Thursday, August 10, 2023

Red Baron (1990)

There's a nice little animation of the title getting shot.
Name:Red Baron (with the Mission Builder expansion)
Genre:Flight Sim
Time:21 hours 50 minutes
Won:Yes (74W/60L)

The great plane game about the great war. Red Baron feels like the poster child for this era of flight sims, approachable yet realistic, and most importantly, fun. All the harsh reality of the first World War into a fun, idealized dogfighter.

The area depicted by the game.

Red Baron is quite a large game, depicting the most if not all of the French-German border, quite possibly the first game to do so with this level of detail. Granted, this is hard to appreciate in an era when we have games which depict the entire world in more detail.

You are given the choice of playing as either a member of the German Air Service or the Royal Flying Corps, though in the later case closely connected to the rest of the Allied forces. Select a career starting from the very end of 1915, to the very beginning of 1918 and ending a few months before the end of the war. Or you could play some random missions, possibly even make some yourself.

I fought this guy a lot. Not sure why.

I did two things, I fought a bunch of aces to get myself used to the game, then tried all the missions and then I did the campaign. A vast difference in opinion on everything ensued from the times I fought Herman Goering to the time I ended the war, and all of it doesn't quite work out the way you'd think.

Not quite the final situation I had, but the one I had for most of the practice runs.

The game vastly changes on two factors, the first are the various settings you can pick, ranging from general flight realism and difficulty, to minutae like if certain bits of equipment fail like they should in real life. While it all does affect score, it does allow you to have the kind of experience you want. While I put the difficult at a 4 out of 5, that's with a mostly realistic gameplay setting, I only turned off limited ammo and realistic navigation from the intermediate settings, while keeping flight experience at realistic. I think that I could have survived with realistic navigation. Other things, like limited fuel or you blacking out if you fly high enough, were basically non-entities.

The second are the planes. Planes range from crappy ones which are barely airworthy to planes so badass they were banned after the war, and every bit in-between. Yes, we have the legendary Sopwith Camel and whichever German plane people recognize off-hand, like they would make a game without the most famous planes of the war.

Nevertheless, different planes perform very differently. There are four broad categories of plane; the crappy ones you're stuck with at the start of the war, that the game forces you to use for a long time if you start early. The agile ones, they don't have as much speed or health as the sturdier ones. Then there are the occasional planes which function as great in all respects.

Planes each function differently than the others beyond the broad categorization. There are planes that fall apart easily if you start diving, though if I flew one, I never had it happen to me. The Sopwith Camel has an incredibly loose steering, to the point that it's hard to be level and takes getting used to.

 What I did find to be an interesting annoying bit was, I think the Spad 7. Many planes couldn't do this, but the Spad 7 was one of the faster, and thus surprising incidents of this. If you want to turn around, left or right aren't necessarily the most effective, you won't be facing at what it is the way you want. Since you have a z-axis with a plane, you can turn down or up.

The problem is that some planes, well, they can't turn up. This isn't surprising when you're in a flying coffin, but for a not inconsiderable number of planes, doing an upward 180 degree turn was impossible, you'd stall out. This is both annoying and probably accurate. It's this sort of thing which creates an interesting thought process to plane selection. Do you want to actually turn around or do you want to survive getting shot?

This, of course, isn't necessarily the only factor in a plane's agility or constitution, but it's an easy quirk to point to compared to you and your enemy flying around in circles hoping to make the right turn before the other. Every new plane is a new experience and has to be adapted to.

Before every mission you get the option to change various flight features. Like what formation you're in, how many pilots you're bringing, whether you have regular or inciderary ammo, and what plane. That last bit is only relevant if you have your own plane, I.E., when you're a captain in the campaign mode. In case you needed a stock plane for this mission.

Controls are more or less the same as with A-10 Tank Killer. Numpad turns, space shoots, 1-9 control speed with plus and minus making minor adjustments. The first 7 function keys control your view. C compresses time, which is very important on the longer missions, though it automatically turns off if enemy planes are detected. It works differently depending on if you're the leader or if you have to follow someone, with you being in rough control during time compression being weird. Various other keys control commands you can give your wingmen. You don't get a heck of a lot in that last department, so little that I ended up just using simple attack commands whenever I felt the need to use them at all.

Thinking back to the rest of the flight sims I've played, I can't help but think that this is about as well as a flight sim can be expected to control and I was a bit too harsh on A-10. The keyboard controls work so beautifully that I never felt the desire to use the mouse or break out a joystick. Though from what I did do with the mouse, it works very well. I never felt like blaming the controls on my failures, rather the plane itself. A game has to have done something very right when I sound like a pilot blaming anything else for his mistakes rather than a gamer.

