Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, as a game, has basically been to hell and back. The trials and tribulations of this game and the team that made it were shown in the Discovery Channel’s special called “The X Factor: Inside Microsoft’s Xbox” that debuted earlier this year. By far the Crimson Skies section was the most interesting, even if Bungie made a small appearance in the show. We saw as Ed Fries, the person in charge of the Xbox division, sat down to play the game before E3 2002. He didn’t seem to excited about it, but he let it continue development. Then the game was shown at E3 2002 and was met with a lukewarm reaction. The team seemed to be self-destructing and something needed to be done about it.

Ed Fries saw something in the game and shuffled the development deck a little, bringing in some new blood to the team and putting some extra money toward this game. The most notable addition was a new Lead Designer from Totally Games, the company that created the Star Wars space sims for LucasArts on the computer. The game was reconceptualized and was targeted for an early 2003 release. During re-development, Microsoft made the rather smart decision to add Live play to this game and push it back to the fall. Well, this game is finally here and I know I’ve been pumped since seeing the television special. Is it as good as Ron’s Review said? Let’s see.

This is just a beautiful game. Do something for me…in the first area, fly down near the water. See the splashes hitting the screen? That’s how beautiful and detail conscious this game is. Watching the shimmering of the sun off the water is just magnificent and the areas just look fantastic. You go from a beautiful arid area to the desert and even to a thriving metropolis in Chicago. That’s just 3 of the levels too, there’s lots more to see.

The planes you fly are nicely animated and the special moves are a sight to see. You don’t see a whole lot of the enemy planes close up, but you do get to see the large zeppelins that are flying around and those look beautiful. As you shoot down the planes and whatever else crosses your way, you see wonderful particle effects, although the planes seem to blow up the same way every time. It is cool to see their smoke coming out as they are on fire though. The different missiles you have on the planes have nice particle effects too. Even when flying in storms this game just looks wonderful.

You may ask if there is any slowdown. Yes there is, but only in one case. I saw slowdown when taking down zeppelins and getting to close to them as they are burning or blowing up. The framerate will drop if you fly by them or through the exploding zeppelin. During the online games I have played I have seen no slowdown at all, even in 16 player matches. This is an amazing feat considering how large the areas are. Other than the zeppelin slowdown, this game runs smooth as silk. It’s really amazing that there is no slowdown considering how large and detailed the areas are.

This game uses Dolby Digital 5.1 to its fullest. I can’t remember the last time I have heard nice sound from the surround speakers in an Xbox game. This game surrounds you with sound, it’s really great. The guns and missiles sound awesome and each plane has different engine noises. The voice acting is top notch, far better than Midtown Madness 3. Even the French guy sounds spot on. The only minus I would give this is that I feel the engine noises from the planes are not loud enough. It is easy to see how much care went into this game just from the graphics and sound.

The music will make you think of Indiana Jones. I think the music is fantastic in this game and it just sounds perfect for a flying game that is set in the 1930s, but a different 1930s than we experienced. I have a feeling some may be put off by the music, but I personally think it is fantastic.

This game has some nice, tight control, but you have to get used to the special moves. Controls are pretty simple. The left analog stick controls movement, the right analog stick controls the rotation of your place. The R trigger is your machine gun while the L trigger is the missile button. As you fly over icons on the level, you can accept the missions, land, etc. with the X button. Y button is for turbo and B button is for slowing down and makes it easier to turn hard. In order to do special moves you use the two analog sticks. You move both sticks to different directions and push in the right analog stick and you pull off a special move. The special move uses up some of your “special” meter. This meter also depeletes when you are using turbo, although it does regenerate itself. Once you get used to the special moves you will be doing 180 degree turns in no time so you can come up right behind a plane that just went past you.

This control system is intuitive, but you really have to work at it to master it. Once you get into online games you’ll find that you may be on the short end of the stick if you don’t know how to fly well in the plane you choose. Speaking of planes, you pick up ones as you go through the single player mode. Each one has different armor, speed and weapon bars. You will find that some planes are better to use than others in specific missions. Luckily they are available to you in your zeppelin.

Bottom line, this game is just fun. Finally Microsoft brings another Live game that also has a great single player mode in it, unlike Midtown Madness 3. You are treated to cutscenes and a lot of funny banter as you go through this mode. In each area there are a variety of missions to choose from. Many are based on the main storyline, but there are others such as getting in races for money and things like that. Along with getting the main missions done, you are also on the lookout for medals and any way to get more money. With those two things you are able to upgrade your planes with new coats of paint and stronger levels in the armor, speed or weapon bar. Sometimes you sacrifice a point on one of them to make the other 2 better, but the planes get better overall.

You get to shoot planes, boats, zeppelins and other things down with your planes. You can even land on a boat or somewhere else that is equipped with AA guns or other high-powered weaponry. You can then zoom in with the A button to get a better shot at your targets. Of course you are not a mobile object anymore and you’re open for attack. That’s the only minus though as these guns are pretty powerful and can take down a zeppelin faster than you can usually. There are even planes with aft guns on them that you can switch too.

Since Ron’s review it seems some things have changed with difficulty. Ron got the final build version of the game to review, but in the final box copy you are able to choose between 3 difficulty levels and there is a 4th one that is locked. So, those missions that may seem a little difficult can now be made easier.

The best things I can say about this game is that it has a cohesive storyline and keeps you interested through the whole game just in single player mode and that this game is just plain fun.

The single player part is pretty long and you will enjoy it the whole time you play. However, the big draw in this game (and something that wasn’t in the game until lately) is the Live online play. You can have 16 players playing at once and you are able to have a guest play with you in a split screen mode on your own Xbox. This is also a System Link game as well. You have single and team games on Live. You can Dogfight, Team Dogfight, Capture the Flag, Keep Away, Team Keepaway or play Wild Chicken. In the last one you can shoot the planes carrying the chicken (which scores you 1 point) or grab the chicken and reach the goal for a touchdown. Pretty cool.

You have not exprienced anything like this in Live before. When you get in a 16-player game you will be awestruck that the game does not slow down at all and that the action can be fast and furious. In Team modes you can only hear your team, which is pretty cool. You can also hear the voices through your TV, although I have hard time hearing them even with sound effects turned down and voice all the way up. Maybe I am doing something wrong though. This is the best Live game since MechAssault and not surprisingly FASA Studios had a hand in both.