On the crowded field of World War II sims, there's a player who stands alone. He's not a jack-of-all-trades like the others, but he has some swift moves, he looks good on the field, and he definitely plays well with others. This upstart player is Activision's long-delayed Fighter Squadron: Screamin' Demons Over Europe. It definitely stands apart from other WWII flight sims. Whether that's good or bad depends on what you're looking for.
Fighter Squadron doesn't try to replicate the entire WWII air combat experience. Instead, it concentrates on the meat of the experience - the dogfight. You won't fly a real-time air campaign here or spend an hour flying to the target. The action, like the combat arena, is concentrated and intense.
That's not to say that Fighter Squadron is a "lite" action/arcade sim. The sim was created by Parsoft, the developer that brought us A-10 Cuba. Like that game, there are very detailed physics and flight models here. Damage a plane, and the parts come off and take on an aerodynamic life of their own. Knock out an engine on a P-38 and it will want to pull to one side; blow off a wingtip and it will spin toward the ground.
While the damage models are excellent, the flight models are mixed. In many respects, the planes have a feel closest to that of a real aircraft that I've ever encountered in a sim. This is particularly evident when flying in windy conditions. Unfortunately, the flight models seem somewhat neutered compared with the ones in beta versions. General handling is good, and the planes' relative performance to each other is well represented. But stalls have been dramatically toned down, and spins are nonexistent. When a plane loses speed, it usually reacts as it would if a skilled pilot were riding the edge of a stall, instead of actually departing from controlled flight. This takes a bit of challenge out of dogfighting.
Fighter Squadron offers ten flyable planes, and is the only sim in the current crop that lets you fly bombers. You can jump between any of a bomber's gun positions; there's also a bombardier station, but the bombsight is so simplified it's of little use. Alas, only one person can man a bomber in multiplayer mode. Aircraft cockpits are decently modeled, but they can't compare with those in Jane's WWII Fighters. The default view practically places your nose against the gunsight, especially in padlock mode, but this can be easily zoomed out to a more comfortable level. The padlock view works very well, although it could use more target selection options. You can use the fixed keypad views to snap the view to any direction to check for bogies or make sure you're not flying into the ground; the view will then snap back to the padlocked target.
The sim has 30 single-player missions, set in three theaters - Dover, Africa, and the Rhineland. Each of these missions can be flown from the perspective of any squadron. You might fly escort in a P-51, then as a bomber in a Lancaster, and then as the enemy in a FW-190. The terrain looks superb, with rolling hills to dogfight over and around, nicely done textures, and detailed buildings. Big cities are missing, though, and ground targets are all stationary. Terrain areas are fairly small, so you'll never spend more than a couple of minutes flying to the target. A very easy-to-use mission editor lets you create both solo and multiplayer sorties.
While you won't find huge furballs here like those in European Air War, the missions are still quite challenging. This is largely due to the fact that Fighter Squadron has pilot AI that's way above average. Aircraft fight well in all three dimensions, and they fight using appropriate tactics for each plane. If you're looking for the wiliest challenge available, of course, you'll want to take on human opponents. It's here that Fighter Squadron truly excels. LAN play is a blast, and modem play is smoother and more reliable than any other boxed WWII sim. Activision also provides a number of free Internet servers to play on. The Connect dialogue doesn't tell you how many people are playing on each server, but you can generally count on the California site being the most active.
Fighter Squadron has numerous nice touches. It features the most realistic clouds yet seen in a PC sim, vapor contrails give away planes at high altitude, and puffy flak bursts knock your plane around the skies. An optional heads-up display - not realistic for WWII planes, but a good compromise given the limited view afforded by a monitor - helps you keep track of your orientation. On the downside, the HUD can be a necessity at high altitude, where heavy hazing makes it difficult to judge your plane's attitude.
If you're looking for ultimate realism and accurate historical missions, Fighter Squadron probably isn't the sim for you. But if the dogfight is the thing - especially against human players - it's worth a close look. Despite the lack of a full campaign, the physics models and top-notch AI make this one of the best dogfighting experiences yet. If Parsoft can add a working toggle to enable stalls and spins, this may just be the sim of choice for pilots looking for free online play.