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US Navy Fighters 97
by Douglas Helmer

Developer: Electronic Arts / Jane's Combat Simulations
Platform: Windows 95

What's in this Review:

Introduction
Sys Requirements and Install
Pre-Flight Appetizers
Interface, Setup, and Bonus Features
Missions
Campaigns
Game Dynamics
Graphics
Summary

Introduction

USNF '97 is to flight sims as all-you-can-eat buffets are to eating! There are so many good things to experience in this sim that you may not know where to start and you will certainly not go away hungry.

As a flight sim enthusiast for some years now I like others have been caught up in the pursuit for the holy grail of graphical realism and therefore had passed on USNF simply because the screen shots on the box didn't seem all that impressive. That was a mistake on my part because gameplay is what wins the day and keeps me coming back to a sim after the visual honeymoon wears off - and USNF '97 delivers on gameplay and so much more.

Out of the box USNF '97 consists of a CD, an Install Guide, a handy Reference Card, and a gorgeous Reference Manual which is well laid-out and has a nifty coil binding so it will lay flat on any page (functional features like this are important and reflect EA's/Jane's attention to detail).

Sys Requirements and Install

USNF '97 requires Win 95, at least a Pentium 90 MHz (Intel processor preferred), 16 Megs of Ram, SVGA 640 X 480 video card supported by Microsoft Direct X, 40 MB of free disk space (30 for USNF - 5 for Direct X - and 5 for saved games), a 4x-speed CD-ROM drive (with a transfer rate of 600,000 kps or higher), and finally your joystick, throttle, and rudder pedals if you use them must be compatible with Win95.

Installation is straight-forward with the Install Wizard, but I was stymied at first when I couldn't get it to run but then realized I had to reduce my screen resolution from 800 X 600 down to 640 X 480 and everything worked fine. USNF '97 runs in a native Windows environment meaning that you won't have to exit Windows 95 in order to play this sim. You will have to exit any other programs however before you start playing which is not surprising.

Pre-Flight Appetizers

Okay, enough system-related stuff and on to the sim itself. It's worth mentioning that no one does opening animation and movie sequences better than Janes. USNF '97 is no exception to this rule. The first thing you see is this great animation of a typical desk with a computer monitor and keyboard and a Jane's reference book lying on the desk which comes to life with tanks, helicopters, and a jet flying out of the computer monitor. Commandos slide down the chain from the desk lamp and either get shot or roll of the lamp's base. Finally, the helicopter sends a hellfire missile straight at you with the simulated effect of blowing your own monitor to bits!! Wow!

From here it's on to the opening movie. This is a montage of real-life film clips of a variety of fighters being fitted with missiles, launched from catapults, firing missiles, and performing landings. All of this to a steady rock beat, so by the time you finally get to the main USNF '97 utility screen your pretty much pumped for action to say the least. You can skip all the intro stuff by hitting the space bar but I find it's kind of fun and it certainly doesn't get old no matter how many times I see it.

Interface, Setup, and Bonus Features

Once again, Jane's out does the competition with a superior user interface. All the option screens are fully-rendered affairs which consist of a metallic-looking panel with pressable buttons and switches, rotating dial selectors, and these really innovative text buttons which allow you to customize the mission parameters to an incredible degree. For example, you see a statement which reads "You are 5 miles from enemy forces. Air combat is with guns and missiles." The bold text, which I have done only to illustrate the concept, looks as though it is written on a low profile button. You just have to click on these text boxes and you can change the parameters. It's a very nice feature and easy to use.

Before you get started however, you can set up your pilot profile. This is quite something as you can choose your call sign which will be spoken to you during the game, as well as nose and tail art, which will be useful when identifying friends and foe in the heat of pitched modem or network play.

Now you can start, but where to start is the problem as there's options o' plenty! You could go play a single mission, create a quick mission, create a pro mission, replay last mission, start new campaign, continue old campaign, view your pilot records, or browse the reference section.

