Few things are more disappointing than a sequel that doesn't live up to its predecessor. You're looking for another Jurassic Park and you end up with The Lost World (or Trespasser, for that matter). Such was the case with Red Baron II, last year's sequel to 1990's hit World War I sim. Its promising dynamic campaign environment was hobbled by poor graphics performance, nonfunctional multiplayer modes, crippled flight models, and more bugs than a North Carolina picnic.
To its credit, Sierra's Dynamix division didn't take its money and run, promising to do better next time, but rather spent the last year working on a series of patches to bring the program up to speed and add 3D support. The result is Red Baron 3D, a program that's a worthy successor to the original. Best of all, Red Baron 3D is available at absolutely no cost to purchasers of Red Baron II.
Other than the fixes, the addition of 3D support, and multiplayer enhancements, Red Baron 3D is essentially the same program as last year's release. That's not a criticism, however, as its feature set more than holds its own against more recent designs. The simulation features 22 different flyable World War I aircraft, along with 18 other types flown by AI pilots. These planes can be flown in a dynamic campaign, on a variety of scripted single missions, and in an instant-action mode. The campaign is especially well done, with more atmosphere and less repetition than the dynamic campaigns found in recent jet sims. You're likely to encounter other flights and targets of opportunity - friendly and enemy - en route to and from the target. The missions are better balanced than in the original release. For instance, waypoints don't take you over every enemy antiaircraft gun in the country anymore.
Flight models have seen dramatic improvement in Red Baron 3D. The original simplified flight model is intact for beginners, but new intermediate and authentic settings will give more experienced sim players a more convincing experience, with features such as torque, spins, gyroscopic effects, and deadly spins. The overall model is very convincing, and it would take quite a bit of test-flying to find the few performance differences between the models and their real-life counterparts.
Cockpits have been given an overhaul as well. The virtual cockpit is now as readable as the standard cockpit, making for improved situational awareness while tracking enemies with padlock views. One innovative feature in 3Dfx mode is a toggle to make the cockpit and wings transparent. While this is obviously not realistic (real flight sim fans know it didn't come around until Wonder Woman's invisible plane was built during World War II), it does make tracking enemies much easier, while still maintaining the ability to use your plane's fuselage to keep track of the direction you're looking.
As you'd expect from the sim's name, Red Baron 3D has undergone a major graphics overhaul. Running on a 3Dfx card, you'll find that the formerly blocky terrain graphics have been smoothed out with bilinear filtering. At low altitudes, trees pop up to give you a better reference as to your height above the ground. Explosions and other effects have been tuned as well, and the sim now supports up to 1024x768 resolution.
Unfortunately, those effects are available only on 3Dfx cards - there's no support for Direct3D, so cards with chipsets such as the Riva TNT or Matrox G200 will run the sim only in 2D DirectDraw mode. The 2D mode does support the higher resolutions, but even on a Pentium II/400 I needed to stick to 640x480 resolution to keep the frame rates completely smooth.
The sim's sounds deserve special praise. From the various engine sounds to the creaking of wooden struts as you stress your plane's airframe to the screams of enemy pilots as they jump from burning planes sans parachutes, they do a wonderful job of immersing you into the sim.
All these improvements serve to bring the program to the state at which it should have been released in the first place. But Dynamix didn't stop there. The formerly practically useless multiplayer mode has been tossed out and completely replaced with a server-based massively multiplayer version. You can now battle for free against up to 100 other human opponents via Sierra's free WON.NET matchmaking service, as well as on user-run servers (server software is included on the CD). Modes include melee (essentially deathmatch), team melee, and a capture-the-flag-style "Get the Baron" mode where only the last person to get a kill scores points. Unfortunately, there's no support for playing the sim's excellent missions cooperatively.
If you were disappointed by the initial release of Red Baron II, you definitely should give the program another try. You can download a patch for the original disc that includes everything you'll find on the Red Baron 3D CD (except for the server software) from www.redbaron3d.com. Or if you prefer, you can purchase Red Baron 3D, send back a form, the receipt, and your original Red Baron II CD, and Sierra will refund you the entire purchase price of Red Baron 3D.
While Red Baron II owners obviously have every reason to upgrade, this sim merits consideration by any fan of historical flight sims. Only MicroProse's new European Air War comes close to Red Baron 3D in capturing the atmosphere of historical air combat. Kudos to Sierra and Dynamix for taking a disappointing disaster and turning it into the best World War I simulation yet.
Editor's Note: The Red Baron 3D rebate offer mentioned in the review has ended. The patch to upgrade Red Baron II is still available.