Wings Over Flanders Fields - the CombatAce Review, part 3
The WOFF Campaign System
Up to now, I have tried to keep this review factual and observational with the minimum of gushing hyperbole. But this is the point at which it gets rather difficult to give a fair or adequate picture without resorting to superlatives. So I'll settle for saying at the outset 'I'm simply blown away by the WOFF campaign!', then try to settle back down to business.
This first bit will be familiar to players of OFF but for everyone else, the main feature of the WOFF campaign is that it is underpinned by a pretty comprehensive, living reproduction of the aerial orders of battle (orbats) of the British, French, German and US air services. This includes 'scouts' (fighters) and a variety of two-seaters (a few fighters, but mostly general purpose recce types). Each squadron is based where it was at any point in time, during the real war. Its roster includes many of the pilots who are known to have flown with the unit, including squadron aces - you can see their names in the 'duty room' and look at their own dossiers, often with a real photo of the actual pilot. The unit's planes have an historically-accurate skin for different periods in its operational service. Its aces may well have their own, distinctive skins. You can pick your squadron and fly with it through the war, moving bases and changing aircraft as it does. This includes the ability to start for the Germans flying a two-seater then move to 'scouts' when the unit changes role, with the formation of the German Jastas (Jagdstaffeln, fighter squadrons) from autumn 1916. Squadrons may fly more than one aircraft type or variant, with the higher-ranking pilots having the more up-to-date mounts - 'rank hath its privileges', in WOFF as in real life.
There are some gaps in the orbats where a plane is not (yet) available in the sim. For example, let's say you've read the classic 'No Parachute' or 'Open Cockpit' and you want to fly with author Arthur Gould Lee's 46 Squadron, RFC. You can: you just have to start where the author did, in late Spring 1917 flying Sopwith Pups, because the squadron's previous mount, the Nieuport 12 two-seater, isn't in the WOFF planeset. When you arrive at la Gorgue airfield and visit the 'Duty Room', you can see the author himself in the squadron roster and look up his dossier/logbook where's there's an actual photograph of the man himself. How neat is that?
By combining a good planeset with thorough orders of battle and realistic rosters and skins for each unit, WOFF does an exceptional job of putting the player into a first-class and incredibly-detailed recreation of the air war over the Western front. OFF did this too, but WOFF does it better. And when you get into the air, WOFF's much better AI and other new or improved features bring the experience to life in a much superior fashion.
There's so much depth and so many features to the experience you get from WOFF campaign missions, it really needs an article in itself. I plan to illustrate this topic with some mission reports, soon. In the meantime, here's some fairly random but illustrative info and observations on how it all comes together.
First, let's take a quick look at the training option I mentioned in Part 2. If you opt for 'Automatic Deployment' after choosing the nationality of a new pilot you are creating, you can also opt to have him undertake some basic flight training in a two-seater, before he is posted to an operational unit 'at the sharp end'. This is an appealing addition to WOFF. As training, you're much better off trying out your squadron's assigned machine in Quick Combat. But many WW1 pilot autobiographies begin with accounts of their flying training, which could be pretty basic by modern standards. WOFF, amongst other things, is evidently a product for enthusiasts designed by enthusiasts and it's a nice touch that as a mood-setter, they have taken the trouble to construct for us a short, optional smattering of simulated WW1 flying training before we head off to the Front.
There seems to be a training option for each nation. It's a pretty basic syllabus, but then by all accounts it was, at least until the last year or so of the war. Here's the Royal Flying Corps version, operating out of Sutton's Farm, then on the eastern outskirts of London, later RAF Hornchurch, flying a 'Quirk,' as the BE2c was called.
The first flight is a pleasant short-range extended circuit around the aerodrome, with your virtual pilot under instruction sitting in the front seat, with no dual controls, purely to see how it's done. I turned on text message display just for this but saw none. It was a pleasant enough trip, in good weather, over England's green and pleasant land.