Combat is chaotic and frantic. Initial charges, if you have a good approach, can take out one or two enemies, which depending on how many there are could be quite fortunate. I've found that in opening approaches, the AI tends to fare worse if you're considerably above it or below it. Though being below has it's own disadvantages for you, like stalling out trying to shoot the enemy. From there, enemies and allies break off to do their own little turns, hoping to catch an enemy before an enemy catches them. I did decently enough with a smattering of practical knowledge. (remember to lead your shots) Considering how much credit is placed towards sneak attacking planes in what I've read, I think it's a shame that doing one yourself is, at best, practically impossible.

It's hard to figure out how well the AI is truly handling here, because missions feel quite random in how difficult they are. Sometimes enemies just let me kill them, presumably those were novice pilots. Others they put up a fight. Those must be regular pilots. Some are hard to kill, which means those are the veterans. Then there are the flying aces, men of historical reknown for killing at least 5 aircraft during the war.

This is with the crappiest plane the Allies have...
 They were all quite easy. Even when I was fighting them in the campaign and I had to "duel" an ace and his two companions, including the Red Baron himself. So, what gives? I note that the hardest fights were usually in missions that weren't just straight aerial fights, there was always some defense gimmick. I'd be much more charitable towards the idea that this is just the varied skill of enemy pilots if I didn't gun down aces like they just got off the ground. Painting your paint red is like painting a giant target on it.

Friendly planes were greatly improved from A-10, though any plane capable of independent action as opposed to just following a pre-set path is a great improvement. That said, I also didn't understand friendly AI. Sometimes they took out the enemy easily, making me sort of unimportant, others they only exist to buy me time to take out the enemy planes. While part of the latter could be put down to being outnumbered, other times I didn't understand what was going on with my wingmen at all.

An important bit of fun in all this is the paint planes have. Each type of plane has a design, which you have to get close to see, and obviously an emblem of the service they belong to. However, at a distance planes are only visible by color. This isn't terrible in theory, but there are a lot of things that can cause you to be seperated from your wingmen...and German and Allied planes can have the same color.

Because of this, missions tend to have no logic to their difficulty, sometimes enemies prove to be a nuisance, others they just fall from the sky, practically just letting you shoot them. Boss missions, such as they are, consist of the aforementioned ace duels and if you're with the Allies, taking down a zeppelin. In the latter case, once you figure out they can't shoot at you from the back you can basically take them down with a 100% success rate solo. They are that easy. This puts the game in a weird dynamic where missions that should be these grand affairs are fairly relaxing, while some of the more mundane ones turn into slogs.

Escort missions are also varying in whether they're easy or slogs, but more importantly it's determined more by the number of enemy groups rather than their strength. (this also applies to patrol missions, but in that case you just fly over a certain piece of land and as long as you're alive it doesn't matter) Everything you escort basically goes along a set path, does whatever it is they do, with no deviations. This makes it really important in spotting enemies and taking them out in the initial confrontation, and then making sure nobody breaks off to take out a friendly. You've got a lot of waiting around to do and carefully matching speed in each of these. By the way, the AI can't cope with this and if you use time compression, your plane will jerk around like you're trying to turn into a tornado, and your wingmen will crash into each other.

It's a lot more fun when you're the one gunning down the escorts and the escortee.

Balloon missions, these were practically guaranteed to be a slaughter. A problem I didn't realize until much later is that the game is in a habit of giving you less planes than you need here, so you get shot down. Which isn't great, because pilots here are almost always deadly. To top it off, you're in enemy territory, which means they're firing flak at you. And because of realism, spotting enemies is wonky, you can see them at a great distance, but then you aren't seeing them again until they know you're here too. Far too many times I was the only survivor of these missions.

Meanwhile most defense missions are considerably less stressful, even if you have to prevent the enemy from blowing up a balloon.

I feel like at this point I should be able to put a name to the face, considering Dynamix's habit of having staff be the actors in their games.

The game's primary attraction is the campaign mode, in which you fight out the war roughly as it happened in real life. Roughly, there are presumably several historical errors in addition to the game giving you 2 or so missions a month compared to how real pilots would get put in the air daily if possible. Remember that one. Progress is measured by your points and kills, with the latter being more important for rank. Being able to lead your flight and getting to select a plane rather than getting any old one is far more vital than the various medals you'll get over the course of the game.

When I played the campaign mode I stuck with it for the entire thing, and that meant starting from the very beginning. Which meant using a very crappy plane for months. Even though I played as the Allies', the German side was no better, because both of the earliest planes are flying pieces of crap that deserve the nickname "flying coffin". This was an incredibly painful period which drags down the game quite a bit. Considering the historical record versus this, why should I have to fly a dozen or so missions in these pieces of crap when the game could start after a plane that isn't more dangerous to me than my enemies is introduced and just increase the length of the game that way? Why not three or four missions a month?

