Battle of Britain II: Wings of Victory
"Engine trouble. Returning to base. Over."
In the summer of 1940 if you were in the German army there was a good chance you were sat in NW France waiting to go on a short boat trip. The reason that boat trip (codenamed Operation Sealion) never happened is the subject of this potentially excellent flight simulation.
'Potentially excellent' is not a phrase we thought we'd be using in this review; it's not a phrase we hoped we'd be using in this review. Because Wings of Victory is basically a beautified re-release of a much-loved five-year-old air combat classic (Rowan's Battle of Britain) excellence should really have come as standard. Instead Shockwave, in the process of adding attractive new aircraft models, cockpits, scenery and particle effects appear to have introduced a swarm of new bugs too.
If these bugs were small - a misaligned texture here, a briefing typo there - then we'd happily forgive and forget. Sadly they are actually rather large - lock-ups, crashes, mysteriously low frame-rates - the kind of stuff that drives a man very quickly back into the arms of Forgotten Battles and Pacific Fighters. To be fair it seems that not all WoV users are experiencing the problems we've run into. For every frustrated pilot venting on the official forum there's one satisfied customer smugly reporting that everything is tickety-boo.
Let's for the moment assume you're one of the lucky ones; what does this refurbished relic have to offer today's spoilt dogfighters? Well, predictably you get to fly the three machines most closely associated with the four-month battle: the hardworking Hawker Hurricane, the glamorous Supermarine Spitfire and the menacing Messerschmitt Bf109. Pleasingly you can also take charge of the gull-winged Stuka dive-bomber and the twin-engined Bf110, and man the MGs on German heavies like the Heinkel He111 and the Dornier Do17. All of these planes have been reshaped and reskinned very successfully. From the outside they wouldn't look out of the place in the last 1C:Maddox sim. Viewed from the inside they actually surpass the standard set in games like Pacific Fighters. Grimy, worn and packed with 3D detail WoV's cockpits feel like they've been around the block a few times.
Appropriate imperfections can also be found in the way the five flyables handle. RAF aviators flying with realism setting maximised have to contend with nasty surprises like engine splutters during violent manoeuvres (a quirk of the gravity fed carburettors in the Merlin-powered British planes). Luftwaffe fighter pilots with an appetite for authenticity must learn to cope with the Me-109's notoriously unforgiving landing characteristics (a consequence of an extremely narrow undercarriage). Commenting on the accuracy of flight models is always a bit tricky but Shockwave do seem to have done an unusually fine job in this area.
Credit for WoV's best feature, its outstanding dynamic campaign, must go entirely to the original British creators. Instead of taking the cheap, easy route and forming a campaign from prefabricated or randomly generated sorties, Rowan, with characteristic ambition, opted to recreate the entire battle as an engrossing interactive strategy game. Side with the beleaguered Brits and you'll get responsibility for everything from setting-up patrols and intercepts to authorising scrambles and resting weary squadrons. Step into Goering's shiny lavender-coloured jackboots and you are faced with interesting big-picture choices - 'Do I try and blind the RAF by knocking-out radar stations or would it be better to hit their Spitfire factories disrupting the flow of replacement aircraft? The real beauty of this system is the unpredictability of the action and the way you can jump into the cockpit at any point, experiencing the consequences of your decision-making at first hand.
As anyone familiar with Battle of Britain history will know, the Luftwaffe didn't tend to send their warplanes into English airspace in dribs and drabs. Giant sky-blackening air flotillas were the order of the day and WoV doesn't flinch from reproducing these. A sky full of droning Dorniers is a truly awesome sight and something you won't have seen the like of in other sims. Unfortunately it also seems to be a cue for some of those crashes and frame-rate slumps we mentioned earlier.
Watching frame-rates nosedive or seeing your icon-strewn desktop pop-up as you plunge, guns blazing into a swarm of Luftwaffe bombers doesn't do a whole lot for immersion which is a shame because, when things are working properly this is an extremely immersive sim. Audio, whether it's the nerve-fraying roars of passing planes or the distressing cries of wingmen calling for assistance on the radio, has a lot to do with that. AI, always a potential illusion killer, generally does its part pretty well too. There are instances when CPU-controlled prey jump around in a slightly supernatural fashion (a bug inherited from the original game) but overall the tactics and manoeuvres you witness fit the bill. The quality of the artificial opposition is especially important in WoV because there's no possibility of flying against human foes. In a debatable step Shockwave has chosen to remove the unreliable multiplayer mode that featured in the original title rather than repair it.
Unless you've skipped to this paragraph for the pithy summing-up, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that, until the bugs are squashed, Eurogamer cant recommend Wings Of Victory to anyone but wealthy sim completists with a gambling streak. Right now purchase is a big risk. You could be buying your way into the best single-player WW2 combat flight sim since, well, Rowan's Battle of Britain, but you could just as easily be letting yourself in for weeks of exasperation and system fiddling. Shockwave seem eager to sort out the problems (one patch has already emerged, another is imminent) but there's no guarantee this sim will ever be the robust, fast-flying phoenix we hoped it would be.