A note here about Pilot Records and the Reference section. This sim keeps four or five pages of stats (all beautifully rendered on a realistic looking clipboard) which is updated after every mission. All the grisly details of your successes and failures are maintained here. Everything from the number of missiles fired and what percent hit or were spoofed, cannon rounds fired and hit percent, mission times, wingman stats, etc, etc! This is a great feature for those who really like to critique their own performance with a microscope.

As for the Reference section, this feature alone is worth five times the price of the sim and is such a great value added bonus I can't tell you how impressed I am. All the objects from aircraft and tanks to structures and AAA or compiled in this section. You can read about the specifications, view moveable 3-D models, look at a photo album of pictures of the equipment in use, see a parts list and structural diagram, look at real cockpit photos, see schematics of the engines and fuselage, and finally watch a seemingly endless number of videos about the object's history and design features. These videos are just outstanding and are virtually a bachelor's degree course in combat aircraft history.

Missions

If you are like me you will start with a Quick Mission. Quick Missions are pre-set scenarios where you can jump right into the action. There are dozens of these missions to choose from and every one covers a unique aspect of aerial combat from basic flight to scramble missions. But before you get in the cockpit you need to review the briefing, choose a plane which you do by clicking on an overhead view of a dozen or so planes on an aircraft carrier, and then choose your ordinance. Now you can start the mission.

Most missions start on the deck of a carrier but some start in the air. The carrier aspect of this sim is quite outstanding. From the control tower instructions to the catapult sequences its all very good at suspending your disbelief. The Cat Officer deserves special mention. This little guy actually gives you real hand signals in order to line you up with the catapult and there is a glossary at the back of the manual which shows you which each of these signals mean. When you power up the engines and the catapult launches, the Cat Officer goes down on one knee and performs the classic arm movements that most flight simmers are all too familiar with.

There is a scenario though where you won't use the catapult. If you choose to fly the Harrier AV-8, Sea Harrier, or Yak 141 you will have to perform vertical take offs and landings from a teensy-weensy aircraft carrier (usually the WASP). The addition of the V/STOL (Vertical Short Take-Off and Landing) aircraft is just another outstanding feature of this sim and will add another incredible dimension to your flying skills should you be able to master landing these twitchy stallions of the sky. You will really benefit from a throttle control when landing this aircraft but it can be mastered using just a joystick and keyboard combination.

Campaigns

There are three campaigns from which to choose: Kuril Islands 1997, Ukraine 1997, and Vietnam 1972. Both the Kuril Island and Ukraine campaigns are fictional but the Vietnam campaign is obviously based on past history and true to the events that lead to the escalation of this "police action" you start out in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Both the Vietnam and Ukraine Missions have intro sequences - Ukraine has a series of what I like to call cyber-movies because they are a weird hybrid of real-life video and computer animation. With each mission you will see another movie before you go to the briefing and armament screens. As a side note - in the initial Ukraine mission you have to escort Boris Yeltsin's airliner to a safe landing strip. My advice is to choose the fastest plane on the carrier and go as fast as you can to intercept his plane. If you don't get between him and the pursuing MiGs then he will be in your wingman's words "Junk. We have junk!" It can be done, but it's difficult.

In fact, even after saving Yeltsin's big drunken butt, the actors in the next mission movie sequence still refer to him as dead, so I really don't think it matters to the campaign one iota whether you save him or not. The purpose of the Ukraine campaign is centered around a fictional military coup at the Kremlin, the fate of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and the soverienty of Crimea.

The Vietnam intro movie has that unforgettable film footage of a dour-looking President Nixon reading his speech about protecting U.S. honor and personnel (no comment). Added to this is a collage of Vietnam film footage, both in black and white and colour, most are the classic scenes we see over and over but a few I'd never seen before so hats off to Janes once again for going the extra mile. The missions are based on actual carrier operations so your choice of planes will be limited - but you can always cheat if you like and get the full menu of planes.

