Luftwaffe Commander Review
By Michael Richter |
Based on the conditions under which it was released , SSI's Luftwaffe Commander has a tough war to win. First, it has to gain and hold territory in a market that's already saturated with World War II sims. What's more, it carries the honor of the developer, Eagle Interactive, whose reputation with the hard-core flight-sim community slipped after their work on Virgin's Sabre Ace. The question is, can the game carry off both missions and do so well?
Originally slated for a November debut, Luftwaffe Commander's release date slipped became and the game was rescheduled to appear this February. It was therefore quite surprising to find it had shipped right before Christmas, arriving on some store shelves as early as December 21st. Unfortunately, LC smacks of an early release, pushed out the door too soon. Yes, the game shows promise and offers some features not found in other competing products, and it does indeed appear that Eagle Interactive has learned from some of the mistakes made on Sabre Ace. Overall, though, the changes made in LC still fall short when compared to the WW2 sims that have preceded it.
It's long been speculated that Virgin was ultimately responsible for the sorry state that Sabre Ace shipped in. For example, comparisons between prior beta copies and the final product clearly show that the company hamstrung the flight model. Other poor aspects of Sabre Ace, however-such as the awful view system and the ugly looking terrain-can rightfully be attributed to the developer. These criticisms were not lost on Eagle Interactive, and their efforts to make amends are evident in LC. For example, a greater number of out-the-window views are available, and they have moved away from aerial-photographed to artist-rendered terrain. They still use the same graphics engine (and hence only 640x480 resolution), but the textures now sport a much finer look. Remember Sabre Ace's awful padlock feature, which only allowed you to view the enemy from four limited, non-overlapping views available from within the static 2D cockpit? LC at least offers you a choice between this same weak implementation (albeit with more views available) or a new 3D virtual cockpit. So, on the surface of things, it seems that a lot of what was missing in Sabre Ace has found a home in Luftwaffe Commander. Wrong.
The biggest lesson learned by any combat pilot who's survived a knife-fight in the sky is "Lose sight, lose the fight"-and especially in dogfights where there's no radar involved, situational awareness is paramount. Thus, the best flight-sims that emphasize dogfighting offer an abundant number of options to track a target visually. Unfortunately, it's far too easy to lose sight in Luftwaffe Commander. Despite a much better view system than Sabre Ace's (which isn't saying much), LC's fixed views out of the cockpit are still far too limited, glaringly so when compared to competitors'. Views from the numeric keypad cannot be used in concert like they can in other WW2 sims, so the entire upper arc of views from within the cockpit is unavailable. There isn't even a 45-degree angle back view, just side-glances over the rear tailfin. Sure, you can obtain those views via the padlock, but this only works if you are up against just one enemy plane. When in a dogfight with more than one bogey, LC won't let you quickly shift the padlock to the closest target, or the most threatening, or even the one simply in front of you. Instead, you'll have to cycle through one plane at a time, which basically eliminates any effective use of the padlock. That's why snap views via the numeric keypad were created in the first place: to allow quick tracking of multiple enemies all around you. Alas, even LC's numeric views won't snap back. A programmable joystick can partially rectify this error, but when a simple 90-degree view straight up requires a two-stage press by hitting the 8-key twice, the single most common view ever used in a flight-sim becomes a royal pain in the ass.
The graphics are an equally mixed bag. What we're getting is better than before, but nothing close to the Big Three. Even European Air Warrior, when it was only 640x480 before the release of an enhancement patch, didn't require a 3D card like LC does and still managed to look better. Moreover, LC's 3D "accelerated" graphics are the worst of the bunch, relatively speaking. Smoke trails are a marginal step up from the "fox-two toothpaste" found in iF-22; the cockpits seem cartoonish, drawn from the slimmest of palettes and looking all too factory fresh; fires from dropped bombs or downed planes look like2D sprites lifted from a cheap Doom-clone test candidate. The virtual cockpits are almost as nice as those found in World War 2 Fighters, however, and although the clouds are a weird 2D/3D mish-mash, they actually work great when trying to ditch a plane on your six. The animated propellers are easily the best yet seen. The terrain is pleasant to look at, but the image is ruined when flying over a city, such as Paris, with only a single Eiffel tower and no other buildings to show for it.
The best that can be said about the AI is that it shows some pretty decent use of moves. Granted, it does not quite offer the full repertoire of those found in WW2F, but you'll be hard-pressed to consistently line up your shots. Unfortunately, the same repeated use of evasive patterns and poor tactics are witnessed time and time again, regardless of plane type. Hi yo-yo's are fine for a fighter, not for a B-17. No, it's not easy to shoot down an enemy fighter in LC, but that's okay. You don't need to waste your ammunition-all you have to do is chase them down low, where the AI conveniently (and consistently) fails to take into consideration what happens when a plane meets Mother Earth in a 300+ mph dive.
What's nice about Luftwaffe Commander is how it sports some of the closest realism this side of Combat Flight Simulator. Eagle Interactive has resolutely addressed the area of whether they can craft a flight model: They can indeed. In fact, I prefer the flight model in LC above all others. The stalls are simply fantastic-and very deadly, so don't get yourself into one. The torque is nice, energy bleed in the turns feels appropriate, and analog rudders work as they should. You'll definitely be rewarded with proper use of Boom and Zoom tactics, as long as you efficiently manage your energy state. Each aircraft feels unique as they should and vary in handling at different speeds, although I disagree with the difficulty level of the Spitfire. The landings and take-offs also feel far too easy. Other niceties optionally include engine cowls for controlling temperature and performance, prop adjustments, and manual trim in the horizontal (which annoying resets itself to a steep climb every time I "zap" to the next way-point).
Ultimately, though, Luftwaffe Commander is a hollow product, even with its unique fly-German-only approach. I had more fun flying Combat Flight Simulator's weak campaigns than any of the five found here. Sure, the missions have nice audio intros, but you don't get a sense of being a part of the period in either the mission shell or when flying the actual missions themselves. Radio chatter is sporadic and ineffective, and each mission feels the same despite the variety presented (okay, I really enjoyed the Me 262 flights). I'd love to tell you about the multiplayer, but I couldn't find anyone to fly with. This was a stark reminder that other sims like CFS and WW2F offer ready-made matchmaking services. Worst of all, you can't help but get constantly reminded that this sim doesn't feel finished. Whether it's from watching planes sometimes fly through one other, witnessing AI crash after AI crash, or having to endure a distinctly weak damage model (you always lose an engine when you're hit)-it gets annoying. Luftwaffe Commander would have greatly benefited from a few extra months of development, followed by some external beta testing. I have a hard time imagining a view system this bad getting by the hardcore WW2 crowd.
SSI has quite a history of including additional features in their patches, and Luftwaffe Commander is an after-market poster-child in need of some serious attention. A version 1.1 patch has already been released, fixing some campaign bugs, etc., but wouldn't it be nice if a 1.2 patch eventually addressed the AI and view system as well? Virgin Interactive left Sabre Ace for dead; let's hope SSI doesn't make the same mistake with LC. In the meantime, I can think of three previously released World War 2 sims more worthy of your attention.
-- Gordon Berg