Taking the sky. (World War I air combat computer simulations) (evaluation)
by Richard Sheffeld
Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for the year 1914. We're taking these software executives back to the birth of air combat--France during World War I.
Well, that's one explanation for the phenomenon of three major game publishers coming up with the same answer to the question What next? Another explanation, of course, is that they didn't ask What's next? at all but instead asked What's left? Planes, ships, tanks, and helicopters from World War II on up have been pretty well covered. So it seemed like a good time to revisit World War I air combat, when the fighting was up close and personal. What's even more amazing is that three companies could start from the same place and end up with games as different as Blue Max (Three-Sixty), Knights of the Sky (MicroProse), and Red Baron (Dynamix).
The first to reach the marketplace was Blue Max. This program sports one of the slickest introduction sequences I've seen, consisting of digitized photos and animated sequences. It's a pleasure to watch. But as stated in the documentation, this is not a true simulation--it's really more of a simulation/arcade hybrid. It would've been nice to put that on the box as well. Blue Max has the features found in most simulations, including multiple outside views, several choices of planes to fly, a VCR function, and a campaign mode. But the flight characteristics of the game are so far removed from reality that Blue Max takes on pure arcade game feel when the planes are in the air.
However, Blue Max offers several things not found in either of the other two simulations. First is a split-screen two-player mode that allows two players to dogfight head-to-head on the same computer or fly as a team in a two-player campaign. While this is not as much fun as a modem option, letting two people play on the same machine is a real plus. Since this game is not very hard to learn, you should have no trouble finding opponents or wingmen. The main problem with this mode is that it's very awkward when both players have to use separate sides of the keyboard and when one gets the joystick and the other the mouse; inevitably they're unevenly matched.
The other unique feature found in Blue Max is a strategy game mode. This combines simulation with board game; players take turns moving planes on a hex system playing board. While this may not have wide appeal, it will be enjoyable for serious board gamers.
The next to make it into the fray was Knights of the Sky by MicroProse. As expected this one lives up to the high standards of a MicroProse simulation. With 20 planes and a realistic flight model, Knights of the Sky is much more complete and realistic than Blue Max. A well-designed flight training mode with multiple difficulty levels helps get the new player off to an easy start. Learning to handle these low-tech aircraft and navigating by looking out of the cockpit takes a little getting used to, but soon enough you'll be ready for more of a challenge. The Dogfight option will provide you with plenty of challenges.
Choose a famous German ace as an opponent, and test your skills in close combat. But as much fun as the Dogfight option is, this game really shines in the World War I campaign mode. Of the three World War I sims, this game has the best campaign option. Your goal is to become the top ace of the war--the Ace of Aces--and to do that, you've got to stay busy in the air. News reports between missions on how the other great aces are doing add continuity and purpose to your campaign. If another ace has a big lead on you, follow the news to find out where he is, and go after him!
Ground-attack missions are assigned, as are the expected air-combat missions. Dropping a bomb by hand out of the cockpit requires a whole new set of skills when you're used to the smart weapon of the jet age.
Another very interesting feature is the unexpected side action that can occur during missions. On your way home from battle, it's not unusual to spot a group of German aircraft about to pounce on a friendly observation balloon. Your gallantry would certainly be questioned if you didn't step in to lend a hand!
The VGA graphics and sound support are strong, and as if that weren't enough, they're topped off with a head-to-head-play modem option that saves you from connection headaches. Competing against a real live human adds a whole new level of enjoyment to the game.
Knights is not without its share of problems, however. Most notable is the fact that a single shot can kill you or your enemy. Such a clamor was raised over this feature that MicroProse has made an update available. The update not only takes care of this problem by adding degrees of damage, but it also includes some improvements to the already outstanding campaign mode. With the upgrade there will be even more action around you and friendly aircraft that may come to your aid. The upgrade is available directly from MicroProse, or it can be downloaded from either CompuServe or GEnie online services.
Red Baron, by Dynamix, was the last to arrive on the scene, but it was well worth the wait. Red Baron makes full use of 256-color VGA in both the user interface screens and the flying action. The interface uses numerous digitized photos and a very polished point-and-click system for making menu choices.
This game allows the player to fly any one of 28 aircraft and to fly for either side. The flight characteristic of each plane are very accurately portrayed, and each plane even sounds different. Strapping into a Fokker D.VII late in the war is a big change from flying the early Fokker E.III Eindecker and is certainly likely to boost your number of kills.
Since this is up-close combat the level of detail shown is very important. Red Baron certainly leads the pack in this category. You should have little difficulty in identifiying the other aircraft in the sky around you.
As in Knight of the Sky, you can choose to dogfight with the famous aces of the day. But here you have many more options. If British ace William Bishop is constantly ripping you up, put him in an old Airco D.H.2 and see how well he does. Flying against these famous aces is a real treat, since they're programmed to respond in the flying style of the real pilot. The artificial intelligence of the enemy pilots is the best I've seen in any air-combat simulator. The bad guys do much more than just fly around in cirlces--they can put some real moves on you.
A campaign mode is also included and is well done. Because of the repentiveness of some of the missions, Red Baron isn't as much fun as Knights of the Sky, but at the same time, it's probably more realistic. In Knights, you can frequently get eight or nine kills in a single mission, whereas in Red Baron you feel lucky if you get one or two kills and make it back alive.
Red Baron sets a new standard for VCR-type mission recorders. You can record the entire mission and save it for playback later. And the playback is really slick. You can switch to an infinite variety of internal and external views, and a full range of editing features makes it possible to play movie director and put together a very entertaining "film" of your favorite encounters. These can also be shared with others. A number of great Red Baron movies are available for downloading on many of the online services.
Red Baron does have a fews shortcomings. One is the lack of a modem option for head-to-head play. Another is the inability to land anywhere other than an aerodrome. Although the incremental damage feature and the ability to be wounded rather than be killed outright are great options, it would be nice to be able to set the plane down in an open field when in trouble rather than being forced to crash-land somewhere.
Counting its graphics, attention to detail, historical accuracy, sound quality, and mission recorder, Red Baron comes out on top in this three-way dogfight. But the upgraded version of Knights of the Sky may be the better choice for those interested in head-to-head modem play.
Feature Blue Max Knights of the Sky Red Baron
VGA 256 color yes yes yes
Play both sides yes no yes
Copy protection none manual-based none
Number of planes 8 20 28
VCR recorder yes no yes
Instant replay no yes no
Historical missions no no yes
Campaign mode yes yes yes
Modem option no yes no
Ground attacks no yes no
Balloon busting yes yes yes
Famous aces no yes yes
External views yes yes yes
Medals/promotions yes yes yes
Rudder controls no yes yes
Variable-detail level yes yes yes
Mouse support yes yes yes
Multiplane squads yes no yes
Customize aircraft no no yes
Board-game mode yes no no
Damage accumulation yes only in upgrade yes
Start near action no no yes
Quit without landing no no yes