Cinemaware was the Voltron of computer game design in the late 1980s, able to forge an undeniable masterwork from a handful of almost-ordinary arcade mini-games. In the World War I saga Wings, shoot-em-up and dogfight sequences are strung together by the diary of a young pilot. Avoid being shot down by the Hun, and you can experience wartime life through his eyes between 230 missions from 1916 to 1918. Named in homage to the 1927 movie on the same subject, Wings is suffused with class, and the period artwork evokes wistful downtime at the French aerodrome. In arcade missions, you bust enemy surveillance balloons and bomb German U-boats and bases while avoiding Red Cross vehicles. There's a pretty good plane-to-plane combat sim, too, with impressive 3D for the time. All of this is enhanced by the role-playing game element of improving pilot skills. In 2001 Cinemaware announced a remake featuring improved 32-bit versions of the graphics. --Book--
Once more Cinemaware's researchers draw from history for the inspiration behind a game. This time the creative time machine has stopped midway through World War I and inside the hangers of the 56th Aerosquadron. The obligatory 'movie' intro is an account of the Wright brothers first powered air flight, along with a quote from Orville Wright claiming that wars will be impossible with the arrival of the plane. The scene then dramatically changes to two dogfighting biplanes over a battle field.
Now you, a new recruit in the Royal Flying Corps (predecessor to the RAF), have to earn your wings to qualify to join the 56th by completing one of three set training missions - bombing, strafing and, best of all, dogfighting. Should you qualify your transfer comes through and you're off to the front line. Your pilot has four ratings: Flying - the higher this rating is the more manoeuvrable your plane becomes; Mechanical rating determines your ability to control the plane when it's damaged or stop your guns jamming; while shooting determines how many shots it takes to down enemy planes; Stamina is the amount of damage you can take before wigging out completely. These ratings increase according to how many targets you destroy and how well you perform on missions.
First taste of air force life is a briefing from your CO, Colonel Farah, who kindly puts you in charge of the Squadron's log, the diary of what's going on at your base. Soon the day of your first mission dawns and you're led into combat for the first time. Mission one is a routine patrol where you come across two German Fokkers. The information before a battle is relayed to you in the form of the pilot's thoughts with phrases such as '... Harry the Hun wouldn't know what hit him' or 'there was only one but he boldly signalled for a fight'. These messages can often be quite funny and bridge the gap between plot and game.
The journal keeps you up to date with the game's story and the war as it unfolds. It informs you of the squadron's progress, the men involved, and technical developments that have a direct bearing on the war. This includes details such as the new German machine gun or the French built anti-Zeppelin rocket. Recruits and fatalities are recorded on the pilot roster. As you're not the only one in the squad it's interesting to keep an eye on how well other team mates are doing, as you're going to end up flying with or leading some of them into combat.
The missions vary quite dramatically. They need to be - there are one hundred and fifty in total. The majority of these are dog fights. As biplanes are not too sophisticated they have hardly any equipment or control panels that you need to keep an eye on. All you have to worry about are the guns jamming, hitting the enemy and avoiding them hitting you. To track the planes you need to follow the pilot's line of sight as he'll turn his head to look at his nearest adversary, a novel system which not only fun useful. Bombing missions don't appear until later in the game. These are virtually pure arcade. You get a top view of your plane as it races across enemy territory. Tapping the fire button releases a salvo of bullets and holding the fire button drops your bombs. This section is weak, but is easily supported by the rest of the game.
When you go on a strafing mission the screen scrolls diagonally from bottom right to stop left, with forced perspective (a 3D effect without actually being 3D) graphics. The mission overview gives you a list of what priority targets you have to go for, and this means destroying at least half of them.
With the length of the game, and the changes which go on throughout, the chances are you're going to 'buy the farm' (as we airforce types say). If such should be your fate a rather tasteful sequence follows with your comrades lowering you into a hole so you can while away your time pushing up daisies. All is not lost, though, as you can always train up a new pilot and rejoin your squadron as your own replacement!
Wings is a brilliant game. It's both atmospheric and easy to get into. It comes with Cinemaware's usual brilliant presentation and can hardly be faulted. It would be a shame for anyone to miss out on such an excellent game.
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