Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is a first-party video game title developed by FASA Studio (part of Microsoft Game Studios) for the Xbox. The game was later made available for Xbox 360 players to download from the Xbox Live Marketplace. The game, like the earlier Crimson Skies for the PC, is an action-oriented arcade flight game. Nonetheless, there are significant differences between the gameplay of High Road to Revenge and that of the original PC title. For example, while the Xbox game offers the player more flexibility during its missions, it offers less plane customization than the PC game.
Set in an alternate 1930s in which the plane and zeppelin become the primary means of transportation, the game focuses on the adventures of Nathan Zachary, leader of the Fortune Hunters sky pirate gang. Players assume his role as he undertakes a crusade to avenge the death of his old friend, “Doc” Fassenbiender.
The game was originally announced in March 2002 for a release that fall. However, developers postponed the release date in order to retool the game. As a result of this overhaul, which pushed back the game’s publication to October 2003, several issues were addressed and new features added, most notably the addition of Xbox Live support. Critically the game was very well received, most notably for its graphics, audio, gameplay, and Xbox Live features.
The game takes place in the Crimson Skies universe, set in an alternate history of the 1930s. In this fictional setting, increasing sectionalism within the United States of America has caused the country to splinter into numerous sovereignties. These nation-states are in a constant state of war with one another, and thus an interstate highway system never developed. This in turn caused the primary means of transportation to shift from the car and train to the plane and zeppelin; consequently came the formation of gangs of air pirates who plunder aerial commerce over North America.
As a result of the events surrounding the world of Crimson Skies, advancements in technology within the game universe proceeded at a faster rate than actually occurred in the same era. Certain designs and technologies were created specifically for the game, some beyond the scope of actual 1930s technology, examples of which include remote-controlled rocket launchers, magnetic rockets, weather control devices, and a Tesla coil-like weapon. The game’s aircraft were designed to be true to the era yet unique, with some models inspired from actual period aircraft or from the experimental designs of the Luftwaffe. Art director Robert Olson has stated that his team faced challenges in developing content that “fit the time setting” and was also “both fantastical and believable,” particularly in the design of the game’s bosses.
The game takes place in four regions set in North and South America. Sea Haven is an island in the Nation of Hollywood; it is a refuge for various pirate groups, but the Hollywood militia attempts to uproot the raiders. Arixo is a desert nation-state, formed from the remnants of Arizona and New Mexico. Due to its vast desolate and lawless expanses, Arixo has become a haven for bandit activity; it is also home to the Navajo Native American tribes. Chicago remains an industrial city, while the “Lost City” is a complex of ancient ruins located deep in South America. In designing many of these environments developers used inspiration from real-world locales, but reworked them to incorporate flight spaces accordingly with the Crimson Skies universe. For example, Chicago was significantly redesigned for High Road to Revenge with the addition of avenues for aerial commerce among its skyscrapers and landing areas within the buildings themselves.
The player character is Nathan Zachary, leader of the Fortune Hunters air pirate gang. The character of Nathan Zachary was redesigned from his previous role in the PC game Crimson Skies, redefined by the darker tone of High Road to Revenge in comparison to the “campy” and “pulpy” tone established in the PC game. Zachary’s character was also modified to have a number of flaws and weaknesses in addition to his strengths. He is described as having a dry sense of humor, and is also portrayed as a somewhat reckless character. Overall, developers wanted to maintain that Zachary was not “born a hero” and instead was forced to become one as a result of extraordinary circumstances.
Other members of the Fortune Hunters include Zachary’s wingmate, “Brooklyn” Betty Charles; and “Big John,” who captains the Fortune Hunters’ zeppelin base, Pandora. Later joining them is the adventurer Maria Sanchez, who owns a fuel station in Arixo. Another ally of the Fortune Hunters is “Doc” Fassenbiender, a scientist who has developed new technologies for the pirate group and is a close friend of Nathan Zachary.
