Microprose was renowned for their top quality releases and enjoyed success after success. I didn’t actually own many of their games since their main focus (strategy and flight sims) were not genres I particularly enjoyed.
Knights of the Sky was different: a flight sim for people who didn’t really like flight sims. It cast you in the role of a World War I pilot when planes were about as basic as they get. Your role was to patrol the skies in your plane and engage enemy planes or take down observation balloons to protect the ground troops. As your reputation increased, so you would come to the attention of enemy aces – possibly even leading to a dogfight with the famous Red Baron himself.
Knights of the Sky was a superb mix of action and strategy. It removed the principle problem people like me had with standard flight sims (having to read a manual the size of War and Peace before you could switch on the plane’s engine), but had enough depth for those who enjoyed more traditional flight sims. You could be up in the air fairly quickly, but extra depth was added the fact that you constantly had to watch your instruments to make sure you didn’t stall your aircraft’s engine or place too great a strain on the primitive technology.
Although the game had a mission-based structure, there was still a certain amount of freedom. You could go off mission and try and take down any enemy fighters you saw or pursue a personal vendetta against one of the enemy aces if you so wished. However, you had to strike a balance. The aim of the game was to stay alive, enhance your reputation and gain promotion – and you mainly did these through the successful completion of mission objectives. As such, the game maintained a nice structured feel whilst also giving the player freedom to pursue their own agenda – quite unusual for a game in those days.
The attention to detail was superb. The game came with a map of the Western Front and the relative positions of British, German and French troops were faithfully recreated. This gave the game a solid historical feel and the lines changed as troops advanced or were forced back. This meant you had to keep a real eye on what was happening on the ground as well as in the air – what was a friendly airbase in 1915 might be an enemy one by 1916. New technology was also developed so better planes became available later in the war, which could really help you.
Air combat was brilliantly executed and incredibly tense. Whilst flying around hunting for enemy planes could occasionally be a little dull (there was a lot of sky to patrol), it was hugely atmospheric and full of tension. You had to constantly use the different camera angles to look around and make sure an enemy fighter hadn’t crept up behind you. When you spotted a plane in the distance, you had to try and get close enough to identify it as friend or foe and then begin a cat and mouse game manoeuvre your plane into a position to take it down if necessary. If you couldn’t find any enemy fighters, you could always descend lower to take pot-shots at ground placements – although by going lower you were also at greater risk of being hit by them.
Tally ho! Bandit at 11 o’ clock etc…
The unreliable technology of the day was brilliantly recreated. There was nothing worse than getting an enemy plane in your sights and then finding your machine gun was jammed. This resulted in much frantic button pressing to unjam it – by which time you had usually lost the shot. This sounds like it should be frustrating but it added an extra element of realism, an extra danger that you had to factor in when deciding whether to engage an enemy or turn tail and run
Your plane was also easily damaged and this became a major factor later in the game. When you were deep in enemy territory, you had to balance the risk of taking on a plane and sustaining damage a long way from home against the glory that could be got from the kill. Trying to limp a damaged plane back to a friendly airbase whilst having to keep an eye out for enemy fighters is incredibly tense (although I did sometimes utilise a cheat here where by if you drove your plane along the ground, enemy fighters would quite often miss when shooting at you!)
Graphics were impressive for their time – filled polygon affairs and whilst the game was not the fastest in the world, this didn’t matter. The relatively slow frame rate actually enhanced the sense of atmosphere, reminding you that these planes were little more than slow-moving death traps, barely able to hold their own against the forces of gravity. Things might look a little sparse at ground level, with only occasional buildings to break up vast swathes of green, but this never bothered me too much.
Sound was pretty minimal but incredibly effective. The splutter of your plane’s engine and the whistling of the wind filled your ears with not much else. You quickly learned to listen carefully to your engine for any warning signs that it had sustained damage. Adding to the atmosphere was the sound of bullets whistling around you when an enemy fighter found you. This led to a tense few seconds as you frantically tried to see where it was coming from and adjust your position accordingly.
What really made the game work, though, was the amount of yourself you poured into it. You really identified with the on-screen pilot and desperately wanted to keep him alive. I remember one game when I managed to take my pilot all the way through from 1914 to June 1918 – only to have him shot down and killed just before the end of the war. I was absolutely gutted; so much so that it took me a good few days before I could bring myself to start again with a new pilot. When you make that level of emotional investment in a game, you know it’s something special.
Knights of the Sky is still a game I love to play. It’s a perfect balance between action and strategy and one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played. Other games (Wings, Red Baron) had a similar WWI theme, but I’ve always thought that Knights of the Sky stands head and shoulders above them all.