Back in the Blitz
Rowan's new game, Battle of Britain, builds on the success of their earlier hit, Mig Alley, long regarded as the outstanding dogfight simulator. Now Rowan have added better terrain graphics, more aircraft, great clouds, a more involving campaign and functioning multiplayer. Surely this has to be a recipe for success? The game offers three modes of play - training missions, individual missions and campaigns. You can fly the Hurricane or Spitfire for the Royal Air Force or the Messerschmidt-109 and -110 and the Junkers-87 for the Luftwaffe. As an interesting sideshow you can even fly as a gunner in the three German medium bombers used in the battle, fending off aggressive British pilots with your single machinegun from one of three positions in each aircraft. In the campaigns you can direct the air war from either side in as much detail as you wish, from giving general directives to specifying raid composition and tactics for individual targets. You can jump in and fly any of your aircraft at any time, scrambling from Manston in your Spit or approaching London in your Heinkel.
Bandits Eleven O'Clock Low
The flight simulator section of the game is at once spell-binding and disappointing. Many new players will be initially put off by the game's obvious deficiencies, but delve deeper and you will find a sim whose main asset is the quality of the combat. Rather like the original Flanker simulation, Battle of Britain eschews eye candy in favour of tough opponent AI and murderous dogfights that cartwheel over the Kent coast and tumble over the docks of London. Get on a Messerschmidt's tail and he will lead you through a merry dance of turns, scissors, spiral dives and chandelles. Unsurprisingly the moves are similar to those in Mig Alley - why change it if it works so well? The addition of clouds has made a significant improvement - it adds a close reference point to give a sense of speed that would otherwise be missing at six thousand feet. Now as your your Hurricane follows the pair of Stukas into the canyon between the clouds you can actually feel how fast you are going. Unfortunately the clouds will cut some fifty percent off your framerate, though if you have a fast enough machine this will not necessarily be a problem - partly because measured framerates are high and partly because the stuttering problem makes it seem as though you have a low framerate anyway. Still, at least the clouds look great, which is more than can be said for the banded sky, awful propellor, fuzzy aircraft and cartoonish terrain - this is not a sim you will be buying for its good looks, fancy reflections notwithstanding. Nor, it must be said, will you be buying it for the sounds - other aircraft passing seem to sound louder than your own aircraft and cannon and machinegun fire are barely distinguishable. Having said that, speech is pretty good, especially the accurate German radio calls and fighter jargon. Furthermore, though streets ahead of much of the competition Battle of Britain does not demonstrate quite the flight model and combat fidelity it claims. The flight model appears to have too little drag and too high a roll rate, leaving the Messerschmidt markedly inferior in the manoeuvrability stakes, yet without its power advantage in boom and zoom combat. Indeed the combat model, suited to Mig Alley where the Mig 15 had a slight edge on the Sabre, leaves the Messerschmidt using ahistorical tight turn tactics, easy prey for a competent Spitfire driver. This makes the Spitfire the aircraft of choice for every mission - kills are much harder to come by in the 109. None of this makes Battle of Britain a game that should be overlooked. Unlike some other dogfighting games, you never feel that your opponent has a limited repetoire of scripted moves - instead you will need to keep your eyes peeled as you follow your prey through his twists and turns. Rowan's excellent viewing system, first seen in Flying Corps in 1996, makes a welcome reappearance here and there is a lot of fun to be had in a Stuka over Southampton or a Hurricane over Margate.
Raid forming over Calais, Sir!
The campaign section of the game is an absolute masterpiece. It gives the player a whole new dimension of the air battle to explore and sets his individual efforts as a fighter pilot in the wider context of the war. The player can take the part of the German air commander, marshalling strikes and choosing targets, or the part of British fighter control, choosing which squadrons will patrol the gaps in the radar coverage, who will be on standby to scramble and who needs a good rest and refit. The campaign follows the historical course of events, with the Germans striking at convoys and radar stations first, followed by determined attacks on RAF airfields, with the London Blitz as the grand finale. There is a hindsight option, in which the Germans play to an optimum game plan, rather than sticking rigidly to the events of 1940 but it will not vary the game too much, though it is tougher. The screen displays the Channel area divided into fighter group zones, with little historical markers displaying the squadrons as they take off. Together with the excellent sound in this section it is easy to feel part of the defence of Britain, watching the raid markers come sweeping in over the Channel or head west around your patrol line. At no point do you have absolute knowledge - if the south coast radar stations are down you will only pick up the raids as the Royal Observer Corps spot them from the ground. Even when you do spot them they are likely to dogleg at the last minute and fool your intercepting patrols about their real target. If you are the German commander you will need to reconnoitre constantly to establish whether the Kent and Sussex airbases you wish to attack that afternoon are in use and what state they are in. It is in this part of the game that Rowan's much vaunted massive raids take place, with over 300 aircraft in your area at once. Needless to say this has an impact on your framerate and in fact it's not really much to look at, just lots of dots with the occasional single pixel line depicting smoke. Mass dogfights swirl around you, but your experience of them probably will not be significantly different from the single squadron battles of the single missions, though 70 Messerschmidts heading your way will certainly wake you up. It can be fun to jump into a bomber as top gunner for a while, but it will not hold your attention for long.
Rowan are to be commended for putting realism first, denying pilots easy kills but making it all the more rewarding when they come. The British aircraft are afflicted with puny armament, the .303 machineguns lacking the punch for quick kills. Getting a kill at all in a mission is good, two kills being quite difficult given the ammunition constraints. Unlike other simulations, you are not going to become an ace in one mission. This may put oof casual players, but is a nice break from the more arcade flight and damage models found elsewhere. Other realistic elements include a proper engine start-up sequence, propellor torque and damage to flaps and landing gear if lowered at high speeds. In dogfights the enemy often disappears below the nose of your aircraft as you pull lead pursuit to bring your guns to bear, leaving you essentially blind when you fire, a feature commented on by pilots of the period. When an aircraft is fatally hit there may be the conventional explosion, debris and smoke or the aircraft may simply fail to pull out of a dive, its pilot dead at the controls - quite a shock if you are racing down behind him. Another facet that will please the hardcore crowd is the functional multiplayer, including cooperative missions, for up to eight pilots. This is a marked improvement from Mig Alley, where multiplayer was the single worst feature. Battle of Britain is playable, though like most games it can suffer from lag.
Battle of Britain comes close to achieving excellence, given its detailed campaign and challenging dogfights. However the game's flaws lead to an initial poor impression that only partially dissipates, given that European Air War back in 1998 had better terrain, skies and smoothness of flight. Flight simulations are notoriously difficult to get right and Battle of Britain is a valiant effort: experienced pilots looking for a challenge or a history lesson should consider this game - beginners might be better off elsewhere.