World War II aircraft take center stage in the current crop of simulation offerings.
Bernard Dy has been reviewing software for Aviation History for more than a year. We have welcomed his straightforward evaluations and his practical comments on the whole range of CD-ROM, Internet and diskette versions of the latest software offerings. Beginning with this issue, Bernie will have a regular column with more of the same. If you come across aviation-related software that has not been reviewed, drop Bernie an e-mail by visiting www.thehistorynet.com.
The last year turned up a variety of interesting offerings for flight simulation players, with World War II aircraft taking center stage. In this issue we review the contestants in this competitive category.
Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator (CFS) was the first to arrive ($50; requires Pentium 133, Windows 95, 16 MB RAM, 200 MB hard drive space, double-speed CD-ROM). This product is really the latest in the Flight Simulator series of general aviation simulations. Microsoft enhanced the simulation engine to handle guns, combat damage, WWII-era aircraft and new artificial intelligence. This simulation also features real world geography, realistic flight modeling and the tremendous expandibility of Flight Simulator 98, which allows users and third party organizations to create aircraft and terrain for CFS. This feature is a classic strength of the Flight Simulator line and should add tremendous longevity to the title. The caveat with this feature is that it is not easy for a novice user to implement. Some fine planes from Interactive Magic’s RAF Collection, an add-on to Flight Simulator 98, for example, can be imported for use in the game, but would require further editing to be fully usable.
Users need not be experts in creating new material for the simulation, however, as plenty of material comes in the basic package. Centered on the air war over Europe, CFS offers eight flyable aircraft, encompassing the popular single-engine fighters in the British, American and German arsenals. Flight models are realistic, supporting stalls, spins, compression and appropriate craft limitations such as maximum speeds and maneuverability.
The graphics are good and the terrain is photo-realistic, based on European geographical data from 1944. Individual sorties and simulated careers are available for the American, British and German air forces. Missions offer diverse tasks, spanning many air-to-air and air-to-ground challenges. The documentation is also very nice, blending history and illustrations into the instruction.
An otherwise competent effort, CFS does have a few flaws. It lacks a system for wingman communication, tends to prefer faster hardware to run well, and has poor 3-D “virtual cockpits,” though its two-dimensional cockpit art is well-done.
European Air War, from MicroProse ($45; requires Pentium 166, Windows 95, 32 MB RAM, 50 MB hard drive space, quad-speed CD-ROM drive), is the next entry in this race. The bar of standards is never a stable one in such a competitive environment, but one does not always expect an underdog to move it. European Air War (EAW) may lack the visual polish and cutting technological edge of some of its contemporaries, but it sets a lovely standard for WWII simulations.
EAW is like the overachieving athlete that isn’t the fastest, strongest or smartest, but above average across the board and capable of achieving substantial results. A good simulation must juggle realism, accessibility and entertainment value, and this is what EAW does extremely well. It provides nice flight modeling, lush visuals and excellent touches like native language briefings. If you take a tour as a pilot in the Luftwaffe, you will hear flight briefings and wingmen speaking in German.
EAW is similar to Microsoft CFS in that both give the player a wide canvas to work with, reaching from 1940 to 1945. Both have campaigns that allow users to relive the Battle of Britain from both sides and also subsequent journeys that follow the war’s momentum as it swings toward Germany’s factories at the bitter end. And what journeys they are. EAW brings to life for the first time in any WWII simulation the image of skies literally filled with aircraft. The display of a dozen planes may challenge some products, but EAW deftly throws up to 256 fighters and bombers into the air, complete with contrails, smoke trails and blazing cannons. EAW offers the largest variety of flyable aircraft, although many are different versions of the same plane.
EAW adds educational value by providing documentation that makes good use of historical photos and data. It also includes a selection of videos summarizing key moments of the war.
