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.