Combat Flight Simulator: WWII Europe Series
Those of us who are old enough might have vague recollections of aerial combat from Microsoft Flight Simulator – the one released in 1982 – which featured a crude dogfight mode with Sopwith Camels. It was perhaps the most rudimentary 3D combat simulation ever. You fought over a roughly 10×10 grid divided by a painted streak down the middle that was supposed to be a river. Just so you could enjoy the scenery and keep a semblance of orientation, it was bordered on two sides by mountains. Technology relentlessly marched forward and here we have Microsoft’s official foray into aerial combat.
But all is not great. Flight Simulator’s game engine isn’t exactly suited for a combat sim, and in taking it on, it finds itself in an awkward fit. Perhaps Microsoft was not after the conventional combat simulation crowd, instead trying to make converts of the large fan base of Flight Simulator players and other “non-gamers.” Players accustomed to combat sims will immediately feel out of their element, a disorientation underscored by what happens the moment they hit the “F1” key: of hopping into the default “forward cockpit” view, players will find themselves unceremoniously kicked out to the desktop and the game’s help system. Embarrassingly enough, I’ve had this happen to me again and again.
The key advantage of this game is its flexibility and expandability. There are a great number of new planes, objects, and scenery packs available from fans or commercial third-party products for Flight Simulator 98, and many of these can be converted over. The game simply sticks some guns and a damage model (apparently from the BF109E) onto the plane, whether it’s a Cessna 172 or a Gates Learjet, and then you’re off to battle. Then again, during multiplayer games, players have the option to battle other Flight Simulator aircraft, and the idea of a BF109E dashing in to destroy a McDonnell-Douglas MD11 is equally amusing and ridiculous.
Flying Through Jagged Skies
The ground textures are superbly photo-realistic, and in fact look appropriate for the geography and time period. You can’t help but look and marvel at the scenery below. Ground objects are very nicely done, cast a realistic shadow, and seem to take on a hue appropriate for the time of day. The problem is that the sky and the aircraft themselves are not nearly as good – clouds are crude poly-based constructions and neither weather effects nor day hours are very convincing. Thank goodness you can mod the heck out of the game, into something more like this:
The aircraft models are equally mixed. For example, while the P-51 and BF109 are reasonably attractive, the P-47 and the olive drab B-17 have unusually crude textures. All the aircraft are rendered much larger on the screen than they ever would be in real life (and no provision is given to normalize this). Debris from gun hits is copious, but is really just a confetti cluster of squares. The padlock has the ugliest example of a virtual cockpit to grace a computer screen in quite some time. The ground textures are spectacular, but the actual terrain geometry that they are painted on is really primitive. Other things don’t make sense at all: shadows are sometimes inexplicably rendered in mid-air, terrain textures have many annoying seams to them, clouds are grossly pixilated, and tracers are extremely small and difficult to see. This is all in stark contrast with the cockpits, which are all excellently rendered (or at least the static displays are; you can switch to full 3D virtual cockpits, also with working instruments).
Blazing Through The War
CFS might not be as pretty as its competition, but does the simulation itself fare any better? On the surface, Combat Flight Simulator has a good flight model. Takeoffs and landings have the right kind of “bobbly” feel to them, as do simple maneuvers. The behavior of the various aircraft feels pretty good in comparison to each other (the manual does a good job of listing the pros and cons of each plane for beginners). The engine controls are great, modeling not just the throttle but fuel mixture, prop pitch, and magnetos as well.
However, it’s when you get into extreme conditions that the flight modeling tends to fall apart. For example, pulling a tight turn at slow speed can launch you into a spin, but it frequently turns out to be a tail-first spin with a very artificial feel to it. Stalling over the top of a half-loop often finds you hanging slow and helpless, rather than stalling and nosing over clumsily. Even the flaps are safely useable at any speed. It’s not that the flight model is very bad, but quirks like these will raise an eyebrow every now and then.
One can’t help but notice a certain unreal and “disconnected” feeling to the game. Nothing else seems to be alive anywhere else in the world except for your flight, the enemy flight, and the local ground targets. Radio traffic is little more than window dressing, and in fact your radio is nothing more than a military frequency scanner. You can’t transmit a single word to your squadmates.
Overall, Microsoft faced something of an uphill battle with Combat Flight Simulator. They tried to take a venerable general-aviation game engine and make it into a worthy combat simulation. What they created is a game with a real split-personality disorder. However, new PC users unspoiled by a familiarity with game conventions as well as Flight Simulator fans longing to strap on some firepower to their favorite sim will find an entertaining-if somewhat shallow-way to blow off steam from time to time.
System Requirements: Pentium 133 Mhz, 16 MB RAM, 200 MB HDD, Win 95/98/NT 4.0