It seemed the odds were against us. Within seconds, a squadron of Dopplegangers, Bulldogs and Piranha-class aircraft would arrive on our territory. Their only purpose: to wipe us out of existence. This wasn't going to be a picnic in the park. Our unit consisted of a dozen hand-picked pilots. Most of which were still wet behind the ears, fresh out of the academy. I couldn't shake the possibility that some of them might not be coming home.
At least we had the Coyote, piloted by Jake Logan, perhaps the most remarkable pilot among the entire air force. I could see the perimeter just up ahead and my wingmen broke formation, preparing to commence the attack on my order. There wasn't any time for self-doubt. Either we'd all pull through this together, or the enemy would be sending us to our graves.
It looks like we were about to find out...
If Halo is to be considered the pinnacle of first-person shooters, then Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge definitely has set the standard for console flight-based action shooters. Not to mention, it's deceptively addicting. There are games you play when you have the time, and games you make time for; Crimson Skies is a game you rearrange your life around. Since its release, I've already went several days playing the game for an extensive period of time (in fact, twice I haven't made time to sleep until later in the evening.) Pat Schreiber, key programmer for FASA Studio put it best when he said that Crimson Skies would be remembered as "that online dogfighting game." Judging by the current interest and fanfare it's received, Pat's statement is right on target.
Reminiscent of a classic Hollywood flick, Crimson Skies is a tale of adventure, destruction, and oh yes - lots of aerial combat. Set in an alternate reality circa 1930, America has fallen to the Great Depression and has split into 20 feuding countries. With the economy in shambles, once heavily supported by the railroad industry, the regional states take an aggressive position in the skies. Although this breeds a renewed opportunity for transport and commerce, it also gave birth to piracy and greed. Enter Nathan Zachary, a pirate whose personality can be likened to Han Solo with an Indiana Jones complex. With his inner circle of friends, Nathan sets out to even the odds for the underdog and make a little money on the side. But the quest for prosperity won't be easy as he soon learns of a secret weapon which could destroy everything that he aspires to protect.
Essentially, the single player mode is composed of story-specific missions that you must complete to make some dough. Typically the missions require you to destroy a certain rival group, protect a resource station or something along those lines which requires your heroic efforts. The bottom line is that you'll be flying around blowing stuff up (and loving it…I do.) Initially you'll start out with Nathan's personal craft - the Devastator (up to 10 planes in total can be acquired as you progress throughout the game.) Each plane varies in maneuverability, speed and firepower. As your funds increase, you can upgrade the abilities of your craft, transforming them into formidable warbirds to be reckoned with. Players can also execute a variety of aerial maneuvers using the twin analog sticks simultaneously. More specifically, you'll need to click on the right analog stick, then tap up or down in conjunction with the left analog stick. Commands can vary from tapping both sticks up, down, left, right, or in opposite directions. It took me some adjustment and as a result, so initially I had the habit of stalling my craft. Practice often so you don't end up becoming a casualty of war (or frustration).
Naturally, since this IS a combat-based game, you're going to take damage just as much as you can dish it. Thus you'll need to pick up ammo and health to replenish your plane's resources. Although you can find a few selectively deposited through each area, destroying enemy craft or dropping by service station is more effective. The HUD is composed of a few helpful visual monitors including your current objective, radar, armor, secondary weapon and targeting brackets. Out of all the elements on the HUD, I found the radar to be the most misleading at times, since it fails to give you an accurate location of your enemy's altitude and location. Thankfully, there's also an enemy camera which can be activated at any time pressing the black button.
Unlike most objective-based games, Crimson Skies isn't hindered by linear gameplay. FASA Studios endeavored to deliver the most diverse, enjoyable experience possible. As a result, the single-player mode features a variety of side-quests which players are welcome and encouraged to explore as money-making endeavors. You'll find a recurring example of this with the "time trial" quest, challenging players to wager their earnings to earn bigger payoffs by achieving new records respective to the current level.
