Rowan Software has a long history of producing high-quality flight simulations, including Dawn Patrol, Flying Corps, and GameSpot's 1999 Flight Simulation of the Year, MiG Alley. Shortly before Battle of Britain was released, Empire Interactive bought Rowan and announced that its focus would shift to video game consoles--which means that Battle of Britain is something of a farewell to Rowan's fans. If this indeed turns out to be the case, hard-core flight-simulation enthusiasts will long remember Rowan for its final PC game, which delivers almost everything a fan of the genre could ask for: immersion, attention to detail, visual appeal, and--above all--truly realistic and intense flight combat. However, Battle of Britain may require a significant time investment in getting the game to even work properly, and it's almost completely inaccessible to novice pilots.
Battle of Britain is probably the most comprehensive treatment of the epic air campaign ever done on the computer. To achieve this, Rowan has split up the sim so that it's actually two games: one, a strategic layer in which you manage the entire air effort of either the Royal Air Force or the Luftwaffe, and two, the traditional in-the-cockpit depiction of aerial combat. Both games are superbly done and furthermore well integrated so that switching from one to the other (joining in a particularly interesting battle, for example) is quick and easy. It's the ultimate combination of a strategy game and a hard-core simulation.
The game features five flyable aircraft, which cover the major fighter combatants involved in the battle: the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane for the British, and the Messerschmidt Me-109 and Me-110 on the German side. The fifth aircraft is the Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber, which makes for an interesting (if often short-lived) ride. Furthermore, the three German medium bombers that flew in the battle (the Do-17, He-111, and Ju-88) all have gunner positions that you can man (similar to the gunner positions available in the recent B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty 8th), although you can't fly them as the pilot.
The aircraft models aren't spectacular, but they do look quite good, as does the terrain from high altitude. Down low, the terrain does get somewhat uglier, though this is fairly common to the genre. The cloud effects are outstanding, but unfortunately they tend to be a real burden on the processor, and they'll drag down the performance of low-end and midrange computers. The cockpit graphics are very crisp, uncluttered, and easy to read, and you can manipulate the internal switches and toggles with the mouse when you set "engine management" to manual mode. In this mode, you even have to go through a full flight check to get your engines started.
The aircraft that flew in the actual Battle of Britain were quite challenging to fly in real life, and that challenge has been re-created in the flight models used in the game. The game engine is a modified version of the one used in MiG Alley. Whereas the high speeds possible in jet aircraft made hard maneuvering dangerous in that game, the planes in Battle of Britain are just finicky enough (especially the Me-109) to make them challenging to fly without being frustrating. However, one aspect that is frustrating is the game's attempt at modeling the pilot's head-bobbing when you make abrupt maneuvers, which is certainly a factor in real life but is simply annoying on the computer. There's apparently no option to disable this effect.
The presentation is essentially window dressing for the game's main strength, which is its simulation of dogfighting. Simply put, Battle of Britain offers the best World War II dogfighting experience available in any computer flight simulation. One reason for this is that the air battles can become absolutely enormous, since hundreds of aircraft can fill the sky. The scope of the game is much larger than that of any previous flight sim, and when you're in a dogfight with planes zooming by and small specks filling your view in the distance, this will really hit home. In these huge air battles, even the most experienced pilots will find themselves thankful for the aircraft directional icons and the attitude indicator, which in some less demanding sims might be considered cheats. The large-scale dogfights in Battle of Britain push air combat on the computer to the limit.
All of this is just the flight simulation part of the game. As noted, the campaign mode is really a game in itself and is probably the most detailed treatment of the battle to be found for the computer. As the German player, you command Luftflotte (Air Fleet) 2 and 3, which is based in France and Belgium. (Luftflotte 5, which is based in Norway and Denmark, had a much smaller part in the battle and is not included.) You have the ability to plan all raids, order reconnaissance missions, and decide how to allocate your fighter escorts and what kind of instructions to give them with respect to positioning and protection of the bombers. You watch your formations assemble and see the British interceptors as they are sighted by your planes. When combat is initiated, you have the option to jump into any of the aircraft involved in that particular mission or to simply let the computer resolve the battle for you.
As the British player, you'll command historical formations like the Polish 303rd Squadron, as well as the rest of Fighter Command, in your quest to beat back the German air onslaught. You'll have to decide which squadrons to assign to patrols, which ones to rest, and which ones to keep in reserve. The extent to which you protect valuable industries, such as power and aircraft manufacturing, determines the number of aircraft you receive as reinforcements. It's an almost complete picture of the battle in every detail. Pilots suffer from fatigue, so you can't just send your squadrons up to intercept (or, as the Germans, repeatedly assign bombers to mission after mission)--if you do, you'll suffer decreased performance and additional losses. The campaign progresses through four stages: the initial convoy raids on shipping in the English Channel; the Eagle attack period, when the Germans pressed their attacks against radar sites and airfields; the critical period, when industries and the main British air bases were the target; and the final blitz on London. Film clips and artwork add to the historical atmosphere, which is well maintained throughout the game. Multiplayer options include deathmatch, team play, or cooperative play in the various single-shot scenarios. Unfortunately, there's no provision for a multiplayer version of the campaign.
While hard-core flight-sim fans will appreciate the game's attention to detail and superb flight experience, the prognosis for more casual gamers or simulation novices isn't quite so good. In fact, if you don't have a good amount of flight-sim experience, you should probably steer clear of Battle of Britain until you have logged more virtual flying time. Simply taking off in Battle of Britain's aircraft is an accomplishment in itself, even with relaxed realism options enabled. The training missions have no voice-overs or other instructional aids. Hard-core and novice players alike will be disappointed with the inability to remap keyboard commands. While a throttle-and-stick combo is recommended, inexperienced players might not have the knowledge or inclination to program (or download) a configuration file for these or might not even have such hardware in the first place. Battle of Britain is geared specifically toward the simulation enthusiast, and newcomers should beware.
The last issue with Battle of Britain is one that has haunted many recent sims: its technical problems. Some players have reported being completely unable to run the game without it frequently crashing, which may be related to video drivers and card incompatibilities. There are documented fixes for many of these problems, but some of them require editing a game resource file, and many people will understandably shy away from a game that requires so much user adjustment just to get it running. Also, the stuttering that plagued some systems in MiG Alley reappears in Battle of Britain, and susceptibility to stuttering doesn't seem to be easily correlated to system specs or driver versions. The game also won't recognize some USB joysticks.
In spite of these problems, Battle of Britain could end up being a classic in the genre. Unfortunately, many players won't be able to appreciate it because of these same problems. Those lucky enough to be able to run Battle of Britain out of the box, or persistent enough to tweak the game until it works, will discover a truly impressive simulation like nothing to date since European Air War. If you're experienced with air-combat simulations and you manage to get it working well, you'll undoubtedly fall in love with Battle of Britain.