|Red Baron II
by Neil Mouneimne
One of the most highly anticipated sequels in flight simulation has finally arrived. The original Red Baron was a game that developed a strong reputation in the hearts of gamers everywhere. Very realistic for its time, playable, and entertaining were the three traits that characterized the game the most.
Red Baron 2 has gone through a long gestation, and now reaches to go much further in scope than the original. In an season where 3d accelerated sims with extremely fancy graphics is the norm, the older Red Baron 2 looks just a little dated right from the start. Underneath the basic trappings, though, lies some great gameplay for those willing to look a little deeper into the game.
The Games The Thing
The gameplay in Red Baron 2 is definitely the game's strongest card. This is the most important aspect of the entire game, since fun gameplay - accessible to novices and rewarding to experts - is what built up the strong reputation for the original Red Baron. The experience of flying and fighting in great, swooping battles is incredibly immersive. Rickety planes zip all over the sky in grand romantic duels.
This atmosphere of the "glorious romantic battle" and the flashing "sky knights" seems to exist more here than in previous WWI-era sims. It's something of an intangible which seems to result from the spirit of the game's creation, kind of a Red Baron version of "Farfehrgnugen", if you will.
Gunnery is tricky, and a very satisfying challenge. You have to put considerable lead on your targets. There are no oversized hit bubbles here. You really have to work for your kills and can easily waste lots of ammo with difficult shots or by simply misjudging bullet drop. There are thankfully no "magically accurate" crosshairs, either. You aim using the time-honored tradition of TLAR (ie That Looks About Right).
Also worth noting, you can load incendiary or conventional bullets depending on the type of target you will be flying against, and if you're flying a craft with two guns, you can even fly with a mixed ammunition load. Gun hits are very satisfying, and dirt gets kicked up nicely in strafing runs.
Ground fire is really severe. While the flak seems pretty ineffective, machine gun fire is absolutely lethal. AAA guns seem to be more related to ZSU-23s than the "Vickers on a strick" that they really are. Merely flying over enemy positions at cruising altitudes can end up losing flight members, and it frequently does. Luckily, and in a very unusual move, the accuracy of the enemy gunners can be edited by altering a few values in a text file. Just as easy as changing ".ini" file settings. Hopefully we'll see more of this kind of easy customizability in future sims.
Artificial intelligence is very respectable in general. While enemy craft don't always pull the maximum edge of the flight envelope - making even aces not very hard to kill, they do manuever aggressively, unafraid to fight extensively in the vertical. This frequently creates some memorable battles chasing enemy craft all over the sky. One of the better aspects of the AI is that - unlike most other sims - computer pilots aren't unfathomably good at taking high-deflection shots. Where in many other games getting anywhere in front of a computer controlled enemy means you are guaranteed to take damage, computer pilots in RB2 rarely fire if you present a poor shot opportunity, and when they do, it often misses.
This makes them feel more human and less mechanical - something usually overlooked in AI programming. Perhaps the biggest drawback to enemy AI is that the enemy units do not seem to manage their throttle settings at all. If you ever end up in a scissors fight, just chop the throttle and watch your opponent sail out in front. It seems like the only way to prevent this from being an unfair advantage in your favor is to likewise set your throttle at max and not touch it during dogfights.
Comms and Damage Modelling
One aspect of the game that may cause a little debate is the communications with your wingmen. In essence, you really don't have any. You can send two commands - "Engage" and "Join Formation". Even with these two commands, there doesn't seem to be any feedback to let you know if the message got through - and since your wingmen will engage and form up by themselves anyhow it can be a lost cause to figure out whether you are exercising any real command at all. The limited communications make sense since there just wasn't any radio available and communication was limited to primitive hand signals.
Still, some pilots might want the option of having a little more control than that. It would be nice to be able to request another attack run on a ground target, for example - since your flight seems to be intent on making a single hit-and-run strike normally. This may just be a concession to the reality of an underdeveloped hand signal system, but it would be nice to at least be able to select between "authentic" and "enhanced" communications.
Damage modeling is extremely well done. It appears that you damage exactly what you hit. No more engine hits when you nail the wingtip. It does seem that the rudder and stabilizer are virtually damage-proof, though - and it would certainly be a bonus if the fuselage would show bullet holes or get oil-spattered from engine damage.
Damage the wings enough or incapacitate the pilot and the plane will go into a spin or uncontrolled dive that turns into a death spiral as the speed of its fall tears the wings apart. Hit the engine hard enough and the plane will lose altitude and speed as the pilot struggles for control. Usually the craft will eventually enter a fatal dive. Sometimes it will go into the familar death throes of "pull up-stall-dive-pull up-stall... " and finally wipeout. Sometimes the pilot will actually manage a safe emergency landing - and then you can learn the twisted joys of strafing helpless grounded aircraft.
Then there are the times where you hit a fuel line and set the engine on fire. Few things are as shocking and morbidly entertaining as hearing poor enemy pilots scream as they jump out of their burning biplanes, their flaming bodies tumbling through the sky. Without parachutes they are doing little more than altering the method of their death -jumping rather than suffer being burned alive.
Now the romance is over. Dying isn't heroic. The thought of being shot down becomes much less palatable - even though it's only a computer game - and you'll find yourself going to extremes to avoid a similar miserable fate. But it really makes it all the more satisfying when you narrowly escape the jaws of death and manage to plant your opponent into the ground instead.
Perhaps the worst part about damage modeling is getting wounded. It seems that you can't get just slightly wounded, and so hope to have enough time to disengage and go home safely. Once wounded, you have a couple minutes of time until you pass out, and that amount of time appears to be rigidly fixed.
Even if you land, things can get very frustrating. The game asks you if you want to refly, abort, end or quit. If you accept your fate, the game may say that you have died or ended up in the hospital. If you are in the hospital you still have one more chance to refly or accept your fate. If you go ahead, the game may say you are out of action a few months and put you back into the war, or say that you are permanently disabled - which for gaming purposes is the same as being dead.
However, if the turnout was too severe for your tastes you may be in trouble. Sometimes the option to decline what fate has presented you with a "refly" button is not available and your entire war career comes to a sudden halt. Sometimes you do get access to the refly button, but the button wasn't working at all on the test system. This makes getting wounded almost as bad as getting killed outright, since odds are you'll end up with an ended career. Hopefully the refly button will always be available and made to work consistently in a future patch, because now it seems to make more sense to restart the mission the moment you hear the groan from the pilot from getting hit.
Finally, the ratio of "permanent disability" wounds to mere lengthy hospital stays is pretty severe. Is this a realistic portrayal of the state of medical technology at the time, merely an unbalanced ratio, or just a quirk of the random numbers while testing the game?
Go to Part II
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Last Updated January 11th, 1998