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Sabre Ace: Conflict Over Korea
by Richard Ordway

Richard Ordway is a former Pitts Special competition aerobatic pilot with TF-51D Mustang, Spitire Mk 9 and T-6 Texan aerobatic experience. He has an MBA in aviation and has been playing PC flight simulations since 1982.

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Gameplay Graphics Sound Intelligence Learning Curve Fun Factor
80 80 80 60 40
Info on Ratings

Test System

  • P200 64 meg EDO and 256 cache
  • Diamond Monster 3D 4 meg
  • 8x Toshiba EIDE CD
  • WD 2.1 GB
  • CH Force FX Stick and Pro throttle

Ah, the whoosh of a Sabre Jet. Gamers have been eagerly waiting for a Korean War flight simulation since Electronic Arts included the theme in Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat six years ago. Virgin Interactive’s new Sabre Ace simulation aims to fill this void. It includes some brilliant, innovative ideas–however, it is ultimately very disappointing for all levels of players.

"Just the facts, M'aam"

First, what is Sabre Ace? It is a Windows 95, arcade-grade Korean War air and ground-attack combat flight simulation. It includes nine flyable aircraft split between the American and Russian sides: the F-86 Sabre Jet, F-51D Mustang, F-80 Shooting Star, T-33 Shooting Star trainer, T-6 Texan advanced trainer, Mig-15, Yak-9, Mig-15 trainer and Yak-18 advanced trainer. The trainers are not, however, flyable during campaigns.

Sabre Ace includes a "go-fly" instant action mode, a training module, an air-to-air combat "custom flight" module and a campaign module. The training module contains eight training missions divided up evenly between the American and Russian sides. The training includes missions for takeoff and landing, navigation, ground attack and air-to-air combat.

The air-to-air combat "custom flight" module allows you to pick from one to four aircraft for both your and the enemy flights. You can fly the campaign aircraft for either side against 25 total opposing aircraft including the campaign aircraft themselves, the AD Skyraider, F4U Corsair, F9F Panther, F-82 Twin Mustang, B-29 Superfortress, B-26 invader, T-6 Texan, F-84 Thunderjet, F2H-2P Banshee, LA-7 Lavochkin and PO-2 biplane among others. You can choose the starting altitude, time of day, cloud conditions and level of enemy competence.

The campaign module consists of 45 factual, progressive, scripted, linear missions split between the American and Russian sides. For the Americans, you start out at the beginning of the war with eight Mustang missions, then continue on with a set number of F-80 missions followed by a set number of F-86 missions. For the Russians, you start out at the beginning of the war with the Yak-9 propeller fighter and move on to the Mig-15 jet. The missions consist of air-superiority, bomber-escort, strafing of airfields and bombing military targets among others.

Multiplayer support is also included for serial, modem, IPXLAN, and TCP/IP for Internet usage (some players have reported problems with the Internet usage, however).

The cutting edge

Sabre Ace has many strong points. The training section is incredibly fun because of set goals that allow you to advance on to more powerful aircraft for both the American and Russian sides. A thorough, humorous, backseat instructor talks you through the missions, but you can bypass him if you want. You really feel as if you are living through the training as a cadet in the 1950s–Bravo!

The mission structure, because it is based on actual Korean War missions, is fresh and fun. You certainly get the feel of "actually being there" better than in almost any previous simulation to date. History comes alive with this method and you leave the simulation feeling as if have learned and experienced a lot.

The 3D-accelerator card support is fantastic (Sabre Ace reportedly supports all existing 3D cards through MS API). With it, the land comes alive with a flowing, continuous feeling. The towns and cities look realistic and the ground does not get pixilated when you get close to it. You can fly down valleys and have to react to the rolling terrain. The frame rates are very fast on a Pentium 200 with 64MB of RAM–Nice job!

Sabre Ace has many other nice features as well. The background pilot chatter during missions is spectacular and some of the most atmospheric that I have ever heard. Again, this adds strongly to the "you are actually there" feeling. For navigation, you can use the map (pictured on a knee board on your knee– nice!), a set of mission objectives on the other knee board, and a yellow heading bug on the compass to show you the way to your next waypoint–brilliant! To find other aircraft both friendly and enemy, you can set the heading bug to a ground controller’s radio frequency. Selected enemy or friendly aircraft are highlighted by a green glint. To fly in formation, you can activate a special, innovative autopilot mode called Formation Augmentation Device (FAD). This makes formation flying to and from a target painless.

Sabre Ace also includes a useful "jump to the action" button to speed up the game. All this is extremely tasteful, innovative and integrates seamlessly into the atmosphere. The enemy artificial intelligence (AI) is also very convincing and works to stay above you. You can choose between four difficulty levels in the "custom flight" module–but not in the campaign. Overall, you really feel as if you are flying back then. Virgin Interactive did some thoughtful thinking to produce these magnificent features. However, all is not well in Korea.

Sabre Ace digs a deep, deep hole

Unfortunately, Sabre Ace contains many disastrous and even fatal limitations. The view system, for one, is simply useless and will drive all players of every skill level to tears.

