by Doug Helmer
Well, I guess it was bound to happen: first we had the credit card companies making Gold cards, then even Campbell's had their Gold line of soups, and now we have the "Gold" flight simulation. Somewhere along the line marketing executives got tired of the word Improved and decided Gold was the substitution of choice. Janes Advanced Tactical Fighters (ATF) Gold is simply Jane's ATF Improved. But there is no shame in these improvements, I'm just sick of hearing that something is Gold all the time.
ATF Gold combines the original DOS-based versions of Advanced Tactical Fighters with the NATO Fighters expansion disk. That's the first improvement: the addition of all those nifty planes and campaigns. Another great improvement is ability to play with four of your buddies over the internet with the new TCP/IP software without having to use Kali or Khan. Of course, it still supports network, modem, and direct serial cable hookups. The last major improvement is that ATF Gold is native for Windows 95, meaning you don't have to shut down Windows and restart the computer in MS-DOS mode to play the sim. This last so-called improvement may not impress some of the hard-core DOS ATF players because there is some loss in speed, but hey, get yourself a faster computer and you'll never notice the difference. I ran ATF Gold on a P100 and noticed some jerkiness with the higher screen resolutions turned on; however, on my P200, it was extremely smooth, even with the dreaded performance-slowing sky texture turned on.
But enough technical and performance hair splitting, suffice it to say that ATF Gold will perform well on anything from a P90 with 16 MB RAM and a 4X CD ROM and up. Why? Because you can set the detail levels to compensate for (or take advantage of) your hardware. By the way, you'll also need DirectX compatible video and sound cards. But let's talk about what really matters: is it fun, interesting, and compelling to play?
The answer is YES to all of these questions. Yes, it's fun because ATF Gold like USNF '97 allow you to turn on a variety of cheat options which will keep the fun factor at its maximum while you learn and become more proficient as both pilot and campaign strategist.
ATF Gold is interesting because like most other products in the Jane's Combat Simulations product line, it just gives you so much value for your dollar. If you don't have the original ATF or want to play in WIN95 native, for $49 bucks U.S. minus a $15 rebate you simply cannot go wrong. ATF Gold is simply chocked-full of ready-made missions (120 to be exact) set in three campaign theatres: The Baltics, Egypt and the Russian Far East. Add to this the ability to create an infinite number of custom missions with the Quick and Pro Mission builders and you should be able to stay indoors and away from direct sunlight until well beyond the new millenium.
A word about the Pro Mission builder: it has a 3-D object placement feature which allows you to see exactly where you are placing objects in relation to other objects. Until now, when you wanted to add a ground object (say a tank, SAM site, apartment building, bridge, etc.) you were only allowed to drag and drop its icon on a 2-dimensional plan view of the geographical area. However, with the 3-D object placement feature in ATF Gold, you can place these objects while viewing the actual 3-D battle field. This is just a wonderful feature because you can really start getting creative about strategically placing mission objective objects. In the past, with the 2-D method, you simply used your intuition about whether a mission objective object might be easy or difficult to spot (and subsequently hit with an air-to-ground missile) from an aircraft cruising at 1000 feet. Now, with the 3-D object placement utility you can definitely tell if you are making your mission objective objects easy or difficult targets.
For example, you could place an enemy's hardened headquarters inside a ring of friendly apartment buildings. If you were to give this mission to a friend and tell him to approach the target at 500 feet, he'll find out that he's been snookered as soon as he gets within visual range. To me, the 3-D object placement is just a wicked feature and one that gets too little press. What does get a great deal of press, however, is the incredible number of planes you can fly in ATF Gold. Admittedly, the huge variety of planes does add to the interest level of this sim.
With so many aircraft in ATF Gold, it never gets boring, especially in campaign mode. This is because during a campaign you are continually being thrust into different missions which require different aircraft in order to fulfill the mission objectives. In one mission you may be required to take out some enemy ships in your F22. In the next mission you may have to fly a B-2 Spirit on a moonless night as part of a stealth bombing run; and then, in your very next mission, you may be escorting a wounded F-117A back to its home airfield. Add to these examples the sixty other planes you can fly and you'll be working on a major league set of piles if you even spend just a few hours checking each of these birds' capabilities. Some of the standout aircraft are the F-117A Stealth Fighter, The F22, B-2A Stealth bomber, X-31 EFM, X-29, FSW, X-32 ASTOVL, French Rafale C, EF2000, JAS-39, Su-37, and my favourite: the four-engine, propellor-powered, lead-spitting AC-130U Spectre which is always fun when you want a change of pace.
Speaking of aircraft, be sure to check out the specialized vectored thrust capabilities of the F-22, X-32, and X-31 (especially the X-31 since it can both pitch and yaw its thrust vectoring. The F-22 and X-32 only have pitch thrust vectoring). This type of thrust vectoring (called strake-flap thrust vectoring) is not the same as STOVL which uses rotating engine nozzles. Whereas STOVL is used primarily for short-runway or vertical takeoffs and landings, strake-flap vectoring allows you to radically affect your plane's pitch or yaw during midflight. Basically, it allows you to turn on a dime because you are using movable paddles situated at the outlet of the engine exhaust to lever the force of the engine's thrust. This allows you to change direction without altering the angle of any control surfaces or lowering the nose of your aircraft. This type of vectored thrust is very cool, and you will kick some serious butt in close turning dogfights if your plane has it and your opponent does not.
