Iraq attack: a first look at Falcon 3.0. (computer game) (evaluation)
by Richard Sheffield
You stay low after takeoff from King Khalid, eight F-16s, kicking up dust from the hardtack desert heading north to Basrah. You thread the needle through the known SAM sites in Kuwait and come out the other side OK.
Your AWACS plane, circling safely to the south, locates two Iraqi MiG-23s along your flight path, and you can't resist the targets. You don't have enough fuel for too much "mucking about," as your friends in the Royal Air Force say, but you take the flight to the left a little to dry and get a better angle on the attack.
You line up both bogeys before switching your radar to ACM mode and getting a target lock-on. They immediately realize they're in trouble and break hard away, but two AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles are on their way. It was a poor aspect angle for a shot, but you're rewarded with one explosion. You blow past the other bogey before he has time to recover and take a shot.
You barely have time to get back on course before entering the target area. You've been picked up by what's left of the Basrah air defense network, and ZSU 23-mm antiaircraft guns start to hose the air in all directions. A look over your shoulder shows your guys holding a nice, tight formation as you start your run on the target, the National Defense Headquarters building. Switching to ground-mode radar, you line up the building dead ahead and hit the trigger once for target lock. A few more seconds to close the range. . . . You hit the pickle button twice more anf feel the release of two AGM-65E laser-guided Maverick missiles.
Pushing the throttle to afterburner stage 2, you accelerate off the target and look back just in time to see your two missile slam into the front door of the building. That'll be one for CNN! Now, let's see if you can find that other Mig. . . .
Release the Falcon
Rarely has a flight simulator update been awaited with so much anticipation. Three months before its scheduled release, the Falcon 3.0 message area on the GEnie on-line network already had well over two hundred messages. Since word first leaked out about its development, there has been an incredible amount of speculation (some good and some not so good) about what this simulation is all about. So, rather than start right in on what Falcon 3.0 is, let's talk a little about what it isn't.
First of all, Falcon 3.0 is definitely not just a VGA version of Falcon AT. This is a new code--all of it. Both products simulate an F-16 Falcon jet fighter, but that's where the similarity ends.
Falcon 3.0 also doesn't cave in to those who complained that Falcon AT was too complex. If anything, this version is even more complex. But that doesn't mean that the folks at Spectrum HoloByte have ignored the need--and the market--for entertaining jet combat games as well as serious simulations. Both are provided in Falcon 3.0. But more on that later.
What It Is
Now let's talk about what Falcon 3.0 is. It's the most complete and accurate jet fighter simulation to be found this side of a security clearance. Period.
There are three areas which must be addressed to make a jet combat simulation accurate: the flight model, the terrain, and the instruments (including target acquisition systems).
Let's look first at the flight model, or rather the four flight models. A flight model is the set of mathematical equations used to simulate the way the aircraft responds to input from the controls and to the various other forces at work during flight: lift, weight, drag, speed, and so forth. Falcon 3.0 gives you four models to choose from with increasing levels of realism (and therefore increasing levels of difficulty).
The first three can be run on an IBM-compatible powered by an 80286 or higher CPU without modification. The fourth model is called the High Fidelity flight model. It requires a math coprocessor chip to operate.
The High Fidelity model is the one Spectrum HoloByte uses in the ASAT (Advanced Situational Awareness Trainer) developed for the Air Force. This is as real as it gets on a desktop computer. But a match coprocessor chip isn't required to enjoy Falcon 3.0. In fact, the subtle differences between the High Fidelity model (which requires the math coprocessor) and the Complex model (which doesn't) will probably be lost on all but the most sophisticated gamers.
The Right Stuff
Achieving the "feel" of real flight requires more than just a good flight model. You also need a believable world to fly around in. Falcon 3.0 provides three combat areas: Kuwait/Iraq, Panama, and Israel. The terrain in these 300 x 300 mile areas is accurately modeled on topographical maps. Say good-bye to pyramid mountains on a tabletop. The 3-D terrain features rolling hills along with mountains, valleys, rivers, and roads. These features are rendered realistically and can be fully utilized to mask your aircraft from the enemy.
That brings me to the instruments and targeting. The F-16 is, after all, just a complex weapons delivery system. Accurate, realistic, and complex are three words that come immediately to mind to describe Spectrum Holobyte's simulation. With five different radar modes, each with its own Heads Up Display (HUD), it's no wonder that the designers feel little need for copy protection; the basic act of acquiring a target and firing a missile is almost impossible to accomplish without the keyboard layout (which shows some function for almost every key) and a detailed knowledge of the operator's manual.
