Trade secret: for the last 10 years, reviewing PC flight games has been a piece of cake. Step one - rabbit on about the fun-quotient, physics, visuals, missions and multiplayer for a bit. Step two - slip on the knuckledusters and deliver the kidney punch: "Of course, if you're after superlative sky thrills, you're still far better off with Crimson Skies."
One of the reasons why the likes of Blazing Angels, Secret Weapons Over Normandy, HAWX and Heroes Over Europe have never managed to topple this cloud-couched charmer is that none of them have half its character. Set in an alternate 1930s where gangs of air pirates prey on the giant zeppelins that have superseded ships and trains, the game has a freshness and coherence to its fiction that makes most World War II or modern backdrops seem ditchwater-dull. Zipper Interactive can't take all the credit for the shimmering lore. Much of the inspiration came direct from Jordan Weisman and Michael Stackpole's 1998 board-game, which in turn enthusiastically plundered the treasure chamber that is American pulp radio, cinema and literature.
The brilliant intro newsreel illustrates just how skilfully the developers mix history with hogwash. It also hints at another of the game's accomplishments - its characters. In a genre where the flying machines often seem to have more personality than the people piloting them, heroes like Nathan Zachary are worth their weight in hijacked Russian bullion.
He's the lead - an instantly likeable avatar that blends the roguish charm of Errol Flynn with the aeronautical prowess of Biggles and the sarcastic loot-lust of Indiana Jones. We get to know his wisecracking, warm, swashbuckly self primarily through cockpit banter and the wonderful audio that precedes missions.
Before every sortie, Nathan gathers his band of brigands (the Fortune Hunters) together in the mess of the Pandora (the squadron mothership) and explains the task ahead. The writing is so sharp, the hamminess of the voice acting so perfect during these high-spirited briefings-cum-pep-talks, it doesn't matter a jot that you can't actually see the slouching aviators. Their sly grins, resigned shrugs, and playful punches couldn't be any clearer.
By the time you clamber into your first virtual cockpit (still remarkably attractive all these years on), chances are you're already in love with the fantasy and deeply attached to the Fortune Hunters. If you've any interest in aviation history, once in the air this affection is sure to grow to encompass the aircraft themselves. The game's 11 types of flyable machinery blend fact with fiction in exactly the sort of intelligent, imaginative way the alternate history setting does.
It's as if Zipper's designers bought dozens of plastic kits of thirties and forties aircraft, mixed up all the bits, then got busy with the glue. There's the ungainly gull wings of a Corsair protruding from the barrel fuselage of a Hughes H-1 Racer. There's the twin tail of a Lightning attached to the fuselage of a Thunderbolt, and the front end of a Whirlwind fused to the back end of a Bf-110. Pusher propellers, canard wings, ventral vertical stabilisers... mixed and matched aeronautic exotica is everywhere.
How these weird warbirds would behave in the air is, of course, anybody's guess, but the imagined flight models have enough truth in them to be challenging and plausible. Though there's no complex engine management or vicious spins, occasionally you're still going to find yourself misjudging dives and wishing you hadn't slapped on quite so much armour during the last workshop session.
Ah yes, customisation. Assuming you've got the mission-generated cash to spare, all of Crimson Skies' fleet can be adapted to suit different tasks or combat styles. Need a bit of extra pace to keep up with the Black Swan's Furies? Trim some of the weapons from a stock Devastator and whack in a nitro-boosted 600hp power plant. Want to make the Bloodhawk acquired in the last sortie a tad more resistant to flak and frontal attacks? Unbolt some hardpoints and fit a bit more steel plate in the nose. And once the work is complete, why not take advantage of the simple yet flexible paint interface and give your new design a personalised livery.
The most whimsical opportunity for tinkering in the game has to be the period pin-ups that adorn load and hangar screens. As you traverse the campaign you amass a growing pile of titillating-yet-tasteful glamour pics - presents from various grateful thirties femmes. Paste one of these in the appropriate frame and you can admire it while you're waiting for the next sortie to start. Don't like ogling scantily-clad ladies? Fret not, there's a few shots of Nathan and his cute pet Labrador available too.
It's high time I mentioned the high drama that permeates every part of Crimson Skies' generously proportioned campaign. Far too many of the folk fashioning missions for today's light flight titles seem to think we gamers have to be shooting something down or blowing something up every 10 seconds to be enjoying ourselves. Zipper's scenario makers had a far more mature approach.
On a good day you might nail a dozen bandits, but usually bags are lower, and objectives far more interesting than simple bogey culls. During the 24-stage story sequence, Nathan dogfights, duels with rival aces, competes in races, performs recon, and grabs passengers from the cabooses of moving trains. There's hangars to be barnstormed, ground targets to be trashed, and planes in need of pinching. Best of all, there are numerous enemy dirigibles waiting, like huge heavenly cucumbers, to be plucked from the blue.
The zeps are probably the best thing in Crimson Skies. At the risk of exciting my analyst, I love the way they look. (The Russian 'Vostok' - a matt-black monster with a huge hammer-and-sickle emblazoned on its flank - is a particular favourite.) I love the way they nose out of cloud banks, massive, majestic and strangely herbivorous. The way they drop fighters vertically from their holds at the start of sorties, then catch them on special recovery hooks at the end. Most of all I love how they burn and slump when raked with rockets and hot lead. Not that you're always out to eviscerate them. In several sorties, hostile leviathans must be disabled with delicate shots to engine nacelles.
Airships also play a part in alleviating that perennial flight sim problem - the topographical blandness of sky. In furballs you regularly find yourself using them as cover, spiralling round them in eager pursuits and desperate evasions. When you're not dancing amongst the zeps or plunging in and out of fluffy clouds, spectacular ground scenery helps keeps the aviation interesting. Venues for the campaign's various capers include a Hawaiian island, a pirate city perched on the side of a mountain range, and the scenery-strewn back lots of Hollywood. Considering the simplicity of the underlying terrain mesh, and the lack of scenery shadows and fancy reflective water effects, Crimson Skies' landscapes are still surprisingly presentable.
Assuming you aren't viewing them via an ATI video card, that is. Thanks to the skill and industry of a friendly fellow called Timeslip, NVIDIA-equipped players have recently been able to enjoy this never-bettered aerial gem free from the graphical corruption that dogged it for years. Unfortunate Radeon folk, however, may still experience problems.