The developers of last year's tank action game Recoil have now taken to the air with Crimson Skies, a game that promises to bring the thrills of aerial dogfights to your PC. To this end, the game is set not in the present day, where jet fighters battle with missiles over huge distances, but instead FASA's "Crimson Skies" universe, where propeller aircraft rule the skies and combat is up close and personal.
The Tall Tales and Many Lives of Nathan Zachary
The game is set in a world where the air is fought over much like the sea once was, with aerial pirates clashing both with each other and with the law - as embodied by the air forces of various nations. In a break from the norm, the player takes the role not of one of these aerial policemen, but of a pirate named Nathan Zachary, who leads a group of misfits known as the Fortune Hunters. The storyline is centered around their attempts to obtain fame and fortune by fair means or foul, although it soon emerges that it is not only the pirates who are playing dirty.
This storyline soon becomes very interesting, and the atmosphere is enhanced greatly by the way that the story is carried through in-game conversations between pilots and in other "period" forms, such as radio broadcasts and newspaper cuttings, rather than through FMV cutscenes. In fact, there is even a radio drama titled "The Tall Tales and Many Lives of Nathan Zachary" which is played during installation, with further stories available on the official website. And in another nice change from tradition, the voice acting is actually very well done, although they do take the opportunity to overplay some of the accents somewhat.
The unusual storyline also gives Crimson Skies the opportunity to explore some more interesting types of mission than the normal "fly here, destroy that" style objectives that grace a lot of other flight sims. For example, one mission requires you to take over a bomber by destroying its wingmen, before leaping on to the wing and climbing into the cockpit! Many of the missions also feature optional objectives which can be completed, as well as little extras such as daring stunts which can be performed for bonuses. Each mission flown is logged in a scrapbook, and each objective or stunt performed adds items to it, including newspaper cuttings and photos of your daring deeds.
Don't Get Too Close To The Pretty Scenery...
The graphics in Crimson Skies are quite superb, and much more vibrant than in other flight games. The effect that this has, particularly on the scenery, is quite incredible, and the design of the actual locations is also superb, with varied terrain and highly distinctive landmarks to aid navigation.
Unusually for a flight sim, Crimson Skies defaults to an external view, with the camera positioned behind your plane. This seems a little unnatural at first, but quickly becomes as usable as the traditional internal view. It also gives you a chance to admire your nicely detailed aircraft, as the short range nature of the dogfighting in the game means that you generally only get to see your own plane close up. There is also an impressive amount of ground clutter, and lots of buildings and trees to blow up. On the downside there is the odd graphics glitch, particularly in the tracking window, which is supposed to show your current target. However, this never really interfered with the gameplay in any way.
The graphics engine is also commendably fast - the game ran at a perfectly reasonable framerate on a Pentium II 400 with a TNT2 card with all the detail options on, and this gave a very respectable draw distance. On a system with a GeForce card Crimson Skies ran extremely smoothly indeed. Indeed, the only place where the game seemed to struggle was in some of the menus, where the response to the mouse was somewhat sluggish.
The sound is also very impressive - there is lots of pilot chatter, some of which acts to further the game's plot, and the music is not only appropriate but alters to fit the current situation. I was only able to find a handful of faults with the sound in general - the effects are somewhat mundane (though I guess there is only so much you can do with bullet and explosion noises), and sometimes the speech suffers from one of two problems. Firstly, at times the chatter gets annoying and irrelevant (for example, having a wingman shout "bandit in front of you!" when you are already shooting at it), and secondly it is sometimes indistinct, which is annoying (though usually not fatal) when certain mission information is relayed through radio messages.
Touching The Sky
Of course, all the pretty graphics, sound and storyline would be irrelevant if the gameplay didn't come up to scratch. Fortunately Crimson Skies scores highly in this department as well - it is extremely fun to fly the game's aircraft, and dogfights are fast, furious and exciting.
As with just about any flight sim, a joystick is an absolutely essential accessory in order to play Crimson Skies. The flight model is not particularly realistic compared to the more simulator-orientated games in this genre, but it is realistic enough to lift Crimson Skies above the "arcade" style of flying, and all of the more obscure stunts which I tried worked as expected. The controls are refreshingly simple though, composed simply of throttle, stick and weapon options. The setting of the game also gives an excuse to avoid having to take off or land the aircraft, as they are launched "Starfury style" from your zeppelin, and dock again using a hook arrangement.
This docking can be quite tricky, so there is an "autodock" option which can be activated when you are reasonably close to the hook. This user-friendliness also extends to the missions themselves - if you fail a mission three times, you are asked if you would like to skip it. I personally felt this was a little too much like cheating, but if you get really stuck on a level I think this option would be welcome. Finally, a feature that Crimson Skies includes which many other games really should take note of is the ability to restart a mission after dying without having to reload the entire level. This makes so much difference, as you no longer have to spend more time loading than playing when trying to complete a difficult level.
Crimson Skies also includes a range of multiplayer options for both internet and LAN play. Whilst these are amusing for a while, the long-term appeal is somewhat suspect as there is not much beyond straight dogfighting on offer.
There also appear to be some problems with cheating in multiplayer games, although it is probable that a patch will be released to fix at least some of these issues. The other slight problem with the multiplayer mode is that, in keeping with the recent trend in games, it uses MSN's "Zone", and hence requires you to open a browser, log in and so on. All of this means that joining an online game is a somewhat more tedious process than it should be.
In single player games the AI provides a good challenge though, flying reasonably intelligently and putting up a good fight. The only problem I noticed was that occasionally your wingmen will crash into you whilst trying to fly somewhere - this can be annoying, although bizarrely planes do not do very much damage when crashing into each other!
Crimson Skies is an exceptionally fun game to play - the fight model is spot-on (entertainment wise), and the missions and storyline are both sufficiently interesting to keep the player involved in the action. The superb graphics and sound are the icing on the cake, and whilst multiplayer is not as well-polished as the rest of the package it is still a worthwhile complement to the singleplayer game.
The only major flaw in Crimson Skies is the front end - not only is it unresponsive at times and prone to the odd crash, but the first version of the game contained several bugs which could erase saved games under certain circumstances. If you do buy Crimson Skies, your first port of call should be the official website to download the patch for these problems...