For the German training, you're flying an Aviatik from Maubeuge in Belgium. With the French, I'd guess that you'll be in a Morane parasol; for the USA, maybe a parasol or a Strutter. When you kick off the course, you are told which unit you will be assigned to when your training is complete, so that you can have some choice in the plane you will fly on operations. Neat!
Right, you've done the training, if desired. And, hopefully, you've had the sense to put in some time flying your chosen aircraft against typical opposition, in Quick Combat. Eager for action and with your chosen pilot active, you start a campaign. Here's a typical mission briefing. First time I saw this, I thought, 'Oh no! We're still getting some inappropriate missions, like recces for fighters!' But no, despite the headline, we're actually escorting a pair of RE8s on a recce mission. And the mission text is better written than OFF's, with more proper placenames, for example. Spot on.
At this point, you can do various things. You can't alter the type of mission you get, only its target (if you're bombing) or end point/objective area (if not). But you can look up some 'Intell' (to use an out-of-place modern term!) and while you are there, apply for a transfer. Here's the 'Intell' screen with tabs opened for both local enemies and transfer opportunities, for a Jasta 10 mission in Autumn 1917. Presentation and functionality is much improved, over OFF.
As to the missions themselves, the campaign is where you really notice how all the improvements and new stuff come together. Take navigation, for instance. Now, what you can see on the map and and in the 3d game world actually tie in nicely, (which they didn't really, in OFF). And there are two inflight maps available. There's a basic one that includes an icon with your own position and your track plotted. And for the more hard core who scorn such things and want to find their way around more realistically, there's a better in-cockpit map, without the visual aids.
Here I am in an Aviatik in the winter of 1915, off on a bombing mission to a railway terminus near the large town of Amiens. Comparing what I can see to my maps, I can tell that the town just ahead and slightly right is Albert, with Amiens still out of sight, just beyond the river, further ahead. This helps a lot, with immersion.
If you're curious how that one ended up, I chickened out short of Amiens and instead bombed a target of opportunity, namely a convoy of lorries I spotted heading east on a road near the target. After all, don't they say that a convoy in the hand is better than a railyard in the bush? If you're wondering where the bombs are, early planes didn't have racks; the observer kept the bombs in his cockpit and heaved them overboard!
One irritation on longer campaign flights is that you can no longer 'warp' to save time. Apparently, this is because 'warp' messes up the synchronisation between other flights, which are going about real missions of their own, all along the front, and are not just 'spawned' in your vicinity. Instead you can fly in real time or enable an autopilot and use time compression. If I recall right, there's a workaround to enable 'warp' if you want to chance it.
I haven't flown many two-seater campaign missions but while some planes have a suitably-rudimentary bombsight view, I believe that there is no special provision for reconnaisance missions (unless you want to grab a screenshot or write on Wordpad what you see) or for artillery-spotting missions.
It's on campaign that you will also come to understand the various tools available to help you locate or identify other aircraft or understand what's going on. Opinions and results may vary from player to player, plane to plane and set-up to set-up; but to me, distant aircraft visibility is still somewhat on the short side. Some report up to about 2.5 miles, 1.5 is more common in my experience. You can live with this reasonably well, especially if flying German fighters as you're mostly on your side of the Lines and flak bursts will often point out your targets. Or you can use the Tactical Display (TAC), selecting a range limit which you're comfortable with. Or you can use the labels. As with the TAC, labels have been much improved, over OFF. Settings can be varied. There is now a 'dot' mode to make planes more visible further away - this appears quite effective although (i) it's now grey while I think it'd have been better left black or very dark grey and (ii) it looks to me that the default settings need a bit of experimentation to get an optimum balance between realism and effectiveness. As for the actual text labels, these can now contain a surprising variety of information, not just the type of aircaft, distance and (if close enough) the pilot's name - but also what it's doing eg fighting, returning to base, or landing.
And the new TAC sub-text can also give the ID of any target you have selected - in this case, confirming that my opponent in the silver Nieuport I'm fighting in my Pfalz is no less than RFC ace, James D Payne of 29 Squadron (in the text below the TAC, 'HA' indicates an Historical Ace). Now, that was a scary discovery! But I actually managed to knock him down.
