Combat Flight Simulator 3, Part I

by Len "Viking1" Hjalmarson

Article Type: Feature
Article Date: March 11, 2002

Product Info

Product Name: Combat Flight Simulator 3
Category: WWII Air Combat Simulation
Developer: Microsoft
Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: Fall 2002
System Req.: TBA
Articles / Links / Files: Click Here

The Legacy Continues

In the fall of 1998 Microsoft released their first Combat Flight Simulator (CFS), and had an instant hit. With stunning terrain and excellent flight models and sound, CFS became a contender for the WWII air combat simulation crown.

The first CFS had its weak points. The team built heavily on the civilian Flight Simulator 98 (FS98) engine, and CFS shared a view system and control system in common with FS98. As a result, while the simulation appealed to the traditional Microsoft Flight Simulator crowd and sold well, it was not greatly received by more traditional combat simulation fans. The first CFS also lacked the ability to issue commands to wingmen.

Then in the fall of 1999 Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater (CFS2) arrived. CFS2 owed its depth to a new development team headed by Tucker Hatfield of Dynamix and Red Baron 3D fame, along with the lead engineer from Falcon 4.0, Leon Rosenshein. These two names are almost legendary in the combat simulation community, established simulation developers and fans in their right.

'Red Baron II' Box

Greatly improved over the first release, CFS2 looked better, had superior AI, and a powerful mission editor. It also offered a traditional flight simulation control set and the ability to command AI wingmen. A smashing success, CFS2 firmly established Microsoft as a contender in the combat flight simulation genre.

But the development team was not content, and neither were traditional simulation fans. Some complained that the easy access aircraft.cfg files allowed cheating for the simple multiplayer sessions supported by CFS2. The simulation was greatly limited in the multiplayer department anyway, and the linear campaign system lacked appeal for others.

And while the aircraft were stunning, the terrain system and ground objects were not. Furthermore, the icon system was not flexible enough, and the nasty target brackets could not be turned off. For the more serious simulation crowd, CFS2 didn’t go far enough.

No matter, CFS2 earned the development team their wings. Even as CFS2 was wrapping up, the visionary designers and producers of the new ACES group were beginning to formulate plans for a true show stopper.

Then, in November of 2001, 1C: Maddox Games's IL-2 Sturmovik (IL-2) took to the air. A stunning simulation which excelled in everything it attempted, IL-2 almost redefined the genre. Coming from a development studio previously unknown in the western world, IL-2 was revolutionary, particularly for its online cooperative campaign and its intricate damage models (both for physics and damage texturing).

What could even Microsoft and the new ACES development team bring to the table that could possibly compete?

ACES Studios

Early in 2002 what used to be the “Entertainment Business Unit” at Microsoft went through reorganization into “Microsoft Game Studios.” Part of the emphasis was on a more studio-oriented organization where each functional group has a stronger identity and more autonomy. What had been the “Sims” group (FS, CFS and Trains) is now ACES Studios. (ACES is not an acronym, just a name).

Most of the crew from CFS2 is still part of ACES. Leon Rosenshein is still Development Lead, Rob Brown is still the designer. Most of the same coders and testers are still in place, and many of the same artists. Lang Beeck was the key man on the multiplayer rewrite for Red Baron 3D at Dynamix, and is doing the multiplayer code for CFS3.

CFS3 was announced on February 27, 2002, and will take us back to the European Theatre. In contrast to Maddox Games's IL-2 Sturmovik, CFS 3 will take place later in the war, from 1943-1945. This allows the team to add features that we haven’t seen recently, such as jet combat action and multiple human crew in bombers. Multiplayer features were weak in CFS2: CFS3 will end that limitation forever while addressing virtually all the previous complaints from the serious combat simulation crowd.

One of the stunning highlights of the new product will be a real time campaign engine that will allow independent servers to run a persistent battlefield with transparent entry and exit. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised, since the lead engineer for Falcon 4.0 joined the team two years ago.

Strategic map in Rowan's 'Battle of Britain'

The way this is executed is that the campaign map represents the theater-wide struggle. On the map is the front line, the HQs for various units, airbases, and the like. When you select a mission to fly, it spins off a mission for you and your comrades to play. At the same time, other players may choose other missions, which will also be spun off and played. As missions are complete, they are checked back in and the results are reflected on the campaign map. Of course, as you fly your missions, AI pilots are simultaneously flying many of the missions you didn’t pick and achieving their own results and contributing to the success (or loss) of the campaign.

If you think of the campaign as the big map at Supreme Headquarters, where they are tracking the progress of the entire conflict, while at the squadron level many squadrons are out flying their own missions, you have the basic concept. Sounds almost like the Battle of Britain strategic map, doesn’t it?

