Dogfight sim with atmosphere
You have to leave it to Cinemaware. All their games just burst with devotion to presentation, and this game is no exception. Right from the start with its stylish introduction sequence through the nice menus to the actual game sequences themselves - wonderful graphics, good sound.
If you look at the core, Wings does not have that much - a solid 3D dogfight simulator, a simple top-down bombing sequence and an isometric strafing run. In over 200 missions, all you get is one of those three (with the 3D missions dominating the bunch).
What totally sets this game apart from all the others however is the squadron's flight journal. Before every mission, the player character pours his heart out in this "diary". In those 200 missions that stretch from 1916 through 1918, we get sucked into the world of the squadron, from funny incidents like a dog showing up on the base, immediately turning into the people's new mascot, to amusing events like a fistfight between the company's priest and the cook over the chow, to touching episodes like the normally tough CO breaking down in tears over problems with his wife.
And of course, war stories. War stories. And war stories. Members of the squadron getting killed in action. A young soldier deserting as things get hot, only to be sent to trial and jailed. A snitch inside the base who regularly informs the enemy and causes the bases to get bombed over and over again, with nobody having an idea about the identity of the spy. And of course, important historical events have their place in the journal too.
From a technical point of view, the game is solid - good music and excellent stereo sound effects, paired with brilliant, moody graphics. The graphics have been embedded brilliantly into the gameplay - in the 3D game, we can see the back of our PC's head, and not only does that look cool - the head is also our "radar": The PC will look to the left if there are enemies somewhere to the left! Bullet holes on your plane indicate how shot up it is. The 3D view is - while not spectacular - still very good, pairing flat 3D graphics and 2D images.
Another aspect of the game is the building up of your character's skills: As you progress, your PC will get better at handling the biplane, hitting enemies more easily and shaking less. That is, until you get killed - while you can move over to the next mission, your character has died and you have to start over with a new greenhorn.
As I mentioned, if you strip down the fancy presentation, you're left with a very basic bombing mission, a simple strafing game and the dogfights. Cinemaware was smart enough to put all their efforts into that 3D section, but even those fall a little bit flat after a while.
I love the journal - I still think this is what makes the game - but it's kind of sad that the journal and the actual game are totally unconnected. While the journal introduces the next mission most of the time, once you're in the sky with your crate you're back to your little 3D dogfighting game. It would have been incredible if the outcome of the game sequence had an influence on the journal.
The Bottom Line
I loved this game. Without the journal, it'd be some nice flight sim. But the way it is, it's a war epic. Especially in the 1917's, the journal makes you feel the desperation of the men in the squadron as the body count rises, and the accompanying missions get increasingly unfair. In one solo mission you end up having to fight eight enemies! At times like these, you are not expected to win. You are expected to get downed or die. This is not a game of superheroes, it's the story of ordinary men at war. Then, in the 1918 missions, the tension slowly dies down, the end of the war seems imminent. It's still the same 3D dogfight game with just the odds evened out, but the journal brings the necessary atmosphere.
Cinemaware did it again.