Fighter Squadron: The Screamin' Demons Over Europe
Right now is a difficult time to be a World War II flight sim. With Jane's Fighter Legends impressing the pants off everyone from here to Tallahassee - as well as Microsoft's Combat Flight Sim and MicroProse's European Air War mopping up Electronic An's leftovers - the second wave of fighters is going to have to pull out all the stops if it wants to make an impression.
Any day now we'll be seeing Confirmed Kill from Eidos, featuring all sons of online shenanigans, and Wings Of Destiny from Psygnosis, being developed by ex-DID staffers - so big things are expected, especially as both are promising all sorts of innovations.
In the meantime, Activision are just about to enter the fight with the overly-titled Fighter Squadron: Screamin'Demons Over Europe, being developed by ex-Macintosh bunnies Parsoft Interactive. They are most famous for the actually-quite-playable-really A-10 Cuba! a few years ago. But what is Screamin'Demons offering that will make us stand and salute?
The most important feature of Fighter Squadron is the squadron-based nature of the gameplay. Most WWII sims simply let you choose some missions or play through the war as an individual. Here you get to join one of dozens of famous (and infamous) squads in either the British, American or German forces, each of which have their own schedules, missions and planes. The idea is that you start as a lowly Second Lieutenant (or national equivalent) and progress through the ranks until, one day, you get to lead your team into the skies of France, England, Germany or, oddly for a game with Europe in the title, Africa.
What this means is that you aren't restricted to flying just the one plane during a mission. The theory is that at any point you can hop into someone else's in your flight group, take the controls and bear down on the enemy; or you can just sit back and watch in 'observer' mode if you don't fancy your chances. This is especially useful during multi-aircraft missions such as B-17 bombing raids. Start the game in a fighter, escorting the huge behemoths over enemy territory, taking on any German plane that dares to try and take them out. Then once you're over the target area, jump into one of the bombers and drop the deadly payload on to the Nazi kitten refuges yourself.
Which brings us on to the next feature in Fighter Squadron - bombers. Up until now, most other WW2 sims have focused solely on the small, one-man fighter planes. Fighter Squadron gives you a healthy mixture of bombers and dual-role interceptors to fly with too. Not only is there the aforementioned B-17, but you also get to fly that most under-appreciated of British aircraft, the Lancaster Mkll bomber. Even more excitingly, you don't just fly the big ships. Each of the gun positions can be operated manually, along with the navigator's chair and the bombardier. There was to be a multiplayer co-operative option to enable a team of players to fly in the one bomber, each at a different position, but time constraints forced Parsoft to abandon the idea for now. They are, however, rumoured to be keen on getting it into a sequel.
Along with the bombers, you can also fly (among others) the Typhoon, the P-38 Lightning, the Junkers Ju-88A and Germany's first operational jet aircraft, the experimental Messerschmitt Me-262. Faster than anything else in the sky at the time, the Me-262 was nevertheless fraught with dangers, not the least of which was its unnerving ability to burst into flames at a moment's notice. You tend to wonder how the Germans ever earned their reputation for efficiency.
A War Of Your Own
The third, but not the final, difference between Fighter Squadron and the competition is the mission editor. This is an aspect that seems particularly associated with ex-Macintosh development teams - F/A-18 Korea had something similar - but is no less welcome because of it. Should the 90 or so missions on offer to you in the full game not be enough, you can prolong the war by creating your own.
It's a pretty powerful tool, enabling you to set up everything from the number of units to the AI levels of the pilots. Add a flight of Spitfires, for example, give them a few waypoints and a target to attack, then tell the computer everything from how loyal and aggressive they are to how sane they behave in the middle of combat situations. It all has an effect, and the difference between a calm pilot and one that gets 'the red mist' over his eyes every time he sees an opponent can be staggering to watch.
Over Hill, Over Dale
Other than that, Fighter Squadron is pretty much business as usual. There are some nicely detailed graphical effects (such as volumetric clouds that get affected by the wind movements, and will merge into one another on contact), and the attention paid to the damage models may well give Microsoft's title a run for its money. Also in the Microsoft vein, Parsoft are planning to release the plane editing software at some point in the future to enable you to create and import your own aircraft into the game. They have stressed that the tools are complex, so you might have to wait until a third-party developer produces a more user-friendly version.
One area that we are a little concerned with is the terrain modelling. It doesn't look ugly or anything, far from it. It's more that there isn't a lot of attention being paid to creating recognisable landmarks: London, for instance, seems to be little more than an airfield, a dam and a lot of hills. Parsoft stress that they are focusing on the flight aspects of the game rather than the landscapes, but we'll have to wait until we see the finished version to discover whether they take this into account. Hopefully they'll throw in a few landmarks for us to shoot at. I've never liked that Eiffel Tower thing, for one.
The Screamin' Who?
Never heard of the Screamin' Demons? Well, nor have we. So let's see what we can find out about them, shall we?
