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PC Review - 'Battle of Europe'

by Keith Durocher on June 12, 2006 @ 1:04 a.m. PDT

Battle of Europe offers fast, arcade-style gameplay with a historical theme. Players will control the best combat aircraft of the era and even some "top secret" ones! This fast paced title lets players engage their enemies over some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

Genre: Flight
Publisher: Maus Software
Developer: Strategy First
Release Date: March 23, 2006

"Trace your way back 50 years
To the Glow of Dresden - blood and tears
In the black above by the cruel searchlight
Men will die and men will fight - yeah!
Who shot who and who fired first?
Dripping death to whet the bloodthirst
No radar lock on - skin and bone
The bomber boys are going home."

- Iron Maiden, "Tailgunner"

PC gaming has seen its fair share of World War II-themed games. Who am I kidding, it's seen far more than its fair share, and at this point, we're all just a little bit less than impressed with the time period, even if it is something we should never forget. (At this rate, will we ever actually be able to?) One aspect that hasn't seen too much in the way of coverage is the fighting that took place in the skies. With this in mind, a relatively obscure little company called Maus Software decided to go ahead and program up a game they call Battle of Europe: RAF. Like Icarus with a taste to melt the wax of wings, you get to fly the best the Allied forces had to offer above the battlefields of the European Theatre. You might, with the help of some sticky fingers, get to taste some of what the Luftwaffe had, too.

Battle of Europe: RAF sits somewhere between an arcade shooter and a flight sim; its focus is action and combat, but the nature of its design necessitates a certain degree of physics. The studied responses of pitch and yaw are really about as far as the simulation elements go, however. While each of the 21 different planes represented in the game seems to adhere to historical accuracy, the super-weapon power-ups are hardly the stuff of aerial combat antiquity. Semantics of form aside, Battle of Europe: RAF offers 10 full levels of intense aeronautical warfare, plus five bonus missions.

The plot outline has you playing a Canadian RAF pilot, recently assigned to an airfield not far from the English Channel. Increased Wehrmacht pressure has facilitated the need for a stronger air-support presence, thus the stage is set for your rising reputation as a fighter ace. Throughout the course of this title, you will defend radar and armament installations, assault Berlin at night in harrow-raids, man the gunner-turrets in bombing runs over Wilhelmshaven, hijack an experimental jet fighter, bomb Norway, and even raid Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Bavaria. It's not an unimpressive list of tasks, considering the fact that you'll be the only actual fighter for just about the entire run of the game.

As I mentioned previously, Maus Software modeled 21 different aircraft for use in Battle of Europe: RAF, but not all of them will be under your guidance. I don't want to spoil the surprise entirely, so I'll only give you a few examples of what you do get to glide around in: the Hawker Hurricane Mk1, the Hawker Typhoon, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Mosquito B.Mk IV Series 2, and the experimental Messerschmitt ME 262. Every plane that appears in the game comes with a "collector's card" list of details and history that lends personality to the craft.

Combat is really the highlight of the game, being a truly entertaining experience that is equal parts adrenaline-charged bravado and dog-fighting tactics. Once you're in the air, the expansive panoramic space comes sharply into focus. The rest is finding your target and firing until there's naught but flaming wreckage plummeting to the earth. You have unlimited fuel and machine-gun ammunition, as well as limited payloads of missiles, bombs, and sometimes torpedoes. Each complete defeat of an enemy craft (full destruction, not just rendering their plane inoperable and into a crash) leaves behind bonus power-ups like extra health, super-charged ammunition, and extra bombs, rockets, and torpedoes. These become essential, as oftentimes missions can't be completed without extra munitions, and there isn't usually a friendly base anywhere nearby to recharge your supplies.

Battle of Europe: RAF is essentially a richly detailed tech-demo for a graphics engine called Whirlwind, also developed by Maus Software. Whirlwind was designed as a DX8 engine, meaning it's roughly one generation behind on the Direct-X curve. The end result is an overall look that isn't quite cutting-edge. That doesn't mean this game looks bad – far from it. The model detail and textures look great if you keep all settings on high, and the lighting is also quite beautiful if you push the options as far as they can go.

The biggest setback to doing this is the erratic framerate lag that crops up in certain missions. There doesn't seem to be any one factor that determines when a level will become unplayable in this manner, either. For example, you can't bank on excessive models and lighting to make your GPU collapse. Some levels are as smooth as glass, some aren't. The only solution is to decrease all of your graphics settings to at least the median, if not to the minimum. This is an unfortunate workaround fix that adds a layer of effort where there should only be playtime.

Oftentimes, there is an intangible line between what makes a good game and a great game; Maus Software has fortunately made this anything but opaque – It is very easy to tell what keeps Battle of Europe: RAF out of the latter category. Specifically, there is one howling flaw that single-handedly prevents this title from being a gold-ticket purchase. That error is the complete and utter lack of mid-level saves. Each mission carries several objectives, but the only save points come after you have successfully landed. This means that if you spend, say, 45 minutes on a specific set of goals only to have your plane explode on landing, you'll have to restart the entire level from the very beginning. This is (to be perfectly blunt) extremely frustrating. The worst example of this comes with levels that have multiple sub-levels. You play a mission, load to the second part of that mission, and then load to the third part of that mission, but if you make a mistake and die on the third part, you have to reload to the first part and play through all three missions again. It is every bit as maddening as it sounds.

To compound this, we have the "random explosion" bug, whereby your craft spontaneously erupts in a blast of fiery doom. The first time this happened to me, I dismissed it, thinking I had taken more damage than I was aware of. The second time, it happened when I was sitting on the runway, just after the level had finished loading. Seeing as how I hadn't actually touched any keys and no enemy planes were even in view, I couldn't just dismiss it as my own negligence. This error pops up with semi-regularity, often enough to inter-mix with the "must start from scratch" design error in an infuriating marriage of annoyance.

Aside from these admittedly pronounced errors, Battle of Europe: RAF is a surprisingly fun game. Even though it's set in the far-overused WWII environment, it doesn't feel rehashed at all just due to the fact that it's entirely aerial. The graphics are fairly solid (when they're behaving), the audio is quite well done (if somewhat on the monaural side), and the overall mood manages to spill over into that thrilling tension hinted at in the second episode of Band of Brothers ("Day of Days"). That alone is an impressive feat. With solid developer support in the form of heavy-handed patches to buff out the rough edges, this game could be the beginning of a rewarding new franchise. Without that support, this bird won't even get off the ground. I recommend this game only with the caveat that you find it available at a budgeted price point.

Score: 5.9/10

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