Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge arrived with so much hype and fanfare that it's easy to forget that, at one time, it was nearly vaporware. After a dismal E3 showing a couple of years ago and tepid feedback from testers, Microsoft made the decision to halt the title in mid-development and start from scratch with a new team of artists, writers and programmers. Purportedly, the story fell flat and the action lacked any sort of panache that may have elevated it above standard arcade-shooter fare. Retooled with a completely new story and overhauled gameplay, Crimson Skies was set to be a premier Xbox showcase title and a boon for Xbox Live subscribers. Did Microsoft pull it off?
I suppose the most diplomatic answer is that it depends on what one might be expecting. The flying/shooting genre is inherently a limited one. After the Rogue Squadron and Ace Combat games, it's clear that mechanically, one way or another you are just going to be flying around trying to shoot stuff while trying not to get shot yourself. There is a little bit of flourish added to the mostly pedestrian mechanics in Crimson Skies—in the form of loops and rolls that can be executed with simple button combinations—that helps to elevate the gameplay, but for the most part it's nothing that will set the world on fire. The real key to the game's strengths lies in the way the mechanics are contextually applied. It takes some real creativity to breathe life into the "fly around and shoot stuff" framework, and it's clear the team at Microsoft tried very hard to squeeze every last bit of life out of this genre's aging gameplay.
A well told story that brings to mind the larger-than-life heroism and whimsical otherworldliness of Disney's The Rocketeer encapsulates the game. Though the game follows a mostly linear path to tell its story, it doesn't divide the gameplay up into the standard fare of loosely intertwined levels. Instead, there are large, open areas where players fly around and select missions at their discretion. It will generally be something along the lines of "protect this" or "blow up that." Now, generally that would be all she wrote and the game would simply be a scattering of similar mundane action sequences. But in a surprising twist, it mostly works.
Every action sequence is woven tightly into the story. While this alone isn't enough, it's done in way that keeps a little bit of tension and excitement to the action. For example, one sequence has a giant robotic spider thundering its way toward a character's mountaintop domicile, so targeting the beast's weak points gets tricky as it rumbles over and around hilltops. Missions may require players to protect a plane or location from unfriendly fire coming in the simultaneous forms of gunships, planes, and zeppelins; conversely, missions may take on a more routine offensive flare of destroying scattered targets or a well-guarded enemy stronghold. Regardless, the battles have a satisfyingly climatic feel, and the tricky-to-navigate locales keep the combat challenging.
But even though so much of Crimson Skies works and truly does a respectable job of adding some pizzazz to its increasingly arcane framework through a tightly wound narrative, I never felt that it was quit enough. Too often, despite the challenge and the variety of the missions, I found myself yearning to swap the disk out in favor of more unique fare. The game is enjoyable only so long as one can derive visceral pleasure from repeatedly pressing the "fire" buttons while zig-zagging through the game's tortuous environments—which is to say that it is without question a good bit of escapist fun, but its lack of substance begins to wear on the excitement. The environments are big and beautiful, to be sure, but they are devoid of interactivity. For example, if a fleet of gunboats are making their way to my friends' base by way of a canyon river, why can't I use those missiles of mine to knock a chunk of rocks off the cliff and block their entrance? Why can't I destroy any but the designated buildings—perhaps causing one to tilt onto an enemy zeppelin? What's more, the limited variety of weapons (despite being upgradeable, there is always just a primary and secondary fire) sap a bit of fun out of the gameplay.
As a multiplayer game, Crimson Skies fares adequately, roughly on par with MechAssault (minus the destructible environments, of course). There are plenty of modes available that, despite catchy monikers, are essentially variations on deathmatch and capture the flag. But the freedom to fly around and face human opponents in massive dogfights is a new experience on the Xbox, and despite its overall simplicity, it remains respectfully addicting.
Crimson Skies does so much to propel itself above mediocrity that it seems strange that, though it succeeds, it doesn't capture the robust energy of its larger-than-life story in its gameplay. It comes close, and close is enough to make it a worthwhile trek, but it's an adventure that never satisfies beyond a penchant for escapism.