Jane’s Combat Simulations is back again, and although its entry in the WWII category is confined to the last two years of the conflict, its commitment to history is equal to that of the competition. WWII Fighters ($49.99; requires Pentium 200, Windows 95, 32 MB RAM, 250 MB hard drive space, six-speed CD-ROM drive) is the name gracing this product, and it chooses a metaphor familiar to most Aviation History readers: a flight museum. The virtual museum contains text and videos as well as a hangar where seven warbirds sit ready and waiting to fly in simulated battles.
Flight models for the magnificent seven, including four Allied and three German aircraft, are generally good, and the graphics are among the best. WWII Fighters produces three-dimensional virtual cockpits superior to the competition and matches the game play with an excellent musical score. Jane’s takes a hit, however, for documentation that is less impressive than that found in EAW or CFS. In addition, the museum approach is novel but hobbled by the weak depth of historical information, and the software’s system requirements are high.
Activision’s Fighter Squadron: The Screaming Demons Over Europe ($46.95; requires Pentium II 266 without a 3-D video card, or a Pentium 200 with a 3-D video card, Windows 95 or higher, 32 MB RAM, 285 MB hard drive space, quad-speed CD-ROM drive) is the most recent of the WWII simulations and is compelling for different reasons than its brethren. Fighter Squadron’s flight models are decent, featuring stalls, damage and a good feeling of flight from the cockpit. Nice aircraft rendering and special effects like smoke and debris make a good showing in the graphics department.
This package deviates from the other simulations through its selection of flyable aircraft and method of handling missions. Where most of the competition limits the user to single- or twin-engine fighters such as the ubiquitous North American P-51 Mustang and Supermarine Spitfire, Fighter Squadron ambitiously offers flavors like the Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, de Havilland Mosquito, Avro Lancaster and Hawker Typhoon. Enthusiasts curious about the most diverse simulation from this crop must place Fighter Squadron atop their list.
Yet, Fighter Squadron falls short in some ways. The graphics are less convincing than those of the competition, and the sense of immersion is a far cry from EAW’s. The main problems are the sparse numbers of aircraft in engagements, and missions not connected in any purposeful manner but left as individual exercises with little inspiration or historical motive.
The caboose of this software parade is a title stemming from a grand idea but aching from mediocre implementation. SSI’s Luftwaffe Commander ($50; requires Pentium 166, Windows 95, 33 MB RAM, eight-speed CD-ROM drive) looks at the life of an officer in the German Luftwaffe, from flying biplanes in Spain to the Messerschmitt Me-262 over Germany. Few officers had careers of such longevity, but the premise is fascinating, with great educational potential. The campaign’s progress reveals Germany’s growing desperation as Luftwaffe pilots are transformed from predators to bomber-hunting defenders. Luftwaffe Commander suffers unfortunately from a plethora of issues.
Odd control interfaces, a terrible view system and poor performance prevent the title from getting off the ground. Design decisions are questionable here too; some Allied craft are made flyable to appease wider audiences, but at the expense of Luftwaffe legends like the Focke Wulf Fw-190! A selection truer to the title would have included the Arado Ar-234, Junkers Ju-87 or Heinkel He-111 instead of the P-51 Mustang or Spitfire. Still, the feeling of flight in Luftwaffe Commander is acceptable, and the missions are interesting. Engagements over the Eastern Front are lacking in most simulations, and this is one of the few to include them.
All the titles reviewed have redeeming qualities and room for improvement. All feature at least average quality flight modeling, and all carry flight simulation respectfully into the world of 3-D graphics. If restricted to one choice, however, MicroProse’s European Air War is the most well-rounded product. It best manages the compromise between realism and playability, offering real world limitations to the virtual pilot, but also providing aids to help overcome the limitations of the personal computer. It also performs well on slower computers. Jane’s WWII Fighters has the sharpest graphics, Microsoft’s CFS the best extensibility, Fighter Squadron the most diverse flyable aircraft and Luftwaffe Commander the most original concept, but EAW soars the highest. Image 1: Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator
Image 2: European Air War
Image 3: Jane’s WWII Fighters
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