Fighter Squadron centres, naturally enough, around the various squadrons that took part in the war. The Screamin' Demons of the title, though, are considered to be something a bit special, at least by Parsoft's standards. Mainly American, they flew P-38s and P-51s during the war and supposedly would fly in any condition, fight to the last bullet and were feared by all.
Or at least that's the theory. When we actually tried to research the Screamin' Demons for real, there proved to be a surprising lack of information, which lead us to believe that they might have been (and forgive us if we're wrong here) made up. In fact, the only non-game related reference we could find on the Web was to something called the Fantasy Drum Corps, which sounds a bit like an American version of the film Brassed Off. Which we feel would have made for an even more interesting game.
Download Fighter Squadron: The Screamin' Demons Over Europe
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
There are certainly plenty of World War II combat flight sims to choose from at the moment, but that hasn't prevented Activision from entering the fray with Fighter Squadron: Screamin' Demons Over Europe.
This sim marks a significant improvement over Parsoft's last release, A-10 Cuba!, which despite using primitive shaded polygon graphics and suffering from a distinct lack of missions was well received by serious sim heads, thanks to the excellent physics and flight models.
While Fighter Squadron lacks the Hollywood pizzazz of WWII Fighters, and there's no dynamic campaign structure as found in European Air War, like its predecessor A-10 Cuba! it's got a distinctive 'feel' thanks to a very impressive flight and physics model. In this respect, taking off in windy conditions, controlling a battle-damaged aircraft and landing safely are as much a challenge and a part of the game as notching up kills. Consequently Fighter Squadron won't appeal to everybody.
In The Hangar
There are ten planes altogether that you can fly: the P-51D Mustang, P-38 Lightning and B-17G Flying Fortress for the US; the Focke-Wulf 190, the Me-262 jet and Ju-88 bomber for the German Luftwaffe; and the Spitfire, Typhoon, Mosquito and Lancaster bomber for the British RAF. As you'd expect, the flight models differ quite substantially, so it makes sense to use the training missions and flying aids to practice flying a new aircraft before heading off into the fray.
The fact that there are dozens of damageable structures on each plane means that once you've taken a few hits, flying becomes a real challenge. The detail of the physics model works well with the sim's flight modelling, and you quickly learn a lot about your chosen aircraft's characteristics and limitations once you've spent a few minutes struggling to keep it in the air while under fire. Wind is also a major factor, and can make a real difference when you're setting up ground attacks or attempting to land. Along with the damage effects on plane handling (see panel above), you may also encounter explosion shock waves, accelerated stall effects, and spins. It doesn't really get much tougher than this.
Unfortunately there isn't a campaign mode to speak of, more a series of unrelated missions set in three theatres: the English Channel, the Rhineland and North Africa. Interestingly, the mission objectives are more or less the same no matter who you fly for. If, for example, the mission goal is to destroy a V2 rocket launch site and you're a British pilot, you perform a sweep in a Spitfire; if you're an American you get the option to fly as escort in a P-5I or pilot one of the B-17 bombers tasked with taking out the target; while as a German Luftwaffe pilot you have the choice of defending the Reich in either an Me-262 or an FW-190.
As the three theatres themselves are pretty small (around 40x40 miles), you never spend more than a few minutes flying to the target. Although this may sound restrictive, there are advantages: a smaller terrain area means that there's plenty of detail in terms of ground objects, buildings, air bases and so on, and a surprising number of hills and valleys make great arenas for low-level dogfights.
The limited number of missions shouldn't be too much of a problem, as there's also an easy to use mission editor that enables you to create your own combat scenarios. Some may baulk at that, but there will no doubt be hundreds available on the Net in just a few weeks after the game is released.
Overall, Fighter Squadron is quite an achievement in terms of programming, and arguably one of the most realistic WWII flight sims available. A lack of missions, no dynamic campaign mode, relatively small theatres and a distinct lack of frills, however, mean that it won't be everyone's cup of tea.
Anally Retentive, Or Totally Realistic?
There are three things that propeller-heads demand in a flight sim: lush graphics, a realistic flight model and authenticity
While Fighter Squadron isn't the prettiest flight sim ever to grace the PC, the flight model certainly feels like you'd expect it to and there's a lot of attention to detail. Unless you're a total boffin, you probably won't understand that this is partly down to the fact that developers Parsoft have based their calculations on a floating point mathematical model which calculates equations of motion to a much more accurate degree than plain old integer mathematics (or so they say). For example, if you forget to release your wheel brakes and start to crank up the throttle before taking off, you end up flipping the aircraft onto its prop and causing no end of damage. Similarly, attempt to manoeuvre certain aircraft too tightly at high speed and your wings may well tear off - which leaves you with a bit of a problem at 15,000 feet.
In the name of authenticity, Parsoft have also developed and implemented a rather cool 'Per-polygon Collision Detection' system. In real terms this means that Instead of aircraft simply bursting into flames when they're hit, they take damage on a per-polygon basis, which realistically and adversely affects handling incrementally. The result is altogether more realistic and challenging - especially when you're attempting to limp home after a particularly intense dogfight, dodging debris, losing power and nursing an aircraft riddled with bullet holes.