American history is a lot more interesting around the offices of FASA Interactive than it is in high school textbooks. During the Great Depression, the United States splintered into regional fiefdoms as Prohibition, economic collapse, and isolationism fragmented the union. These regional factions went to war with one another, and before long the land transportation system lay in ruins. The skies became the principal avenue of travel and commerce, and they were soon overrun with air pirates bent on mayhem and personal enrichment. Of course, these pirates were dashing ladies' men who were quick with the wisecracks and wizards with airplane controls. At least that's the story from FASA. And it's the background to Microsoft's upcoming flying action game, Crimson Skies.
Crimson Skies is the brainchild of FASA's Jordan Weisman, one of the creators of the BattleTech universe. The initial working concept was called "Corsairs," although that title was shelved, and the game wasn't immediately pursued. Instead, it was released as a role-playing game, where the highly developed Crimson Skies universe provides a rich environment for play. Microsoft acquired FASA Interactive early last year and gave the go-ahead to a full-blown PC version of the universe. FASA's John Howard is the lead designer, while Zipper Interactive (of MechWarrior 3 fame) is the team working on day-to-day game development of this title.
Crimson Skies puts you in the pilot's seat of various fictional aircraft, from the Fairchild Brigand to the Sanderson Vampire. These aircraft will all have different flight characteristics, although the game is not focused on flight simulation. Rather, these imaginative aircraft designs serve to propel you into an alternate reality where action is very much the name of the game. While the flight physics are not realistic, it still takes skill to fly the planes, especially with the crazy maneuvers you sometimes have to perform. Crimson Skies should appeal to those interested in a game that rewards skillful play without the constraints of the limited capabilities of 1930s airplanes.
Microsoft recently sent us an early alpha copy of the game, and while the game is clearly a work in progress, the work is actually quite far along. While alpha builds are usually still buggy, and this version suffered its fair share of crashes, the shape Crimson Skies is taking was quite plain to see. The game is a true interactive heir to the pulp fiction novels of the '30s and '40s, where daredevil pilots performed unbelievable (and quite impossible) feats of showmanship and gunnery. Crimson Skies will re-create this larger-than-life world in all of its exaggeration and flash and will include an entertaining story that's truly in the spirit of the fiction of the time.
Sights and Sounds
The graphics in Crimson Skies have been purposely kept crisp and unembellished to let people enjoy the game's full effect without the absolute latest in computer hardware. The stated goal is to make the game fully playable on a Pentium 200. The aircraft models are interesting in their design but not especially striking. The terrain is likewise unspectacular, but the placement of structures is very effective in building a challenging and believable game environment. Structures like the white Hollywood sign are fully dynamic, and if you've always hated those giant white letters, you can let loose with a blast of machine-gun fire and watch them fall very believably to the ground. Explosions don't spare the pyrotechnics, and the overall effect more than makes up for the absence of any processor-hogging visuals.
The terrestrial part of Crimson Skies is very important, as even though the game centers on flying, there is plenty to shoot at on the ground, and some missions require you to perform tricky aerial maneuvers like flying under or across bridges to destroy targets. Other missions take place at high altitudes and involve dueling with gigantic, slow-moving zeppelins.
The sounds in Crimson Skies are very well done and create an excellent 1930s atmosphere, not just in the game but in the mission briefings. The voice acting is campy and over the top, just as you'd expect, but it's also quite professionally done and comes off as entertaining rather than silly. The mission briefings take the form of Nathan Zachary outlining his latest crazy scheme to his band of outlaw pilots, and they are very effective in their use of still photos rather than FMV to carry the story. There will be FMV cutscenes as well, but these were not yet incorporated into the version we saw.
This superb sound design carries through to the in-game voices. The missions are planned in advance, but various events conspire to foil these plans, and only through in-game narration can the schemes be rescued. When this happens, the voice acting maintains the high standard in the mission briefings. Characters are usually wild caricatures and are done to good effect. Even incidental snippets maintain the integrity of the '30s-style universe. Taking a few random shots at a wingman (hey, why not?) engenders the reply "Stop firing on me you stupid gorilla! What's wrong with you?" delivered in a suitably outraged 1930s action-movie voice. The work on the Crimson Skies universe is top-notch and reflects FASA's expertise in creating environments for the imagination with its tabletop games.
Capturing the feel of a fictional era in a computer game is a very difficult task because there is only so much that can be done with cutscenes. Eventually the game has to start, and trying to replicate a whole genre of fiction and create a believable universe is a tall order when what really matters is what you actually do in the game. One of the ways Crimson Skies makes its universe seem real is by giving you the tools to re-create the stunt-flying heroics of pulp novel fame.
Because of this, the flight model in Crimson Skies is light on the physics and heavy on the barnstorming. The aircraft are overpowered so that stalling is almost impossible. This makes looping, climbing turns possible, which could never have been performed by airplanes in 1937. Of course, neither could they perform the maneuvers described in pulp fiction stories, and Crimson Skies is very much based on a "movie reality" where if it's fun and looks good, it works. The cockpit has a few necessary indicators like an altimeter and an airspeed indicator, but there really isn't much need to consult these instruments. Crimson Skies is an airborne shooter where the most important thing is to fly fast and fire straight. In fact, of the several available views, probably the most useful one is that which eliminates the cockpit entirely and just displays four gauges across the bottom of the screen. Damage modeling is likewise very simplified, with the fuselage, wings, and tail comprising four separate sections whose damage level is shown graphically on the screen.
