Past wars have the tendency of being romanticised as a clean struggle between upstanding gentlemen. The more modern, the more industrialised the war, the smaller the danger of this happening. World War 1, with its trench and gas horror, is quite clear in this respect. You'd think… until you tilt your view upwards to the sky. It was the very first major war where aircrafts played any role at all. Industrial technology? Virtually non-existent. All those pilots were more daring adventurers than soldiers, weren't they?
At least that was and is the predominant view found in many fictional testimonials. One very prominent example being the first ever winner of the Best Picture Oscar:. And while Cinemaware's is not a straight adaption of that action classic, it certainly does take its cues from it.
The war has already been raging for two years. Aircrafts have been used before, but mainly for scouting and to drop simple bombs. Aerial combat just only really became possible at all with the invention of the synchronised machine gun to avoid destruction of one's own plane. This is when the player, in the shoes of a rookie, joins an air squadron stationed in France.
It's a minor squadron, flying missions of no crucial importance. A patrol here, shooting down some balloons there, destroying a supply train etc. On the long run, it won't influence the war whether the missions are won or not. The war goes on, while the men do their best – including the player.
Which makesquite a groundbreaking game in one respect: missions can indeed be won or lost, but the game goes on regardless! Usually, games would simply force the player to restore the latest save state in such a case. Not so here: if the player got away with his life, for example by setting down his damaged plane safely, the worst that will happen is that his commanding officer will give him a disappointed lecture. And even if the player's avatar dies, all he has to do is create another fresh pilot to rejoin the same squadron again, without any need to start over.
This absolutely realistic approach (Does anyone really believe that the success of any single mission will be enough to change the outcome of a war of this scale?) is a welcome change! Cinemaware did not go quite as far as Wing Commander did later, with its branching plot depending on the player's success, but certainly, it must have been a major inspiration for the formula which Origin later used repeatedly (including Wings of Glory, which bore a striking resemblance in many ways).
Which is also noticeable in other ways. Most strikingly, in the way that the game emphasises the characters over the global tides of the war. The protagonist (automatically) keeps a diary which records not so much the missions themselves, but rather what is going on in the squadron, how the general mood is, what people are up to. This may be directly war related ('more and more Fokkers coming every day'), but it's also an attempt to show the involved actors as real people trying to cope with their lives in an unusual situation.
This is interesting and even probably not completely unrealistic (in spite of the tendency of belittlement of war), because the game also avoids the opposite trap of cheaper anti-war stories which have the protagonists in despair over the war the whole time. These people are trying to live normal lives, as far as the circumstances allow. They fool around, they have fun – and, yes, they also have darker moments. Which doesn't invalidate the initial categorisation as a glorification as a 'clean war' which, of course, never existed. Though at least there is a story being told, and it's at least an entertaining one, because it's just about people.
Just that these people sometimes have to go out and kill (or be killed). basically consists of three types of missions. The most prominent one is the simulation-like three-dimensional dogfight against at most a handful of enemy planes and sometimes aided by a couple of wingmen. Sometimes, these missions are spiced up by balloons which either need to be shot down or defended, and sometimes there is anti-air fire from the ground. The basic formula stays the same, though.
The speciality is, and that is what indeed makes WW1 aviation very attractive for a computer game: there is no technology! It's just you inside your plane. If you want to find out where the enemy is, you look around – there is no fancy radar. If you've spotted another plane, the only way to tell friends from enemies is its paint – no automated friend or foe recognition, either. If you decide to believe it's an enemy, you fire your two mounted machine guns which aim straight ahead – no target locking and seeking weapons available. And last, but not least, everything moves at a speed which can still be followed by the human eye, so encounters do last longer than a split second. Cinemaware did a very good job of providing the player the essential information nevertheless. The pilot's head automatically turns towards the closest enemy and the plane will receive visible damage – so no need for an integrated reporting system, either.
The other two mission types are a little more on the simpler side. They play in the way of classic arcade games: strafing missions in the style of and bombing missions similar to the countless top-down shooters. They make for a welcome occasional change, but they are not quite as impressive and fine-tuned.
Now there is only one big question still open. If it doesn't matter for the progression of the war (and the game) whether missions are won or lost, even whether the player lives or dies, what's the incentive of doing good? Well, it's (partly) in your hands how many pilots this squadron will have lost at the end of the war. It's in your hands whether the pilots you control will make it through. It has to be admitted that the longer you managed to keep the same character, the more painful it becomes to lose him, after all (again, a very organic method of motivation). It's also in your hands how they make it through: just barely by staying out of as much danger as possible (sensible decision and hard enough to achieve) or as a big hero with a long list of enemies shot down. I.e., the game is basically about making a career – to become one of the most respected (and feared) aces.
And there we are again with the glorification of war. It's clearly present inand it's indeed a major factor of the overall experience. Regardless of what the Cinemaware employees might have thought of it personally and regardless of what I may believe, it is, keeping with the company motto, simply a nostalgic reference to the early days of Hollywood in this regard. Gameplay-wise, it is without a doubt one of the most mature, consistent and overall complete products of the company!