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Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge (Xbox)
MSRP: $19.99
Number of Players: 1-16 (w/ online play via Xbox Live!)
Developer: FASA Studio/Microsoft Game Studio
Publisher: Microsoft

Rating:
*****
out of
*****

If one watched a recent Discovery Channel documentary about the development of Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, it would have been very easy to write off as a complete train wreck. It seemed no one could pin down what the game should become. Was it supposed to be a flight simulator? Was it supposed to be an arcade game? Was it supposed to be an adventure game? Well, even after the hell that was the development process, what emerged can be summed up in just one word: fun. Wait. Let's say three words: fun as hell.

The game takes place in an alternate reality where, following World War I -- the Great War -- the United States splinters into several smaller countries. Flying has replaced road and rail travel as the number one method of getting around. Air piracy is rampant.

Nathan Zachary, your avatar in this world of flight-happiness, is the leader of the Fortune Hunters, a band of air pirates. As you control Nathan, you're given the opportunity to fly 10 different planes -- all of which are upgradeable -- as you complete various quests and missions. A Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Rocketeer type back story forces you to visit various locales in what was once the United States of America following bad guys and vanquishing evil.

What's really cool about the nature of the gameplay is that while you choose a plane to fly at the beginning of a mission, there's usually an opportunity to land and pick up another plane of a different type along the way. Yes, I said land. You can land your plane and get out occasionally. Sometimes you can also man anti-aircraft guns or guided missile launchers as well. This helps break up the game a bit and saves a few missions from being too monotonous.

The environments in which the game's action takes place are fantastically detailed. From the cars traveling the streets of Chicago to the light plumes of smoke rising from a mine in New Mexico, the little touches punctuate the care the game's designers took in designing the areas where you'll fight to control the skies. There's a tremendous rush to be had while you pilot your Devastator airplane through a tight-walled canyon at top speed as you try to outmaneuver a trailing enemy fighter.

The control is nicely suited to the Xbox's controller. The left analog stick steers the plane and the right stick allows you to roll. The right trigger fires your primary weapon and the left fires a more powerful, but limited in quantity, secondary weapon, usually missiles or rockets of some type. Pressing the Y-button will accelerate the plane and the B-button acts as an air-brake, enabling tighter turns. The X-button activates ground-based actions like stopping for repairs or landing the plane. The A-button allows for a sniper-like view when using the anti-aircraft guns.

While the single-player game is fun and exciting, Crimson Skies' true value lies in the multiplayer aspect. Up to 16 players can duke it out on Xbox Live in Dogfight, Team Dogfight, Keep Away, Capture the Flag and Wild Chicken games. Of course, with the communicator headset, you can trash talk or yell encouragement to teammates. (One night, a fellow gamer even taught me the finer points of special moves before blowing me out of the sky.)

Crimson Skies may have appeared to be a mess during the days documented on the TV special, but the final product may be one of the best Xbox multiplayer games of all time.

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