Looking at the exotic and bizarrely-styled aircraft on this page, it's obvious that MechWarrior 3 developers Zipper Interactive have had way too much time on their hands. Between dice-rolling their way across the board game on which Crimson Skies is based and thumbing through old WWII books about experimental German aircraft, the artists have certainly been letting their imaginations run wild. In the real world half the damn things surely wouldn't even get off the ground, but thankfully Crimson Skies is set in a 1930s alternate reality - one in which booze is still off the menu and civil war is the main course.
Taking place above the North American continent, Crimson Skies sees you as a sort of gum-chewing Biggies, an ace pilot who craves both money and fame. Aviators are more popular than film stars, their vehicles as bloated and eccentric as only Americans could possibly love. With most of what was the USA at war with itself, the only real way of getting around is by air and it's also the only real means that allied states have to trade with each other. As a 'freelance aviator', your job varies between taking down giant zeppelins as a hired pirate and accompanying the inflated behemoths as an escort. You work for anyone who'll take you on.
Mission-based, Crimson Skies is certainly less of a simulation than most flight games. In fact, we're told it's action all the way. The game can be played from a first-person cockpit view, or in third-person with the camera behind your aircraft. Over 30 different aircraft will be in the game, with just as many weapons, and you'll be able to set up your own weapons configurations before each mission.
Using a modified version of the MechWarrior 3 engine (which must have been heavily tweaked if you take into account that Mech 3 was entirely ground-based), Crimson Skies should offer unparalleled ground detail, with plenty of air-to-ground action as well as more typical dogfighting. Because of the designs of some of the planes, we can expect far more variety in gameplay than in more traditional prop-based sims; some fighters offering ridiculous speeds by trading off wide turning circles. There will be tight-arsed hardcore sim fans who are bound to scoff - those who preach endlessly about realism - but we think it's about time someone injected a bit of fun into the flight sim genre and Crimson Skies looks like just what the doctor ordered. Rest assured we'll be first in line for a prescription.
The problem with real history is that it can be quite dull, and everyone knows what happens. Crimson Skies is set in a wacky alternative-reality in 1930s America, which has fragmented into skirmishing nation states. Because the main roads and railway lines pass through these different nations, the only way to transport stuff is using giant airships - easy prey for airborne pirates, flying funny looking planes with lots of guns. Of course, the pirates don't have it all their own way, and each nation has its own aerial militias, with crack pilots.
Crimson Skies isn't due to be released until the Summer, and the details of mission and campaigns haven't been finalised yet. But if you're bored with all that reality stuff, the idea of flying a Grumman E-1c Avenger for the Nation of Hollywood could be a refreshing change from all those Mustangs and F-15s.
"Treat your kite like your woman: climb into her five times a day and take her to heaven and back." Black Adder's Lord Flashaart would have been instantly at home with Crimson Skies, a gloriously indulgent fantasy flight simulation of muscle-bound planes, dastardly baddies and brazen Hollywood starlets.
It's based on a role-playing board game and takes place in a sauced-up cross between the roaring '20s and prohibition '30s where the US has fragmented into bickering, autonomous republics such as the Empire State and the Nation of Hollywood. Zeppelins are the cargo-carrying workhorses in a volatile political landscape, and America's love affair with the automobile has become a plane and pilot fixation.
In this retro world where popular beat combos blast out Big Band and Swing (no, not swing beat) at the drop of an immaculately tailored hat, you play roister doistering Nathan Zachary, leader of a band of airborne pirates. Ahead of you lie daredevil encounters straight out of the pages of a comic book.
'Comic' is key. Before the hardcore simulation brigade raises a flap fixation or rivet-to-weight ratio, this is a playpen for aerial fantasies. A stylised arena designed for the sole purpose of having you win - heroically, of course - as many dogfights with the daftest planes in the shortest possible bme. It's less a case of willing suspension of disbelief, more a one-game lynch mob for your credibility.
And fair play to it for that, because the board game heritage rounds out what might otherwise have been a gimmicky airborne blast into a colourful gameworld with a strong storyline and, stone me, a sense of humour.
Egos At 6 O'clock
From the moment you first drop into action from your base airship, the flak starts flying and the pace rarely lets up. The planes are as fun to fly as they are to look at, with most of the action taking place in 'yer face and at under a 1,000ft. It may not be pushing the boundaries of engine design or flight dynamics but there's little to complain about the performance and visual qualities of the models or landscape engine. The skies and landscapes are soon crowded with targets and, within the main missions, there are numerous secondary objectives and hidden rewards -from strafing the Hollywood sign to mid-air hijacks of enemy bombers - that would have no place in a conventional simulation. If it's in the game, chances are you can fly through it, under it or shoot chunks off it.
The fact that Crimson Skies wants you to win and practically wets itself presenting newspaper cuttings and medals when you do is a large part of its charm. Having the landscape bounce your plane away from all but the most head-on smashes, for instance, is a dead giveaway that the odds are heavily stacked in your favour.
That's fine for the feelgood factor, the catch is that all this instant gratification is, well, pretty damn instant. Novice pilots will take about 20 hours to complete the main story-driven campaign game, while more experienced flyers will find that the game has only the one worthwhile difficulty mode - hard. What replay value there is hinges on whether you buy into the throwaway fun factor in the first place, or fancy some passable multiplayer over a network or via free match-ups on the MS Gaming Zone.
Still, Crimson Skies may be a lightweight but it's hard to dislike this high-camp homage to retro thrills 'n' spills for that. Just think Errol Flynn with wings and the weaponry to match. That should give you a fair, and frightening, idea of what to expect.
Download Crimson Skies
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode