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Red Baron II


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by Sierra

chase.GIF (4382 bytes)The original Red Baron got me through my dissertation. Whenever writer’s block or brain lock would set in, I’d just jump out of Word 3.0 and into the cockpit of my Spad, fly a few missions over the front lines, and then return, much refreshed, to the real world. Of course, the danger with this was that too often the temptation was not to return to the real world. Red Baron was one of those rare, unbelievably immersive games that are so far ahead of the curve and so much fun that tearing yourself away from them—for dinner, for sleep, certainly for writing a diss—requires a dramatic act of will.

And Red Baron II is like that about half the time. About half the time, you’ll find yourself engaged in truly addictive gameplay. For instance, just recently I played a campaign mission in which I shot down a balloon with my squadron, bounced a flight of Albatrosses and bagged two of them, took some serious engine damage while doing it, and barely managed to nurse my plane home. I was sweating bullets, and it was great. But the other half of the time, you’ll find yourself struggling with bugs or boredom—the game often crashes inexplicably, and some missions are just dull, no more than extended flights over the French countryside. It’s a frustrating thing; just when the game begins to suck you in, some damn thing will happen that will make you swear it off forever. Of course, you later you relent, start playing it, find yourself having a load of fun—and then comes the inevitable crash. Sierra is working on patches to fix the game’s bugs, but it’s clear this game was rushed to release. A little more care, support for 3D acceleration, a more realistic flight model—all of these are promised in forthcoming patches. But the fact of the matter is that they should have been in the original release. Had they been, Red Baron II might have been a worthy successor to Red Baron. As it is, the game, though showing moments of real brilliance, does not live up to the standards of the original.

crash.GIF (3955 bytes)Red Baron II is a curious mixture of things done extremely well and things done not so well. On the down side, the flight models are not very realistic. This won’t worry casual gamers, who can set the realism setting at low and zoom around the skies in a triplane like it’s a P-51, but sim nuts will be disappointed by the very forgiving planes. At the highest setting, planes still don’t spin or stall easily enough, climb too quickly, and are generally far too easy to fly. Of course, struggling to keep a Sopwith Camel from augering in isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, and the vast majority of those who buy the game won’t care about this. But given Sierra’s claims of ultra-realism, those who do expect a accurate flight sim will be justified in their disappointment.

The game’s graphics are also a bit lacking. There is no support for 3D acceleration, and Red Baron’s long development period is at least partly to blame for this, I suppose—when Dynamix began work on the engine years ago, who knew that everyone and his brother would be demanding 3D in 1998? Sierra promises a patch, due out sometime this summer, that will provide 3D, and one can only imagine how long that’s gonna take to download. The 2D graphics are good enough, though not as good as, say, F-22 Raptor’s. Even on a fast machine with all graphics options maxed out, mountains in the distance look like polygons and the ground up close looks tiled; of more concern to gameplay are screen stutter during big dogfights and the difficulty of spotting pixellated targets against the pixellated ground.

dogfight.GIF (3294 bytes)And then there are those things that Red Baron II doesn’t do as well as its predecessor. Most egregiously, there is no mission recorder. One of the great joys of Red Baron was replaying your glorious victories and ignominious defeats. Not only did it make for great boasting, but you could actually learn a thing or two; some of the mistakes I saw myself make on replay I never made again. Another problem is the missions themselves. Especially during the campaign, you’ll often take off from your airfield far behind the lines and fly for a long, long time until you get to any action. Realistic? Sure. Fun? Nope. A lot of this tedious flying can be remedied by putting your plane on autopilot and accelerating gametime, but unlike Red Baron, you don’t get dumped out into real time when an enemy plane is spotted. This means you must constantly check for enemy planes while flying at 16x time. It’s not a successful design decision.

Finally, multiplayer support seems to be a work in progress. Getting on to Sierra’s server is easy and free, and the multiplayer games are a lot of fun, but games crash with frustrating regularity, often kicking you all the way out to your desktop. The game’s multiplayer support is like the game writ small; when it’s good, it’s very, very, good; when it’s bad, you want the names of the people responsible.

Some of those very, very, good things include the game’s sound, which is just spectacular—put your plane in a steep dive and you can hear struts creak and fabric rip. And the game’s damage model is the best and most detailed I’ve ever seen; I’ve lost my landing gear, top wing, elevators, rudders, and engine—and whatever I’ve lost has realistically affected my plane’s flight characteristics. I’ve had my plane disintegrate around me, had it burst into flames that I put out in a steep dive, only to see my wings rip off, and have limped home with a barely controllable plane due to rudder or wing damage more times than I care to count.

albatross.GIF (3885 bytes)But game’s campaign mode is its centerpiece, and it is incredibly addictive. You can fly for the Germans, French, English or Americans; if you’re successful, you’ll gain experience and get new, better planes—than you can even paint in your own stylish fashion—as well as new, better pilots transferring to your squadron. After a while, and if it doesn’t crash, your campaign takes on a narrative life of its own. You’ll develop rivalries and a feel for the front lines, you’ll seek out some pilots to fly with and avoid others, you’ll feel the sinking feeling pilots felt the first time they met up with a German ace in a Fokker D.VII.

Overall, Red Baron II comes close to reconjuring the magic of the original, but the effort is undone by outdated graphics, bugs, and a surprising and frustrating lack of attention to detail in some areas. Again, patches are scheduled to be released that address all of these problems, and that’s nice. But I’d be happier with a Red Baron III, released for next Christmas, that has all the great points of Red Baron II, no bugs, stable multiplayer support, and 3D acceleration. What about it, Sierra?

--Rick Fehrenbacher