Rowan's Battle of Britain Preview

Will the follow-up to last year's MiG Alley be as good? Read on to find out.

The Battle of Britain was the first major World War II battle carried out solely by aircraft, which makes it ideal for the subject of a flight simulation. However, it has always suffered a bit of neglect from game designers. Even with the proliferation of World War II flight sims over the past couple of years, no one has ever done a comprehensive game that details the battle exclusively. That's about to change, though, with the impending release of Battle of Britain, which is developed by Rowan and will be published by Empire Interactive. GameSpot's 1999 Sim of the Year, MiG Alley, was also developed by Rowan, and the same innovation and attention to detail present in that game have carried over to Battle of Britain.

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As the name suggests, Battle of Britain re-creates the titan struggle between the British Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940, when Hitler ordered Goering, his air force commander, to neutralize the RAF in preparation for an amphibious invasion of England. The game will depict every significant feature of the battle, from early dive-bombing raids on coastal shipping to all-out assaults on London. The historical airfields all are re-created, and famous names like Biggin Hill will live again in your campaigns as the Germans attempt to knock it and other vital targets out of commission. Battle of Britain will depict the entire battlefield with a high degree of historical accuracy.

The graphics in Battle of Britain are excellent; the terrain, the cloud and weather effects, and the aircraft models are exceptional. The terrain engine has been upgraded since MiG Alley and even goes so far as to re-create famous London landmarks, such as Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, St. Paul's Cathedral, and more. The cliffs of Dover are quite striking as well. Effects like sun flares round out the experience. The aircraft models are superb, with an impressive level of detail. This detail extends beyond polygon count to such things as historically accurate tail markings as well as movable flight surfaces. In addition, the virtual cockpits are outstanding and have fully interactive instruments.

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Clouds played a significant role in determining the outcome of the Battle of Britain, and the game depicts clouds in ways that are both aesthetically attractive and critically functional. Volumetric cloud cover will let you sneak up on your targets or shake pursuers when threatened. Accounts of the battle are filled with descriptions of fighters hiding in cloud layers until a bomber flight passed by in order to flash out at the last second and take the enemy unawares. You can fully duplicate these tactics in Battle of Britain.

Battle of Britain will include a full mission-recording feature, which will let you engage the camera manually, slave it to the trigger, or just record the whole darn thing from takeoff to landing. The mission film can also be edited, so you can just focus on the instant of combat. Once you have recorded and edited the film, you can save it for replay and review.

In the Air

Battle of Britain will include five flyable aircraft: the Spitfire, Hurricane, Me-109, Me-110, and the Ju-87, better known as the Stuka. For some people, a flyable Stuka is enough reason to buy a simulation, and when you take off in the cockpit of one of these dive-bombers, you'll quickly learn why the Stuka squadrons suffered such horrendous losses and why they eventually had to be withdrawn from the battle. With massive escort, though, flying a Stuka can be fun, and lining up targets for those trademark screaming dives is a unique experience.

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In addition to the flyable aircraft, Battle of Britain will let you fly as a gunner in three German bombers: the Ju-88, He-111, and Do-17. Additional computer aircraft include the Bristol Blenheim light bomber and the Bolton-Paul Defiant fighter, which was unorthodox in that it was a two-seater that carried a rear turret. In these ten aircraft, the game has represented almost every type of aircraft that fought in the battle (except for peripheral types like the Gloster Gladiator), and all of the major types are player-controllable in some way. This adds considerably to the feeling of immersion in the battle, especially when you fly as a fighter pilot or bomber gunner, which were two drastically different experiences, and the game portrays them very well.

The flight models for these aircraft are fairly demanding especially when all the realism options are turned on, although novice fliers can adjust the realism and difficulty settings for an easier ride. Differences between the various major flyable aircraft are pronounced, but what's most noticeable is the feeling of flight that's probably better than any other sim to date, especially at low altitude. This is a tribute to the excellent terrain graphics, which hold up well even down low.

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With the excellent graphics, the rigorous flight models, the real-time campaign engine, and the large raids that can occur during the game, Battle of Britain will most likely require some better-than-average hardware on which to run when all the effects are set to maximum. Rowan is committed, however, to providing a flyable sim for those without brand-new processors and plans to use a combination of reducing visual details and an optimization scheme to manage large numbers of aircraft in order to make the final product playable on modest systems. This will depend a lot of how much time Rowan spends optimizing the code prior to the game's release, and we can only hope that all these issues are addressed as planned so that as many gamers as possible can have the chance to fly this sim.

The Battle of Britain progressed through several distinct phases, and each is faithfully modeled in the game. The Luftwaffe began its offensive with raids on shipping in the English Channel, and that's how the campaign in Rowan's Battle of Britain begins. As the game progresses, objectives will change to airfields and industrial targets and will continue on through the Blitz - the switch to nighttime bombing of civilian centers that many believe cost the Germans the battle (and the war).

