European Air War doesn't push the state of the art - it just barely matches it in many areas - but it excels at good, old-fashioned gameplay. While other World War II flight sims can claim technical superiority over various aspects of European Air War, none can match it for pure atmosphere and immersion. Realistic mission tasking, populated landscapes, huge bomber formations, and swarms of aircraft twisting in aerial melees all come together to provide a level of detail you can truly get lost in.
European Air War sports three campaigns: the Battle of Britain in 1940 and Battle for Europe campaigns set in 1943 and 1944. In the Battle of Britain, you can fly for the English or Germans. In Battle for Europe, you can fly for the Americans, English, or Germans. Enlist in a Pilot Career, and you'll choose a squadron, which in turn will select the plane you fly and the base you'll fly from. The campaigns are dynamic rather than prescripted, with missions generated on the fly by the computer. If you take out a target, it will remain destroyed when you fly over it again in a later mission. If you fail to successfully defend your airbase from a bomber attack, in the next mission, you'll find yourself flying from a new base. The dynamic nature of the campaign keeps you from ever getting the same mission twice. Be warned, however, that the mission tasking is fairly realistic, so missions can be repetitive. For instance, RAF pilots will spend most of the Battle of Britain performing bomber-intercept missions.
In addition to the campaigns, there's an instant action mode as well as a quick mission builder that lets you select between various types of missions (such as escort, interdiction, and intercept) and the types and numbers of friendly and enemy planes. To MicroProse's credit, this latter interface is also used for multiplayer, letting you fly real missions with and against other human players when you grow tired of the deathmatch mode.
The game features 20 different models of 11 flyable aircraft, including the Spitfire, Hurricane, P-38 Lightning, P-51 Mustang, FW-190D9, and the ME-262 jet. The flight models aren't as refined as those in Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator, but the performance variations between aircraft are accurately represented. You can fine-tune realism by toggling details such as stalls and spins, torque, structural limits, blackouts, and engine overheating. There are excellent audio indications of impending stalls and overheating engines.
In the cockpit, situational awareness is very good. The keypad can be used to snap the view to any direction, and there's a virtual cockpit with a padlock mode. An optional target ID box and descriptive text tag assist you in sorting friends from enemies. Unfortunately, you're more or less forced to use these targeting aids due to the sim's limited resolution and the scaling of aircraft. European Air War's graphics engine is limited to 640x480 resolution, so aircraft at a distance appear as dots or tiny crosses. You're forced to get unrealistically close to them to make a visual identification. (There's also a magnify mode, but the field of view is way too restrictive to make it useful.) It's true that making the planes larger at a distance wouldn't be 100 percent realistic either, but given that the human eye can see much more detail than is apparent at 640x480 resolution, it would prove a less distracting compromise than chasing Luftwaffe planes with giant glowing neon letters above them spelling out "FW-190A."
The AI pilots are a mixed bag. To MicroProse's credit, they do start out using historically accurate tactics, something rarely seen in a WWII sim. But it's fairly easy to pull AI pilots into a turning fight, and since they don't push their planes to the limit (I've never seen an AI plane spin or visibly stall out), patience will bring you victory. Dogfights aren't difficult to win in a one-on-one situation, but those are rare. With more than 30 planes twisting and turning throughout the same airspace, the sheer number of bad guys will keep you from getting complacent.
While European Air War doesn't have the impressive visible damage effects of Jane's WWII Fighters, the actual damage modeling is extremely well done. Having control surfaces shot out causes you to lose maneuverability, and oil, fuel, and coolant leaks can force you to land in the fields. The only real gripe here is that landing gear can be damaged, but belly landings seem impossible.
Similarly, enemy planes blow up real good. Hit a B-24's engine, and it starts smoking. Hit the fuel tank, and it explodes in flames, ripping off a wing. Bombers can be brought down with only a few hits, not totally realistic, but then neither is the low-res, fixed gunsight you use in WWII sims.
Graphics are decent, but not exceptional. Glide and Direct3D as well as software rendering are supported. (If you have a 12MB 3Dfx card, you must download a batch file from MicroProse's web site to fix a bug that shuts the sim down at startup.) The planes and panels have a painted rather than photorealistic look, but the effect isn't bad. Down low, you'll find trees (that you can indeed collide with), houses, and towns. There are plenty of surprising details, such as tiny soldiers who scatter out of damaged vehicles and buildings. Sound is absolutely superb, from the "warble" when your plane approaches a stall to the steady drone of bomber formations.
Certainly, there are plenty of nits to pick with European Air War. The limited screen resolution affects combat, flight models could be better, and the AI could use some smartening up. That said, I haven't found a flight sim experience this immersive since the ancient days of LucasArts' Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain and EA's Chuck Yeager's Air Combat. The parts may not be perfect, but they come together to create an experience no flight sim fan can miss.