Campaigns are also a great way to experience WOFF's new AI. Payne was the last of three Nieuports I claimed on that mission, having met them one at a time. Being an ace, he was a much tougher nut to crack. In fact he very nearly got me instead. At one point I saw him stall and spin out, then recover and resume the fight, another indicator of the quality of the new AI. His Nieuport seemed rather more nimble but I managed to hold my height better and in the end, my two MGs settled the matter in my favour.
Here's the claim form I filled in after the battle. In 'Workshops' I've opted to have my kill confirmations depend on acceptance of these combat reports so I've typed in details like time, location and altitude into the 'Narrative' field. Here's hoping!
Another thing I've noticed on campaign is that my suspicion was confirmed, that enemy balloons are vulnerable to friendly flak aimed at you. The burning Hun gasbag behind me was clobbered by his own Archie as I was beating a low-level retreat in my Pup, pursued by two Huns in V-strutters, after my blood having knocked down one of their comrades. Worth mentioning that the Albatrosses gave up chasing me when I reached the Lines, with none of the usual target fixation. And speaking of the Lines, the word is that you no longer routinely meet Hun fighters operating freely on the British/French/US side, which would be good. Another plus, I believe, is that there are no longer some disconnects between what happens in the game world and what's reported in WOFF's interface. There's no longer the RB3d-like ability to replay missions on the map, but a modder is working on something which may provide a comparable facility.
The much better formation-keeping is also much in evidence, on campaign. Realistically, your flight seems very liable to become split up in or after an air combat but otherwise, the fact they now keep up so well during course changes means that at last, you can bring your flight into action as a unit, and better play the role of a patrol-leader. Scouts and two-seaters do equally well, here. I've seen no more slipping wide on modest course changes, nor falling below on a climb. The new AI is really first-class!
Activity levels at or behind the front is another big plus. Though I haven't seen any artillery batteries (which I think were in CFS3) the barrages they produce look better than ever, more concentrated and with better graphical effects.
As you have probably worked out by now, I could witter on all day about the WOFF campaign experience and how good it is, but I must stop somewhere and this is it!
At-a-Glance - the Pros & Cons
Now, we're getting into more subjective territory and as they said in Rome, there's no point disputing matters of taste. But here goes! It's worth saying at the outset that merely counting up the 'pros' and 'cons' listed below is misleading: most of the 'pros' are significant; many of the 'cons' just aren't, by comparison. Not featured in either of the lists below is damage modelling, as I reckon that isn't a particular strength nor a particular weakness. Likewise, I have left out two other points. Firstly, there's distant aircraft visibility. Though I think it should be a bit further, I expect the new dot mode, when I get it set up to my taste, will fit the bill. Secondly, there's the flight models, which in general do seem somewhat less tractable than what I'm used to and prefer. But I'm not an expert and rather than knock these, I'll put that impression down to lack of familiarity, possible greater realism and wrist strain/my lack of rudder pedals.
Excellent, historical single-player campaign
Large planeset, all flyable
Great-looking planes, especially with Ankor's mod
Great looking terrain & scenery, covering whole Western Front
Great 'living' air war
Good range of historical 'skins'
Ability to 'gun' from multi-seat planes
Historical aces are present
Faithful reproduction of orders of battle over most of the war
Very good interface with lots of options
Very good support from the developers
Good level of ground activity at and behind the front lines
Expansion packs already available and more planned
No multi-player (possibly a 'Pro', if you're not into MP!)
Limited aircrew animation
No reloading time for drum-fed MGs
Barrages, but no artillery batteries in action (I think)
Limited simulation of recce or artillery observation missions
Attacked balloons not winched down (& vulnerable to 'friendly' flak)
A few significant planeset gaps
Comparatively few villages
Minor inaccuracies in a few aircraft models
'Wide angle lens' external view
Some significant limits to modability eg difficult to add new planes/integrate with campaign
This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of 'The Great War for Civilization', to quote the title used on my great-great uncle's Victory Medal. So it's a fitting time for the release of a new simulator which gives us some sense of what it must have been like to fight the Great War in the air. However, with WOFF's predecessor Over Flanders Fields, Rise of Flight and First Eagles (not to mention the IL-2 mod DBW-1916, the earlier FS-WW1 based on Screamin' Demons Over Europe or even the Warbirds derivatives like Flyboys Squadron) - we are already well-served with WW1 flightsims. So what's the case for splashing out on WOFF? Is it worth it, especially if you already 'fly' one of the alternatives?