Another really neat aircraft in ATF Gold is one you can't even fly! These are the unmanned recon and attack drones. These little guys are so great because they are cheap, plentiful, and most importantly, expendable. In creating missions, you can place recon drones close to, and heading toward, heavily fortified mission objectives. You, on the otherhand, can be quite some distance behind, but because you are so far away, you can't get detailed radar infomation. That's when you contact your recon drone and download its far more detailed target data. This sort of info can prove invaluable because, if you've ever flown a stealth bombing mission, you know you'll need the extra time a recon drone provides so that you can designate your mission objectives well before you reach the drop zone. The fact is, stealth bombers may get you to the drop zone unnoticed, but once those bay doors open and the package drops the jig is up. So have fun using those recon drones to provide that valuable info that will not only give you the time to designate your targets in advance, but also to plan and be well into your escape route before your bombs have even hit their intended targets.
Attack drones, on the other hand, will just attack whatever they are told to attack. However, neither the recon or attack drones are big on brains, so they are very easy to shoot down. In one particular pre-packaged mission in ATF Gold I received orders to scramble and shoot down some attack drones. I took off and headed toward the intercept point. I turned on my air-to-air radar and picked up a single contact at 75 nautical miles heading my way. However, as it came closer, it turned out to be about twenty attack drones flying in line-abreast formation. At first I thought I was up a creek, but I soon learned that they took very little in terms of evasive maneuvers and were easy to shoot down -- one cannon round was all it took to blow an attack drone out of the sky.
Still on the topic of what makes ATF Gold interesting, I'd like to mention the ultra-comprehensive, on-line, interactive reference guide. As I said in my USNF '97 review, this information alone is worth the price of the entire sim. This reference material is about the best compilation of stats, pictures, descriptions, and full motion video of combat aircraft you will find in one place in this (or any other) price range. Add to this the best technical/instruction/strategy manual I've ever seen and you can see why I like this sim for more than whether or not the bits that fly off the enemy planes look real enough or not. The manual is SPIRAL BOUND which means that it will obediently lay open to whatever page you like. EVERY simulation should have a manual like this!
Now we come to what makes ATF Gold so compelling. Well, it ain't the graphics, as I've said in the past, Jane's/ EA graphics seem too arcade-ish to me. But, I am willing to forego graphic Nirvana (ala EF2000) for good gameplay and that all-round feeling that I'm really flying a combat jet aircraft; that the objectives matter; and, that those enemy fighters bearing down on me are not just computerized droids which can be shot down like those nameless, faceless storm troopers in your basic Star Wars movie.
When I play ATF Gold (with all the cheats off), I diligently read the mission briefings, pore over every detail of the mission map, carefully choose my ordanance loadout, then takeoff. Once airborne, I get seriously sweaty palms as I approach the mission objectives, can barely breath as I get set to release the ordanance (don't forget to open your bomb bay doors!), once the ordanance is released a massive dose of adrenaline hits when the bombs or missiles hit and every piece of enemy firepower on the ground and air suddenly opens fire on little ol' me. From that point, I'm virtually wetting my pants as I attempt to make my escape while simultaneously trying to evade both the SAM's and the legion of very pissed-off enemy fighters intent on turning me into Spam. Sometimes, I'll lose a wingman, which, believe it or not, kinda chokes me up especially if he bought it while protecting my butt (The artificial intelligence (AI) of your wingmen and their verbal feedback is very good and often hilarious!). So, all things considered, ATF Gold is a compelling and challenging flight sim experience, which, as we in the simulation world are fond of saying, "will effectively suspend your disbelief."
If you are new to flight sims and you want a sim that will be just as interesting the first time you play it as the 5,000th time you play it, then get thee to the software store and pick up ATF Gold. But remember, ATF Gold isn't a shoot -em up flight sim, if you are new to PC-based flight combat sims you'll need to spend several hours getting aquainted with the keyboard commands, joystick controls, and heads-up-display (HUD).
But lest you think I'm getting paid for this review (ha, I wish), here are my gripes about ATF Gold. Sometimes, and I've yet to figure this out, wingmen refuse to land. Usually, your wingman will neither land after a successful mission, nor after an aborted mission -- even when you have given him the bug-out command. Typically, he'll just follow you all the way back to the airfield, but once there, he'll just circle until he runs out of fuel.
As for situational awareness, I don't like the fact that when you are panning your view around the cockpit you get no visual cues i.e., wings or tail, to give you any perspective sense as to how far left or right you are actually looking. Oh sure, you can use the external views e.g., the F7 key gives you a Player (you) to Target view which is helpful for staying on your enemy's six. But, I still feel that is sort of cheating since real pilots don't have such a luxury.
Staying on a graphical-gripe theme, I find the low level sensation of speed is totally unrealistic. This is most noticeable when taking off or landing. From the cockpit perspective, 173 knots almost feels like you are hovering in mid air as you approach the landing strip. However, once in the air, the sensation of speed in relation to ground objects seems far more realistic. I was also annoyed to find that there were no programmable joystick files with the ATF Gold package. And finally, like I said earlier, even with the highest graphic detail, I find the graphics fairly flat -- but not unpleasant, annoying, or distracting.
I just wanted to briefly mention the weapons, avionics, flight model, and sound. The reason for being brief on these areas is, as far as I'm concerned, they all work great. Besides, you have plenty of options for setting reality and effectiveness levels, so to even start into this topic in any detail would just be an exercise in futility. Suffice it to say, avionics, weapons, flight models, and sound are highly adjustable and work just fine.
In closing, I can confidently say that I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to mentioning all the features of Jane's ATF Gold. It's got something for everybody, so no matter how new or how experienced you may be with PC-based flight sims, there is something for you in this product.
Alright then, let me at the demo!
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Last Updated August 30th, 1997