Students have long fought their way through the fog of the First and Second World Wars by means of sound, film and print. Now, with CD-Rom, publishers can combine all three forms for a multimedia view of the two largest conflicts in history. It's a marvellous opportunity. What a shame that so few publishers make the most of it.
Take World War II: Sources and Analysis and its companion program World War II: Global Conflict for example. While the first contains useful information on theatres of war and propaganda, among other subjects, many of its photographs and pictures have a muddy look, film clips are either too small (or drastically reduced in quality when enlarged) and maps lack detail or clarity. A more attractive interface improves the second a little, but maps are still crude, picture captions frequently vague and cross-referencing poor.
From AVP, The First World War and its Consequences and The Era of the Second World War present the conflicts through text panels that match pictures, photos, maps and video clips. The result is two thorough but rather plodding surveys that often irritate with their carelessness.
So far, so disappointing. Happily, though, one's faith in software design is partially restored by World War Two: Stories and Archives, an absorbing and imaginative program that covers events month by month from the end of the First World War to the Nuremberg trials.
Excellent slideshows on key topics like Hitler's Barbarossa campaign, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the workings of Soviet society are complemented by interesting video clips, a good index and clear maps, some partially animated. Navigation is tricky at first, but when mastered brings lots of useful linked information. A major shortcoming, though, is the lack of a means of directly searching for a named issue or event - the Battle of Kursk, say, can only be located by scrolling through the events listed under 1943 - and, as Stories and Archives occupies the entire screen, other programs cannot be accessed while it is running.
The Times Perspectives on World War Two, on the other hand, forms a neat rectangle in the centre of the desktop; no multi-tasking problems here. But if the interface passes muster, some other aspects don't. Making use of the archives of Te Times newspaper, it focuses on the international scene from 1933 to 1945 by way of contemporary newspaper reports. There is a good index (easy enough to find Kursk here), an equally sound glossary, a useful timeline and, as if to make up for the lack of extensive video clips, sundry crisp photographs, graphics and drawings, plus some interesting audio sections.
Add illuminating items on propaganda, censorship and the wartime role of The Times and you have a very recommendable program. This, in spite of some infuriating proofing errors: sentences begin without a capital; Dachau several times becomes "Dauchau"; or a man is reported to have "bean brutally beaten". This looks like dereliction of duty: those responsible should be brought before the CO.
As, indeed, should all those involved in two cheapies from Focus Multimedia, World War I and World War II, though for entirely opposite reasons. Both are superb in nearly all respects: accessible and accurate text, excellent graphics, imaginative and dramatic slideshows, clever use of video and audio clips and accurate, brightly-animated maps.
Definitely an A-level resource, World War I also offers filmed interviews with veterans of the conflict, a provocative, but always thoughtful commentary from the actor Stephen Rea, plus a reading of The Troops by its author, Siegfried Sassoon. The index is as easy to use as it is thorough, while filmed interviews with old soldiers bring home the horror of war.
Suited to GCSE and A-level students, World War II is also a winner. Again, well-chosen video clips illustrate main points and even relatively minor matters. There's also an illustrated audio interview with Norman Stone on the origins and workings of Nazi Germany, plus spoken eyewitness accounts from Holocaust survivors. All for under a tenner.
World War II: Sources and Analysis and World War II: Global Conflict from Granada Learning, Price: pound;49 each for single user. www.granada-learning.com
The First World War and its Consequences and The Era of the Second World War from AVP. Price: pound;69 each (five-user licence). www.avp.co.uk
World War Two: Stories and Archives from Montparnasse Multimedia. Price: pound;24.99, Available from Computer Bookshops, tel: 0121 778 3333; or Interactive Ideas, tel: 0181 805 1000. www.montparnasse.netus
The Times Perspectives: World War Two from Linton Healy Multimedia. Price: pound;39.95 inc VAT. Tel: 01525 852 813
World War I and World War II from Focus Multimedia Price: pound;9.99 each. www.focusmm.co.uk