Author Topic: Reconnecting with an old PC Game - Knights of the Sky (Microprose, 1990)  (Read 4360 times)

Offline Brad Cancian

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Hi everyone – I’ve found myself connecting recently with an ‘old friend’; the PC Game “Knights of the Sky” (KOTS), made by Microprose and released for DOS in 1990 (it was later ported to the Amiga, but I had the DOS version). KOTS is a first world war combat simulator first and foremost. This game is a special one for me; it was one of the first flight sims I owned as a kid, and it helped spur my interest in WW1 aviation.



I remember picking this game up probably around 1992; though the original boxing I had is long gone, I do still have the original disks, manual, and the map that came in the box (the map I ended up framing and putting up on the wall in my hobby room). I also still have this running on my original 386 PC, but it is also available on Steam and runs through DOS Box (though there’s still something special about playing this on the original hardware it was designed for).



Loading the Game:

Starting the game gives you the nostalgic old 90s options screens (do you have a mouse? Do you have a joystick? Choose your graphics and sound options, etc).



Once selected, you get the splash screen, with an old ragtime ditty playing and some aircraft buzzing about the screen.



You then get a classic copy protection test; you’re presented with a squadron badge, which you then have to match with the correct squadron number, by referring to the pictures scattered throughout the manual. Get the right selection and you get the full game. Get the selection wrong, and all you can do is fly about in single missions.



Though predominantly a campaign-based sim, the game comes with several neat features for the time. It has a classic campaign mode, where you sign up to either the British or French Air Services in early 1916 to battle the Hun. There’s a ‘training’ mode where you can essentially simply go flying to hone your skills, be it in clear skies, or against the enemy. Options here include invulnerability, unarmed foes, and unlimited ammunition, and you can fly any aircraft in the game (including the German aircraft that you can’t fly in the campaign). There’s a ‘dogfight encounters’ mode which pits you up against your choice of the German aces. There’s also a ‘head-to-head’ mode, which, back in the day, allowed you to connect to another computer via modem and dogfight against your best pal to see who was the supreme pilot.



The Campaign:

The campaign itself is unsurprisingly where the main action is, and by golly it’s quite a bit of fun. You sign up in early May 1916 as either a British or French pilot (signing up for Germany is not an option). Your starting rank is Corporal. You choose a name and nationality, and a skill level for your pilot (you can always change the skill level at any time). Skill levels are from 1 through to 5, with 5 being the hardest (and it is indeed the hardest – for example, enemy aces score at a very high rate, and enemy machine gun and AA fire is quite accurate at the higher skill levels). Once you select your pilot and skill level, you are assigned to a frontline airfield (no squadrons are mentioned or feature by number on either side).




You then are presented with the main campaign menu:



Straight away are presented with the option to choose your aircraft (a Nieuport 11 or a DH-2 are your starting craft choices, which makes sense given the time period). Your machine’s speed and performance will vary depending on which aircraft you select.



Once you are happy with your steed, you go to the mission screen and are presented with your first mission. Missions have a nice range to them; area patrols, hunting down an enemy squadron or reconnaissance machine, balloon busting, bombing an enemy airfield, headquarters or supply dump, attacking enemy truck convoys, strafing the front, or escorting a friendly recon aircraft. You have the option of either accepting or declining a mission; declining a mission will no doubt have an affect on your future promotions and reputation.



Once you accept a mission, you’re off on your way.

Graphics are as expected for this period; polygonal and relatively simple, but they are in 3D. The programmers have also done a great job in creating an environment; though it’s a bit flat, you get trees, buildings, roads, rivers, airfields, anti-aircraft guns, artillery, clouds, and so on. Controls are simple – engine on/off, throttle, a stick for controls (including bombs and guns), and the ‘unjam’ key for those gun jams (far more frequent at the higher skill levels). Enemy aircraft are aggressive and will generally always look for a fight. Enemy AA fire is not much of a threat on the low skill levels but is quite deadly at the higher skills (there has been many a time where I have been shot down by AA fire for simply approaching the front lines). If you are lucky (or unlucky), you may encounter enemy aces near certain airfields; aces are distinguishable generally by the different colour of aircraft that they fly (usually either black, white, red, blue, yellow, red/green, etc).

You are sent out singly on these missions, i.e. you are not part of a flight but spend the war flying solo. You do encounter formations of enemy and friendly machines, however (interestingly, friendly scouts are the same type as the aircraft you are flying at any given time. Presumably this was a design choice made by disk space limitations). You fly your assigned course, but as there is no ‘auto-navigation’ option, you fly where and how you want to (using the ‘accelerate time’ option if you wish to speed up transits). Navigation is by the in-built map, or you can choose to navigate by the roads and rivers. There are plenty of views to choose from; four classic cockpit views (forward, rear, left, right), and several floating and padlock views to help keep you locked onto a particular target. Quite good for the time.