The Kuril Islands campaign is for control of the chain of islands between the Northeastern tip of Hokkaido, Japan and Russia's Kamchatka Pennisula. The islands used to belong to Russia in the 17th century but were in Japan's hands by 1875. When Japan lost their bid for domination of the Pacific in the WWII, the islands were given back to the Russians as part of the Yalta agreement. Now Japan has blockaded the Russians and cut-off their supply of Sony Walkmans. The U.S. has been asked to support Japan's claim and so have obliged by taking the two Southern-most islands. Pitched battles for the rest of the islands ensue.

Regardless of the fact or fiction of the campaigns, each is very well executed. But really they are pretty much just changes in scenery. Your job is still going to be the same regardless of the campaign . . . escort or shoot-to-kill aerial missions, or anti-anything that belongs to the enemy whether it be ships, bombers, structures, or personnel.

Game Dynamics

As for the dynamics of engagement with hostiles, this too is very well designed. I find that the AI (artificial intelligence) of the enemy planes is about the best I've ever encountered. These guys will do everything to shake you off their tails and depending on which type of aircraft they are flying (and their skill level which you can select from novice to ace) you will quickly learn whether it is better to get into an energy fight or turning fight with these guys. They will jink, dive, roll, perform scissors, loops, and split-S's all in a matter 30 seconds if you are hot on their tails. And I have only had ONE enemy actually crash into the ground... admittedly I only managed to barely miss the ground myself as I pulled out of a power-dive so the experience was not stupidity on the enemy pilot's part!

So what about wingmen? Just as the enemy AI is good, your own wingman will rarely disappoint you. He will stick close when he should and engage when he should, and he listens for your commands! The comms are also great, and the banter gets tense when it should. For example, if you are flying an F14 and can't shake that MiG off your tail, your Wizzo will say "Do some of that pilot shit!" And don't be surprised if you hear a RUSSIAN voice on that headset one day... . These kinds of touches add atmosphere and contribute nicely to suspension of disbelief. Sound in general is well executed; no complaints here!

One very useful feature if you are trying to hone your engagement skills and knowledge is to use the "Display Target Info" option. When this feature is selected the program displays informative captions below the target box surrounding your quarry (or pursuer) as to what maneuver he is performing. This is a marvelous aid to learning what evasive or pursuit tactics look like in real-time use and is just another great feature in my humble opinion.

This feature brings up the topic of cheats. I congratulate Janes / EA for incorporating cheats into this game. Cheats help you to get familiar with the equipment without disrupting the FUN FACTOR! Over time you will turn these cheats off one by one and this will keep you playing the sim for a long time. Cheats include things such as: no crashes, no spins, invulnerability, ignore weapon weights, pull extra G's, no sun glare whiteouts, no red outs, unlimited ammo, you know - the good stuff! So what if you cheat is all I can say - that's what a SIMULATOR is for really - learning at your own pace and gradually increasing the reality level.

Getting back to aircraft. I mentioned the V/STOL aircraft but another neat option is to fly the AC-130U Spectre. This is a converted Lockheed 382 Hercules with allows you to fire either the General Electric GAU-12/U 25mm six-barrel Gatling gun with 3000 rounds, a Bofors 40mm gun, or the 105mm gun based on the US Army howitzer.

These guns are arranged along the port side of the fuselage so if you find a ship or ground target you want to absolutely rain with molten death all you have to do is enter a gentle left bank and circle the target. You can lock any of these guns on the target and just pull the trigger. It's quite a nice change of pace from the hectic turning and burning of the jet fighter engagements. You can also use the Gatling gun to take out multiple air-borne threats to your advantage too. I had three SU-33's on my butt while flying this behemoth and they made the mistake of overshooting me just a tad and I locked them up 1-2-3 and they were bye-bye in short order.