Crimson Skies aims for a breathless, nonstop action effect, which would be very hard to handle in a traditional flight simulator where you had to worry about a complex flight model as well as your position in the sky. To make sure you can concentrate on daredevil flying, Crimson Skies has a "spyglass," which always points to your current mission objective. If your goal is to defend a zeppelin, the spyglass shows the zeppelin in a little circular window and indicates its direction relative to your aircraft. This actually allows for game devices like thick clouds, which would otherwise cause you to completely lose your bearings. One mission involves darting in and out of clouds so thick they turn the screen completely white. With the spyglass, though, this just increases your possibility of sneaking up on your slow-moving zeppelin target and diving away before defending fighters can catch you. As each mission objective is fulfilled, the spyglass centers on your next target.
Flying the Frenzied Skies
As the game progresses, new fighter designs will become available, and this will also be tied in to the developing story. There are 11 aircraft types listed, and each is supposed to have unique flight characteristics that will prevent the game from being a one-shot affair. Weapons in the alpha are kept simple, with machine guns, cannon, and rockets available in your arsenal (although more are supposed to be included in the final version).
One thing that makes Crimson Skies very much an action game rather than a flight sim is that there are no wingman commands. While you fly as the leader of a squadron, you're pretty much on your own up in the air, and the single-player game is geared toward personal accomplishment rather than team tactics. This is the case even in missions where you're tasked with repulsing an enemy air attack. In the end, it's up to you, which is in keeping with the "heroes of the air" theme.
One of the most interesting ideas in Crimson Skies is the "personal scrapbook." Because the game is supposed to re-create the feats of action-hero pilots, your fame as a pilot should be reflected by what you achieve in the game. Because each mission has so many targets and objectives, you can achieve your goals in a variety of ways, although the scripting is the same each time through a mission. At the end of each mission there is a scrapbook page detailing the close calls and impossible feats performed in completing the scenario. Thus, even though each of the 24 missions has fixed objectives, your scrapbook page can be quite different from that of someone else who played the same scenario. The scenarios themselves are quite varied, and a fair amount of work seems to have been done to make them unique and interesting. When combined with these diverse missions, the story element is very effective.
Crimson Skies also has a multiplayer component, which will be available via the Microsoft Gaming Zone, although the universe looks to be best developed through the game's single player component, which will be fleshed out through a combination of cutscenes and mission briefings. A lot will depend on how immersive and deep the Crimson Skies world is, because the core gameplay greatly depends on the milieu. Much of the appeal of the game is in its clever use of atmosphere, and while this makes for excellent solo fare, it might not translate so well to simple online dogfighting.
The missions available to date center on three locales: Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, and Hollywood, although Colorado and Manhattan missions were also included but were unplayable. Missions in Crimson Skies are multifaceted, to say the least. There are several elements to each one, and these can involve anything from simple dogfighting to docking with a zeppelin. One interesting mission is fought over a fictional Hollywood movie studio. The studio director is planning to unveil the "Spruce Goose," the largest aircraft ever built. Your job is... you guessed it: steal the plane. The Goose is a seaplane housed in a large hangar on a harbor near the ocean. As the story unfolds, one of your "team members" (a character who got a job as an actress in the studio based on the results of a previous mission) is working the inside and has commandeered the giant machine. You have to first blow open the hangar doors by igniting a set of propane tanks conveniently located near the hangar entrance, and then shepherd the Spruce Goose down the harbor channel and to the open ocean where it will have room to take off. Betty, the actress-turned-getaway-pilot, periodically radios you with instructions or requests for help. Large barges are used as obstacles to hinder the Spruce Goose's escape, and calls of "Boss, can you blow up that barge for me?" require immediate action on your part to keep the escape plan on schedule. Patrol boats are another weapon at the studio's disposal, and blowing up these fast-moving craft is more difficult than eliminating the immobile, crate-carrying barges. All the while there is the airborne danger posed by studio security autogyros (helicopter-like craft quite capable of shooting you down).
The story elements in Crimson Skies involve a lot of nonflying feats, such as stealing limousines and making escapes on rope ladders. However, the in-game actions you perform all involve flying an aircraft. The ground-based maneuvers are done by other members of your team, while you provide the aerial muscle. Some missions will require unusual maneuvers like shooting out an airship's engines without blowing up the whole craft and then docking with the crippled airship to whisk away a German doctor from the clutches of the Russian Communists.
Microsoft is bringing all of its creative power to bear to flesh out the Crimson Skies universe. In addition to the role-playing game mentioned earlier, there is a series of Crimson Skies novels (Spicy Air Tales), a sampling of which can be found online at http://www.crimsonskies.com/universe/spicy-air.htm. There is also a comic book series planned for the near future, and the board game and its attendant figurines are already available. The PC game is scheduled for release in September of this year. The Crimson Skies are getting crowded!