Although graphics aren't the most important part of a simulation, they're definitely the standout feature of Jane's WWII Fighters. The cockpits are exacting, 3D recreations of the real things, including not only a full suite of working instruments, but even warning placards on the instrument panel. Aircraft exteriors are similarly detailed, down to the rivet lines on the skin.
And when combat starts, things get even more impressive. Planes explode with pyrotechnics that would make Hollywood proud. As a fighter gets damaged, you'll see wing spars, fuselage structures, and engines exposed under the bullet-riddled skin. And if your PC has plenty of processor and 3D card horsepower, these combats can take place in the midst of realistically rendered 3D clouds. OpenGL, Direct3D, and 3Dfx Glide are all supported, as are high resolutions, so you can push any graphics card to its limits.
But WWII Fighters isn't all flash and dazzle. The flight modeling is very well done, with each plane having appropriate performance variations. The only real gripe here is that the sim is a bit too forgiving about stalls, and I've never entered an unintentional spin; this lets you take planes a little closer to the performance edge than you might risk in real life. When it comes to combat, the computer pilot AI is among the most challenging I've ever met. Computer-flown aces will push their planes' performance to the limit, and will be hard-pressed to get a kill in one-on-one combat with the difficulty levels cranked up.
Out of combat, though, the AI can go stupid. Aircraft have a very bad habit of colliding with each other, especially when landing. While combat AI is the most important, it's really annoying to do some real hurt to the Luftwaffe only to lose five P-38s on the way home due to collisions in the landing pattern. The first patch addresses this somewhat by offering an option to disable "friendly" collisions, but that's nothing but a kludge. Hopefully Jane's will fix the formation AI in the second patch, due in January.
Missions are set in the Ardennes region of Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. The combat arena is a mixed bag. While the hilly terrain can make for interesting low-level combats, the repeating texture-mapped forests and odd city tiles don't come close to matching the quality standards set by the aircraft. Ground objects look pretty good and include lots of nice touches, such as individual soldiers who scatter from damaged vehicles and even animated deer bounding across the landscape. (Could the folks at Jane's be planning to sell a version of this game in Wal-Mart, repackaged as Jane's P-47 Deer Hunting?)
There's no shortage of things to do in the sim. The instant action icon throws you straight into combat - you don't even see the game's interface. The trademark Jane's quick mission mode lets you easily set up air battles with up to four flights of four aircraft types on each side as well as optional ground targets. Single missions include a number of interactive training flights as well as combat sorties. Finally, there's a campaign mode that can be played from the side of the Allies or Axis. The mission structure here is branching, so players who don't cheat and always refly missions until success will find variety here. The missions are well designed and interesting, but have a scripted feel that's particularly obvious if you've played dynamic campaigns in sims like Falcon 4.0 or European Air War. You'll miss random encounters with planes on unrelated missions, for instance.
Still, the missions here are historical in nature and well designed. If you think you could do better yourself, Jane's gives you the chance. The game features a very detailed mission editor, which lets you create forces, waypoints, targets, and even triggers that can make missions play differently depending on how the action turns out.
WWII Fighters multiplayer is support is top-notch. You can fly campaign, single, user-created, or quick missions on LAN or over the Internet. It's particularly exciting to fly a cooperative mission with friends, where one side may be tasked with escorting a group of B-26s while another tries to take them down. Free matchmaking is available at Jane's Combat.Net.
The downsides? Perhaps the biggest is the lack of wingman commands. You do get running battle commentary from other pilots, but there's no way to give them orders, even when you're flight lead. At least a "Help me!" would be nice. Jane's has hinted that the January patch may address this limitation. Also, while the game includes some wonderful in-game reference material - not only plane specs, but also video interviews with a number of World War II aces - the two included manuals don't feature the depth we've come to expect from Jane's. And while it's not a problem per se, a warning is due: WWII Fighters really stresses a system, and you'll want at least a Pentium 233 with a good 3D card to get decent performance.
Jane's has already released an initial patch to address some joystick problems and fix some other minor quirks, and the developers seem committed to addressing issues such as wingman commands and collisions in another upcoming patch. But even with those quirks, this is a standout game- and one that any fan of World War II air combat will want to play.