Blue Max: Aces of the Great War
World War II had its great pilots, great aircraft, and truly great air battles, but the romance of aerial combat started and ended in World War I. In canvas-and-wood airplanes that were thoroughly untested in battle conditions, the pilots of the first war invented and refined the art of shooting opponents out of the sky. Although airplanes actually accomplished very little of strategic value, we tend to remember those early pilots much more than the infantrymen who were being slaughtered in the trenches - probably because the pilots' aerial exploits seem dashing and romantic amid the many horrors of the First World War.
The most famous World War I pilot (besides, of course, Snoopy) was Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the famous Red Baron. There were others as well: Eddie Rickenbacker, the leading American ace, and Billy Bishop, the great Canadian pilot. These men flew planes known as Sopwith Camels, FokkerTriplanes, and Albatrosses. And they flew their planes not in the tight formations of World War II, but rather alone or in small fighting groups. One of the most memorable groups was Richthofen's "Flying Circus."
A number of computer games based on aerial combat in World War I are now being released. First off the mark is Three-Sixty's Blue Max: Aces of the Great War, an extremely enjoyable simulation. Actually, it's not a true simulation, and Three-Sixty doesn't bill it as such. WWI planes couldn't maneuver as well as Blue Max allows them to - but then, simulations need not be the immensely complex, inordinately serious programs we've come to expect.
Blue Max really has more in common with an old board game known as Richthofen's War. You fly your mission, maneuver your plane to shoot down the enemy, and then land back home to receive your reward. One strong feature that Blue Max has in common with Richthofen's War is that you can play it as a strategy game similar to hexagon-based board games. Although you'll spend most of your time inside the cockpit, the strategy option lets you maneuver your craft along a hexagonal path, planning each move rather than performing it in real time. This is an enjoyable way to play for two players, and it eliminates the difficulty of controlling your plane manually. Sometimes it's simply more fun to plan things out.
Even if you never use the strategy option, however, Blue Max offers a great deal of solid fun. You can sign up as a member of the Allies or the Central Powers, choosing from four different planes for each side. Among them are the Fokker DR.I (made famous by Richthofen himself), the Albatross Dill, the Fokker EIII, the Sopwith Camel, the Nieuport Nie 17, and the Spad VII. Each is rated according to its maximum speed, turning rate, and firing ability, qualities which become apparent if you choose the Realistic Simulator flight option instead of Direct Flight.
Other options also affect the level of realism. For example, choosing EGA over VGA graphics speeds up the animation at the expense of detail. You can also speed, things up by turning off the graphics showing the interior of your plane, although once again, considerable detail is lost. You can fly with a joystick, a mouse, or the keyboard. And you can opt for crosshairs to help aim your shots, or choose the much more realistic (and enjoyable) Bullets option. Using the latter, you see your arms raise into position to fire the machine gun, and you see the bullets stream out toward the target. But the only way you knowif you've actually hit an enemy plane is if you see it dive into the ground.
In addition to the strategy option, you can choose Practice Flight, Action Dogfight, Cooperative Dogfight (two players only), and Campaigns. Practice flight is self-explanatory. Action dogfights pityou against whatever number of enemy planes you decide, or against another human player (in the two-player mode). In cooperative dogfights, you and a friend team up against enemy aircraft. In all of the dogfight games, you succeed only if you land in friendly territory. (Incidentally, unlike some flight simulators, Blue Max makes landings mercifully easy).
The campaign option offers the greatest variety and the greatest challenge. You register your pilot as either Central or Allied and then choose from the Bloody April, Battle of Amiens, or Ludendorf Offensive campaigns. You must survive a series of missions, each more difficult than the last. You start each mission with a briefing, and you must land in your own territory after completing the mission. At that point, you can save your progress on disk, change planes, and so on.
The missions include patrols, bombing runs, photo reconnaissance, and attacks on observation balloons. You receive a medal for completing each campaign, and if you succeed at all three you receive the Victoria Cross if you're an Allied pilot, or the Blue Max if you're German. Flying your plane in Blue Max is a simple matter of pulling back on the joystick or mouse to climb, pushing forward to dive, and. pushing left or right to turn. The forward view is standard, but the function keys let you look left, right, or behind you. The F5 key gives you a chase view, while F9 gives you a smaller view but additional options such as a compass and gauges. Finally, F10 pauses the game no matter where you are - even if you're trailing smoke on your way to the ground.
Another interesting option in Blue Max is VCR mode. This allows you to replay a flight sequence while looking at your plane from a variety of perspectives. You can even watch yourself from another pilot's vantage point! VCR mode, however, is available only in the campaign games.
Above all, Blue Max is great fun. If, like me, you're simply not very good at flight simulators, you're still likely to enjoy this game. WWI planes were slower and less responsive than later aircraft, and they lacked all the electronic gad-getry of modem fighters. Blue Max gives you a basic airplane and the blue skies of France, and lets you take over from there. It's first-rate.
(System requirements: IBM, Tandy, and compatibles; 512K minimum memory for CGA, EGA, and monochrome graphics; 640K for MCGA, 256-color VGA, and Tandy 16-color graphics; supports Game Blaster, Ad Lib, and Tandy three-voice sound; joystick or mouse optional. Three-Sixty Pacific, 2105 S. Bascom Avenue, Campbell, CA 95008.)