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Wild Blue Yonder Simulators: Combat flight games heat up the action


A split-S maneuver doesn't quite pull you away from the MiG pilot who's tight on your six. This is going to be tough.

You're moving at the speed of sound and he's still coming. You skid left. You roll right. You hear the unmistakable sound of metal chewing metal, bullets ripping into your F-4 Phantom. There's smoke coming from your engines, and an alarm tells you it's time to bail out.

So hit the pause button and get a glass of juice.

Being a combat fighter pilot is sweat-inducing, nail-biting work. On a personal computer, though, it's a lot safer than flying in hostile skies, and this is a great time for armchair aviators.

The holidays always bring an onslaught of new air combat simulators designed to produce that testosterone-laden, adrenalin rush - time to load up on the hottest guy software to beat all guy software.

This year's crop of jet-age simulators has been joined by a group of World War II combat programs that allow you to fly over Europe for the Allies or Germans.

But before you try to take off in a P-51 Mustang to escort B-17 bombers over Germany or dogfight over that stretch of Sinai sand nicknamed "Texas" by Israeli F-4 pilots, make sure your computer's engine has enough horsepower.

Most souped-up simulators require a 133-MHz Pentium PC at the very least, while some publishers recommend a 266-MHz Pentium II. You'll also need from 100 to 600 megabytes of hard disk space, a quad-speed CD-Rom, 32 megabytes of RAM, a sound card and a 3-D graphics adapter to help render the images. The 3-D accelerator is critical if you have a low-end computer. Faster machines and 3-D accelerators make the game images flow at an acceptable speed - otherwise you get the chop-chop-chop of slow motion. Some games allow you to turn off special effects for better action on slower machines.

Even if you're a first-timer, you can get into the air easily with most flight simulators. But here are some tips to keep the learning curve frustration to a minimum:

Read the manual and fly a training missing or two - learn to land, for example - before embarking on a campaign.

Turn off reality options that make flying harder, such as spins and stalls, redouts and blackouts. Several games offer options such as simple, moderate and hard flight models (the way the airplane handles). Use the simple flight model to build confidence.

Call technical support when things go poorly and you've double-checked the manual and the company's Web site for fixes. Some games have problems that may need to be fixed through "patches," which are programming changes you can download or have sent to you by the manufacturer. Just remember that tech support calls rise substantially during the holidays. Expect long waits on the phone.

This fall's crop of games:

Novalogic has packaged its F-16 Multirole Fighter simulation with its MiG 29 Fulcrum for $45. Computer pilots can use the two games in tandem by linking computers directly or via the Internet. The games have simple (easy to handle) flight models, even with all the realistic options on.

Because F-16 and MiG 29 are jet simulators, they provide ample opportunity to shoot fire-and-forget missiles in combat without getting close to the enemy. Dogfights can be avoided - which can become dull. Dropping bombs and firing air-to-ground missiles as well as flying low to avoid enemy detection can provide an edge to game play. The graphics, less than stunning, are adequate for a flight simulator.

The $50 IAF, Israeli Air Force, published by Electronic Arts as part of the Jane's Combat Series, is a step up from Novalogic's jet-age offerings. It's not a hard-core, impossible-to-fly simulator for experts only, but it's not as arcade-like as Jane's popular U.S. Navy Fighters, where several airplanes seem to use the same flight model.

IAF sports good graphics, but the sound seems to come and go. The missions are varied and challenging, and the variety of airplanes - F-16 Falcon, F-4 Phantom, Kfir C-7 and others - should keep a pilot's interest.

Six campaigns are included, including historical battles such as the Yom Kippur War and the Six-Day War.

iF/A-18E Carrier Strike Fighter, $40 from Interactive Magic, is one of the few disappointments this fall. Aimed at the sophisticated PC pilot, it offers a varied set of missions and a tough flight model for computer jocks with a few hours in the air.

But the graphics are not impressive by 1998 standards - renderings of the sea and explosions were simplistic. Worse, the game locked up when I tried to exit, requiring a Windows 98 maneuver to unlock my computer. Three reinstallations did not get rid of the problem.

European Air War by Microprose, $50, is the successor to 1942: The Pacific Air War, released in the early 1990s. Pacific Air War was one of the best World War II simulations of its day, and European Air War, on balance, is the best of this bunch, thanks to its ease of play and choice of 20 period aircraft.

Landscape renderings, while good, fall below Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator. But things blow up real good, the clouds are wispy and realistic, and debris shot from the tail of aircraft fly away just as they do on World War II gun camera film.

Air War does two things particularly well. Newbie pilots can get into the air quickly, and the program's 1940, 1943 and 1944 campaigns are dynamic, which means every mission has an impact on future missions.

Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator, $50, is a technical success. The flight models for this World War II simulation are accurate and it's a good choice to get a real feel for the eight fighters included. On the downside, its learning curve is steeper than the other World War II flight programs.

Combat Flight Simulator also is partially compatible with Flight Simulator 98, the latest release of Microsoft's perennial best-seller. You can import airplanes and landscapes from Flight Sim - so you can fly a modern jetliner over London during the Blitz. However, you can't use combat simulator landscapes and planes with Flight Simulator.

The scenery - especially the landscapes - are as close to photorealisim as any flight simulator gets.

Jane's World War II Fighters, $50, by Electronic Arts, is a good flight simulator with challenging missions and worth buying even if you own all or most of Jane's titles. However, the graphics are not quite up to European Air War, and there's only one campaign - as opposed to several in the other World War II games. Jane's offers only seven aircraft for flight. With any luck, Electronic Arts will add more planes, along with a few more campaigns. A Pacific theater would be welcome.

Little hands need practice before they can handle combat in Hawker Hurricanes or F-15 Eagles. Dynamix's Kid Pilot, $20, is a junior flight simulator for 5-to 10-year-olds that provides three planes and plenty of U.S. airports to learn the ropes.

Three levels of play helped our two East Baltimore test pilots, Dominick Hawkes, 6, and his brother, Thomas Owens, 10, get the hang of climbing, diving and turning. The twosome also found themselves learning a little geography ("Chicago is in the Midwest") as they traveled from one airport to the next to take off and crash-land.

Another benefit: Kid Pilot requires only 30 to 40 megabytes of hard drive space and will run on a 133 MHz Pentium. If you have children who want to fly the big birds, start them out with Kid Pilot. They'll be ready to graduate to powerful flight simulators soon enough.

Kevin Washington is an assistant city editor at The Sun and an experienced PC pilot with hundreds of hours behind the joystick. He flew these games on a 350-MHz Pentium II with two 3-D Diamond Monster II 3D graphics cards and a Sound Blaster PCI 128. Thrustmaster rudder pedals, a CH Products F-16 Combat Stick and Pro Throttle were used to control the airplanes.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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