It's always frustrating to see a promising game ruined by a premature release, but it happens again and again. The game at hand is SSI's Luftwaffe Commander, which could have been an interesting sim offering a unique take on the World War II air war. Instead, it's just a shadow of what could have been.
Luftwaffe Commander is the latest installment in SSI's ongoing Digital Combat series, which includes Panzer Commander and the forthcoming Su-27 2.0. The series offers deep simulations of both contemporary and period sims, with the customary SSI attention to detail. Luftwaffe Commander takes on the World War II flight sim genre from a very specific angle: that of the German Luftwaffe throughout the entire eight-year course of the war. Unlike its big-budget competition - European Air War, Combat Flight Simulator, and WWII Fighters - it concentrates on this one area in great depth. There is only one career available in campaign mode: that of a German pilot. This career takes you from the first trial by fire of the Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War, through the French, British, Russian, and West Front campaigns. There are ten planes altogether: four versions of the Bf-109, the He-51, and the Me-262; plus the Allied planes I-16, Spitfire, P-39Q, and P-51, available only in quick and single missions.
The novel approach of creating a German-specific sim allows the developers to create a feel for the unique missions, tactics, and history of the Luftwaffe. They've even included first-person accounts from German pilots. There are 50 missions in all, encompassing the entire historical range of the German air war. The missions comprise the campaigns, and since they're scripted they are generally very tight and interesting. A custom mission option lets you create simple aerial encounters, but I'm damned if I could figure out the purpose of the "fly now" button, which simply drops you into the air with some threats without giving you a chance to select an aircraft or opponent type. There's no true mission editor, so the game is limited to the included missions.
Luftwaffe had the makings of an interesting, offbeat sim. Indeed, with some serious patching and a complete reissue, it could still become one. But judging by the unceremonious dumping of this game onto the marketplace in an obviously incomplete form, that's not likely to happen. The problems start right away. The game simply doesn't look all that great compared to the three other WWII games. Terrain is inconsistent, with nice rolling hills and ghastly looking patchwork areas. The plane models are decent, but have few damage effects, and they pale in comparison to WWII Fighters. Gunshots look splotchy, and explosions and smoke effect are about a year out of date. Cockpits and views are OK, though more external-view selections should have been included. There are no blind spots and the padlock works well, though it holds a lock on a plane even when the target is clearly out of view. While the 3D cockpit has a smooth action, it's rendered useless by the lack of functioning gauges. Considering the mediocre graphics, the game doesn't even run all that smoothly.
The flight models are generally quite strong, with good spin and stall modeling and a wide array of dynamic damage effects. There's little to complain about in the way these birds handle. They feel just right. However, the problems begin to mount once you get flying. Numerous bugs prevent missions from ending correctly or prevent you from getting full credit. Some collisions leave absolutely no damage to the aircraft. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since collisions are maddeningly frequent due to horrible AI problems. Both friendly and enemy craft seem to have little or no collision-avoidance routines. They regularly run into you or the ground during maneuvers. Enemy AI in dogfighting is pat and predictable, while wingman AI is simply hopeless.
The single-player game is generally stable in terms of hard crashes, but the multiplayer sessions are hard to get running and crash pretty often. With three strong WWII sims out right now, there's enough aerial-period action to keep you flying for the next year. Luftwaffe could have been a worthy, and even unique, addition to this set of sims. Even the spotty graphics could have been overlooked since the flight models are strong and the missions quite interesting. But you can't overlook the overall impression that this is a boxed beta.