Version tested: Xbox
Apart from the odd encounter with Starfighter over the years, dog fighting aerial combat games aren't usually the kind of games that keep Eurogamer types up at night. Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered that FASA's Xbox-exclusive is one of the better titles on the platform this year.
The game kicks off in an alternative 1930s setting where the US no longer exists and a series of warring nation states have sprung up. Militias have formed, the connecting railroads have been rendered useless, and the only way to transport goods and passengers is by Zeppelin - in turn encouraging the proliferation of air piracy. With no law, it's up to folks like the swashbuckling Indiana Jones-inspired Nathan Zachary and his band of freelancers, the Fortune Hunters, to take matters into their own hands.
Taking to the skies in the Devastator - the first of ten available flying machines - your task is basically to complete a series of defensive missions to right the wrongs perpetrated by the endless supply of bandits that clog up the skies. Naturally, every character you come across in the game appears to have some tale of woe and is under attack or being robbed blind for one spurious reason or another. Split into a series of beautifully rendered environments, you buzz around picking up jobs, accepting racing challenges, and generally earning money or picking up tokens in order to buy better, stronger, faster craft and progressing through an ostensibly linear, narrative driven campaign.
Grand Theft Aerial
The mission selection mechanics offer a degree of choice, with the radar of your immediate surrounding alerting you to the available jobs via blue icons GTA-style that direct you to the source. Not every mission has to be taken up, but opting to take up sub-missions, such as gambling your fortune in races, or performing delivery tasks, helps you to ultimately upgrade your existing craft, and stand a better chance of progressing.
Once you've cleared the available jobs available to you, it's off to the next lovingly crafted environment, and so the story moves on via some very impressive cut-scenes that - gasp - actually lip synch correctly, look classy and come complete with some rather splendid voice acting. With an amusingly dramatic Stan LePard soundtrack straight out of John Williams' Indiana Jones/Star Wars school of composition, it creates a wholesome and relentlessly cheesy retro-adventuring ambience that forces a permanent smile across your chops. And probably drives anyone else in the room to distraction, but, ach, hell to them. Ba-bababa-da-daaaa!
The bulk of the missions tend to focus on escorting a cargo from A to B and defending them on their way, which can be achieved via a combination of two basic methods; either just shooting them from your craft, or the anti-aircraft stations dotted around the landscape. AA guns are placed strategically, and hitting X near them allows you to quickly hop out of your craft and mount them for some first-person shooting action. Hitting A zooms in the view, while tapping B mysteriously instantly transports you the next available gun (even if it's some distance away), and some levels can be taken care of without ever taking to the skies. On the downside, your stationary position makes you a sitting target for all and sundry, so often a bit of strategic gun hopping is required, lest you get blown to smithereens and have to replay the mission.
The amazing everlasting plane
Taking damage is part and parcel of the proceedings, so it's just as well that every environment hosts a repair shop to enable you to swoop down, hit X and instantly restore your craft to full health and stock up on secondary weapons in the process. In addition, downed enemies also spew forth health boosts via parachute, mysteriously, as well as the occasional stock of ammo. Picking them up before they hit the ground and vanish for good is a skill in itself and can get you out of many a scrape.
Aerial combat - the mainstay of the game - is immensely satisfying. Right from the word go FASA's mission was to create the kind of accessible combat flight game that had intuitive controls and didn't require the usual ludicrous telephone directory-sized manual, and it succeeds on every level. Thanks to the slow but satisfying pace, manoeuvring around the skies becomes second nature after a matter of minutes, with the craft automatically travelling at a manageable speed. Left stick takes care of the basic steering, the right stick allows you to perform evasive dives and Immelman rolls, while the D-pad lets you dart into other viewpoints, allowing you to see what's going on around you. Fans of the previous PC-only Crimson Skies might find it all a bit dumbed down, but those who enjoyed the Starfighter titles will instantly be at home.
Further movement precision can be achieved by holding down the brake (B button) which has the effect of tightening your turning circle and also enables you to get your enemy firmly in your sights before wasting precious secondary ammo. On the other hand, if you need to make a clean getaway, hitting Y gives your craft a speed boost, while letting go recharges, and strategic use of this is essential to get you out of all manner of scrapes, such as attempting to steam back to the repair shop before your shields expire or outrunning a posse of determined bandits at six o' clock.
Neeeeeeow! Dakka dakka dakka - Booooooom!
