Crimson Skies Review
By Corey Stoneburner |
What the hell happened? After getting my hopes up about this game, I've been disappointed by the reliability of the released version. My opinion has changed a little bit since I posted my First Impressions last Monday and although I still love the game, some gamers (including me) have been experiencing a minor but admitedly annoying bug that corrupts their saved game data.
But let's focus on the positive things about the game. I still stand by what I've said about the game being highly inventive, tons of fun and ridiculously addictive. In fact, these are the very factors that make the save game problem so infuriating. But wait, I said we were going to focus on positive things, didn't I? Well to start with, Crimson Skies has a really original concept. Not so much in the gameplay department (although there are some notable aspects of the game design) as in the idea itself. In a climate where so many evocations of the romance and high-adventure of the 1930's era fall flat, this game is surprisingly full of pulpy goodness. The sense of adventure and derring-do is refreshingly integrated into every aspect of this game. What's more, the game accurately reflects the modish and hip nature of 1930s aviation.
The situations, scenarios and sound all contribute to this illusion as well. Since we've already covered so much of the background and character of the game in preview, features and first impressions, I'll keep it short here. Crimson Skies fashions an alternate history that is rare in being both compelling and believable. The USA as we know it has fractured into several small nations and the federal highway system has fallen into hopeless disrepair. The airways are the new avenues of commerce and are preyed upon by groups of pirates. That's where you come in. As Nathan Zachary, the leader of the ragtag aerial pirates known as the Fortune Hunters, you're out for your own best interests. But in true pulp style, Nathan always seems to be on the side of morality and decency. Hey, you can be a thief and still be a hero, right?
Nathan's exploits as the head of the Fortune Hunters are taken right from the pages of the classic pulps. Well not taken directly from them, cause that would be plagiarism, but they're definitely in that style. You'll have to jump out of your plane onto the wing of a bomber, blow open the doors of a hangar and steal the Spruce Goose, fly low over a train to rescue lovely ladies, barnstorm through a Hollywood movie lot and rescue a German rocket scientist. There's more than enough material here for a full-blown adventure film. In all I think that's the success of the game. The cinematic flair is dead-on accurate in Crimson Skies and other game developers need to look towards it as a model.
And all of this is supported by the wonderful script and voice acting in the game. The guy who plays Nathan Zachary gets my vote for best vocal performance in a game this year. His delivery of the "I'll do more than jump your claim, you monkey! Where's my crew?" line is nothing short of hilarious. And there's all sorts of really natural sounding banter among all the characters in the game. During the mission briefings, you hear Nathan and his crew joke back and forth about the upcoming missions. Once they take to the skies, the constant chatter really gives you a sense that your wingmen and opponents are more than just simple AI routines. They're real characters with real emotions. The chatter also gives you a sense of what's going on around you. Granted, it's all a little tongue in cheek, but that makes it all the more believable. And the swing soundtrack is also really choice.
The gameplay is simply ingenious. There's still a small minority who are resisting the game just because there's a picture of a plane on the box. This is not a flight simulator; it's an action game. You'll be able to tell this right away once you start playing. The planes in the game respond in a most unrealistic but utterly captivating manner. There's no need to worry about flaps or mixtures, landing gears or stalls. Well you have to worry about stalls a little but it's nowhere near the same level that you'd expect from a real flight sim. The arcadey nature of the engine lets you pull off some breathtaking stunts. In addition to all the regular dogfighting you'll do, you'll fly under bridges, through tunnels and in-between the buildings in downtown Manhattan. What else could you want?
A few more concessions to realism have been made in other areas, but once again, they're all done in service of the game. One of the neatest things in the game design is the spyglass feature. Most games already give you some kind of arrow that points in the direction of your target but Crimson Skies adds a little camera window that shows a picture of your enemy. You can see which way they're facing and whether or not they've been damaged. The game also uses a slight auto-aim feature to make the dogfights a little more decisive.
There are a ton of other intelligent features (like the cool plane design interface), but let's finish up the positive part of this interview by talking a little about the graphics. While the game doesn't have the same model detail of something like Combat Flight Sim 2, the environment textures and models are superb. And a game like Crimson Skies forces you to interact with the environment. I already mentioned flying through things but Crimson Skies also puts you a lot closer to the ground than most flying games. This really gives you a sense of speed but it also forces you to notice the trees and buildings and all the little dips and rises in the ground. And where else are you going to get the chance to fly through a movie studio lot or downtown Manhattan?
Now for the really painful part. Crimson Skies has some annoying crash bugs and some slowdown in the game menus. For the most part, these can be cleared up by downloading the new Detonator 3 drivers. Sadly the drivers don't completely fix the problems with the frame rate and the few missing textures on the plane insignias. The game runs fairly choppy even on my work computer (PIII 633MHz with 128MB RAM and an NVIDIA RIVA TNT 2 card). The choppiness was much more noticeable on slower machines with older cards. But these problems, while frustrating, are at least bearable.
What I can't stand is the unreliability of the saved game files. Let's say you just got home, installed the game and breezed through the first few missions. Now you're ready for some online play. Well apart from the normal inconvenience of the Zone (ugh...), Crimson Skies will likely corrupt your saved game data so that it cannot be read when you go back into the campaign. I wouldn't criticize Microsoft or Zipper too much for this if it didn't seem to be happening to a lot of people who are playing the game right now.
And there is some evidence that this loss of data even happens if you play through an Instant Action mission. I guess the only answer to the problem is to sit down and play through the entire campaign first before you try your hand at multiplayer or instant action. Or wait for a patch. Some folks have had some success in copying the saved game folder into a safe location and then restoring it after they've finished playing online. After talking with Microsoft Quality Assurance all week, we're still at a loss for a solution. I do have to say that there does seem to be some genuine concern and a sense of immediacy about this problem on the part of Microsoft. And that's not just with me either. There's a pretty strong MS QA presence in the newsgroups too. For that they get big points.
Even with all the problems we've experienced Crimson Skies is still the best game I've played this year. But there are some serious issues with the game that need to be addressed as soon as possible in order to help the game realize its amazing potential. The issue of score has been weighing on me ever since we got the final. I'd love to give this game one of the highest scores I've ever given a game but in the absence of reliable saved game files prevent me from giving Crimson Skies the glowing review that I truly wanted to give it. Still, a little frustration is a small price to pay for playing one of the best games of the past few years.
-- Stephen Butts
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