Monday, August 19, 2013

Gaming on $2 or Less - Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

Happy National Aviation Day everyone! That's right, it's a real day, Google it! And seeing how today is Aviation Day and coincidentally I've been watching reruns of the old TV series Wings lately (one of my all-time favorite sitcoms) - I thought it was only fitting that I jot down a few words about the old XBOX game I've also recently discovered - Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge - released in October 2003 by FASA Interactive. I picked this one up CIB on eBay for $1.04 shipped.

The game takes place in 1937 in an alternate history North America where the Great Depression, prohibition, and regional fighting have fractured the land into a number of State-Nations that have closed their borders to outsiders. The transcontinental railroad and the new highway system have now become largely useless and this has forced people to embrace an aviation-based lifestyle - and with so much commerce taking place in the air sky piracy is a common occurrence. The speculative leap from post-war depression to sky pirates might seem a little far-fetched, but I remember an episode of the Twilight Zone where a scientist traveled back in time and accidentally stepped on a prehistoric butterfly, which somehow lead to the Nazis conquering the world. So anyway, the takeaway message here is don't try too hard to understand the timestream, just go with the flow, because time can really hit you with some unexpected shit.

Here's the trailer.

And I tracked down a TV spot as well...

I was always more of a Sony guy than a Microsoft guy so I'd never heard of this game before I bought it, but apparently it is fairly well-known in Xbox circles. Microsoft maintains a website for the game at which offers a considerable amount of backstory information including a rather lengthy description of the fictional timeline from 1920-1937 by Prof. Warren Gilmont, Harvard University (1938).  Over at BoardGameGeek I also learned that the game was actually originally released in 1998 as a tabletop RPG game. Later in 2000 it was released as a video game for the PC, and then the improved Xbox version was released in 2003 which is the only version I've personally seen.

Like I mentioned, this is an alternate history 1939 where experimental planes and zeppelins fill the air and intrigue abounds. You play as Nathan Zachary, the leader of the group of high flying adventurers known as the Fortune Hunters. Nathan is a ladies man, a charmer, a bit of a scoundrel, and a crack pilot. Early on in the game Nathan's friend, Dr. Fassenbiender, is killed by an evil German scientist in an effort to steal the doctor's secret plans to build a wind turbine machine capable of creating storms, but unbeknownst to the villain, doctor Fassenbiender had already given the plans to Nathan for safekeeping. And thus begins Nathan's quest across exotic lands to find the doctor's killer and bring him to justice!

The story plays out very much like the old pulp serials of the late 30's which I've always enjoyed. And I've always had a soft spot for aviation-based shows in particular. Has anyone ever seen the old TV show Tales of the Golden Monkey? I remember really liking that show back in the early 80's but it only lasted one season so I may have been the only one. I also used to love Baa Baa Black Sheep (still one of my favorite TV intro sequences). I even watched a little Duck Tales cartoon although I was older by the time it came on and it wasn't a huge favorite. Crimson Skies has the same feel to it as those shows. It's kind of like Indiana Jones in the sky - now who wouldn't like that?

The game is somewhat open-world with primarily flight-based action. There are core missions that drive the linear narrative, but there are various diversionary tasks available too as you fly around and explore the world. Yes, there is no shortage of enemy dogfights, but there are also a number of other sequences such as anti-aircraft set pieces, strafing runs against enemy naval ships, boss battles against zeppelins and giant mechanical caterpillars, air races, hidden trophies you can pick up, etc. - quite a few different twists to keep the main dish of plane-based combat fresh. Plus, there is an RPG element as well in that you can acquire different planes as you go along along with money and upgrade tokens which you can use to upgrade the planes to higher levels of aerial deadliness. I'm a little disappointed in the upgrade mechanic though - it seems like it takes too long for me to be able to upgrade and also it is a simple click of a button to OK you're upgraded. It would have grabbed me more if the upgrades were more frequent (they could be smaller increments) and if it would allow me to spend upgrades on different facets of the plane such as speed, maneuverability, main guns, secondary guns, etc. but still, it is a nice addition.

The controls are very smooth and familiar if you have ever played any flight-combat games at all. It took me a little while to get the hang of it (because I suck at flying games) but before too long I was flying through those canyons like nobody's business.

In addition to the one-player campaign you can also play multiplayer which from what I'm told is where this game really shined back in the day. I say shined because you can't play it online via Xbox Live anymore so that part of it is dead. But you can still play someone locally with split screen, and as a guy that used to play the hell out of the dogfight game in Atari's Combat cartridge, I'm quite interested to try out that split screen action. I have a feeling I'm gonna really enjoy it.

Once again the original Xbox surprised me with some great graphics. The sunset hues in the skies, the wispy clouds, the driving rain on the camera, the detailed faces in the cut scenes, the cool working/moving parts on the planes, the fiery and shrapnel-laden explosions. It was very impressive for a last-gen - heck at this point darn near two-generations old system.

Excellent sound. The sounds effects really help immerse you in the game, from the rushing wind, to the rat-a-tat of your machine guns, to the exceptionally strong musical scores to set the moods - wistful and dreamy in the slow and scenic exploration scenes, fast-paced and hectic during the fights. Apparently the music was even released as a soundtrack.The voice acting is decent but not great - kind of cheesy and formulaic, but it feels consistent in with the universe of the game so it fits fine.

I've never been very good, or for that matter very interested, in plane-based games, but this one clicked for me. A good part of it is probably the fictional hook of the Crimson Skies universe, but I found the gameplay surprisingly enjoyable. Quite a bit more than I expected it to be for me personally. There is only so much variation one can instill in a fighter plane game before things tend to get somewhat repetitive, but I think Crimson Skies handles it pretty well all things considered. This games ranks near the top of my rather limited Xbox collection. I give it an 8.9.

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Thomas T. Sueyres said...

Great write up on Crimson Skies. Being an Xbox guy, I remember it well. Funny you should mention Tales of the Golden Monkey. My friend and I remember that too and did a brief write up of it on our blog:
Thought you might get a kick out of that.

MadPlanet said...

Thanks Thomas. I didn't have my Xbox when it was current-gen. I got mine used well after I already had my 360, so my knowledge of original Xbox games is pretty limited, but I've quite enjoyed the ones I've played including this gem.

So I was about 10 years late to the Crimson Skies party, but I definitely caught the Golden Monkey live! I even bought a copy of the episodes transferred from videocassette to DVD a few years ago on iOffer since they weren't available on official DVD. Maybe they are by now, I dunno. I'll check out your post!

Pio said...

Wow, this game brings back so many great memories. Remember playing online the most, it was a lot fun playing with the headset with a good group of people trying to work as a team to win.