You wouldn't know it from contemporary game sales figures, but flight sims were once the most popular genre in computer gaming. The flight sims that have tried to cater to casual game fans have generally done so simply by removing all the "simulation" aspects from the game. Battle of Britain, a budget title from Activision Value Publishing and iEntertainment Network, takes a refreshing approach in that rather than taking out the challenge entirely, it tries to ease players through the frustrating aspects of virtual flight so that they can experience the rewards themselves. It's successful in most ways.
Battle of Britain bears the History Channel license, but it's actually the venerable Warbirds III engine with a number of features tailored to beginning pilots. Even though the game is entitled "Battle of Britain," you'll perform your training missions in a P-38 Lightning. That shouldn't be a problem for anyone but the most hardcore of pilots. What's more notable is that, in addition to the tutorials, there are some demonstrations of common maneuvers like the Immelman, yo-yo, and barrel roll, which show players what is involved and explain their tactical significance. It's useful, and fleshing these out into a full-fledged combat flight school would probably have been even more helpful. As the game stands, novice pilots will get some benefit from the tutorials, but they'll get even more from the autoflight feature, which is the game's most interesting aid.
At any time during the scripted campaign (or any of the other missions), players have the option of engaging the "fly me" toggle, which invokes the game's AI on behalf of the pilot. This assists the player in several ways. First, pilots without the experience to advance the campaign can essentially have the AI complete the game for them by simply hitting the panic button when they feel they are at their wits' end. There's nothing quite as satisfying as having your Nazi tormentors dispatched to the English Channel with the click of a button. This is much more instructive than simply being able to skip missions, because players can watch the AI fly and observe its tactics. It's also a nice safety net for those who might become frustrated at not being able to complete a campaign because they get stuck somewhere. The "fly me" mechanic is another idea that should be fleshed out to give new pilots more insight into why dogfight tactics develop the way they do. As the game stands, it does a good job of explaining the basics to new players in a fairly challenging genre.
Since it's the Warbirds engine, the game is very stable in flight, and machines that meet the modest system requirements should run the game smoothly. The graphics are decent, with nice aircraft models, crisp 2D cockpits, and passable terrain. Once you're in flight, you have a choice of three flight models, ranging from "arcade" to "full realism." Even the arcade model feels, at least, somewhat realistic, and the concessions made to inexperienced pilots include being generally forgiving. Energy management and realistic maneuvers still rule the skies in this game, and the flight models feel, at least, somewhat comparable to similar aircraft in more hardcore simulations. It's a case of "smoothing the edges" rather than turbocharging everything. Stalls are almost nonexistent, for example. Blackouts and redouts are pretty abrupt, however. One consequence of gearing a game toward novices is that the solo game enemy AI is rather weak. Experienced flight simmers will find it a bit disappointing, but newcomers will probably have their hands full.
The game comes with a scripted campaign of 12 missions, which lead you through various historical and fictional phases of the Battle of Britain. In addition, there are also the usual "instant action" missions, in which you can fly as a bomber gunner, and there's the familiar "free flight" mode in which you can actually fly anything from a WWI Fokker triplane to an F-86 jet from Korea to a Japanese Ki-43 over the Pacific. The main part of the game, of course, is the free access to an online arena where players can fly selected aircraft over the English Channel, southern England, and northern France. While it was somewhat sparsely populated during our time with the game, when there were enough players to reach a critical mass, the dogfights were quite entertaining. Interestingly, the player population was significantly more mature than some other massive multiplayer games. The Warbirds III community has a reputation for being extremely helpful toward newbies, and with the full realism settings on, experienced pilots should find the game challenging as well. It remains to be seen how this mix shakes out, as inexperienced pilots are generally easy pickings for veterans. Currently, the online arena has two sides with historical planesets, and the play is basically free-for-all. iEntertainment Network is sponsoring regular "events" at peak times, and how this game develops depends greatly on how many players the game attracts--and how willing the developers are to populate the world with AI aircraft when loads are low.
Even for a game aimed at drawing in casual flight sim fans who are interested in history, though, Battle of Britain can sometimes be frustratingly opaque. The input mapping to set up your joystick (the game "recommends" one, but it's essentially a requirement) is quite buggy. This leads to occasional crashes and forces players to navigate through a series of drop-down menus to configure their buttons--with no clear way to see any kind of master list describing the current configuration. Instead, you have to look up keys one at a time. Sometimes strange things happen as well, like when you try to take off from some airfields that are "under fire" in the free flight mode (where there should be no combat). This fire, logically, produces instantaneous death in some cases. Newbie pilots might find this bewildering.
In the end, the game's low system requirements, extensive tutorials, automatic flight option, and ability to let you sit in the gunner's seat of a bomber to pick off attacking aircraft, gives casual players plenty to do. While the game can do little to help players get over propeller sims' biggest hurdle--that of situational awareness--and it can't remedy the fact that all flight simmers go through periods of inactivity, Battle of Britain is a good way for gamers who are interested in air combat and/or this period of history to get their feet wet.
At its value pricing of $20, Battle of Britain is an attractive purchase for nonhardcore flight sim fans who don't want to sink a ton of money into a simulation that will just end up frustrating them. While Rowan's Battle of Britain remains the standard for hardcore flight sim enthusiasts and those looking to experience true World War II flight simulation--with all of its challenges and frustrations--The History Channel Battle of Britain has a better chance of expanding the genre's appeal.