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Wot I Think: Wings Over Flanders Fields

Truly Great War

Ever since reading about Ernst Udet's brush with Georges Guynemer high above the Marne (the French ace waved then flew off after seeing his opponent struggling with hopelessly jammed MGs) I've attempted to behave chivalrously whenever possible while WWI flight simming. Wings Over Flanders Fields, the latest Combat Flight Simulator 3 metamorphoser from Great War scholars Old Brown Dog Software, has allowed me to take sportsmanship to undreamt-of levels. In WOFF not only do I frequently allow talented/spirited adversaries to escape, I often let them - if they're so inclined - riddle my frail flying machine and frailer body with hot Pb.

Well, I say 'let'...

WOFF generates some of the most gripping, varied, and challenging single-player dogfights I've ever had the pleasure to participate in. The combination of a vast 400-mile long Western Front map studded with sortie-spawning airfields, and AI pilots whose behaviours are coloured by a clutch of rarely-modelled factors including fatigue, morale and closeness to home, means no two campaign jaunts are ever the same. At least one other sim provides more convincing portrayals of pre-parachute warplanes, but none evoke half as well the maelstrom that Udet, Guynemer and their ilk braved day after day.

In many ways what OBD have produced here is a throwback. With its unfashionable emphasis on solo play (there's no MP whatsoever), its heartening belief in the power of dynamic campaigns, and its packed hangar pleasingly free of DLC-shaped gaps, it feels like an offering from Simulatia's Golden Age - the late Nineties.

If it wasn't almost Christmas and I wasn't such a gent, this would be the point where I mention that it sometimes looks like an offering from the late Nineties too. Being built upon CFS3 (a requirement and available for around £5 in all the obvious places) means lighting is as unsophisticated as a 1915 bombsight. Want to admire your soup-strainer in the glossy varnish of a wooden dash, or watch the lattice of wire shadows slide across your wing during a turn? Hard luck old bean, you can't.

Considering the limitations of the rendering tech, OBD have worked aesthetic wonders, especially in regard to scenery. The hard stuff is more detailed and - as the war progresses - more devastated than its equivalent in RoF. Somehow it's also more Western European too. That might have something to do with the four sets of seasonal textures, but I give most of the credit to the clouds frequently found loitering over the Front. Rendered with flat pivoting jpgs rather than fancy modern volumetric effects, these fluffy rain bowsers should look embarrassingly archaic. In fact, overlapping and merging in ragged packs as they do, they're one of the main reasons WOFF's airy battlespaces are so bally atmospheric.

The monochrome murk of the cloud banks sets off the harlequin splendour of the plane paint-jobs a treat. There are thousands of historically based skins in the game (and, thousands more to come via an imminent payware skin pack) and all are distributed used painstaking ace and squadron research (virtual messes are peopled using 2500 authentic pilot names and records). If a Fokker D.VII with a garish purple tail and grim Totenkopf fuselage motif was often seen over Hellfire Corner in the autumn of 1917 then there's a good chance you'll run into the machine in-game if you regularly hunt above the Menin Road during the same period.

The acres of gaudy canvas are stretched over 55 different airframes. Discounting variants, that's still around 36 potential rides. Any pilot lucky, skilful, or shameless enough (it's possible to play campaigns with a 'pilot never dies' checkbox ticked) to survive a year or two at the Front will see military aviation evolve around them. You might start the war flying a clodhopping B.E.2c and end it at the controls of a capable Camel. All the key single-seaters are modelled, but disappointingly, at present there's no opportunity to fly titans like the Gotha, Felixstowe, and Handley Page Type O.

Rival sim RoF does, of course, let you clamber aboard hefty bombers and flying boats for a little extra outlay. For my money, it also has the superior flight and damage models. Those with experience of 777's flyables may find WOFF's equivalents somewhat stilted in comparison. It's a hard thing to describe, but there's a muffled, slightly scripted edge to the handling and collsion code that, fifteen years back, we took for granted, but today, in the era of RoF and DCS: World feels a tad synthetic.