Opposing the Fortune Hunters include rival pirate gangs such as the Ragin’ Cajuns, led by Louis “Wild Card” Thibodeaux; and the Red Skull Legion, led by Jonathan “Genghis” Kahn. The game’s primary antagonist is Dr. Nicholas Von Essen, a German expatriate and leader of Die Spinne (German, “The Spider”), a fascist militia force. The game originally featured a larger cast of onscreen characters and more abundant character development. These, however, were removed when the game’s “playable movie” concept was scrapped.
Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge begins the morning after Nathan Zachary has gambled away his signature fighter plane and the Pandora to the Ragin’ Cajuns. Thibodeaux, the Cajuns’ leader, attempts to claim Zachary’s fighter and zeppelin; Nathan, however, manages to recover them both. Later, Nathan receives a distress call from Dr. Fassenbiender, who reports a break-in at his lab. He informs Nathan of what he believes had been the target of the attempted burglary: his plans to construct a wind turbine, a device capable of artificially generating storms. He warns Nathan about Von Essen, a scientist who had unsuccessfully tried to engineer a wind turbine for a German superweapon earlier during the Great War. Suspecting that Von Essen had been behind the break-in, Doc entrusts Nathan with the schematics for the turbine.
When the Nathan and the Fortune Hunters later return to Fassenbiender’s lab, they find it under attack from Die Spinne. Although they manage to repel the threat, they find that the attackers have managed to kill the scientist. Nathan embarks on a campaign to find those responsible and have them “brought to justice.” He and the Fortune Hunters travel to Arixo, seeking out a titanium mine; there, they hope to gain clues as to the identity of Doc’s murderer. During his search, Nathan comes across Maria, who agrees to lead him to the titanium mine on the condition that she is allowed to join the Fortune Hunters. They all continue to the mine, and discover that the mining operation is controlled by the Red Skull Legion.
With this knowledge, the Fortune Hunters proceed to Chicago, from which the Red Skulls are based. After several clashes with the Skulls, Nathan confronts Kahn about his connection to Von Essen. Kahn reveals to Nathan that he had struck a deal with Die Spinne, but that Von Essen had gone back on their agreement. Kahn also discloses that Die Spinne was preparing to attack Chicago. Joining forces, the Fortune Hunters and Red Skulls successfully defeat Von Essen’s invasion force. During the ensuing victory celebration, however, Maria betrays Nathan and steals the blueprints for Doc’s wind turbine.
The Fortune Hunters track Maria’s movements southward, to a “Lost City” which they identify as Von Essen’s principal base of operations. Nathan infiltrates the base, and there witnesses Maria and Von Essen have a falling out, following which Von Essen shoots her. A firefight then ensues between Nathan and Von Essen, during which Von Essen reveals his plan to use the Starker Sturm —his completed wind turbine weapon—to force Chicago and eventually all of North America under his fascist rule. After escaping from Von Essen’s hideout, Nathan and the Fortune Hunters return to Chicago and find it already besieged by Die Spinne. Von Essen then appears in the Starker Sturm, and begins to attack Chicago’s vital commercial and governmental structures. Nathan ends the threat by destroying the war machine, and Von Essen is killed in the ensuing explosion.
In October 2002, Del Ray published the mass market paperback book Crimson Skies as an official tie-in to the Xbox game. The book is not a prequel to the Xbox game; it instead offers the backstory of the world of Crimson Skies, and also details the adventures of three of the series’ main characters in the form of three short stories (the first two of which had been published previously on the Crimson Skies website):
Paladin Blake and the Case of the Phantom Prototype by Eric Nylund
The Manchurian Gambit by Michael B. Lee
Bayou Blues by Nancy Berman and Eric S. Trautmann
Published a year before the final release date of Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, the book contains several inconsistencies with the final version of the game. Although billed as a tie-in with the game, numerous main characters and prominent aircraft from the book do not make an appearance in High Road to Revenge. In addition, the book contains a reference to a “zeppelin casino,” which was featured only in the beta version of the game.
Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge Review