Graphics

Let's talk graphics now but first I have to climb back up on my soapbox. You have the option to run this sim at very high levels of graphic detail but the slower frame rate makes it all but useless unless you have a 200 MHz system. Now I've seen some pretty strong opinions on the Flight Sim news group where the fact that a sim promotes its high-end but useless graphics is in their minds tantamount to nothing less than misleading advertising [email protected]#$* and they are right, but USNF '97 avoids pumping the graphics on their box and infact only mention that it has refined 3D shapes and terrain textures. But just as the game of chess is just as engaging and fun using a scrap of paper for a board and your dusty collection of Star Wars action figures for playing pieces, USNF '97 has the content and gameplay the supercedes heavenly graphics.

However, this is NOT to say that the graphics are terrible by any stretch of the imagination - they are darn good, it's just that you don't really need to see the flys buzzing on the backs of the occassional moose (yup there are moose) which appears on the landscape to enjoy the dynamics of this sim. The best graphical detail will be found in the terrain of the Vietnam campaign. Here you'll find some nice detailing along the rivers and hillsides, including such objects as huts! But again, you'll be turning the terrain detail off if you have anything less than a P-166 machine.

Multi-Player

Multiplayer mode requires that each player has his own CD, but as in ATF, the CD is only required for start-up in a network game. Once you've chosen any of the multiplayer options, you can use the CD to enable the other players over the network, and off you go! Its unfortunate that EA hasn't offered a special multiplayer install for their sims as Novalogic has done with F-22 Lightning II. All EA need do is allow a buddy the ability to play a multiplayer game, and lock out access to the single player mode of the game without a CD.

Additionally, you can play USNF97 cooperatively or head-2-head via modem or network. However the total lack of specifically designed multiplayer missions is an oversight. Neither will USNF97 work with Kali, because it uses an SPX connection instead of an IPX connection. Apparently EA is working on a patch which will allow the sim to work over IPX connections, which should be out around May.

Summary

So all things considered, if you do not own USNF original then you will want USNF '97. At the very least the reference material (both printed and online) will make you a more knowledgeable fighter and the choice of aircraft will certainly round out your talents. The ability to fly and design missions in 'Nam is a big plus, long awaited by flight sim fans.

Here is an Easter egg for you:

Hold down Alt, Ctrl, and the RIGHT SHIFT key simultaneously as you click on the "Play Single Mission" button.

Keep the keys held down as you select the mission and read the briefing. When you get to the select aircraft screen you'll see an "Atomic Moth" on the flight deck. Select the giant orange moth and get ready for a hilarious riot.

You'll find yourself inside the reticulated eyeball of this giant orange and black moth. There's no radar so finding targets is visual only. As you throttle up, the giant wings begin to flap. Oh, and guess what, your Atomic Moth is fully ASTOVL! Once airborne, you can fire these atomic moth balls! These moth balls will lock onto any target within visual range (despite being in the reticulated eyeball you still have a HUD). Anyways, get airborne, find a target, lock on and then press the money switch. A great roaring sound is emitted and a glowing electric blue moth ball is sent hurtling towards the target. On second thought, "hurtling" may be a bit of an over statement. The atomic moth balls are kinda slow -- no doubt due to all that fuzzy electrical interference emanating from their surface.

Anyways, it's a hoot. Try the MAYDAY mission. I did and actually won! Oddly enough my fellow Atomic Moth wingmen never took off. But, there are two other friendly AV-8's in this mission who will be very helpful if not amazed. A final note, whether by design or fluke, the designers of USNF '97 made the Atomic Moth far more stable than the Harrier AV-8. You'll notice this fact when coming in for a vertical landing - Atomic Moths RULE on vertical landings!

The interface itself is a joy to use and the content-richness and flexibility of the mission and campaign generators will put your mission and strategy building skills on par with any Rear-Admiral in the Navy. (Too bad that they chose NOT to incorporate the 3d planning feature of ATF,however.)

NOTE: You can now download an update patch which will give you Internet playablity WITHOUT kali or kahn! Here is the link!! Janes Combat Sims

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Last Updated August 30th, 1997

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