The gulf is particularly noticeable during landings and stalls. WWI warbirds killed and wounded almost as many pilots in accidents as combat, and that vindictiveness, that eagerness to punish handling and engine management mistakes isn't all that well communicated in WOFF (though, admittedly, the newcomer is a martinet when it comes to airframe stress).

If I'm honest I quite like the extra tolerance. It's flattering. It means I'm not sweating bullets during every aerodrome approach, and watching my RPMs like a hawk during every manoeuvre.

And in WOFF any handling leniency is partially offset by robust wind simulation and the ingenious random failure system. Picture the scene. It's your first real combat sortie. After patiently plodding through the incomparably authentic training program (optional), you're about to take off for a sector of the Front that is, by all accounts, buzzing like an upturned beehive at the moment. You start your engine, watch your comrades lope into the air, then open your throttle. Almost instantly the needle on the oil pressure gauge flickers and begins to descend. Something is definitely not right up-front. You could continue, but chances are you'll be gliding to the ground with a seized engine within minutes. Time to remove the gauntlets, hail the mechanics and trudge despondently back to the mess.

Random mechanical failures can happen at any time and are linked to aircraft type. Engines and machines that were gremlin nurseries in real life, are gremlin nurseries in the sim. Resonant and complacency dispelling, you learn to accept failed components in much the same way you learn to accept rejected squadron transfers and kill claims.

It's wise to keep pen and paper close while aloft in WOFF. In another evocative design touch, victories aren't automatically logged. On returning to base it's up to you to submit a prey-listing claims form and then wait a few days for official verification. I'm not entirely sure what influences the chances of success (currently lacking a manual, the official forum is the only place to go to get answers to feature queries) but knowing the way OBD think, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the presence of nearby corroborators - squadron-mates and friendly ground forces - improved the odds.

I'm also not clear on how transfer requests are handled. My one attempt thus far at moving squadron was prompted by an extremely quiet campaign start (foolishly I joined-up in 1915 as a recon/bomber pilot - a time when fliers, especially those on recon and arty spotting assignments, were extremely reluctant to engage). The request was rejected and I sulkily abandoned the career in response, restarting in 'Bloody April' as an action-hungry and extremely short-lived RFC fighter pilot.

Though there are single missions and malleable 'quick' skirmishes available, it's those British, French, American and German campaigns that are the main draw. Where other flightsims are content to randomly generate campaign outings, perhaps dotting the area around the objective with an AI unit or two, WOFF simulates air and ground activity on a Front-wide basis. If you wish to you can ignore orders and fly for miles North or South watching as dynamically tasked AI patrols and raids tangle unexpectedly. The sense that you're operating within a war zone rather than a tiny bubble of token activity is every bit as strong in WOFF as it is in greats like Battle of Britain II and Falcon 4.0.

And then there's that wonderfully inscrutable, alarmingly lethal AI. Are those Fokkers up there led by a cautious old-hand or a cavalier hellraiser? How will he react if I pounce on that Pfalz? Will that vee of Pups over yonder help out if things turn sticky? It's impossible to relax or plan far ahead in the bubbling cauldron that is WOFF's campaign airspace. Very occasionally an opponent seems a little too fixated on maintaining formation or making a bee-line escape, but usually comrades and opponents fly and fight like their lives depend on it.

TrackIR and a quality flight stick will definitely earn their keep in this sim, but if you're hardware-poor you can always rely on the impressive range of coded player aids. Padlocked views, toggleable cockpits, bandit labels, a radar-like tac display, handy mission prompts... OBD understand that many of us aren't too proud to accept a little assistance at times.

Alas, one realism temperer that isn't supplied is a 'warp to action' key. As time acceleration struggles during busy periods and at high rates, and the 'air start' option sometimes doesn't work as advertised, there's no way to gallop into the thick of things super-speedily. A few minutes of thumb-twiddling autopilot flight and flick-book framerates are inevitable. Grumbling about missing shortcuts in a sim that works so hard to cultivate immersion seems rather bad form, but there you go.

Wings Over Flanders Fields is $60/£37. Buy it and you're getting that incredibly rare thing, a sim that realises that most of us value campaign colour and plausible AI every bit as much as we value faithful flight models.

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