Here's some screen shots of the game in action, in this case, the aforementioned balloon busting mission –

Taking off and looking back over the field:


Approaching the front lines:


Being bounced by a Hun on the way to the balloon (an overshoot put me in a nice firing position straight away):


Having a jolly crack at the hun gasbag:


After flaming the gasbag and heading home, I was bounced by a pesky Eindecker as I was coming in to land, which I also made short work of:



If you are low on fuel or ammo, you can land at a friendly airfield and replenish (only turning your engine off ends the mission).

If you complete your mission and land at a friendly airfield (and switch your engine off), or if you otherwise crash or are shot down, you’ll be evaluated. If you successfully completed your mission, you’ll be debriefed with a hearty ‘well done’ from your squadron mates.




If you fail, well, you’ll be told you need to do better or join the ‘foot sloggers’. If you crash, or get shot down, you’ll either die or survive (generally a gentle crash landing will see you survive). If you crash on the allied side, you’ll catch a lift back to your squadron for debrief. If you crash on the Hun side, you’ll generally hide somewhere and escape across the lines, or you’ll even be captured and toasted by your gallant foe, who (for some inexplicable reason) will then generally let you go to find your way back to your side of the lines. Given this, it’s reasonably easy to have a long campaign, provided you don’t actually die. Lastly, if you do find yourself buying the farm, you have the option of resurrecting your pilot (we all have bad dreams, or so the manual says).

"The bally Hun, he got me! I think i'll be going a cropper, chaps!"



Your performance first and foremost is judged on whether you succeeded in your mission. From there, you’ll get points (never displayed) for the amount of enemy aircraft shot down, ground installations destroyed, and so on. The more of the enemy’s stuff you break, the better you’ll do. You’re then evaluated to determine if you received any medals or promotions. If you do well over a long period of time, you’ll end up with a steady stream of promotions (up to and including Colonel) and medals on your chest.




From here, the game gets interesting, and the campaign gets quite a bit richer. After a mission, you’ll get updates on happenings at the front. You’ll hear from your mechanic on new friendly and enemy types that are being introduced at the front. You may also get a short notice ‘scramble’ mission to deal with enemy fighters attacking your airfield.



You’ll receive news reports or reports from your friends at the bar or at high class dinner parties on how well enemy and friendly aces are doing, where they were last spotted, and the colour and type of their machines. A little deduction and comparison with the provided map, and you’ll quickly work out where their home airfields may be. You’ll record this info in an Ace Portfolio for later reference, where the three most recent sightings are recorded. Pay attention, as enemy aces do move around between airfields.





The more you score, and the higher rank and number of decorations you receive, the bigger a reputation you will gain. The enemy aces will start to see you as a threat; they will continue to look to outscore you, or even sometimes issue you with a direct challenge.



If you are challenged, you can accept or decline the challenge. Accept, and you’ll fly to a designated spot on the map to find and battle your foe. Be careful; he will come with plenty of his friends, whilst you will be alone. Defeat him, and you’ll be toasted by all and sundry. You’ll also be credited with his demise on the ace score board.




Fail, and he may finish you off or continue to outscore you and shoot down more allied fliers.

Once you are an ace, you will be able to issue a challenge to any enemy ace, but you’ll have to use your powers of deduction to go and hunt them out over their own airfields.  Get promoted to Captain and you have the ability to change your base at will; this makes chasing down and challenging those pesky enemy aces based on their sightings just that bit easier. That being said, you are more than welcome to challenge an ace and fly from one end of the map to the other to find them, should you so wish.

It is this aspect which shows the game’s ‘other’ aim than just a WW1 flight simulator; it tempts you to do more to be high on the Ace score board, it wants you to try to be the best of the best, the Ace of Aces… but it also gives you the option to politely decline and focus on getting on with the business of being a front line pilot and beating the Boche, perhaps earning some medals and promotions in the process. In giving you a choice, it makes the experience all the richer.

"Come and get me, you dastardly Huns...!"



Historical Accuracy:

Though your actions won’t directly affect the outcomes of the war, the front does move according to historical time period. This changes the available friendly and enemy airbases available also.