It has 10 limited, gap-filled fixed views to look outside, a terrible padlock system, but acceptable exterior views. The view system completely misses the two front straight-ahead 45 degree views, the three rear 45 degree-up views and the two wing 45 degree up views (even the padlock misses these views–so you are blind). On top of this, the views do not cover blank areas between them. As a result, you literally cannot see enemy airplanes in a dogfight for 80% of the time. You head blindly where the padlock view tells you to and hope that the enemy aircraft does not maneuver while out of sight (which he invariably does do).

During ground attack missions, you cannot see the target while maneuvering for about 50% of the time. Lining up on targets is extremely frustrating. It makes the weak Jane’s USNF series view system look positively brilliant by comparison. This will surely end up frustrating every buyer no matter what the skill level. I, personally, find this fatal. Virgin Interactive needs to add the Kesmai Air Warrior/iMagic Warbirds 18 view-keypad system to cover all points of the sky. It has been in use by many simulations for over eight years now–it works.

A second weak point is the wingman commands system. It is basically useless with 3 actual action commands ("return to base", "attack air threats" and "form on me"). You cannot perform section tactics or even sub-section tactics as in the USNF series or Spectrum-Holobyte’s Falcon 3.0 series. It needs commands such as "approach target from left", "approach target from high", "approach target from low"; "break high", "break low", "break left" and " break right" etc.. If wingman commands are going to be included that even arcade lovers will have to use, Virgin Interactive might as well make them useful.

The sun’s effects are also not modeled. This means that you cannot use it for tactics that even arcade players could use. The sun’s effects have been modeled in other stand-alone simulations for many years and are now standard for stand-alone aviation-combat simulations.

A fourth problem for all gamers is the flight model. It is simply one of the most primitive that I have seen in five years–seven years if you include Dynamix’s Red Baron with its spins. The flight model has no options except for using or not using rudder pedals–what you see is what you get. Even arcade players have complained on the Internet about Sabre Ace’s flight model (it is so simple that the aircraft are hard to land because of a lack of airspeed bleed).

To put it bluntly, it makes the now-four-year-old much-maligned Jane’s USNF series flight model seem cutting-edge. I am disturbed about this because Sabre Ace’s web site states that the flight model is accurate–this is at best a blatant misrepresentation of reality.

The Sabre Ace flight model excludes many features some of which are now standard. Absent from the flight model is airspeed bleed in turns (you can turn forever in level flight in Sabre Ace–the actual Mustang stalls out in about two seconds in a hard turn from 250 mph according to a flight test) or airspeed bleed because of angle of attack (this kills landings for all skill levels), power-on stalls, blackout and redout effects (I personally experienced them in propeller-powered modern warbirds–so they do indeed exist), correct power-to-weight ratios (the planes seem to have as much power as modern fighters and accelerate in climbs), non-hydraulic controlled aircraft getting slow to roll at higher speeds (critical for tactics), spins, snap rolls (needed for evasive tactics), and airframe breakup due to stress.

But also missing are effects of lowering the landing gear and flaps at too high speeds, pitch and roll stability effects, trim, screen shake (to help with stall, hit and firing feedback), accurate damage model (with its big hit bubble, just aim and miss widely and you still get hits anyway–makes accurate evasive maneuvering impossible), accurate fast pitch rates (again makes evasive maneuvering impossible), the ability of tail wheel propeller aircraft to nose over on the ground, aircraft noses being shown from the pilot’s perspective as in iMagic’s Warbirds (important for siting differences), a correct rapid thumping sound option for stalls and accurate F-51D Mustang mid-to-high speed roll rates (now it rolls like a jet compared to government flight tests). The only word to describe this flight model is "arcade" and it frustrates even arcade players as Internet posts attest. Virgin Interactive badly needs to release a patch.

If Virgin Interactive needs professional advice or wants a new flight model, they should consider contacting expert Bob Shaw (a former test pilot, combat pilot, experienced aeronautical engineer and USAF consultant who has built flight models for the USAF). He runs a flight model consulting firm: FCI, Associates based in Dayton, Ohio. He also has access to reams of declassified military flight test data from World War II and other eras to help verify flight models.

A fifth problem is Sabre Ace’s potential replay value. With only 45 total scripted campaign missions, you might find yourself unable to replay it much after going through it in a few days. Virgin Interactive could include a separate dynamic mission module. However, I can excuse them a little because the campaign missions are historically, progressively based and very refreshing–I would not want them to get rid of this campaign structure at all, period.

A sixth problem is that Sabre Ace has no options for mission planning input in terms of waypoints, altitudes, pilot choices, armaments, number of planes, number of sections etc. Arcade players would not have to use it if they did not want to. This would add immensely to replay value.

Accident report findings

Who will enjoy playing Sabre Ace? Any player for whom seeing well enough to fight and a reasonable flight model are unimportant will like it. You will also need a 3D video card or the frame rates and detail become unacceptable (for me) on a Pentium 200 and 64MB of RAM. If you can live with these problems, then you will enjoy the magnificently-well-done experience of reliving the life of a Korean War fighter pilot. I recommend that all levels of simulation players wait until Virgin Interactive releases a patch for the view system and flight model. It is just too frustrating as it stands right now for either the arcade or the experienced simulation player. Sabre Ace, could however, be a very memorable simulation with some more work by Virgin Interactive.

Author’s Email address: [email protected]

Windows 95: 133MHz Pentium, 16MB of RAM, 4X CD-ROM

2-8 players, Internet, LAN, modem, serial

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Last Updated August 30th, 1997

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