Rowan's Battle of Britain is an extremely good-looking flight simulator, with a level of detail so fine as to make brave pilots weep. Enemy planes, farmers' fields, rivers, even London landmarks are all visually realized to an extent rarely seen in any kind of game, but especially a flight simulator. It would difficult to overstate the visual achievement of Rowan's computer-generated representation of the south of England.
Also offered is an impressive and exceptional amount of flexibility. Not only can you choose which country to fly for in the drama of Adolf Hitler's attempt to bring England to its knees, but you also assemble the squadrons and plan the specifics of offensive and defensive maneuvers. Plan the war, then execute.
Unfortunately, all of these nicely designed elements are somewhat wasted due to the irritation caused by actually flying the planes. There are two settings for the flight model, realistic and novice. Realistic is close to what one would assume it would actually be like to pilot a World War II era fighter -- translation: difficult. The stick isn't very sensitive, thus you must give it a significant push to make the plane move. But, if the motion is too abrupt or you bank too sharply, the plane goes into a dive or a spin, while ascending too quickly stalls the engine.
The novice setting, while greatly reducing the risk of stalls and spins, is no big improvement. If you move the stick to point the airplane in a specific direction and then let go, the plane snaps back to a bearing somewhere in between your previous heading and the one you actually want. Trying to shoot at the enemy swarming around you in these conditions is tough. If you happen to be aimed slightly too low, you must pull up far beyond the actual direction of the enemy and hope that the bearing on which your plane eventually settles is the correct one. It seldom is.
In short, for a flight simulator to appeal to a wider audience than plane-enthusiasts, it must have an easy setting that's enjoyable to those with less than hard-core interest. Rowan's Battle of Britain, despite being a lot of fun to look at, doesn't quite get there.
Graphics: Beautiful representation of the south of England. Planes seem realistic.
Sound: Nicely done radio chatter and propeller noise.
Enjoyment: Any excitement or continuous flow is interrupted by the unwieldy plane controls. Flight simulators, above all else, must include, at the core, basic enjoyment of flying a plane. Unfortunately, that basic tenet is missing in Rowan's Battle of Britain.
Replay Value: If the difficulty of flying doesn't bother you the first time you play, it probably won't on subsequent outings.
I loved Rowan's last sim MiG Alley as well as Dawn Patrol but my impressions of Battle of Britain are a little mixed. Time was, I would have turned my nose up in disgust at any European flight sim. For me, the planes in the Pacific Theater just have a lot more appeal. Then I read Derek Robinson's Piece of Cake and it totally turned me on to the thrill of Hurricanes and Me 109s. So given that I love WWII flight sims and have a serious interest in the Battle of Britain, a game like this should be a sure hit with me, right? Not necessarily.
While Battle of Britain has some definite high points, it lacks the level of excitement that made MiG Alley a hit. The flight model is weighted a little too far to the sim side and the graphics aren't as sharp. The game does include a really phenomenal campaign feature that lets you assume full control of the war in the air. It's a much more intuitive approach than that offered by TalonSoft's 12 O'Clock High and really adds a lot to the game. Still, the sim heavy focus of the game weighs it down and, given the sheer number of planes in the air at any given time, minimizes your own sense of importance within the missions.
But let's talk about the flight model itself first. The game offers a scalable level of difficulty across several factors. Unfortunately there are only two options for the overall flight model -- realistic or novice. Novice level removes the need to worry about stalls and spins but it's probably still a little too difficult for "novice" pilots. There are lots of other boxes to check to adjust the realism but it still winds up being a little unapproachable for the casual simmer. I mean, even taking off is a chore in this game. And once you're in the air you'll have to contend with wind buffets, cockpit shakes and the odd torque stall. Luckily the game includes cheats for altitude jumps and stall recovery right on the hotkey sheet.
The plane modeling is remarkable. On the British side you can fly in the Spitfire and, my personal favorite, the Hurricane. While these planes are pretty similar to each other, there's enough of a performance difference for it to matter. On the German side, you can fly in the Me-109 or the Me-110. For a real challenge, you should strap yourself into the cockpit of the Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber. On bomber missions, you can also opt to man the turrets of the Do-17, He-111 and Ju-88. It's not nearly as fun as flying your own craft, but it does add another level of immersion to the game.
But as solid as the flight portion of the game is, the campaign is where it's at. You can opt to run the whole show from either the German or British sides. As Bomber and Fighter Command Chief, you'll be responsible for setting pilot and aircraft readiness and rotation. The German player will have the opportunity to schedule three waves of attack each day. The British player will have to scramble to defend British assets. The interface for this portion of the game is wonderful. A straightforward but complex series of menus allows you to set runs and intercepts with a minimum of fuss. And if you'd like to get even further into the simulation, you can plan your bomb routes down to the tiniest of details. And once your planes meet those of the enemy, you'll be given the chance to jump into any of your planes and fight the battle firsthand.
As a result Battle of Britain scores high in the immersion category. Switching from air command to the cockpit is a big thrill and you can actually get a real sense of context planning a raid and then hoping behind the stick of one of the planes. But the real strength here is the engine's ability to render air combats with literally hundreds of planes. Flying into a cloud of bombers will really wake you up. But that's a mixed blessing. With all the planes in the air, you'll find it pretty difficult to affect the outcome of any specific engagement. The real Battle may have emphasized the facelessness of the participants, but that doesn't necessarily make for a good game design decision.
Graphically the game is a mixed bag. I ran the game primarily on the Voodoo 5 5500 I've got here at work and was unimpressed with the results. The plane models are decent enough (although nothing compared to the Combat Flight Sim 2 models) and some of the effects are cool. And although it lacks the depth I was looking for, I was impressed with the cloud model in the game. But where the game really lost me was on the banded sky and the poor texture maps. And even with the details scaled back, the game still ran choppy for most of us. Just for comparative purposes, I ran the game on a machine with the minimum specs. The less said about that experience, the better for Rowan.
So Battle of Britain fails to live up to Rowan's previous air titles. This is all the more depressing given the fact that Empire is shifting Rowan out of the PC sim development market and into console development. Battle of Britain is definitely the most involved recreation of the conflict that we've seen yet but the density of the flight model will definitely alienate some gamers. If you're really into flight sims, then the game will reward any investment you make in it.
People who downloaded Rowan's Battle of Britain have also downloaded:
Red Baron 3D, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator: WWII Europe Series, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater, Pacific Fighters, Mig Alley, Battle of Britain (from TalonSoft), Wings over Europe: Cold War Gone Hot, Wings over Vietnam
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