The original Red Baron is a true classic, with one of the longest lives of any computer game. (A discounted version is still on shelves at many stores, seven years after the program's release.) The game set new standards for graphics, flight modeling, and overall realism. With a pedigree so lofty, Sierra's Red Baron II faced quite high expectations when it was released just before Christmas. Unfortunately, it appears the game - already a year late - was rushed to make it onto the holiday plate and probably should have been simmered until around Easter. Red Baron II is a game that has much to recommend it - which makes the glaring problems all the more frustrating.
Set at the dawn of air combat, Red Baron II lets you experience just about any part of the World War I air war. You can enlist in any of four air services - British, German, French, and American - and 22 of the sim's 40 aircraft are flyable. The entire course of the war is covered, with Americans enlisting before Feb. 16, 1918 joining the French Lafayette Escadrille (which is a nice touch). With squadrons flying the proper planes from the correct airfields over the course of the war, there's no doubt that the historical research behind this simulation was quite thorough.
It's a shame, then, that the program was shipped before much of this research could be incorporated. The original plan had been to let gamers configure individual aspects of each plane's handling, adding realism levels to match their own skill levels. But all that ended up in the game were two flight models: easy and authentic. And unfortunately, the authentic mode is anything but. Although the flight physics are decent - planes stall, spin, and lose energy in turns - the performance figures are way off. These underpowered WW I aircraft climb like World War II fighters. Sierra has announced that a patch is on the way that will incorporate accurate flight model data, a change that should please purists.
The AI is fairly good - when it's working. Computer-controlled planes are challenging opponents, and your wingmen are capable as well. Occasionally things go awry, with the other planes in your flight circling their home airfield endlessly instead of leaving on their mission. (This is one of a number of problems fixed in the first patch.)
The most impressive aspect of the simulation is its mission generator. Missions are created on the fly, and if you're of sufficient rank you can alter waypoints, crew assignments, and so on. The environment is very rich - as you make your way toward the target, you'll often encounter flights on unrelated missions. This makes for some interesting decision-making: Bombers are heading in the direction of your airfield - do you go after them or continue on your own mission? Assuming you make the right decisions and stay alive, you'll advance in rank and move on to better equipment. You'll also find single missions, complete with an editor for creating your own, and an instant-action mode.
Multiplayer combat is supported over Sierra's World Opponents Network, but like many Red Baron II pilots, I was unable to get it to work at all. Those who do get it to work successfully often report that you must exit and reload the game after each mission. Patches are in the works to smooth out multiplayer play, but there's no excuse for shipping the program with a major feature in such shoddy condition.
The graphics engine is a mixed bag. If you don't have a 3D card, you'll likely be impressed with the frame rate on P166-or-faster PCs. Aircraft look good, and the terrain's not bad at altitude. Owners of 3D cards will be disappointed to find that there's no 3D support in the simulation, although it's planned - you got it - in a patch due in a few months. Sound is superb, from the creaks your plane makes if you stress its airframe to the air raid sirens and church bells that sound during air raids.
Red Baron II has a lot to offer, but its rushed shipment makes for a game that's appealing only to those sim fans willing to deal with quirks and inconsistencies while awaiting patches. It's not the plane crash that Pro Pilot is, however, and many gamers will find it worth putting up with the weird flight models, somewhat dated graphics, and program bugs in order to experience its challenging enemy AI and rich, historically accurate combat arena.