Crimson Skies takes place in an alternative version of Earth, circa 1937. The U.S.A. has split into a group of squabbling nation states while the Russians and the British Empire probe at her borders. Surface-based shipping has come to a stand-still, so Zeppelins and Blimps take to the skies to ensure the wheels of commerce turn on. Seizing the opportunity to gain wealth and notoriety pirates begin to prey upon these aerial shipping lanes, the most daring of these pirates being the infamous Nathan Zachary. In the game you step into the shoes of Zachary to lead his gang of infamous air pirates in their quest for wealth, fame and glory.
When looking at the screenshots of Crimson Skies you could be forgiven for assuming that the game would share similiar elements to a flight sim, but other than the fact that it focuses on planes they have almost nothing in common. Crimson Skies is an unashamed action title and a darned good one at that. It's larger than life pulp-fiction story meshes brilliantly with a game engine that seems to be designed with the express purpose of making the player feel like they are the most talented pilot on the planet. Very little keyboard control is required, as the developers have streamlined the game so that nearly all the necessary controls can be mapped to your joystick. Of course, being a Microsoft game it works exceptionally well with any of the Sidewinder series sticks. This orientation towards flight-based action makes for some highly enjoyable sequences in the game including capturing bombers by flying above them, jumping out of your plane onto the bomber, punching the bomber pilot and throwing him out of the plane, or rescuing someone from a train by flying along side of it and having them leap onto a dangling ladder.
Crimson Skies shares some similarities with the X-Wing and Wing Commander games in that you participate in a series of missions which all take place as part of an overall story. The game begins with Nathan Zachary searching for treasure in Hawaii and stumbling onto a British incursion. From there you launch into a rollercoaster ride of abducted scientists, beautiful women, pitched battles, the attempted theft of the Spruce Goose and an assault on a fortress in the sky. Each mission begins with your plane being dropped out of your Zeppelin (and home base), no complicated take off procedure is required. From here the wild antics begin as you fulfill your mission objectives and generally try and cause as much airborne havoc as possible.
One of the reasons why Crimson Skies is so appealing is due to the way it truly feels like a 1930's pulp action film. Of course, no-one at Gameplanet has ever seen a 1930's pulp action film but this game feels like one anyway. The unique universe of Crimson Skies is brought to life in a number of ways, but the biggest factor is without a doubt the voice acting. It is simply superb. The actor who plays Nathan Zachary portrays him perfectly. He is cocky, always wisecracking, and full of bravado. Surprisingly this does not become irritating. The support players are also well cast which is good as the dialog plays a huge part in setting the scene in Crimson Skies. There are no cut-scenes as such, the story progresses through in game events and the voice-only mission briefings. Some may see this a drawback but it actually adds a lot to the game. The characters are well rounded and interact with each other a great deal during the missions. Jordan Weisman (one of the founders of FASA) describes Crimson Skies use of dialogue to further the story as radio drama. Other developers could learn a lot from how successfully it has been implemented and how effective it is in giving depth to the story and characters.
As you progress through the game Nathan can earn cash from his exploits as well as mementoes for his scrap book. Cash is obtained by completing mission objectives while the scrap book items are obtained by performing special stunts such as flying through a cave or another ridiculously dangerous tight space. These special items do not unlock hidden missions or change the campaign progression in any way, but do provide an extra incentive for honing your flying skills. Having said that going the distance to pursue these "extras" can result in new aircraft or equipment becoming available to use. This leads on to the plane design area of the game. You could quite easily play through the entire game using the suggested planes but for those who like to tinker and customise an option has been provided whereby you can build an entirely customised plane. There are a number of different plane types on offer, ranging from heavily armoured, slow moving bombers to zippy scout-fighters. These can be combined with a variety of different engines, weapons and armour. In the single player campaign your designs are restricted by the amount of available cash but in multiplayer you can customise to your hearts content.
As well as the excellent 24 mission single player campaign there is an instant action mode and a stack of multiplayer options. The instant action mode is very well thought out and is a far cry from the way it is implemented in most other games of this type. Instead of picking from a list of enemies and participating in some dry scenario Crimson Skies allows you to create an exciting quick action story by selecting objectives, wingmen and enemies and then it combines them into some quite nifty little mini-story based scenarios. Multiplayer works in a similar fashion and can be played on a LAN, modem-to-modem, through the Microsoft Zone as well as direct TCP/IP connections.
There are a couple of unfortunate flaws in Crimson Skies that prevent it from reaching true classic status. The game engine, while very visually pleasing, does tend to slow down when flying through enclosed areas and can be very choppy on machines that just meet the recommended specifications levels. Even on high-end machines slow down and choppiness is noticeable. While this doesn't affect the game too greatly it can be frustrating ... especially when trying to pull off a tricky stunt. The other flaw is the loading time between the missions and the game interface. These sequences take an incredible amount of time even on a full install.
Even with those flaws taken into account Crimson Skies is still one hell of a game. It is a breath of fresh air into a market that it flooded with stale sci fi/fantasy clones. Its unique combination of go-get-em daring adventure action and an incredibly enjoyable flight model provides one of the most appealing gaming experiences in recent times. Whether this unique approach will result in mass-market success is unknown, but if a sequel is not produced for Crimson Skies it will be a crying shame.