To fight off the omnipresent bad guys, each craft comes complete with its own unique weaponry; an unlimited primary weapon (assigned to right trigger), usually a typically dakka-dakka-boom machine gun of some sort, and a secondary weapon of death; normally a powerful missile or laser which tends to semi-lock on if you happen to get your target reticule near your enemy.
Unlike so many aerial combat games, you're not simply fighting a bunch of blurry pixels on the horizon that whizz past every now and then. The draw distance is massive, pop up is entirely absent, and the resolution is crisp enough to give you a clear view of what's going on at all times. Even better, the dogfights regularly get up close and personal, and it's at this point that the graphical effects really shine through. Each and every craft is rendered with exquisite detail, and the explosions are about as satisfying as they get - albeit with some minor frame rate loss if you happen to be at the scene of an explosion at close quarters.
In general, the sheen and polish surrounding High Road To Revenge is of the highest standard. Within an instant you're struck by the realisation that the quality of presentation and visual excellence is exactly what Microsoft has been gunning for, and it must be satisfying for the company to see a first party title delivered to such high standard just when the platform needs it most. Even the most seemingly bland landscapes are richly textured, the buildings immensely detailed, the weather/water effects delicious, the lighting excellent and the particle effects superb. It's all been crafted with such an inspired degree of care that every area is instantly brought to life - and all to the sound of ba-da-ba ba ba ba baaaaaaaaaa Indy Jones-style music magic. Add to that the console friendly slick manoeuvring, the lack of instant death scenery collision and consistently sympathetic camera angles and you've got a delightful backdrop for what is actually a deceptively simple gameplay experience.
Bad FASA. Baaaaaad.
The gameplay isn't without its frustrations or problems, however. One ludicrous feature is the Restart option. Having completed four missions of a fairly lengthy campaign, I chose to restart after a bad start, but rather than restore me to my last checkpoint, it restarted the whole damn campaign much to my torment and frustration. Exactly how stupid an idea is that on the part of FASA? Grrr. Also, the variety of missions isn't what it could be. After eight hours or so, you'll ruefully reflect that missions aren't much more than an endless procession of dogfights, albeit ramped up with an ever-increasing enemy count, resulting in repeated attempts to progress and probable frustration.
Just as well, then, that the relatively brief and shallow single-player campaign is supplemented with some truly superb multiplayer action, featuring the requisite System Link and four player split-screen mode alongside the option for Live subscribers to log on and duke it out in the skies with up to 15 other pilots across six different modes on five different maps. Guest users can also join in via a split-screen mode, which is a very welcome touch; while a two month Live trial voucher in the pack should give plenty of curious online gamers the chance to sample what the fuss is all about.
Mode wise, there's Dogfight/Team Dogfight, which are the deathmatch equivalent, Keep Away/Team Keep Away, which is the King Of The Hill-style mode where a player/team has to grab and maintain possession of some loot up to a time limit, Flag Heist is - you guessed it - Capture The Flag, while Wild Chicken has you soaring after our feathered food favourite for points while attempting to down your enemy.
Online is where it's at
All modes have their moments, but after the initial rush of pure aerial dog fighting, the joy of flag capturing or loot possession shades it in terms of long-term online fun. Lag issues are kept to a minimum, and only appear to be noticeable when you're picking up health/ammo items. In all other aspects this was a completely smooth experience, although the servers seemed pretty sparse at times, and getting games off the ground through the lobby took longer than expected, with a general lack of players causing the host to hang around for ages. Then again, we were playing it prior to its European launch...
Long-term the novelty of flying planes around using what is largely a rehash of the same old modes might get slightly dull and unless you've got the full complement of 16 players, the maps can feel somewhat empty; not to mention the fact that there's only five of them. Otherwise, it's another superb addition to the service and if you can put up with the inevitable whooping Yanks over the voice communicator then there's much to admire here. Long-term addicts will doubtlessly be delighted to note that there's a ranking system to check how they fare against the world's best pilots (and right now we're rubbish), and downloadable content, presumably in the form of more multiplayer maps is also on the agenda soon. From our time with it so far, it's fair to say that High Road To Revenge is justifying its rave reviews.
Time to get High with my friends!
Overall, High Road To Revenge is an excellent, polished package that offers instant and constant entertainment from the moment it hits the disc tray. It's by no means groundbreaking or remotely innovative, and you might get fed up with some rather samey single-player mission objectives, but it's all delivered with a charm and style that will win over your heart and ultimately offers a satisfying multiplayer facet that helps round off the package nicely. Definitely one of the most enjoyable Xbox releases we've seen this year.
8 / 10