Lothar von Richthofen, the Red Baron's little brother, is a schweinhund. Half an hour ago he challenged me, the Black Stork's highest scoring and least dead ace, to a one-on-one duel over the Western Front. I thought twice about accepting, but eventually decided to go teach the young puppy a lesson. When I arrived at the rendezvous point, what did I see? Only Lothar's crimson and yellow Dr.I flanked by the bobbing planes of two of his cronies. The cunning Fokker had brought backup.
It's amazing. 20 years on, Dynamix's WWI wonder still has the power to surprise and stir. It still provides enough, "Got you, my slippery friend," "Crikey, that was a near thing," and, "Me, a Captain?!" moments to keep even a fussy flier like myself absorbed for hours on end. How does it succeed where so many modern flight entertainments fail? I'm not entirely sure, but the campaign approach is significant.
In Red Baron's career mode you aren't frog-marched from one contrived set-piece to another. You never finish a sortie trigger-sore after downing dozens of bandits, or exasperated after failing some far-fetched task. Damon Slye and his band of Oregon-based sim-smiths opted for something far more low-key, far more historical.
It all begins with the selection of a side and an entry date (early, middle or late war). Starting in December 1915 maximises your chances of outstripping historical aces like Albert Ball (44 victories), Oswald Boelcke (40 victories), and Erich Löwenhardt (54 victories). Starting in January 1918 maximises your chances of outliving them.
Once the decisions are made, you're assigned a squadron, and packed off to France to participate in the first of - fingers crossed - many randomly generated sorties. These jaunts are of 10 basic types ranging from balloon-busting outings and escort duties to patrols, scrambles and zeppelin hunts. Few last longer than 15 minutes. All offer simplified yet plausible plane handling, dicey knife-edge dogfights, and an intriguing array of possible outcomes.
The first image that pops into my head when I think of Red Baron is a magnificently-bearded bloke in a prison cell. Crash-land on the enemy side of the meandering brown poylgon that is No Man's Land and you find yourself in a military clink, forced to sit idle as facial hair lengthens and the days scuttle past like cockroaches in a Stalag sweepstake. As in Mount & Blade, these periods of incarceration always end with a miraculous escape and a return to the fray. Unlike Mount & Blade, you never emerge from captivity minus your favourite boots or bonnet.
Sorties can also conclude with extended hospital sojourns and more positive events. Occasionally you'll touch down (landings are optional) and trigger a sunset-kissed cut-scene in which the CO pins a medal on your breast, or informs you that you've risen in rank. It's a simple device, but a remarkably effective one. The gongs (all historical) swell pride. The promotions bring more tangible rewards like the power to decide flight formations and issue wingman orders.
One of the sweetest moments in any Red Baron career is the one where the player-pilot achieves the rank of Captain. Captains get to select the aircraft type they fly and paint that aircraft however they please. Suddenly the opponent the enemy previously knew as That Monocled Englander From 60 Squadron becomes The Yellow Peril, The Mauve Menace, or The Green and Gold Git. You've arrived. It feels splendid.
Other inter-mission events are constantly reminding you that the war is bigger than any single individual. Newspaper frontpages speak of major offensives and the loss of aces on both sides. Messages inform of the introduction of new plane designs and the transfer of squadrons.
After a particularly brutal or successful spell at the Front it's not uncommon (assuming you're flying for the Allies) for an outfit to be sent back to Blighty for a spot of Home Defence. In the space of five minutes you can go from swirling dogfights over Flanders 'fields' (polygons in three shades of green) to hairy bomber and airship intercepts over the moonlit 'Thames' (a dark blue zigzagging polygon).
Downing one of Zeppelin's gas-filled goliaths or Burkhard's MG-festooned bomb-buses is far from easy, especially if you're playing at the highest difficulty and realism level. While Red Baron is never maddeningly hard, it does have the disconcerting knack of making you feel like you are living on borrowed time. Survive a year or two and it's impossible to peruse your pilot record without wondering how much longer the luck will hold. Every completed sortie is both milestone and coffin nail.
When/if death does eventually arrive, there's no saying what quarter it will strike from. Perhaps you failed to notice a lone cloud-lurking Camel, or tarried too long in a flak zone. Maybe you got cocky approaching a bomber, or collided with an inexperienced comrade while evading. To have any chance of seeing the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, bravado must be tempered with caution.
On occasions when opposition is unexpectedly stiff, or you find yourself wounded or nursing a faltering plane, pride should be swallowed, a hasty retreat beaten. There are old Red Baron pilots and bold Red Baron pilots, but no old bold ones.
After decorations and promotions, one of the most morale-boosting post-combat events is an offer from another squadron. Which outfit you're attached to determines where in France you fly, and more importantly with whom you fly. Early on you battle alongside nameless non-entities of various experience levels. Later, assuming you're talented enough to attract invitations from outfits like The Storks, the Black Flight and Jasta 11, you'll be sky-jousting in the company of natural-born killers such as René Fonck, James McCudden and the titular Count. It's gratification through association.
Covering the six of this rich, replay-resilient campaign engine is physics and AI code sophisticated enough to convey the flavour of WWI air warfare without scaring the novice flier witless. The number of light flight games that forget to include aircraft that actually behave like aircraft is shockingly high. Red Baron's flock of 28 single, bi and tri-winged warbirds are a plausibly slow, manoeuvrable and stall-happy lot.
While you don't get the exquisite handling and engine management you'd find in a modern treatment like Rise of Flight, you do get a feel for the floaty nimbleness of a WWI kite, the balletic jockeying of the period's dogfights, and the amazing rate of technical progress during the war years. After a month or two at the controls of the optimistically monikered Morane Bullet, it's a joy to join a squadron equipped with the newer Airco DH.2. Trading up from a DH.2 to an S.E.5a makes you feel truly unstoppable. Until the Fokker Dr.Is arrive, of course.
Damage modelling is crude by contemporary standards, with no stress-related failures or handling penalties. There is, however, more to a mauling than simple hitpoint loss. The chilling tink-tink of bullet impacts can presage total destruction, a knackered engine, or a holed fuel tank. If you're unlucky, incoming rounds may have found flesh. Wounds cause the screen to pulse scarlet and sensible aviators to scurry for the safety of the ground as quickly as their ravaged steed allows.
That ground is an oil painting. By Mark Rothko. Yellow rectangles (airfields) nestle next to brown heptagons (towns) and - if you're extremely lucky - green pyramids (hills). To young Wings of Prey-accustomed eyes, it's all going to look amazingly primitive for the first hour or two.
One of the wonders of Red Baron though, is just how quickly you forget about the stark topography and chunky textureless aircraft. If there are any indie game makers out there put off flight simulation development by the thought of expensive and time-consuming terrain and aircraft modelling, fire-up Red Baron and consider its lessons. I strongly suspect the flight simulation that's going to eventually restore the fortunes of this benighted genre will look more like Minecraft than Microsoft Flight Simulator X.
But that's neither here nor there. Until that blessed phoenix rises, we've got golden greats like Red Baron to savour and enjoy.