If I ever tried to fly a biplane within inches of the ocean before pulling it into a loop to take out the guy tailing me, I’m fairly certain I’d wind up dead. Actually, you can remove the “fairly” from that last sentence: I would wind up dead. While I’ve pulled off maneuvers more complicated than that pretty much nightly for the last few weeks, they have been, sadly, restricted to a purely virtual realm. Should I ever find myself being shot at by a crazy Cajun gang with machine guns, the only talent I could really count on would be my ability to wet my pants.
There are two schools of thought on flight simulators (and, really, videogames in general). The first shoots for pure realism above all else. Every last gadget that would be in a real plane should be accessible with your keyboard, or, ideally, the cockpit mockup you built in your study. If the start up sequence for a plane takes less than 10 minutes for a player in a simulator, people who subscribe to this school start to get ornery. The second (of which I generally count myself a member) place fun far before accuracy. After all, if we wanted a perfect recreation of flying, the thinking goes, we could march right down to the airfield and sign up for lessons. Crimson Skies definitely falls into this second type of game.
Drawing its inspiration more from the aesthetics of Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer than from something like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, the blurb on the back of the case says it all: “Dashing Heroes, Dangerous Dames, and Deadly Dogfights!” From the first minute of the opening cinematic, when our protagonist chases down a plane on foot and then jumps on to catch it, you know that any notion of “realism” will be taking a back seat in this game. Without any real worries about lift or velocity, you can turn on a pin or pull off an Immelman with the click of a button.
Despite its fantastic nature, Crimson Skies still manages to be one of the most cinematic games I’ve every played. Whereas many games try to achieve that feeling by including more and more cut scenes, Crimson Skies actually manages to feel like a movie while you’re playing. When that epic score picks up right in the middle of a dog fight, you half expect Harrison Ford to pop out of your cockpit. Unfortunately, however, the cut scenes they did decide to include actually detract from this feeling.
The single player experience definitely lags at times as a result of this. Microsoft picked their cookie-cutter genre and really decided to run with it. The dialogue and the characters could have been lifted directly out of a 1930’s pulp novel, and not a good one. The plot advances painfully slow, and the game is so combat heavy that there’s little room for creativity in the missions. Whether the mission is to protect a town or find your old zeppelin pilot, every mission pretty much boils down to the same thing: blow up a lot of stuff.
Set in a fictional universe where the United States fell into civil war and eventually broke up after World War I, the world of Crimson Skies is dominated by aircraft, and, of course, air pirates. The remaining “nation-states” provide enough scenery to be an interesting environment to fly around in without any real engagement. Similarly, Microsoft supplies just enough storyline to explain what you’re doing (trying to get rich) while you go about blowing up all this stuff. I couldn’t help but wonder, halfway through the game, if they were particular fans of the John Carmack school of video game plots (“Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie; it’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”). In any case, there’s always some reason to go out and shoot down a few more planes, which is where this game really shines.
Of course, the single player experience is not what attracted all the positive press. Despite all the problems with the plot, characters, and dialogue, Crimson Skies does one thing extremely well: provide a hell of a lot of fun shooting other people down. The integration with Microsoft’s Xbox Live service is near flawless, and playing this game reminds me of why Live is such a success. Full voice support, instant action, and quick gritty fun, this is one of the definitive Live titles released so far. Rather than just making you feel like you’re in a movie alone, this game makes you feel like you and a bunch of friends, countrymen, and complete strangers are all making a movie together.