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1995-2001
GamesFirst! Magazine



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by Rowan and Empire Interactive

If I could be sure this game played as well on all systems as it does on mine, I'd probably give it five stars. But it doesn't. Like other notable recent flight sims, Battle of Britain seems to have been rushed to market early. It's full of bugs large and small, and at its most intractable will just flat out refuse to run on some systems. That's too bad, because at its best Empire's Battle of Britain is the most engrossing and exciting flight sim I've ever played. It combines a strategic wargame that's good enough to stand on its own with the most spectacular and immersive dogfights since European Air War, and when these two aspects of the game mesh, it's just sublime.

Battle of Britain covers the air war during that famous period from July 10 to September 15, 1940, when Britain stood alone after the fall of France and awaited Operation Sea Lion, Hitler's planned invasion of the British Isles. As every English schoolboy knows, the brave, outnumbered, bedraggled pilots of the Royal Air Force managed to stave off the Luftwaffe's bombing raids, seize control of the air, and save the English nation. Of course there's been a lot of revisionist thought about this narrative lately, and shows like the BBC's Piece of Cake have removed some of the luster surrounding the RAF's pilots, but the Battle of Britain nevertheless remains a dramatic and compelling setting for a combat flight sim.

In Battle of Britain can play as either the RAF or the Luftwaffe, and the game includes some useful training missions and a handful of historical ones. But BoB's meat is its campaign game. You can play four different campaigns, again as either German or Brit, and each of them covers a different phase in the two-month-long battle. The campaign is a combination of strategic real-time wargame and flight sim. As the RAF, during each day of the campaign you order your squadrons from the directives screen to patrol or fly intercept missions or rest, choose what level of alert to place them on, and move them from airfield to airfield. It pays to keep an sharp eye on morale, readiness, and the amount of damage a squadron's taken.  Once the game begins running in real time, you'll watch on the campaign map as German raiders appear over the English Channel and your pilots fly out to meet them. During this time, you can also revector patrols to intercept German missions. And of course, at any time you can just leave the big strategic board behind, jump into any Hurricane or Spitfire you have in the air, and participate a dogfight. There are some slight interface and mission planning differences (and major strategic and doctrinal differences) in playing the German side, but overall the campaign game's interface is similar for both. The strategic game is amazingly addictive; especially as the British, you're almost always in a state of anxiety and dread as you attempt to manage a reeling RAF while the German bombers just keep on coming. It's even worse if you choose not to play "historically", which allows Luftwaffe to ignore London and keep up the pressure on the RAF's airfields.

As for the flight sim portion of the game, it's mostly excellent. You can fly the Hurricane and Spitfire for the RAF, and the Me 109, Me 110, and Ju 87 for the Luftwaffe. The flight models are exceptionally scalable, so you can set them on novice and zoom around without worrying about spins or stalls or blackouts, or you can amp the realism way up and deal with such things as engine management and prop pitch. Even at fairly low realism settings, the flight models also seem pretty realistic to me; though there's been some complaint about the Spit's too-fast roll rate, I'm impressed with most of them. The Hurricane and Spitfire are great planes to fly, the Me-109 is a finicky beast, and the Me 110 is a boat. The Stuka is a lot of fun to dive-bomb with, but (as the Germans found out during the   early days of the battle) is chum for fighters. As in the real life, the Spit is a nimble yank-and-bank plane that excels in turning fights, the Me 109 a temperamental zoom-and-boomer that does well in the up-and-down dogfights.

And what dogfights they are. It's not unusual to fly a mission that ends up with a battle engaging hundreds of planes--not since EAW has there been such a spectacular representation of WWII air combat. Enemy AI in dogfights is exceptional, as is wingman AI. This is one of the most welcome and surprising aspects of the game to me; in most flight sims, wingmen are a more of a liability than anything else, but in BoB they do a good job of covering your six.  There are some problems with the flight sim in combat, though. The padlock view is wonky and takes a while to get used to, and damage modeling seems a little less detailed than the rest of the sim--it's often difficult to tell how much damage you've done to an enemy plane, and it's not unusual to see enemy fighters belching black smoke but flying as if nothing at all was out of order.

The game's graphics are very good. While they're not state-of-the-art, I like them, and they can occasionally be breathtaking. While not at its best when representing up-close-and-personal views of planes or cockpits, the graphics engine excels at portraying gargantuan clashes of hundreds or planes locked in combat, and hey, if there's got to be a trade-off, I'll take it. The game's clouds are phenomenal, by far the best clouds I've ever seen in a flight sim. Staying on an enemy fighter's tail while diving through layers of clouds is in this game is challenging, realistic, and beautiful. On the other hand there is a pronounced banding problem with the game's sky, even when running it at 32-bit color. Go figure--the best clouds ever and a sky that hearkens back to 1996.   

The game's manual is hit and miss--while it covers some aspects of the game very well, it completely ignores others, like  wingman commands. While most of the campaign game's very deep mechanics are well-discussed, some aspects of it will have to be learned by trial and error. And newbies won't get much help, either; there's no tutorial, and even the training missions expect you to have a certain familiarity with W.W.II flight sims. And while a nice key chart is included, the keys are not remappable, which is inexplicable.  

And now for the bad news, and there's a lot of it. While Battle of Britain runs very smoothly on my machine, it doesn't on a lot of other people's.  The message boards are full of rants from customers who--even after Herculean amounts of tweaking--just can't get the damn thing to run at all. Worse, there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to why this is the case--even high-end uber-updated machines seem to have problems. Many people also have trouble with stutter (again, I don't) and crashes to desktop (I've had a few of these). Oh, and by the way, you have to set your desktop at 1024 to run the game--this is mentioned nowhere in the manual, and I can only imagine how many people have returned BoB without knowing this.Thanks, Rowan.  

And even if you can get the damn thing to run, there are still a lot of little bugs that--even though they won't kill the game--sure do jack up the frustration level. For instance, sometimes my mouse pointer icon disappears in the campaign game, I can't get plane IDs to turn on no matter what I do, and during the campaign there are sometimes shocking disparities between the number of planes I shoot down and what's reported. For example, on one slow day during the convoy campaign, the Luftwaffe sent over only one mission of unescorted Stukas, and my boys shot down 22 of them at a loss of 2 Hurricanes. When the day's numbers were reported, I was told that I had lost 37 planes that day, and that my morale was dangerously low. Huh?

Here's a game that could use the Mother of All Patches. That may be expecting a lot, especially since Rowan and  Empire haven't made any official announcements about fixes, but if a good patch materializes this could easily be the best flight sim ever. My advice? If you're a flight sim fan, pick Battle of Britain up and see if runs--but make sure you buy it from a store that allows returns. If you're just a casual gamer with a low threshold for frustration, wait for the patch. This may yet be a great game, but for right now it's just a diamond in the rough. 

Rick Fehrenbacher

Snapshot

Ups: Looks good, plays good, excellent combination of strategy and flight sim. Best clouds ever.

Downs: Seriously buggy; may not run on some systems.

System Reqs: Win 95/98/Me, PII 333, 64 MB RAM, 8MB 3D video card

 

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