People have wanted to fly ever since they first noticed birds in the sky, so it's not surprising that the first flight simulator game appeared about ten minutes after the invention of computer graphics. Today, flight simulators are among the most popular kinds of games on the Amiga, as evidenced by the recent outbreak of such specialized programs as Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain (historical drama), Strike Aces (bombing missions), Blue Angels (formation stunt flying), and A-10 Tank Killer (modern anti-tank combat).
That's why it was only a matter of time before the folks at Cinemaware focused their unique talents on the subject. The result is Wings, a lively mix of aerial combat sequences and arcade-style action with an important element that's missing in most other flight simulators: a believable plot that builds as the game progresses.
Wings follows the adventures of the 56th Aerosquadron during the First World War. One big advantage of simulating this early period of aviation is that the aircraft are quite simple to operate. Wings is definitely not one of those games in which you must attend flight school before you can figure out how to take off. In fact, the aerial combat scenes begin and end in the air, so you never have to take off or land at all.
Unlike modern jet-fighter simulators in which the cockpit controls look like something from the starship Enterprise, all the controls you need to fly the planes in this game fit easily on your joystick. You twist the stick to climb, dive, and bank, and you push the fire button to shoot the machine gun. Want to go faster? You'll have to dive toward the ground. With flying skills reduced to this basic level, strategy and technique become the key factors in your success as a combat pilot.
Wings isn't one of those games in which you have a limited number of lives, either. Each game lasts from March 1916 until the Armistice is signed in November 1918. If you don't want to fight the entire war at one sitting, you can save the game to disk at any point. You begin as Waldo Barnstormer (or another character of your choice). If Waldo dies, another recruit takes his place. Each new pilot must qualify at flight school, a training mode in which you learn to master the basic skills of bombing, strafing, and shooting down observation balloons.
Once qualified, you start flying missions and keeping the squadron journal — a device that advances the plot and throws in a bit of history as well. The journal entries appear as text screens before each mission. The missions are fairly short, and they vary from aerial combat and escort to defending your base or guarding your observation balloons.
The missions change over time. For example, you won't get any bombing missions until some bombs have been manufactured. Your opponents' skills changeover time, too. Although the enemy pilots start as rookies, they vastly improve after a year or two of war.
Meanwhile, your skills improve as you successfully complete each mission. You are rated for flying, shooting, stamina, and mechanical skills. If you fail several missions in a row, you lose points, and your pilot may be dishonorably discharged.
If you play the game straight through to Armistice Day (rather than starting over each time you play), you get a real feeling for the war. Pilots come and go, some doing better than others. The missions keep changing, and the journal entries let you know how the war is progressing. The sound effects and music lend even more realism. Overall, you experience the cinematic effect that Cinema-ware aims for.
There's a good mix of game play as well. The flight sequences require some practice, but they're broken up by easier, arcade-style bombing and strafing missions. Sometimes you'll be out on patrol with several other planes, and sometimes with a single wingman. Bombing missions target buildings, bridges, and trains. No two sequences are exactly alike.
Wings comes with an excellent manual that provides some interesting historical background. It also offers advice on flying maneuvers and combatstrategy. Although this material adds enjoyment, you can start playing right away without reading a lot of instructions. The only thing I didn't figure out just by playing is that the numeric keypad lets you switch views while flying. You can look sideways or backward, and even watch yourself get shot down.
Wings definitely has that special quality that turns "just one more game" into a lost weekend. Even if you're not a flight buff, it'll have you yearning to earn your wings.