Hands-on: Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

Microsoft shows off its new and improved action shooter.

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We recently had a chance to check out a new build of Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge that showed off the benefits afforded by the additional development time. Improved graphics, refined control, a new game structure, and the addition of Xbox Live support add up to a significant overhaul to an already impressive-looking game.

For those unfamiliar with the world of Crimson Skies, the game takes place in the 1930s, in an alternate past wherein the Great Depression caused the United States to break up into a host of regional fiefdoms that were in a state of constant skirmishing. The fighting eventually led to the breakdown of the railway system, which forced these nations to rely on aircraft for commerce and travel. As a result, the skies soon became crowded with passenger and cargo traffic. Unfortunately, as airborne trade grew, so did the menace of "air pirates." You'll assume the role of one of these industrious buccaneers, Nathan Zachary, who starts the game in a bit of a bind. Following an unfortunate run of luck during a poker game, Nathan loses his zeppelin, the Pandora, and its crew. To add insult to injury, while Nathan is recovering, his best friend and his mentor are killed. This, of course, adds an element of revenge of the game, which ultimately serves as the main crutch for the plot.

While Crimson Skies' story hasn't changed much since the game was first introduced, the way the narrative unfolds certainly has. While the last incarnation was very linear experience that kept you moving along on a set path, you'll now find your progression through the game to be a much more open-ended experience. You'll start out flying through an area. If you explore a bit, you'll find areas with blue icons above them, and when you're within range, you'll be able to press the X button and interact with them in a number of ways. Some of the icons will trigger story-specific missions, while others will trigger one of the more than 30 secondary missions in the game. You can even switch to different planes--there are 11 in the game--or leave your plane completely and get into an antiaircraft gun to pick off planes from the ground.

The only factor that dictates your progress through Crimson Skies is the economy system. As you complete critical story missions and secondary missions, you'll earn cash, which is key to your advancement. The most obvious use for money in the game is to pay off informants who will provide you with information and drive the story along. However, you'll also be able to spend your cash on upgrading Nathan's zeppelin, which serves as your home base in the game, and upgrading your plane's weapons and other stats. Additionally, you'll be able to pop into the service stations that are strewn throughout the game and use money to repair damage to your plane and restock your ammunition.

The game's control has been tweaked some since we last saw it, and thankfully it provides a very user-friendly experience--essentially you only have to worry about your speed and shooting enemies. You'll be able to speed up and slow down, as well as fire your craft's machine guns. In addition, each plane is equipped with a unique secondary weapon that has a limited amount of ammunition but packs a considerable punch. Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge also provides you with a small assortment of special trick moves that you can perform when in a pinch, such as 180-degree turns or other evasive maneuvers.

Crimson Skies' visuals have been polished considerably since we last saw the game. You'll find impressive lighting and particle effects, along with massive environments stocked with volumetric clouds and detailed oceans. One of the levels we played was set in and around a massive caldera that dwarfed just about everything in its vicinity. A lot of work has obviously gone into the many little touches in the game, such as the shell casings that fly toward the screen and the small droplets of water that splash onto the camera when flying close to the water. The frame rate managed to stay stable and respectably high as we took the game for a test drive, which bodes well for its final release.

While the revamped single-player game is obviously pretty solid, the new multiplayer elements are shaping up to be even better. Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge will feature Xbox Live support for online play for up to 16 players. You'll find six game types and six maps to use in your competitions. You'll also be able to play multiplayer games in system-link and four-player split-screen modes.

Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is looking quite good. The improvements made to the game and the addition of Xbox Live are extremely impressive. The variety in the planes is also very nice, and in addition to the standard assortment of weapons, you'll find some very slick weapon add-ons for your fleet of selectable craft, such as Tesla coil blasts and a sniper scope. Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is currently slated to ship this fall for the Xbox. Look for more on the game soon.

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