Retrospective: Red Baron

Still ace.

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 L÷wenhardt (54 victories). Starting in January 1918 maximises your chances of outliving them.

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Now at the helm of Mad Otter Games, Damon is still making WWI air fare.

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.

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...only to discover all your old comrades are dead, and your favourite mess armchair has Spanish Flu.

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).

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