As the war goes on, you’ll get access to better machines (as will the enemy). In terms of handling qualities, I have found some consistencies throughout the game, which is both good and bad. Your machine is generally more manoeuvrable and a bit faster than that of the enemy, no matter which craft you (or the enemy) are in, nor the skill level. Damage is announced to the pilot, and is basic, but effective enough. Have a damaged elevator and you’ll find it difficult to climb. Have a damaged aileron and you may not be able to roll well, if at all. If you do find yourself shot down, your craft generally remains controllable for a crash landing. You also have to deal with gun jams, which are more frequent on higher difficulties. The flight models themselves don’t actually change too much from machine to machine, which is an opportunity lost, I think. Roll rates generally stay the same across all craft. The predominant change over time as aircraft advance is ground speed and climbing ability, which ultimately helps you move about the map quicker, more than anything else.

Enemy AI is generally simple; enemy aircraft tend to fly and fight in the horizontal plane, and not too much in the vertical, with the exception of the enemy aces, which use the vertical plane far more than the standard AI pilots. Accordingly, aces can be quite tricky to latch on to and shoot down. Occasionally, the AI pilots can be tricked into flying into the ground. This can be handy, but annoying if it’s one of the aces you are hunting.

The Manual:

The manual is available in the Steam version of the game in the game folders. The manual is another piece of beautiful early 90s example of a manual being far more than just a set of instructions on how to operate the game. It provides an excellent general history of the air war and its defining periods, broken into chapters. It has a section on manoeuvres and tactics. It is also scattered with beautiful pencil-drawn artwork. This artwork is so good, that I have found myself printing these out on good quality photo stock and putting into frames.







Conclusions:

As I am sure you can tell, I have fond memories of this game, even 30 years after its release. For me, what I liked about these older games is that the developers had to work hard; they had to squeeze as much game as they could onto the paltry floppy disks of the day. Hence, they were always trying to balance graphics and gameplay in harmony. I've played modern games like Rise of Flight, and Wings over Flanders Fields, and they just don't immerse me as much; indeed, their sheer search for technical perfection makes them almost inaccessible, unless you wish to learn to actually fly a WW1 biplane. These older early 90s games seem to have the combination of being easy to access, combined with immersive campaigns. By 'easy to access', I mean it is easy enough to load up and be in the thick of a dogfight within 30 seconds or settle in for a longer and cheery campaign. In short - modern games seem far more technical and lack that 'heart' of the older games. Hence, I still keep coming back to these old games like KOTS and Red Baron 3D, whereas the more modern games I have purged from my system.

KOTS still has features that I have not seen in a WW1 flight simulator since – the ability to track and hunt down enemy aces, to issue challenges, and to move about bases. It is this aspect which gives the game quite a bit of playability. The news articles, chats at dinner parties, at bars, with the mechanics, and so forth, gives both a bit of fun and immersion that I have not seen in many other WW1 flight sims. This makes these aspects of your pilot’s ‘story’ the main event of the game; the game is about your journey in the war and not just about the flying itself. It is in this aspect that the game is not only well presented, but immersive. It is in this that I find myself coming back to this game even now.

If you haven’t tried it, and want just a bit of fun, of it it’s been a while since you played this one, then I’d recommend checking this old title out.



Cheers!

BC
« Last Edit: March 04, 2023, 06:56:49 PM by Brad Cancian »
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Offline KiwiZac

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That was a fantastic review Brad, thanks for sharing! I think I'll have to grab it for myself. Red Baron is the one I find myself going back to but only just to have a go, rather than get deep into the campaign - the way you write about KOTS makes me want to jump right in.
Zac in NZ

Offline Gisbod

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I played this Brad for many hours!

Loved it. Thanks for bringing back memories!

Guy
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth -
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

P.O. John Gillespie Magee 1941

Offline jeroen_R90S

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Cool stuff -never played it myself, though. Guess my friends back then didn't have this in their floppy trading collection :-X ;D
I did play a lot of Red Baron (the original, Red Baron II, and the later 3DFX supported version).
Red Baron came with a nice book and maps, too, I later got a second hand copy on a local equivalent to Ebay (as well as many more of those old games I copied and played a lot, like X-Wing, TIE Fighter, Wing Commander I and II, etc etc).

Microprose, along with Dynamix, were one of my favourite companies back then. Played a lot of Aces of the Pacific (with the 1946 addon later) / Europe, and 1942: Pacific Air War and European Air War as well :)
(and a lot of other non-flight Microprose games, too, like Transport Tycoon)

Dawn Patrol, though newer, was nice as well. It had the Albatros D.I in it!
(now abandonware: https://www.myabandonware.com/game/dawn-patrol-2ah )


Thanks for the memories!

