Crimson Skies

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Crimson Skies is a game for PC and Xbox which is based on the classic tabletop game by FASA. This writeup covers the PC version, which was developed by Zipper Interactive and published by Microsoft. The game is a flight "simulator" with arcade-style physics - meaning that it bears little to no resemblance to actually flying an airplane. The planes in question are all prop-driven with WWII-inspired designs, including an assortment of fighter craft with and without turrets, a bomber, and even an autogyro. Each plane handles differently, with variation in lift, speed, and turning ability. Players can design their own planes both inside the single player campaign and also for the "instant action" mode in which you fly scenarios, and for network play. Net play is essentially always LAN play but Microsoft provides a matching service on the MSN Gaming Zone. The Xbox version supports Xbox Live and while (supposedly) using essentially the same engine as the PC game, is laid out quite differently, with a different story, (somewhat) different planes, different missions, and different gameplay.

Crimson skies outlines the career of gentleman air pirate Nathan Zackary and his crew of merry men and women. In typical fashion all of the characters are fairly young and conventionally attractive... especially the women. This last is important to the game because as it progresses the player will earn "memento" pictures of them which can be put on the front page, or exported. Besides mementos there will also be snapshots taken when the player flies through "danger zones" which are generally things like tunnels, caves, and bridges, which can also be exported to the desktop. All of these pictures plus assorted newspaper clippings telling the story are saved in a scrapbook which is used to navigate between missions. Clearing one mission allows the next mission to be flown in an extremely linear fashion. In general the player is allowed to choose the plane they will fly and its ammunition loadout, though some missions have restrictions on one, the other, or both.

The game features 24 missions, 7 environments, 12 planes, 4 types of ammunition for your guns, and 11 types of rockets. The missions are best handled by a faq (try GameFAQs) but the other items deserve to be covered in any review so you can get an idea of what the game is all about sans spoilers. Of the missions it is easiest simply to say that you achieve assorted feats of derring-do like rescuing women, saving the good guys, and so on, while becoming a rich and famous air pirate in the process. That's what we're here for, right?

Each environment is used in several missions, and each one has its own assortment of danger zones which come into play differently in the game and in instant action. For example, one map (Hawaii) has a bridge which your opponents will attempt to destroy in the instant action mode (which you can fly under for a danger zone) but you end up blowing it up early on in the single player campaign. The environments are "an airfield", "the clouds", "Hawaii", "Manhattan", "the ocean", "Sky Haven", and "a movie studio". Of these, the most interesting are (unsurprisingly) Hawaii, Manhattan, Sky Haven, and "a movie studio". These environments have the most obstacles. Manhattan is a night map full of buildings, with a (destroyable) hangar in it. The movie studio has hangars, sets with holes placed conveniently such that you can try to fly through them, which is possible in anything but the balmoral bomber and maybe even that if you are exceptionally lucky. Hawaii has a couple of caves that you can fly through and Sky Haven has dirigibles, arches, tunnels, and mountains rising up into clouds. The other maps are pretty much what you'd expect, though certainly each has terrain with which the player can interact.

On the subject of blowing things up, many of the objects on the maps can be destroyed. Every vehicle can be blown up, some bridges, many small buildings, doors on hangars and warehouses, and so on. Some buildings (and all zeppelins) also have bits that can be blown away, like turrets and engines. You can slow zeppelins to half speed by destroying half their engines, and destroy them by destroying all their engines, or by shooting their cannon hatches when they open. This is the subject of several of the in-game missions. Dirigibles generally launch fighters (typically in wings of four) when engaged in the campaign. Your base of operations is a zeppelin, and you dock with it by flying into its belly-slung docking hook at about 150mph or less (most planes stall below 80mph) or by flying near it and pressing the autodock key (default 'a'). You are prompted to dock when you have completed a mission. You must dock with other things as well throughout the course of the game, and a similar procedure is used to fly low over something, drop a ladder, and pluck someone away.

The game has a number of guns which can be placed on your planes (or which naturally come with them) and there are four kinds of ammunition for them. The guns range in size from .30 to .70 caliber in .1 inch divisions and you can fill them with slug, dum-dum,armor piercing, or high explosive ammunition. Slugs and HE ammunition affect both armor and structure the same, while dum-dums mostly affect planes whose armor has already been shot away, and AP rounds primarily damage armor. Larger caliber weapons have a lower rate of fire and do more damage per hit, thus they require more accuracy.

Planes also have hardpoints upon which rockets are mounted. The standard rocket is the High Explosive type, which delivers the maximum damage to a single area. There are 11 kinds of rocket in all. Armor piercing rockets destroy armor, and flak rockets do light damage to an area. Sonic rockets stun the pilot for a few seconds, and flash rockets blind pilots temporarily. There is also a rear flash rocket convenient for throwing someone off your tail. Smoke rockets actually blow smoke from your craft, also to dissuade tailing. Choker rockets temporarily consume the oxygen in an area, causing planes to stall. Beeper rockets plant a homing beacon on planes, and seeker rockets follow the beeper. Finally, aerial torpedos arm after three hundred meters, and deliver the maximum possible damage, but they can be shot down while in flight and they are very slow.

Network play comes in two varieties: TCP/IP LAN and Internet games, and IPX LAN games. All of the above allow eight players and three game types: Capture the Flag, Deathmatch, and Zeppelin Battles. You may have as many as eight teams, though there is little point to such a configuration. You must use the MSN Gaming Zone to make internet game matches, which in turn necessitates having a Microsoft Passport account and having the Zonematch software installed on your PC. The Zone software will start Crimson skies in Internet game mode, pointed at the IP Address of the server - the player who has elected to "host" the game. Crimson skies uses Directplay for networking as is typical of Microsoft-published titles, and as such two applications will need to pass your firewall (if any) - the Directplay helper, and Crimson Skies itself. Firewalls like ZoneAlarm or the one in Windows XP Service Pack 2 will prompt you to ask you if you want to allow them access to the network. I was unable to use TCP/IP LAN or IPX LAN modes on my local switched network using two systems both running Windows XP with SP2, both with the latest Crimson Skies patch, and ended up having to use the Internet option, and input the IP Address of the server.

The game itself has surprisingly few problems. The largest of them is probably the way the game handles the potential of collision. Your plane will automatically shy away from buildings, the ground, and other obstacles, which becomes a problem when trying to perform stunt flying. Your plane may suddenly jerk in an unexpected direction because the game has decided that you are trying to avoid an obstacle. It is necessary to use the MSN Gaming Zone to play over the internet (unless you know the IP of an active game server, and there is no dedicated server) which is annoying to say the least. This is a problem shared by a majority of Microsoft games. Finally, it is possible to be well within sight distance while trying to carry out a mission that involves following someone, but the game decides you have avoided an obstacle because you are not close enough to the plane in front of you. This last is not a game engine problem, but a game design problem. It's also worth noting that if you pick up a used copy of Crimson Skies, you might have problems trying to play or even install it on newer versions of Windows, such as Windows XP. The original game was designed for Windows 98. The version you can buy in stores today (sometimes from places like Wal-Mart as it is now a budget title) runs fine on any Windows from 98 to XP.

All in all, Crimson Skies is a game well worth buying, especially since you should be able to purchase it for $15 or so. The stunt flying aspect of the game makes rudder control mandatory, so rudder pedals or a joystick with a third axis (twist) will be desirable. Dogfighting at these low speeds also mandates significant use of the throttle, so you will want a throttle or a joystick with one. It might also be possible to play on a gamepad with shoulder buttons, which after all is the default way to play the game on Xbox, but a joystick is a far better way to control virtual (or real) aircraft.

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