Preview - Dawn Patrol (DOS, 1994)

The flight simulator is a very popular computer gaming genre. Any store clerk at Egghead or Software Etc. can tell you that. There's an almost universal appeal there; most people like flight sims in one form or another. Perhaps this is due to the combination of the two main ingredients found in flight sims: operating an extremely large and expensive craft, which you couldn't possibly do in real life, and shooting things until they billow smoke, burst into flames and drop from the sky. People like that. I should know. I'm a people, and blowing things up is nice and high on my list of cool things to do with my spare time.

The one thing I don't like about many flight simulators is the months of library time commonly associated with getting the thing off the ground. I've never been the type to avoid reading manuals, but some of these things border on the ridiculous. I spend hours digesting the driest text I've suffered through since History of the Elevator, and then I think to myself, "This is leisure time?" And then I finally get to play the game, and find out that most of the plane's functions are handled by computer, and all it really needs me to do is push the occasional button. Modern systems are great with their destructive potential and all, but firing a missile at a target two miles away and having a computer report to me that it was destroyed is not my idea of fun. Hands on look-em-in-the-eye visceral carnage is what I'm after.

Enter Dawn Patrol, a game waiting in the wings at Empire Software. Dawn Patrol avoids the tedium and non-interactivity of many modern flight sims by not being a modern flight sim. Although the software itself is a finely detailed piece of work, the planes it simulates are from a simpler time, an age without HUDs, computer target locks, and all the other modern conveniences that make modern-era sims so overwhelming. In Dawn Patrol, getting up in the air is easy. Staying there is what you'll have to concern yourself with most.

Dawn Patrol is a simulation of the War of the Skies, a period spanning from 1914 to 1918. World War I was the first war to include airplanes as a major tactical force. The planes from that period are not exactly what a modern pilot would call high tech, but they did have one advantage over modern planes. Since they traveled at such a slow speed compared to modern fightercraft, they were among the most maneuverable planes ever to see use in the military. Since there was no technological disparity to give a particular side an automatic advantage, it all came down to pilot skill.

In Dawn Patrol you'll take the controls of 15 aircraft from that period. The Sopwith Camel, Curtiss JN, SPAD 7, and the Red Baron's Fokker Triplane are all at your disposal here, along with a generous selection of others. You won't be able to fire a single missile, but you'll pull off maneuvers that modern jets can't begin to attempt.

The graphics in Dawn Patrol are superb, both in-flight and in the interface. You have the choice of flying in either regular 320x200 VGA or in 640x400 extended mode VGA with a VESA compatible graphics card. In plain old VGA the graphics are very good, but in high resolution they are truly beautiful. The terrain and ground targets offer good detail, but it's the other planes that turn Dawn Patrol into a visual feast. Due to the nature of the weapons you'll be flying very close to your targets, and the detail of these planes at close range is remarkable. You'll even be able to see the expression on your opponent's face!

While any flight sim fan should have a great deal of fun playing Dawn Patrol, historians will be crooning about the mission interface. You can create your own pilot, or you can follow the careers of 64 aces. When playing as an ace, the mission briefing tells you all the pertinent details of the mission (what you're flying, what to expect for opposition), then goes further to include the pilot's actual strategy; this allows you to try to reproduce the feats of your selected pilot, or try your hand at a new and unproven method of attack. Dawn Patrol includes 150 missions with various goals, such as dogfighting, balloon attacks, and ground target strafing, so pilots of all skill levels should be busy for some time.

There's a lot of flight sims out there, but Dawn Patrol looks like it has what it takes to stand out among the crowd. The flashy visuals are only the decorations that top a game of true substance. Dawn Patrol is serious enough to appeal to all the hardcore flight junkies out there, but it is easy enough to jump into to appeal to the crowd who is usually daunted by 800 page manuals. Give it a test run and you'll be sure to agree.

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