Jeroen

Offline gbrivio

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I played this as well and Red Baron too for long time, and  how far in the past it looks now. Thank you for sharing your memories and reviving the game. I wish I didn't give away my old PCs, playing on the original hardware, with original floppies was really tastier.
Ciao
Giuseppe

Offline Brad Cancian

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Hi everyone - glad that this bought back some fond memories for a number of you :)

I also played alot of Red Baron, Red Baron II (and 3D), and Aces of the Pacific. I also played a bit of Gunship 2000 (also Microprose), and Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. Some of these games are still running on the old 386, including Red Baron. I even managed to get Dawn Patrol loaded onto the old machine back in the day, but it certainly wasn't up to the task of pushing all of the pixels around...! I did manage to load it an enjoy it on a later machine; the story book format is certainly interesting but the campaign is limited to pre-arranged canned missions and thus isn't too repeatable. Still, I do remember the graphics being very good for the time.





The other one I did pick up back in the day was Flying Corps; another story based campaign but again quite canned and therefore limited in replay-ability.

I also have managed to pick up boxings of Red Baron and Red Baron 3D on ebay over the years, amongst others (not my original boxes, unfortunately). The lovely manuals and maps certainly do provide quite a bit more than manuals these days, if you even get one!

I still occasionally play Red Baron 3D to this day. One day I might get back into the original Red Baron (also released in 1990) and put together a similar review to this one.

*Interesting side note, KOTS was originally titled "The Red Baron" by Microprose, but they changed it as Dynamix had gotten in on announcing their release first (even though it actually released after KOTS). The Red Baron name may well have fitted better with the KOTS gameplay, given the strong emphasis on hunting down the aces (which was not something that featured in the Dynamix game).

Cheers again,

Brad

 
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Offline jeroen_R90S

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Gunship 2000 I'd forgotten about that one! Earlier there was  LHX Attack Chopper by EA -that was about one of the first games I played over PC speakers and it drove my mother nuts :)

And the joys of freeing up 610 out of 640K conventional memory for Aces of the Pacific -I did learn a lot about memory management, drivers, IRQ, DMA and all that other stuff unimaginable to my kids, just to play a game :)
Dawn Patrol was more of a 486DX66 game -I still have the CPU from that (my first PC was actually  a 386SX-25Mhz...) Dawn Patrol was indeed rather scripted. RBII, though later, was very nice for it's day as well... I still have my original box, manual and CD from that. :)

Jeroen

Offline Brad Cancian

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To finish off this little campaign...

The war takes a turn against the allies...





The Germans introduce deadlier new aeroplanes:


None the less, William Hunter achieves his feat of taking out all of the Boche aces! What a guy!





The war situation improves...


And the day of days - Armistice!


William Hunter is the Ace of Aces! Pip Pip!


Apparently this warrants some aerobatics with wing-walking and hanging from an undercart!


The final tally:



Again, a fun little game and campaign. I do recommend checking it out for a little bit of good old fashioned fun, wot!

Cheers,

BC
« Last Edit: March 17, 2023, 05:48:39 PM by Brad Cancian »
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Offline KiwiZac

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Huzzah for Hunter, the immortal hero!  ;D
Zac in NZ

Offline Brad Cancian

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 :D ;D
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Offline WD

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Man, I can hear MIDI music playing now. :)

I never had this one, but when we got our first PC in 1994 AotP and RB by Dynamix were in constant rotation at our house. I credit those two sims with resurrecting my interest in modeling a/c again, I wanted to build models of what I flew, etc. On days when I was "Mr. Mom", I'd set our son in my lap and fly missions. This caused him to develop a great interest in same. I was a bad man. ;) ;) ;) When he was three his mom was going to repaint his room, and she asked him what he wanted: "I want a SPAD roasting a sausage and a Fokker Triplane coming up to get him". She did it, and well too. He currently lives in that place now, and the painting is still on the wall.

Warren

Offline Brad Cancian

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Hi Warren - I love your story :)  So nice to hear the painting is still there, what a great thing to keep as a reminder of those times. Do you have a picture of the painting?

I still have kept a few of these older games that I used to play (and picked up a couple here and there over the years), which now live in one of my display cabinets - again, these remind me of those simpler times :)



Cheers,

BC
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Offline WD

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Brad, I'll try to get a photo of it. If memory serves, I think my son and I still have all of these games stored somewhere. I also remember one, which he loved, that was a Mi-24 Hind sim.

Warren

Offline pepperman42

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Nostalgia ain't what it used to be!!

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Offline KiwiZac

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Re: Reconnecting with an old PC Game - Knights of the Sky (Microprose, 1990)
« Reply #14 on: August 12, 2023, 10:02:54 AM »
Well, I did it. Steam has a 50% off sale and I couldn't resist buying this. Your story really made me want to have a go Brad!

Stay tuned for my man's progress...for better or worse!
Zac in NZ