Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 141 / JUNE 1992 / PAGE 88

Falcon 3.0. (flight simulation computer game) (Evaluation)
by Peter Olafson

Consider, if you will, the hills of Falcon 3.0: gentle rises and falls, soft curves, slopes. From close up, you get the impression of a mild haze at the point where hill and sky collide, and from a height, you see the shadows that hills cast. Never before has there been a flight simulator that gives the ground such texture. It's of a piece--a fabric--and you can almost touch it.

Even the least experienced computer pilot knows that traditionally the hills and mountains in flight simulators barely have been hills at all. They've been pyramids, more or less, and despite the advances made in recent years, they're still pyramids. But Falcon 3.0 has changed that; in it there's not a pyramid in sight.

And the ground is simply one of a host of never-befores in Falcon 3.0, Spectrum Holo-Bytes's next-generation, feature-packed flight simulator for the IBM and compatibles. If you aren't in the armed services (and perhaps even if you are), this is as close as you can come to flying the Falcon. And it's close.

This high-end, vastly expander version of the simulator Spectrum released for the IBM and the Macintosh in late 1987 places you in control of a little more than your trusty F-16. You have a whole squadron of 18 fighters; a pool of pilots to fly them; three vast, detailed environments to fly them in; and an array of stunning enchancements.

Flying Falcon 3.0 on a fast machine is an utterly beguiling experience. Each outing begins with a near-full-motion video sequence (which can be toggled off) before a free-fall plummet into the cockpit (a decided nod to F/A-Interceptor and its cousin Jetfighter series). Take off from a base in Saudi Arabia, Central America, or Israel. Then switch to an external view, flick on the autopilot, and watch as your wing men--at first pale blue shadows in the background--move into position. Watch them radio their reports (or listen to their digitized voices if your sound card has the right stuff), and issue as many as 12 different commands back to them. Once the fight is joined, you'll almost be able to smell their panic in a jam, their satisfaction with a victory.

It's a strange kind of role-playing--with a very personal edge--but I could get used to it in a hurry. On a heavily cached 33-MHz 486, Falcon 3.0 is smoother than smooth; it has an almost liquid flow. And when I hooked up the high-fidelity flight model for machines supplied with a math coprocessor, well, the game just about took off.

Combat is a vivid, almost shocking experience. We're always reminded that this is war. Shot-down planes erupt in flames and leave little bits of themselves behind. Demolished tanks give up columns of smoke. Impacts on the surface give off circular shock waves that bring back memories of smart-bomb attacks in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. And when you watch your plane go in, there's a tangible impression of impact.

On an escort mission over Central America, my wing leader was hit by a missile. I had little warning and no second change. With the jet on fire and out of control, I switched to one of the external views and sat back to watch it go in. But I wasn't expecting what happened. POW! All I could see was fire and more fire. It felt as if someone had given me a little psychic shove. But it didn't last: I wanted to watch my remaining wing man try to complete the mission--and see how the air strike went.

One of the real delights in Falcon 3.0 is the campaign game, in which your success or failure has a distinct impact on how the battle proceeds. (If the mission doesn't come off, the tank unit you attack will survive to fight another day.)

Flying is the heart and soul of Falcon 3.0, but there's a lot more, all easily reached via mouse from the War Room screen. It's definitely one of the most agreeable option screens around, too. catch the looping video of combat footage in the tiny black-and-white screen in the corner. The War Room screen will transport you to elegant, simple screens for setting the realism level and system options. These are the Red Flag module, which is a combination trainer and mission-design utility; a replay mode with a VCR-style interface; and a communications screen for setting up same-side or opposing play via direct link, modem, or Novell-compatible local area network.

Suppose you don't want to bother with all this and just want to fly? You can. Remember that tiny black-and-white video screen? Click on it, and you bounce straight into the cockpit and fly almost arcadelike with an infinite supply of ammunition and some nice fat targets close by. There's even a high-score table to boost egos.

The manual is a book--342 clear and comprehensive pages. (Thank goodness for the index!) Anything I didn't understand initially about Falcon 3.0, I understood after a turn with this little doorstop.

Bear in mind that you'll need a lot of oomph in the specs department to accommodate all this good stuff. Falcon 3.0 is of a new breed of high-end games, and it's bound to leave some unhappy people coughing in its smoke.

For starters, it requires 614,400 bytes of free memory (and hence DOS 5.0 loaded in high memory) and 11MB on your hard disk. (If you can't cough up the former, the program comes with five batch files that will help you create the appropriate boot disk.) While it will run under that operating system on 12-MHz or faster 286 machines with 1MB of RAM and VGA, a 20-MHz 386 with 2MB is recommended. The program is designed for optimal performance on a 25-MHz or faster 386.

Now, Falcon 3.0 isn't without its problems. I've seen a good many complaints about bugs in the original December release. (I've been using upgrades almost since day one, so I haven't experienced any bugs firsthand.) But Spectrum HoloByte fairly flew into action to repair the problems. Within days of the program's release, patches began to appear on electronic bulletin boards. The most current version at this writing (late January) is 3.0A. It fixes keyboard-response problems that occurred on some machines; improves joystick calibration, the communications mode, and enemy artificial intelligence; fixes sound and Red Flag problems; and addresses a host of lesser snafus.

If I have complaints about Falcon 3.0A, they're about the little things that keep a great program from being perfect. Three theaters of conflict seem a mite small for a flight sim of this size--especially since two of these scenarios (Panama and Israel) are strictly fictional. (The planned Operation: Flying Tiger Campaign disk adds Korea, Japan, and the Philippine theaters.) There's a handy quick-reference card, but a keyboard overlay with the 100-plus commands would've been even nicer. I'd also have liked an Are you sure? requester on the War Room screen to prevent accidental drops to DOSwhen brushing the Esc key. (And yet, when I want to quit, Falcon 3.0 drops to DOS more slowly than any other program I've ever seen.) But these are all minor when you consider the things Falcon 3.0 brings us.

Like those hills. Ah, yes--those beautiful hills. There's gold in those hills.