Talking to Tucker

The following is an email interview between Leonard “Viking1” Hjalmarson and Tucker Hatfield, Program Manager for CFS3.

L.H. The ‘Combat Flight Simulator’ series has been a great success and with its open architecture has spawned a virtual industry of add-ons. Do you think this is a key to its success?

T.H. Absolutely. We recognize that part of what makes both CFS and FS so popular is that we not only allow, but encourage people to make add-on content. Add-on content is a very powerful way to keep a product alive and to allow users to personalize the game.

For CFS3 a lot of the mandate we’ve set for ourselves is to create a compelling “sandbox” where people can play and build things. We are supporting gMax [3D modeling software] and we’ve done a lot to make the process of creating aircraft both easier and more powerful. Honestly, a lot of this work was done for our benefit, but the users will reap the rewards, as well. It does mean that we may lose some level of backward compatibility with aircraft created for previous versions of our products, but we think the win going forward is well worth it.

Because of all of the changes to CFS3, aircraft not made expressly for CFS3 will not be completely compatible. Users will be able to use gMax to create aircraft from scratch or to modify existing FS2002 aircraft to be fully compatible with CFS3.

Tempest soaring into thunderheads in CFS3

Flight models can be created or modified in a similar manner to FS2002, and updated versions of the flight model tools will be provided.

L.H. CFS2 built on the FS2000 graphics engine. Does CFS3 use the FS2002 engine? What are the key features of the engine?

T.H. The terrain and graphics engine is completely new from the ground up. The new engine is optimized to support the demands of a combat game, especially one that is emphasizing tactical combat, down low. For this we needed an engine that could display highly detailed terrain with extremely detailed textures, support generated trees, fences, hedgerows, etc., render excellent special effects, and allow highly detailed aircraft, and still give us the ability to tune for a good frame rate on a variety of machines. We got all of that and more in our new engine.

L.H. The flight modeling in the second release was very good. Is there still room for improvement in fidelity? If so, what areas will be improved for ‘CFS3’?

T.H. We’ve plugged the FS2002 physics system directly into our new engine. That means we get the rewards of the improvements that the FS crew has done. In addition, some other improvements have been made, both general changes and ones specific to CFS3. For CFS3 the main improvements have been to support the WWII era jets and some extensions to the damage system to allow more flexibility to damage.

L.H. NVIDIA and hardware T&L [transform and lighting] are almost a graphics standard today. Does this allow greater freedom for the design team in use of lighting and effects and object detail?

T.H. Yes and no. Yes because it allows our programmers and artists to do some truly amazing things in the game faster and more efficiently than is possible without the hardware T&L. Making use of hardware features can make a game better looking and faster at the same time, something that was simply impossible in the pre-hardware acceleration days.

The problem is that there are still a lot of users out there with earlier cards that either don’t support some of the more powerful features, like T&L, or which don’t have very robust support. That means we have to find a way to scale the features that will work on older cards, which sometimes means that we have to put a lot of extra thought into how we will do things. Ultimately, it means that to get the very best graphics in the game you have to have a newer card.

L.H. Physics and damage modeling in ‘CFS2’ were good, but ‘IL-2’ has raised the bar. Does this create new challenges for the ‘CFS3’ team? How will ‘CFS3’ compare to ‘CFS2’ in this area?

T.H. Obviously, any time someone does something well we see it as a challenge. For our damage system our main goal has been to keep what worked and iron out the wrinkles. Both the visual and physics representation of damage is being improved to make damage both more credible and more interesting.

L.H. ‘CFS2’ took a different approach to immersion through the interface and reaction was mixed. What features will we see to enhance game flow in ‘CFS3’?

T.H. The main thing that users should take away from CFS2’s interface is the realization that our group is willing to try new things in an attempt to make a more compelling game. Like it or dislike it, you have to admit we tried something new and tried to establish a “feel” for the UI [user interface].

For CFS3 we did something really different that we think will feel more traditional to many people but which is much more alive and evocative than the interface for CFS1.

Interface shot from CFS3

Interface shot from CFS3

Our new game engine allows us to display the UI at any time without leaving the simulation. Instead of static background art, most of the time you will see the simulation world behind the UI. That means in the career mode it will be your airfield and your aircraft you see in the background while you do tasks in the UI. To take the best advantage of this we’ve gone to a format where the tabs and controls are oriented more vertically, so that you will better be able to see the simulation in the background. The new UI has scored well in usability tests, and I think that most everyone will like it a lot.

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Combat Flight Simulator 3:

Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater



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