There's been an explosion in the number of World War II flight sims in the past 12 months. After several quiet years, the prop-and-goggle crowd has been virtually snowed under by the likes of European Air War, Jane's WWII Fighters, Screamin' Demons Over Europe, and more. Psygnosis appeared somewhat late in the game with Nations: WWII Fighter Command. Unfortunately, in a market filled with worthy competition, Nations doesn't have much hope of catching flight sim fans' attention. The fact is that Nations' flight model will instantly turn off those looking for a realistic flight sim, while the box description might turn away those looking for a more accessible game.
The game gives you the opportunity to fly a variety of British, American, and German aircraft and models another 22 aircraft flown only by the computer, including the Italian Macchis and Savoias. The flyable aircraft include the usual suspects, such as the Thunderbolt, Mustang, Spitfire, Focke-Wulf 190, and Messerschmitt 109 and 262. A couple of interesting inclusions are the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and the Messerschmitt 163 "Komet," a rocket-powered aircraft designed as a high-altitude bomber interceptor. In short, Nations has more than enough aircraft to keep you busy.
Nations requires a 3D accelerator of some sort and recommends an AGP card with at least 8MB of RAM. However, the game's 3D setup program did not let me specify my Nvidia TNT2. The only Nvidia chips supported by the program appeared to be the original TNT and the Riva 128. In fact, there was no Voodoo3 support listed, nor support for the Matrox G400. The game worked acceptably after I specified the TNT2 chip as a Riva 128, although there were several odd graphical glitches (especially after plane crashes) that didn't occur with a Voodoo2. It's strange to say the least that a game shipped in late 1999 wouldn't support the latest 3D chipsets.
Once you find an adequate video configuration, the game graphics turn out to be inconsistent. Some things, like the aircraft models, clouds, and lighting, look quite good. Other things like the terrain don't look as good, especially when viewed in flyby mode where the perspective changes rapidly and the screen is subject to bizarre bleeding of sky into land. While the game tries to model light reflecting off distant aircraft, the effect is more like the flashing beacon of a plane's running lights.
Nations: WWII Fighter Command comes with a manual that has some interesting but irrelevant background information on World War II, a decent discussion of aerial maneuvers, some background on the aircraft, and an adequate description of the game controls. The controls are configurable, though oddly enough, you need to hit the "J" key to enable the joystick at the beginning of every mission. Wingman commands are also sparse.
The game's flight model has three settings: relaxed, realistic, and ultrarealistic. Based on these descriptions, it would seem that Psygnosis is shooting straight at the hard-core simulation market, where success depends on the accuracy of the flight model. However, the flight physics are decidedly peculiar even in ultrarealistic mode: To say that the aircraft felt robust would be an understatement. Planes climbed at rates that seemed far out of step with other sims that boast realistic physics.The most curious aspect of the flight model is the stall modeling, or rather the complete lack thereof. Planes could climb to a point at which they reached zero airspeed, only to slowly right themselves like gigantic paper airplanes - there is no loss of controlled flight whatsoever. In fact, planes can balance at the edge of a stall as though they were malformed helicopters. The game prominently displays the fact that the flight model has been approved by former RAF squadron leader and senior Eurofighter test pilot Craig Penrice, but the difference between this and other so-called realistic sims is so great that it's obvious something is wrong with Nations.
Damage modeling is equally lax. When attacking bombers, a few wing hits are often sufficient to send these giant planes spiraling to the ground. Explosions occur for no apparent reason. While the game boasts that "planes will react to damage across 12 different aircraft systems," the effects of damage to your aircraft are marginal until the plane is actually destroyed.
Despite the decidedly watered-down flight physics, Nations does have some things going for it. There are a variety of missions that can be flown in the instant-action mode for those just wanting to get in the air and shoot down some bad guys. The range of aircraft and missions (bomber interceptions, strikes against land and sea targets, and more) ensures that those who are simply looking for an airborne diversion won't tire too quickly. In addition, there is a scripted campaign available for each nationality. Aircraft can be switched before starting a stand-alone mission, so if you're inclined to fly a P-51 Mustang as part of the Luftwaffe and chase an incoming B-24 raid, go right ahead.
Whatever problem you might have with the realism of the flight and damage models are certain to be exacerbated by the multiplayer game, where you have the option of playing with various "power-ups," such as invincibility, faster speed, 2x damage, and so on. Fly through the spinning graphics and presto! You can even land at an airfield and pick up "crates," which are combinations of the rocket, ammo, fuel, and health power-ups. It's unclear why a game that touts "historical accuracy" and "incredibly realistic and detailed fighters" would include something of this sort, and it's hard to imagine someone in search of an accurate model of a Hawker Typhoon being interested in flying through a "health" power-up. Conversely, someone looking for a casual airborne deathmatch might expect that something with "true flight physics" would be accompanied by a manual the size of an encyclopedia. What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Nations: WWII Fighter Command is a schizophrenic game. It seems targeted at the hard-core simulation audience, while the actual gameplay is simplistic and action-oriented. In fact, the only thing that might appeal to the hard-core sim player is the wording "ultra-realistic" on the box. This is sure to lead to disappointment, frustration, and many more returned games than would have been the case had Psygnosis been more straightforward. There could be an enjoyable game lurking in the box, but that depends very much on the buyer. Some might actually enjoy the arcade-action aspect of the multiplayer mode. But it's likely that most will find themselves the victims of a case of mistaken identity with a game that advertises itself so confusingly.