WWI boffins came up with various solutions to the Western Front mud problem - floating roadways, artillery shells that spread sawdust, boots in the shape of boats, snorkels... By far the cleverest though was a device called the Aero Plane. Essentially a winged car made of kindling, piano-wire and old big-top canvas (hence Richthofen's Flying Circus) these machines allowed soldiers to fight and stay clean. Rise of Flight, the beta of which I've been dabbling with for the last couple of days, celebrates this momentous military breakthrough in an uncommonly realistic manner.
'Uncommonly realistic' is my way of saying 'I crashed on my first three take-off attempts'. The prangs were partly a consequence of me arrogantly skipping the five tutorials (a mix of classroom cutscene, chalkboard animations, and practical tests) and turning down the pre-mission offers of a 'simplified flight model' and 'no wind and turbulence' (there's numerous ways to soften the challenge). Mainly though they were the Russian developer's fault. I hadn't expected Neoqb to be quite so fastidious with its physics. With realism sliders maxed-out this is definitely not one of those sims where you just open the throttle and wait for your warbird to lope lazily into the sky. Getting aloft is a delicate balancing act requiring deft rudder input and timely lifting of the tail. Sloppy control means a splintered prop, a buried wingtip, or endlessly trundling around the aerodrome like a runaway lawnmower. Now I'm more aware of the demands, taking-off is actually a dashed satisfying business. Very Rowan's Battle of Britain.
In the air the physics are no less impressive. The two flyables - the SPAD and the Fokker D.VII - wander and crab, and shake and spin in a most convincing fashion. I've obviously never flown a Great War biplane for real, but there's a greasy pivot-less manoeuvrability in RoF, a sense of exploitable buoyancy, that feels spot-on. Early brushes with bandits suggest a rather well-wrought AI too. Promisingly, I've yet to find myself in one of those interminable turning dogfights that sometimes blight WWI air fare. Sensibly, most foes seem reluctant to take the fight to the deck, preferring instead to boom and zoom (or zoom and boom) or run off to a safe distance before scampering back to bushwhack you when you're absorbed with another target. Devious fokkers.
The cunning isn't universal however. A couple of times I've watched enemy machines buy the farm after misjudging low manoeuvres. Last night I witnessed a particularly gratifying incident where an Albatross tried to follow me down as I spun out of a dogfight. In its eagerness it overstressed its wings and ended up plummeting into a forest in a shower of debris. Although there isn't the flapping canvas and individual bullet holes some may have hoped for, the damage modelling is quite the thing. Impacts are extremely well simulated with heavy landings and in-flight collisions producing beautifully naturalistic devastation. Clipping a tree or a passing wing can spin your machine right round. The ground beneath a big dogfight ends-up strewn with planes broken in all kinds of fascinating ways.
Sadly, it doesn't look like the beta will be able to answer my questions about single-player substance. I'd hoped to have a good nose around the campaign, but post-sortie crashes (of both kinds) have so far prevented this. At first glance the set-up seems relatively promising. You begin by choosing a historical squadron (and therefore a sector of the vast Front map) from a long list. If the breadth of that choice translates into mission variety, lively battlespaces, and strong squadron identities then all will be well. A solid campaign would certainly help counter apparent shortcomings like the lack of a skirmish generator, and the shortage of steeds. It seems RoF will ship with just two (admittedly highly detailled) flyables. Additional craft like the Albatross and Nieuport 17 will be made available later as payware extras.
And I'm still uneasy about the sim's non-negotiable Net connection requirement. Whether it's for stat collecting, rank updating, or piracy prevention, insisting on a connection for solo play is a silly idea and one that may scare off many potential pilots. Going by the beta, Neoqb have something quite special on their hands here, and it would be an awful shame if folk stayed away.