches have eroded to Ragnaroks fighting Ragnaroks, Crimson Skies players generally play with a nice mix of planes. There really are no clear favorites, although most newbies prefer the Devastator, and many of the top ranked players are flying Dust Devils or Bulldogs. Personally, I prefer the speedy Coyote. The only plane that really isn’t used is the Brigand. The Brigand, while being the most powerful plane, is just a sitting duck. Crimson Skies contains a ranking system that rates players based on their performance. The basic principle is to kill more times than you die. Rankings are on a star system. One dot is the lowest rank, and then you gain up to four dots as you perform better. After four dots, users gain a large star. This ranking system allows players to see the general skill of the people they’re playing against, and this feature is good for newbies trying to find an easy game to cut their teeth as well as for experts trying to find a game appropriate of their skills. The scoreboards track rankings for each of the individual game types and for the overall score throughout all of the games, and ranks it based on Weekly, Monthly, and All-time.

Highs:

  • Multiplayer
  • Awesome story
  • Graphics
  • Action

Lows:

  • Minor glitches
  • Needs more planes
  • Needs more multiplayer maps

Final Verdict: 

On its own, Crimson Skies is a rental. The story is good, but it isn’t that good. However, the true strength is in the online multiplayer. This game is the epiphany of what Microsoft wanted to accomplish with the Xbox Live service. If you own Xbox Live, you need to own this game because it justifies the entire service. Any of the minor flaws are made up by the pure greatness of the online play modes. Mech Assault used to be the premier action title on Xbox Live. Move over MechAssault, Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is the new king of action on Xbox Live.

Overall Score: 9.9

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