The Campaign

The real appeal of Battle of Britain is its comprehensive, dynamic campaign. The dynamic campaign in MiG Alley was outstanding, and Rowan appears to have effectively applied its expertise to make Battle of Britain an incredibly rich game. As mentioned above, the Battle of Britain was fought exclusively between aircraft (or between aircraft and ground-based antiaircraft guns); ground forces never clashed. Thus, there is no need to model a land war, which leaves the system free to focus on what is going on in the air. When you fly air-strike missions in conjunction with a ground offensive, there's always the feeling of being part of the supporting cast rather than a main actor. After all, what matters is whether the ground troops take or hold their objective, and you can only attack your target and hope it helps. In Battle of Britain, the air battle is everything. This makes you feel as if you have much more control over the final outcome and also increases your level of immersion in the game, because there is no need to abstractly handle external elements like the combat between infantry and tanks on each side. In Battle of Britain, if it's part of the battle, you can participate.

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The campaign can either be played in pilot mode or in supreme-commander mode. In pilot mode, you are assigned objectives: earning medals and racking up kills from sortie to sortie. The missions will be dynamically generated based on the overall results of the fighting to that point. Because nothing is scripted, every play will produce a new flow to the battle. It's entirely possible in Battle of Britain for the Luftwaffe to win.

The other distinguishing feature of the campaign is that it unfolds in real time. This means that if you fly as a member of a squadron, you can fly sorties at a historically accurate rate, with the same time-out to eat lunch as the actual pilots had. Of course, time compression will let you speed up the parts where there is nothing to do.

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The campaign is actually fully playable from both sides and leads to very different play styles and game experiences in the supreme-commander mode. Playing as the Germans, you'll be responsible for plotting the day's targets, assigning squadrons to them, and keeping the Royal Air Force off balance. Much will depend on the routes and times you plan for your attacks. If you allow too much time between raids, you give the enemy fighters time to land, refuel, and get back in the air. The game even models things like the rate of replacement aircraft turned out by British factories.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the campaign is that the AI can be set to one of two modes. In historical mode, the AI will react as closely as possible to the patterns exhibited in 1940, and this gives you the chance to actually match wits with a historical opponent. Alternately, the second mode will set the AI to account for the lessons of history, in effect to operate with hindsight. This will make the most difference for the Germans and their choice of targets.

Final Thoughts

When in charge of the RAF's Fighter Command, you'll need to carefully plan your patrol routes and allocate your fighters so that they'll be able to respond to potential threats. There's nothing worse than watching a large bombing raid fly overhead just after your squadrons have landed to refuel. You'll also have to guess where the main German thrusts are going. Do you wait to scramble those aircraft in the Midlands in response to a raid moving north? If you wait and hope the raid gets closer, which would give you more time in combat as opposed to transit, you risk having the raid split up or divert out of range. The German commander's decisions mostly come in the morning, with the battle unfolding once he has sent his legions aloft, while the British player is constantly reacting to threats throughout the day. It's quite a chess match, and things can get very tense.

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The battle progresses at the strategic level on a map of England, France, and the Channel, with contacts appearing as they are detected by radar (or by your observers and pilots). These contacts contain varying amounts of information, so you don't necessarily know whether an incoming raid is large or small right away. As the British commander, your patrols are indicated on the map, and you can order interceptions, recall fighters, and even control every waypoint in the patrol routes of all your squadrons. You may choose the extent to which you micromanage your patrols. In addition, you can either have the game simulate the outcome of air battles, or you can jump into the cockpit of any plane and participate in the battle yourself.

The air battles in Battle of Britain are not representations of some fraction of the real thing. Instead, Rowan has tried to re-create the actual breadth and scope of the battle down to the last plane. Because of this, the game will include raids of historical size, which means that at any given time up to 1200 aircraft can be in the air at once. Rowan has developed some optimization schemes to prevent this situation from bringing the game to a grinding halt. For example, it has reduced the level of detail on distant aircraft and streamlined the abstraction routines that simulate combat that takes place far away from the player. None of this should reduce the incredible level of immersion, which Rowan has created by including details such as realistic radio chatter. To say that it's an ambitious sim is probably understating the case, and much hinges on how well the different elements of the game end up working together. So far, indications are very good.

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All of this may sound overwhelming and only suitable for the most hardcore of flight-simulation fanatics, but Rowan's sims are traditionally accessible to novices when you reduce the realism and difficulty settings. Moreover, Battle of Britain will ship with an extensive set of training missions, which will cover everything from starting your engine and taking off to advanced formation flying and combat tactics. New gamers will be able to progress at their own speed. You don't have to play a full campaign every time either: There will be a number of quick-start missions as well.

As good as Battle of Britain looks now, it all comes down to Rowan's final product and whether it can successfully handle things like the projected 1000-aircraft raids without bogging down excessively. The game's success also depends on whether Rowan gets enough time prior to release to rid the game of any substantial bugs. If so, Battle of Britain could be the flight sim that finally truly models all aspects of a historical air battle. When the game finally gets off the ground, we'll tell you whether it succeeded.

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