World War I was a fascinating period of history. At the start you had the French forces almost indistinguishable from those who fought cote à cote with Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, the cavalry riding horses into battle wearing plate armour and carried swords, but by the end you had tanks, aerial warfare and a line of trenches that basically stretched from the Alps to the North Sea. How many other wars can you think of where one side used both swords and guns?
Aerial warfare is what Red Wings: Aces of the Sky focuses on. It’s a World War I combat flight simulator that asks a very simple question: would you like to play as the Germans or the Allies?
With 50 story missions split 50:50 between the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Russia, France and Great Britain), you’ll find yourself plunged into dogfights hunting the enemy of your choice, with every fifth victory revealing a little more of the old-timey black and white story.
The story, told through a series cartoony photos, is loosely centres around the von Richthofen brothers, with Manfred — the ‘Red Baron’ — taking almost centre stage. I say ‘almost’ because the story just talks about him a lot. His brother, Luther, also gets mentioned, but neither make an impactful appearance in the story. It’s more a tale of how there are invariably big names in wars — nexuses around whom everything seems to revolve, whether they’re present in the battle or not. The Alliance wants to support them, living in their shadow, whereas the Entente forms an anti-Richthofen squad to try to take him down. As stories go, it leaves a lot to be desired.
I love historical and educational games, and while Red Wings does borrow from history, it’s not quite historically accurate. Figher pilots in World War I, for example, didn’t have regenerative forcefields and couldn’t refuel in mid-air by flying through a magic hoop. Similarly, you couldn’t kill the enemy by barrel-rolling them head on. This won’t bother everyone — sometimes you just want some arcade dogfighting, right? — but if you’re looking at picking up a game that is a faithful simulator of life in the skies in 1918, you’re going to be a touch disappointed.
The gameplay in Red Wings has me a little torn. Combat is certainly engaging, with abilities like calling a squadron to help you take down an enemy and being able to lean out of the cockpit and shoot a rival pilot with a pistol — something that actually happened in the War — available to you from the start. Fights can certainly be a complex and deadly dance. However, some of these skills are more useful than others, with some of them being downright pointless.
As you complete each mission you find the now traditional three star rating based on either your time or your score, but you don’t know what time or score you need until you either win or die trying. These stars are added to your skill book where you level up your pilot and your plane.
Some upgrades, like having more heat-resistant guns, are essential as they let you shoot for longer before your guns overheat. Others, like the ability to have increased visibility in clouds, feel pointless because they don’t make enough of a difference to be worth the 12 stars you’d need to spend. Fortunately, you can always refund your stars if you don’t like a loadout and reallocate them to something more useful. Chances are you’ll be doing this after every other mission.
Interestingly, the stars carry over between the Alliance and Entente, which is fortunate if you’re stuck on one side of the story as you can go do the other and level up in the process. The problem remains that you don’t know what you’re doing until you’re doing it, though, making investing those points a chore of going into a mission and then backing out once you know what it is to reset your skills.
The mission structure is where Red Winds falls down hard. Not only do you not know what kind of mission you’re taking on until you’re doing it, but they follow an extremely repetitive pattern. You take down as many planes as you can, stop your weather balloons being destroyed by the enemy, bomb the hell out of the opponent’s strategic thing, and then refuel by doing a generic racing mission, flying through a series of hoops while battling against the clock.
You attac, you protec, you bom, you nom. The fact that I can reduce a game into an Instagram meme shows there’s just not enough variety here.
Red Wings is far from bad, though, and there is plenty of endgame content to keep you occupied if you happen to fall in love. Those who like to collect things will love the number of skins available for each plane, and will no doubt have fun completing the very specific challenges — finish Mission X with a score of Y — needed to unlock them.
There is also a survival mode and a co-op mode for those who so fancy it. Survival is challenging and engaging, but I must confess that I didn’t try the local co-op because of social distancing. I can’t help but note with a grim smile that 102 years later, it’s another pandemic that’s on everyone’s minds.
The Nintendo Switch version adds one platform specific tweak in the form of motion control. These are off by default, and probably with good reason; they are not good. Even turning the sensitivity right down, it is so much harder to shoot with any real accuracy. They also flip the controls so that the special skills are now mapped to your left hand, rather than right, which is unfortunate. I get why they did it, but having to adjust the D-pad instead of the face buttons feels weird. In general, it’s best to avoid this and stick with the controls as you’d find them on other consoles.