This is one of two times you get a newspaper about the fighting itself as opposed to someone entering or leaving the war.

While the game is good at offering the illusion of choice, it's just an illusion. While you can join any number of squadrons, fly alongside famous aces and shoot down others, you don't really do much. The war is going to go as it always did, the only change you offer is to provide an early release for the great aces. Unfortunately for me, that meant both the Germans and the Allies. No consequences for your actions like in A-10. Reading about the game on the internet later, I saw two things that could happen that didn't. Aces were supposed to randomly be on regular missions, assuming you were in the area, but I never encountered one outside of a duel challenge. If you transfer to the Home Guard, you fight against only zeppelins. Talk about leaving the war in style.

Worse still, real life events that brought horrible things upon either side...just didn't really happen here. Bloody April was an infamous event in which German pilots, equipped with planes with 2 machine guns, started gunning down Allied pilots in far greater numbers than they lost. And in my campaign...I never saw a double machine gun plane until I already had one. Some of the German's end of war planes were so deadly the Allies demanded all of them in their treaty...and by the time I fought them it didn't matter at all. Despite my complaints, each mission felt organic, but the campaign overall felt very gamey and predetermined.

You can get so close to the other planes you can practically touch them...and then you hear the sound of the two planes crashing and begin seeing the ground get closer...

Visually, the game looks pretty good for 1990 3D. It's aged badly, but worst of all I think, is spotting planes. There's no sense of slowly seeing a small shape get bigger, it's just there's a plane, watch out for it. I will note that the game does a pretty good job of depicting the game world, in the navigational sense. Multiple missions require you to pay attention to a map, which came with original copies of the game, but not my disc copy, and it works out beautifully enough that even without one you could get used to the area pretty well.

Various other bits of graphics look pretty nice. HUDs are nice and every bit as view obstructing as the real things. You can even see bits of your plane getting damaged. Effects are sprites, so if a plane is having engine trouble, expect to see little clouds of smoke. If something explodes, well, don't expect that good an explosion. If you get wounded the screen fades red in and out. Menu graphics are mostly real photos, some historical, others made by getting a couple of Dynamix dudes to pose in period military uniforms and just look cool. They look cool.

Despite all the complaints, I think that Red Baron is a pretty good game, which can be as simulationist or as arcadey as you want. Even with the campaign's shortcomings, it captures pretty well that naive sense of optimism and valor we have about the air part of WWI. That even as thousands are grinded down in the trenches there are still knights in the sky, nobly dueling each other until only the greatest emerges...or some jackass comes to a duel with two wingmen.

Despite basically boiling down to having one or two machine guns with fancy ammo for special missions, the game really makes you appreciate those duel machine guns. 2/10

I'm not sure what determines the skill of enemy pilots, but the game sure as heck makes you notice the difference between some pilots and some planes. 5/10

The shortcomings of friendly AI is far more noticeable than the shortcomings of hostile AI, but still, these are the only ones I've had that could actually win a mission on their own. 4/10

While the campaign is flawed, each individual mission is original enough that it doesn't matter too much. Just hope you don't have to fight in the clouds. 5/10

Player Agency:
I think that beyond having the order commands be all across the keyboard, the controls are flawless. With the caveat that flawless in this case contains a certain bit of replicating flaws. 9/10


Practically the perfect depiction of a noble WWI air war. 9/10

Very aged, but solid in multiple places, just be cautious of planes which share the same color as friendlies. 3/10

Despite the rather free form of missions, the story feels entirely on-rails, but with the barest ability to kick people off the train early. To a certain extent this makes sense, you are but one pilot, but it also creates the sense that you as a player only ever make things worse, either for your side or the enemy's. 2/10

Outside of theme music, there's no theme music. The game survives exclusively on Adlib sound. Bullets hitting, missing and the sound of canvas tearing. Oh, and we can't forget the roar of the engine. It's all rather soft-spoken. 2/10

That's 41. It's actually the first game to get a 41, as 40 and 42 have been the score of many of the better games so far.

I for one am looking forward to 5 years from now when I get to play Aces of the Pacific. Hopefully by that time I'll have some idea of how the air war went beyond "Allies won, Axis lost". Oh, come to think of it, I don't know which side I'll be playing in that one. I have no idea how I'm going to treat that, considering that to my knowledge, games where you play as the Japanese are rare, whereas everyone wants to play as the Americans. The only ones I know that are specifically about the Japanese side are the Japanese developed Zero Pilot series, so I might want to get an American perspective on the Japanese side.

Next up, however, is going to be F-15 Strike Eagle, which might not be the best follow-up to Red Baron, but I'm sure that'll only reflect better on both games.

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