The skies will run red with the blood of the nonbelievers!
I'm a big fan of swashbuckling, but until this instant had no idea where the term came from. Its etymology is actually sort of bland: a 'swash' is the fall of a heavy body, while a 'buckler' is another name for a shield. So when you put the two together, you get a fat guy who falls on shields, I guess, which doesn't actually sound very swashbuckling to me.
In fact, when I think of a swashbuckler, I think of a guy like Nathan Zachary, the star of Microsoft's new Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge. He's dashing, daring, courageous and cool, a little bit country but a ton of rock and roll. And that accurately describes his game, a fast, pretty romp through the air that serves up more highwire hijinks than you can swash a buckle at.
Set in an alternate reality 1930's, Crimson Skies puts you in the boots of Zachary, head of an air pirate gang called the Fortune Hunters. After the devastating market crash in the previous decade, the nation is ripped apart by greed, resulting in the destruction of territories, the establishment of new boundaries and the elimination of ground travel. Most trade is done via the airways, effectively becoming a sky blue treasure chest for you and your kind. The single-player campaign lets you uncover a dastardly plot involving evil Germans, gigantic zeppelins and lots and lots of guns.
After all, the game is called Crimson Skies for a reason. Though you're almost always piloting a plane, the action is frantic and the emphasis is squarely on dogfighting. A few escort missions and the like pop up, but thanks to solid AI, whatever you're protecting isn't just a lame duck, which frees you up to go after bad guys like a flying Kojak.
The coolest part of the original PC game was the balanced control, toeing the line between sim and arcade, and this Xbox version actually improves it. You'll swerve and swoop like Snoopy in no time flat, pulling off cool maneuvers such as Immelmans and Barrel Rolls via a smart analog-stick clicking system. Though there's only one camera view, it's a really good one, which keeps the often topsy-turvy action from resulting in a Technicolor yawn.
While it's not a simulation by any means, Crimson Skies includes a variety of planes with distinct payloads and handling. The stock Devastator, your starting plane, is the most well-balanced of the bunch and tends to be the best for just about any mission, but faster planes like the Bulldog or heavily-armored zep killers like the Brigand do come in handy. Each can also be upgraded once by acquiring tokens and cash. Unfortunately, you cannot customize the munitions, so don't expect to put some tesla cannons on your nimble but frail gyrocopter. It isn't a big problem, but a feature like this would have added some good depth.
The four game environments are excellent. Whether gliding through the island oasis of Sky Haven or narrowly dodging skyscrapers in the amazing cityscape of Chicago, it's hard not to be impressed with the vibrancy and sheer size of the levels. Each offers plenty of nooks and crannies to explore and various missions to undertake. They tend to repeat in flavor - protect this plane from those planes, destroy all enemy planes, bring down that big zeppelin, etc. - but the gameplay is so strong that you don't really get sick of it.
There is one direct story path which you do have to follow, but you can spend some time flying around for a bit before actually triggering it. You might engage in a checkpoint race for dough or man some anti-air guns for some target practice. You can also interact a bit with the random planes and zeppelins cruising around each environment (bringing down a random zep is a nice way to make a little side cash).
While the earlier beta builds indicated that Crimson Skies would be a sort of free-roaming affair in the mold of GTA, it's actually pretty linear; you'll charge through the story in about 10 hours. Oddly, you get a 'Choose Mission' screen after finishing a story mission or redocking at your home base zeppelin, but you can't actually 'choose' anything. Plus, you can't backtrack; once you finish the last mission in each area – and you don't know what that mission is until you do it – it's on to the next location, thus ending any additional exploration or token hunting until you beat the game and start over. Again, this was not the case with the beta, probably because they hadn't finished the story yet, but it would have made for a more open-ended (and better) game.
No big worries, though, because the campaign is still rewarding. Good FMV, great voice-acting and a light but engaging plot offers more than you would expect from a game that's really all about the battles.
Besides, the single-player is really just practice for the multiplayer, which is where the game's skies turn from red to gold. The Split-Screen and System Link modes work fine (with hardly any slowdown, I should note), but when you take it to Xbox Live the game really finds its groove. Six game modes are here and handled well: Solo and Team Dogfights, Solo and Team Keep away, Flag Heist and everyone's favorite, Wild Chicken, which is essentially a Capture the Flag game featuring fowl. The game supports up to 16 players at a time, which makes for a raucous affair. It's just a blast.
No matter how you play it, Crimson Skies is gorgeous. The draw distance rocks, the textures are bright, the framerate is solid and the environmental effects and explosions rule. From the smoke pouring out of a wounded gas tank to the rocks crumbling from a mountain after being slammed by a missile, the details are great and bring the game to life. The artists and programmers should get a raise.
So should the sound engineers, come to think of it. Great sound effects and a rousing score draw you into the experience.
While the campaign and online modes are great fun, I'm a bit miffed that there isn't any sort of Free Play mode, or Quick bot matches, or really anything else to sweeten the pot. If you've beaten the story and for some reason your Xbox Live isn't working, forget about it. There just could have been more single-player game in here without much effort at all.
But what they did, they did really, really well. Crimson Skies oozes style and substance, matching its PC counterpart bullet for bullet and raising the stakes with its upgraded control. Fans of any sort of action – be it in the air or in the corridors - simply should not let this one get lost in the upcoming holiday game blitz. And I'm not just swashing your buckle.