Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Battle of Britain II – Wings of Victory Review

Battle of Britain II – Wings of Victory, developed by Shockwave Productions and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Accurate aerial combat, complex strategic campaign with useful optional automation, deadly AI, immersive sound effects
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, poor tutorials with little in-game instruction
What say you? A flight simulation and strategy combination that’s great fun, if you haven’t played it before: 6/8

There has been a number of hyper-realistic combat flight simulators published on the PC. IL-2 Sturmovik comes to mind, as does Rowan’s Battle of Britain, a game I reviewed when it was released in 2000. The game was improved and re-released as Battle of Britain II in 2005, and now the latest version (2.06) has been re-re-released by Matrix Games in their continuing effort to re-release every game ever made (see previous examples here and here and here and here, plus a couple of others I didn't review). Obviously, eight years is quite a long time in the computer gaming universe; how will all that time treat a classic such as Battle of Britain?

The graphics have (thankfully) been overhauled since the game’s original release, and Battle of Britain II – Wings of Victory certainly holds its own in the flight simulation hierarchy. The overall quality is slightly below that of IL-2 Sturmovik, a game that still looks good (the engine can certainly still produce good visuals) today. The plane models are very nice and shiny, and Battle of Britain II includes the actual paint schemes used by each squadron during the battle. Tracer rounds are cool, as they zip past your plane, and explosions are underwhelming but realistic. About the only area that could be improved is the ground texturing: they look like a 2-D skin rather than a vibrant, living world, especially when you get close to ground level. Still, enhancements have been made to the game’s graphical presentation that make it competitive today. The sound in Battle of Britain II does an outstanding job in making the game immersive, surrounding the player with disturbingly realistic effects. A lot of games overlook this key area, but Battle of Britain II delivers impressive explosions and unnerving bullet hits. The voices tend to be repetitive after a while, but this is a small deficiency in an otherwise impressive area. Battle of Britain II certainly doesn’t look and sound like a game that came out eight years ago, and while the game may not compete with the cream of the crop in terms of graphics, it surely looks good enough.

Battle of Britain II is a game comprised of two parts: a flight simulation and a strategic mode. This is similar to the Total War series, in that you plan your attacks and then fight out the battles yourself, although here the battles are all in the air. The improvements made in the game from the original release to the current version (2.06) are really things that only devout followers will notice: enhanced AI, enhanced graphics, and bug fixes. Apparently, the original release of Battle of Britain II was full of bugs, but I have only experienced sporadic crashes during the campaign (specifically when assigning tasks): nothing too major. For those who simply want to fly, there are a host of instant action missions available. There are “training” missions, but these merely place you in a specific situation (landing, for example) rather than giving you instructions in-game. You really need to read the manual if you aren’t accustomed to piloting these kinds of planes. L uckily, the manual is comprehensive and the campaign mode has lots of contextual in-game help. In addition, user-made campaign tutorials and various tips are also located in the lengthy manual. Instant action missions also allow you to set up dogfighting, ground attacks, interceptions, and historical engagements. Forces are somewhat adjustable: you can decrease the number of planes and adjust the AI skill level, but you cannot add planes for some reason (or I just haven’t figured out how to do it). This is a good amount of content to keep aspiring pilots happy, although I would like to have total freedom or an explicit mission editor available. Battle of Britain II lacks multiplayer of any kind, a potentially cool feature considering the massive battles that are present in the game. There are an overwhelming number of options to tweak the difficulty and performance of the game, plus a moddable text file to change even more things. Given enough time, you can tailor Battle of Britain II to fit your specific desires.

The game comes together nicely in the campaign mode. This is played on a map and you either give bombing orders (if you are playing the Germans) or react to incoming raids (if you are playing the British). There are four starting points to choose from; these essentially alter the German targets and how much infrastructure has been destroyed. On it’s most basic level, you can simply assign how many planes to devote to each task. The British player can divide their forces amongst filling in radar gaps, patrolling, escorting ships, or waiting for incoming raids. The German player selects when to send their bombers, which targets to destroy, and which escorts to use. The game then automatically chooses appropriate squadrons and flight plans and you can sit back and relax, if you so choose. This makes it pretty easy to get in to Battle of Britain II; considering the campaign can get quite complicated, the amount of automation is a very good thing. Of course, if you want to adjust everything yourself, you can: just pick your waypoints and the squadrons and targets to use. The game provides information over a number of dialogue boxes which I found to initially be confusing; they also take up a very large portion of the screen, obscuring the map. You can manually assign where newly produced planes will go, manage your existing squadrons and pilots, check the weather, peruse juicy targets, and review all of the missions for the day. The campaign can be played out in real-time, but during boring stretches the game accelerates. The campaign of Battle of Britain II is an interesting game of balance. You can easily stretch yourself thin by sending out too many planes early in the day and leave yourself open for attack. You must also decide where to use your veteran squadrons and how quickly friendly forces will respond to incoming attacks. It’s all pretty interesting. When friendly forces get close to their target (or, more typically, encounter enemy planes), you can take direct control of any of the planes involved. The game always seems to give you control a bit too close to the action, making the first couple of minutes very disorienting, especially since your squad mates seem to always leave your side right when the battle begins.

The aerial combat of Battle of Britain II is fun, thanks to an adjustable realistic flight model. You can turn everything off and go with unrealistic physics for a Hollywood-style shoot-em-up, or take the authentic route and have to worry about stalling and other assorted nonsense. The game certainly can be overwhelming, but the relative simplicity of World War II aircraft makes the game a bit easier to learn. Since the planes are simply equipped with machine guns, you just have to fly and shoot. There are no computer targeting systems of any of that fancy mumbo-jumbo to worry about, and this greatly reduces the learning curve. The massive battles are a sight to see and are wonderful to compete in. The AI pilots are really, really good, performing advanced maneuvers and behaving realistically. In fact, the AI may be too good, as novice players will need to turn down the difficulty considerable to avoid getting shot down every mission. Battle of Britain II is certainly one of the best combat flight simulations and getting an enemy plane in your sights is a painstaking but rewarding process. It’s hard to tell which planes are which, so most people will want to turn tags on. The game also lacks clear objective locations in the game world, which makes bombing troublesome. This may not be realistic, but it would certainly be helpful.

For what is essentially an eight-year-old game, Battle of Britain II holds up pretty well. The fantastic flight model and engrossing campaign are still intact, offering up a potent combination of game styles. Quality AI and an automated-if-you-want-it-to-be campaign are highlights of a strong game that is still entertaining. Still, Battle of Britain II is not without its problems, even after all of these years of refinement: the in-game tutorials are porous, occasional bugs crop up, and there isn’t any multiplayer. The strategic campaign really wouldn’t hold up as a complete game on its own, so it’s good that its paired with a quality flight simulation. If you own the original Battle of Britain, the minute changes found in Battle of Britain II aren’t enough to upgrade, and the version included in the Matrix release can be downloaded by any owner of the original Shockwave version of Battle of Britain II. But if you have missed out on the series, then Battle of Britain II is still worth your time if you enjoy combat flight simulations.