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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Zipper Interactive and Microsoft


Looks great; fast, fun, gameplay; imaginative game world, solid online play. 

Downs:  Just  buggy enough to piss you off.

System Reqs: P266 II, 32 megs RAM, 8 MB video card recommended.

Whatever happened to flight sims? A few years ago there wasn’t enough time to play them all, but in 2000 they’ve become (along with war and adventure titles) one of the endangered genres of computer gaming.  With many titles cancelled and few new games forthcoming (excepting Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2 and Hasbro’s B-17), it appears that flight sims are in danger of becoming yet another of those dreaded “niche” markets.  It’s difficult to fathom how one of the once most-popular game genres could descend to such a state so quickly, but I’m inclined to blame it on the fact that most recent flight sims have chosen to pursue realism over playability.  In other words, while they focused on detailing impeccable flight models and exact cockpits, they forgot that the vast majority of people buy these things because they want to play a game. And games are supposed to be fun. While hardcore flight simmers—along with wargame grognards, the most demanding and socially retarded of computer gamers—surely reveled in Falcon 4.0’s tome of a manual, they’re in a distinct minority. Frankly, your garden variety gamers lean toward flight sims like the old chestnuts Battlehawks 1942 or Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe or the original Red Baron. The hardcore can condescend as much as they want (and they will, oh yes, they will), but for most the measure of a computer flight sim isn’t how well it models spins; it’s how much fun they have playing it.

And that’s why Crimson Skies is such a hoot--it models flight about as accurately as Quake III models combat, and it makes no apologies about it. The focus here is entirely on a good time, and realism be damned.  Crimson Skies is wacky, it’s imaginative, it’s way more fun than any flight sim released in the last five years. And with any luck it’ll give the stagnant sim market the kick in the ass it’s needed for about that long.

Crimson Skies is modeled on FASA’s board game of the same name, and takes place in an alternative 1930’s where the Great Depression, the Great War, and Prohibition have caused the USA to fragment into a collection of independent regional governments—with names like the Confederation of Dixie and Appalachia and the Nation of Hollywood. Since none of these states gets along with the others, the ex-nation’s railways are no longer tenable modes of transportation. Undaunted, America’s teamsters turn to an alternate mode of transport—the Zeppelin, of course. And air traffic begets air piracy. To its credit, Crimson Skies does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of this improbable alternative 30’s.  Partly this is done through allusions to icons of 30’s pop culture like swing music, hep cat slang, Howard Hughes and the Hollywood studio system. There are plenty of references to world politics, too—you’ll run into haughty Brits trying to colonize Hawaii in anticipation of the Japanese threat, “Red” Russian zeppelins, and of course Nazis. On top of this, the game’s designers have gone out of the way to give the game the feel of a thirties radio serial—the dialogue and situations are hilariously spot-on, right out of Tom Mix and the Air Pirates.

In Crimson Skies, you take the role of Nathan Zachary, a swashbuckling cross between Indiana Jones and Errol Flynn.   You’ll lead a group of air banditos named the Fortune Hunters through a campaign of 24 missions, passing through five locales---Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, Hollywood, the Rockies, and New York City. In the course of the campaign your status will rise from that of small-time air crook to Robin Hood-like celebrity. The campaign’s story is captivating, full of Betrayal! Romance! and Adventure!, and campaign missions are a riot. While almost all of them contain at least one massive furball and plenty of Zeppelin-busting, they’ll also ask you to perform a variety of more spectacular tasks, like lowering a ladder to someone on a speeding train, stealing prototype aircraft, or sinking Nazi freighters. Throughout, the emphasis is on pure action, and in Crimson Skies action means blowing stuff up real good and barnstorming.  Almost all of the combat in Crimson Skies takes place on the deck, so don’t expect to fly at 10,000--or even 3,000—feet. To this end, the good folks at Zipper Interactive have done a superb job of crafting environments that offer plenty of opportunities for daredevil stunts. The ground doesn’t typically play an enormous part in most flight sims, except to serve as something to crash into, but in Crimson Skies you’ll find yourself weaving in and out of buildings, bridges, caves, and rock formations.

And man, do they look good. Crimson Skies’ graphics are attractive and colorful from the ground up. The planes are very nicely done, even though they’re so fantastically constructed (most of them are pushers) that they’d never get off the ground in real life. Especially nice are the cloud effects and explosions, which easily rank amongst the best I’ve ever seen. And the game’s interfaces and scrapbooks (which allow you to collect memorabilia from your missions) are done the best pulp-30’s fashion, which adds even more panache to the game’s already stylish feel. 

As for flight models--well, there really aren’t any flight models in the hardcore sense of the term. Sure, some planes are faster or more agile than others, but all of them are capable of aerobatics that even the most nimble of WWII fighters would have trouble pulling off. You’ll not be troubled by bothersome realities like stall or spin or black outs, and every plane’s engine is apparently powered by plutonium—unless you’re damaged, climb rates are ridiculously fast.  What this makes for is deliriously hectic combat, as planes pull impossible loops and dart through narrow apertures in mock-ups of Egyptian monuments.

Planes are armed with machine guns and you can choose to arm your hard points with a wide variety of rockets—the most useful being high explosive and flak.  In combat, weaponry is quite effective, and damage is modeled, uh-- abstractly. Situational awareness is never a problem, since you can easily scroll through potential threats by using your plane’s “spyglass” feature, which shows you a magnified image of your enemies and gives you their location, even if they’re hidden by clouds or behind a mountain. Extremely unrealistic, of course, but it sure makes for nonstop action.

Online multiplayer play is excellent and includes the usual assortment of connection options. Games include deathmatch, zeppelin vs. zeppelin (you defend your zep while trying to take out the other team’s) and capture the flag. There were plenty of willing opponents on the Zone, and Crimson Skies played very smoothly.

I suppose, after all this raving about Crimson Skies, you’re wondering why I gave it four stars. Well, the fact is that I almost gave it three. That’s because Crimson Skies as it now stands is one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever played, and desperately in need of a patch. Here are some of the problems I ran into: sudden crashes to desktop, wingmen who habitually flew into my plane, extremely slow load times, and—even on my 733 with a GeForce 2 and 128 megs of RAM—very annoying frame rate slowdowns. Most of the slowdowns can be worked through in combat-oriented missions, but some of the missions require you to fly through obstacle courses, and the split-second maneuvers required just can’t be executed through the chop.  Worst of all, Crimson Skies will sometimes eat your saves. In the campaign, the program automatically saves after you’ve completed a mission. When you start the game back up, you’ll begin with the next mission. That’s the theory, at least. Twice already I’ve booted up my game, only to find that all my hard-fought missions have been erased—I had to start over from the beginning. This is inexcusable. The campaign game is pretty linear, so there’s not a ton of replay value. Being required to play through the first several missions three times now has not made me happy.

Crimson Skies has almost all the qualities of a five star, A-list, matinee idol game--compelling story, imaginative setting, thrilling action, killer graphics, lots of stuff to blow up. But until some very serious problems with the campaign game are cleaned up, Crimson Skies remains at the B-movie level.

--Rick Fehrenbacher