Xbox launches flying pirates

Game: `Crimson Skies' puts you in the cockpit of a post-World War I plane, dueling in dogfights with rival aviators and corrupt authorities.

October 16, 2003|By Victor Godinez | Victor Godinez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Back in June, the Discovery Channel aired a documentary on the trials and tribulations of developing three Xbox games.

One of them was Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, scheduled for release Tuesday by Microsoft. I was eager to play it because the documentary revealed that Crimson Skies ($49; suitable for ages 13 and older) did not come together easily.

Midway through its development, half the design and programming team was sacked and the game substantially redesigned because Microsoft Game Studios boss Ed Fries declared it boring.

Thankfully, the game is now a straightforward action bonanza.

In a fanciful alternate universe after World War I, the United States has splintered into several tiny nation-states and air piracy is the order of the day.

You play as Nathan Zachary, air pirate and lovable rogue in the Indiana Jones mold. Your base is a massive zeppelin, and each mission begins with your propeller plane dropping from the belly of the blimp.

There's no pretense of sophisticated game play. You don't even get an air speed indicator, but you do get turbo boosts of energy, a machine gun and a missile launcher.

Most of the missions are dogfights in which you shred waves of enemy pirates and corrupt air cops. You can also man the anti-aircraft guns on your zeppelin or on the ground. Some missions require finesse, with you flying through hoops, canyons and skyscrapers with enemies on your tail.

As the missions progress, you'll collect planes - and even a cool mini-helicopter - to add to your armada. As you accumulate tokens and cash, you can upgrade your planes.

In between missions, you can just fly around and admire the scenery - and you'll definitely want to.

The island levels have waterfalls, mountains, caves, volcanoes and sunny beaches. Fly too close to the ocean, and water will spray up behind you.

In the desert, you can zoom through a mini-Grand Canyon, dodging and twisting through rocky ravines. The Chicago level lets you dip through underground garages, train tunnels and city streets.

The sound effects, particularly the voice acting, also are noteworthy. The crack of your guns is cool, and the actors play their B-movie roles to the hilt.

Although the action is intense, there are a couple of issues that hold Crimson Skies back.

First, it can be hard to figure out what your next objective is. You'll fly around, looking for the little runway or gun emplacement you have to buzz to activate your next goal.

Also, while you get radar at the top of the screen, you can't change what enemy you're targeting. An arrow on the screen will point in the direction of your main objective, but you have to find the individual planes on your own.

Finally, this game is playable online through Xbox Live, which Microsoft is pushing. I couldn't find any other beta testers online, so I can't say how well the game works when playing against others online.

Controller accessory

Video game accessory firm Saitek sent me its Adrenalin control stick ($39 at www. -stick.htm) for the Xbox. Saitek is promoting it as a great accompaniment to Crimson Skies.

The stick feels fine and helps immerse you in the game, but Crimson Skies doesn't include menus to let you change the default button configurations. Instead of using the trigger on the Adrenalin stick to fire your guns, you have to use the throttle lever to shoot, which is annoying. The standard Xbox controller works fine with the game.

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