Speaking of which, Crimson Skies is visually splendid and detailed. There's so much to marvel, whether it's the surreal lighting effects striking your plane, the glistening sparkle of the ocean, or the rich textures defining the mountain canyons in Arixo. But don't get too caught up with admiration with danger lurking around every corner.
I must admit that in all its excellence, the single-player mode pales in comparison to the level of excitement, replay value and challenge offered in abundance through the multiplayer online modes. Players can select from 1 of 5 modes: Dogfight, Team Dogfight, Keep Away, Flag Heist and Wild Chicken. After dabbing sampling a bit of each, I ended up enjoying the first aforementioned modes the best. Keep Away simply doesn't appeal to me, simply because I hate running away from my opposition (I want to destroy them) Flag Heist which takes a cue from the traditional pastime "Capture the Flag"); which also disinterested me quite a bit (perhaps I'll explore it more when I am bored.) Wild Chicken level is mildly amusing and I've found some players actually expressed fondness for it as well. However, it's still no substitute for the level of enjoyment I get from the traditional dogfighting modes and blowing enemies out of the sky.
It's not critically vital that you hone your skills through the offline mode, but you'll discover that the practice and research will make your game stronger and thus - become a forced to be reckoned with. Originally, I started out with the Piranha because I didn't know any better. Its secondary weapon is equipped with a deadly electromagnetic pulse which immobilizes anything within its proximity (that would include your allies, so be sure to take precaution before liberally firing at will). Much to my chagrin, online competitors dismissed my abilities as nothing more than a hopeless novice. Apparently, any newcomer that doesn't know any better typically uses that craft as a means to acquire easy kills (usually followed by unwelcome boasting). I sampled nearly every craft before I was helped to discover the advantages of the Coyote. Its secondary weapon emits a fiery burst which immediately ignites your targets ablaze. But what's especially effective about this weapon is the fact the target will continue to incur damage (up to 40% if I am not mistaken), resulting in a gradual loss of armor integrity. Combine that with a volley of standard bullets and it's only a matter of time before your opponents realize that they've exploded and have to start again.
Like all Xbox Live compatible games, players can keep track of their current stats to see how they stack up against the competition. Your performance is primarily graded upon a kill/death ratio, which also determines your rank skill level, represented by a star. I found many players puzzled as to how this all worked out, inquiring amongst themselves what it all meant. It's quite simple actually - there are five skill levels in total. You'll initially start out with one star and eventually reach the upper echelon (provided that you are routinely shot down like target practice). Personally it didn't take me too long, not because of the fact I spent so much time playing, but because a lot of players simply aren't that skilled as of yet. I expect this will change within due time.
Without a doubt, Crimson Skies is an excellent title; however it's far from perfect. My quips with the game relate more to the online experience itself. For example, you'll find many players who are more concerned with their rank will literally drop in the middle of the game to preserve their records. And while I understand that it's a situation which constantly arises during Team Dogfight melees, I hate when other players steal my kills. Picture yourself gunning down a player, only to find your teammate swooping at 12 o'clock to join in the attack and in effect, getting the win! It's happened so often that I've actually taken shots at my allies, while barking at them over the loudspeaker to get their own targets. On occasion, I've even been the victim of friendly fire. At first I didn't sweat it as much until I later discovered that any deaths (regardless if it was incurred by a fellow team member) will count against you. Yeah, it's minor, but it's quite baffling to see that FASA Studios couldn't have integrated a system that was more fair and reasonable during such situations.
It's somewhat unfortunate that Crimson Skies has to share the limelight among several other high-profile online titles, including Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3. Crimson Skies is the type of game which will appeal to avid FPS fans or anyone with even a remote interest in flight-based action games (Ace Combat types, take note). Hyperbole notwithstanding, if you fall within that category, consider this a warranted purchase that you won't regret. And if you want get the most out of what this game has to offer and you don't have Xbox Live, well - you know what to do.
· · · Chris "Bahn" Scantleberry