Falcon 3.0 will test your skills with many more important radar parameters to keep in mind than ever before. At the same time you will be flooded with information. It will quickly become apparent why situational awareness is a prized skill among the jet pilot elite.
If all this sounds a little overwhelming (it did to me!), not to worry. The designers have gone to great lengths to make all this technology accessible to even the most inexperienced computer pilot. In the process, they have overcome the biggest complaint about the game's predecessor, Falcon AT. Falcon 3.0 is realistic and fun as well. Much more attention has been paid to the game part of the simulation than in previous versions.
Four Action Modes
There are four modes of gameplay. The Instant Action mode is the first and the easiest. Often referred to as Rambo mode, this simplified version of the game is meant to get the novice up and flying quickly and to compete with other simpler air combat sims such as MicroProse's F-15 Strike Eagle II. In this mode, everything is easier; operating the radar, targeting, and even flying the aircraft are all easy to accomplish with just a few keystrokes to remember. When you start this mode, you are immediately placed in a target-rich environment, and the action is nonstop. Shoot down as many enemy planes as you can before getting killed. See if your score earns you a place in the list of top aces. Fun and action are emphasized over accuracy in the Instant Action mode, but it's a great way to start to learn your way around a very complex piece of software.
The heart of the game is the Campaign mode. The campaigns in each of the three battle areas are logic driven rather than scripted. So rather than have a limited set of missions laid out in a win/lose decision tree (as in Origin's Wing Commander) Falcon 3.0 generates your next mission based on what you accomplished in the previous one. This way no two campaigns are ever alike. Say your mission is to destroy a bridge to keep an armored division from crossing the river into your territory. If you fail, the bridge will remain standing and the tanks will cross. You will have to attack them--on the move and on your soil. Had you been successful, the tanks would've been jammed up on the other side of the bridge and much easier pickings.
There will be eight aircraft flying on your side in each mission (including your assigned wingman), but they may not all be F-16s. In some cases you may be escorting F-15s, B-52s, or Apache helicopters. And you will have to do more than just fly. As squadron leader it will be up to you to choose which pilots fly which missions. Each pilot will have different skill levels for dogfighting, bombing, and flying ability, as well as a fatigue rating. Each successful mission may improve your skill levels, but if you fly them too often, the fatigue factor will start to set in. This is a real factor to consider, since, like the real pilots in the Gulf War, your squadron will be expected to fly three sorties a day.
The Red Flat mode is billed as a training tool. Still under development when I visited Spectrum HoloByte, this mode is designed as a scenario generator that lets the player use a simple editor to place enemy air and ground forces. If it's developed as planned, this mode could be used in conjunction with the three battle areas to re-create many actual air battles of the last fifteen years--and to create new ones.
Communication mode allows two players to fight head to head or to fly together in a joint mission as part of a campaign. This first release in the Electronic Battlefield Series (EBS) supports direct connection, a modem, and possibly even a Local Area Network (LAN). Future additions to the EBS will allow you to fly cover for A-10 attack planes (Avenger A-10) or close-air support for a group of M1 Abrams tanks (Tank). And there continues to be discussion about a multiplayer version of the EBS to be played on one of the online networks.
Setting Up the Hardware
The hardware requirements to run all of this are heavy. The 12-MHz AT isn't the target market; it's the absolute minimum. And a good bit of extra memory set up as EMS is required to run many of the features. Digitized sound, the VCR-like flight recorder, the 3-D TACTS (Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System) cube, and modem play all require EMS to function. EMS can also run some of the game's graphics to speed up the screen frame rate. If it comes to a choice between EMS and a math coprocessor upgrade, EMS is the clear winner. Not only is extra memory cheaper, but it buys you a lot more game enjoyment.
Based on the preliminary version of the software I tested, there are still a few unknowns. First is the artificial intelligence programmed in for the enemy aircraft. It's difficult to reach a good compromise between too hard to kill and too easy. Also yet to be seen is how this game performs on slower AT computers. There will be ways to decrease the detail level to improve speed, but it remains to be seen whether speed really improves enough to make the game playable. And if it is fast enough, do you lose a lot of enjoyment along with the detail level? We'll have to wait for the final version to find out.
All in all, it's hard to think of anything that's been left out of Falcon 3.0. It has an emerging campaign mode, modem support, a slick interface with animated sequences, a selection of flight models, and more bells and whistles than you have keys to operate. And as for realism, for once software lives up to its publicists's claim in the press release: "If if were any more authentic, we'd be in trouble."