My own assessment of the 'big three' current WW1 combat flightsims - First Eagles 2, Rise of Flight, and now Wings Over Flanders Fields - is still that there are some areas where each is best. FE2 - modded - has an amazing planeset, great air-to-air, additional theaters and an under-rated campaign system. RoF is great at delivering the feeling of flying a WW1 plane and now has Pat Wilson's Campaign Generator to enhance the single player campaign experience. I've much enjoyed playing both FE2 and RoF and I know I will continue to do so.
OFF was a product with an unrivaled grasp of its historical subject matter. However, in some core respects - patrol-leading and air combat, to my mind the most important things for a WW1 sim to do well - OFF, in my experience, had not fully matured. Now, in its latest incarnation and in this WW1 centenary year, Wings Over Flanders Fields is a simulation that has come of age, with impeccable timing. It has taken the historical content and the comprehensive single-player campaign system of OFF, improved it and then added visuals which - save for a few minor caveats - are absolutely top-notch. Likewise, sound effects are really marvellous and interface is much improved. So are most other features. And new stuff has been added, like the flying training missions. Most of all, thanks to the new AI and other related enhancements, the air-to-air experience is now right up there, with or ahead of the best of them.
Playing WOFF for this review, I get a strong sense that the people behind the sim have this stuff in their blood and have striven really hard to deliver an exceptional WW1 air war experience. Did they succeed? Will Wings Over Flanders Fields repay the investment of your money and your time? Well, it's your call, and I hope this review helps you make up your mind. For me, the answer is a resounding 'Hell, yes!'
Why 'Hell, yes!'? Well, I prefer to avoid gushing superlatives and have tried to keep this review balanced and observational. But lest anyone mistake that for coolness about WOFF, please allow me the luxury of two related and more personal observations, to wind up the main body of the review.
Here's the first point. Imagine a developer who asked a thousand knowledgeable enthusiasts what they wanted to see in a single-player sim - content, features, looks and gameplay. And then built it. For World War 1 over the Western Front, Wings Over Flanders Fields is that sim. How many other sims can you say that about? And on/shortly after release?
So there's no DH4. Not everything made it. But last time I checked, I wasn't living in Utopia.
Second point is this. Having been released at the end of 2013, I don't know if WOFF counts as a 2013 sim or a 2014 one. But given the depth, breadth and quality of this product, if WOFF doesn't win at least one 'Sim of the Year' award, well, there ain't no justice. Likewise, in my experience, WOFF deserves to be in at least the top ten 'Best Combat Flightsims' - ever.
The final score? Well the scale is:
5 - Must Buy - Delivers a consistently outstanding experience with minimal flaws that do not detract from the gameplay in any significant way.
4 - Highly Recommended - Delivers a fun and enjoyable experience well worth your time and money, despite some room for improvement.
3 - Recommended - Delivers a solid gameplay experience with a few irritations that occasionally disrupt enjoyment.
2 - Difficult to Recommend - Delivers some of the promised fun, but not without significant problems in the gameplay experience.
1- Not Recommended - Delivers a sub-par gameplay experience; doesn't fulfill its promises; offers more bugs than fun.
This reviewer's final score on the above scale is: 5 - Must Buy
But we're not quite finished here yet!
Coming next in part 4 - the view from the cockpits of the other CombatAce reviewers!
The staff at CombatAce are grateful to OBD Software for supplying review copies of WOFF. By way of disclosure, 33LIMA helped with a little research (mostly on aerodromes) for the original, non-commercial release of OFF, but has no other or recent connection with OBD Software.