1. Complete with A10...............................2. Over a city. Click the image for a larger shot...
Falcon 4.0 is a Windows 95, multiplayer air-combat simulator set in the Korean peninsula, with a real-time war in progress in which you take the role of a single pilot in an F-16C Block 52. Even Andy Hollis will have to scramble to top F4! Look for it in Q1, 1998.
With a dynamic campaign, a fully integrated ground war, and sporting the latest technology in radar (APG 68) and avionics, F4 will simulate the newer Block 52 model F16. Naturally, F4 will run under Direct3d.
Recently I had a chance to interview one of the key team members who participated in the first outside focus group looking at an early alpha. Jeff Babineau of the Deltahawks answered my very curious questions with regard to his experience. Here is that interview.
Csim: Jeff, I understand that you participated in a focus group previewing Falcon 4 . What was that experience like? Were there any surprises?
Jeff: I must first say that this was a pre-alpha version of F4 and many things were done just to have something for us to take a look at. They have many things left to do but I know they want it out this year. During the coarse of our discussion we were informed of many changes and new features that had been implemented even within the week that we had flown Falcon 4.0. Some of my comments may preve to be totally inaccurrate even as this goes to beta. Most importantly, they wanted the hardcore users input and rather early into the development phase. Bravo!
It was wonderful to see how dedicated SH/MP was to making this THE sim to topple Falcon 3.0 from the "King of Flight Sims" it currently holds. They were genuinely seeking out what made Falcon 3.0 so magical to us all and how or what we expected in its successor. We got free pizza, cokes and a small monetary compensation for our input. The whole development crew was behind a video camera watching our discussion and the discussion was tape recorded as well. SH/MP was absolutely interested in what we said. They rounded up a good group of fellows. In our group, there were only hardcore simmers with many years of Falcon flying behind them. We had all tried other sims but the room was 100% in agreement, "if it didn't offer a multiplayer campaign, it wasn't worthy of flight sim stardom."
Csim: How were you chosen as a participant?
Jeff: I have developed a relationship with many flight sim developers in the online services. My post can get quite "emotional" but they are always back with hard imperical data that is "unclassified" that I have spent years in accumulating. I never intend on being insultive but I will point out flagrant errors in modeled parameters. I think most sim developers respect this. "This game sucks" goes no where but "your ejection seat does not deploy its 'chute in the 3.5 seconds that it was designed to do so" has more effect. Or, "Your maverick missile takes 14.5 seconds to travel...so therefore it's speed...and the correct speed....." I think you get the idea.
We also have a very nice network setup in my basement and having 10 to 16 guys thrash a flight sim through its paces for 36 hours in a weekend is an invaluable tool. We've been doing this for 4 years so we have a pretty good idea of what is real AND what is fun.
Csim: We've been reading about F4 for almost two years now. Were you in any way prepared for the experience of F4 itself? (Aside from general knowledge of sims and F3 that is...)
Jeff: I heard about F4's coming release in December of 1994. Luckily all the old timers at SH/MP have a good sense of humor and they never admit the year. Maybe you can get a month out of them.
F4 has so much to live up to. The first 15 minutes of the focus group discussion was reminiscing about how great F3 was, and of coarse the voodoo chants all the LAN groups came up with to get it to work. Many teams are coming out with F-16 sims. If I knew nothing about F3 and it's relationship to SH/MP, I would expect a different game. the nice thing about what SH/MP can do is that they do not have to fear copying another sim. I think what scares other developers is that if they actually created a SVGA version of F3, they might feel like they had no creative input to a new product. So they have all tired to make a better mousetrap.
Every sim out there has its strengths and its strengths blow Falcon 3.0 out of the water. However, as a package, F3 is still the king. SU27 1.5 comes close. EF2000 comes close. Now that F4 is being made, the SH/MP guys have an advantage in that they can look at F3 and just improve on it without embarrassment. On top of that, they have looked at other sims and freely admitted that there are some great ideas out there that they will take as well. We will see an active cockpit like "A-10 Cuba". We will see multiple monitors like "Back to Baghdad." We will see network play. We will see online play. We will see...never mind F3 already had most of the good stuff in 1991. We'll see all of that too, but better or improved.
Csim: Give us an overview. What was functional and what was not?
Jeff: At the pre-alpha stage, the "Instant Action" option was the most flyable. I was one of the few that could get in and fly a campaign mission to include landing. I also went into the debug mode and employed options that we were not supposed to bother about. I just had to see all I could. The user interface was completed so we could see all play options available. We will have "Instant Action," Dogfight ( team play h2h), a "Red Flag" thing that I forget the name of, ACMI and a campaign that included 3 starting scenarios. You could also see that room for add ons was available.
Csim: What kind of hardware were you working with?
Jeff: P166, 512k pipe cache, 64meg EDO, Diamond monster 3d.
Csim: Lets get into the nitty-gritty. What did you think of the graphics?
Jeff: Best I had ever seen with a few glitches. The terrain is obviously repetitive in spots, the scaling seemed off in elevation and objects. I had also adjusted the smoke trails because I thought theirs were too brown. The highlights would definitely have to be the low level flight effects. We were used to flying very low; in this game, it makes you nervous. If they get the roads and cities to look better, I'll expect the FAA to ground me for being too dangerous.
Csim: Does F4 use a "hierarchical" engine? Were the visuals down low as detailed as up high?
Jeff: Down low you had a lot of squares that increased the feeling of low level flight but they were not shaded to look like a blurry mess that you needed to focus to see correctly. Up high they were great. In certain areas, it could be distracting at how much the terrain patterns are "looped." The coastal areas made me feel like jumping into the surf.
(Ed. Note: "The graphics display incorporates a "level of detail" system that smoothly reduces detail in distant objects while preserving the basic shape. This prevents objects from suddenly popping up in your flight path – you’ll see the mountain in plenty of time to keep from mixing the aluminum with the rocks." from Strategy Plus.)
Csim: What were your impressions of terrain, objects, sky etc?
Jeff: I've covered the terrain pretty good . The objects are done even better. At least the aircraft. When you see them they look nearly perfect. If there were any issues regarding the aircraft objects, it was scaling. If you got right up behind a B52, it just didn't feel like the size was right. Perhaps it was accurate and my opinion is slighted because of my experience with SU27. I seem to remember being impressed with EF2000 as well. (Ed. Note: "It’s very easy to lose sight of well-camouflaged objects against the realistic, rolling terrain. You may want to "zoom" the display to make the aircraft or vehicles twice the normal size – it’s a great way to get comfortable with the game environment." from Strategy Plus.)
If you shut off the name tags, it was near impossible to tell what anything was at any distance. Even the name tags themselves were obtrusive. Instead of what F3 did, present a name tag in padlock, the name tags are present on every object, in all views. So instead of "looking for bandits," you are reading the screen. If you shut them off, you never saw anything unless you were on top of them. No doubt, it is hard to model a MIG 21 with 4 pixels, but at two miles I think I ought to be able to tell it's a MIG 21. If they used the old F3 style. I'd be much happier.
The buildings looked real good and had a lot of detail. In my opinion too much detail. Roofs seemed to sparkle and frankly, there weren't enough buildings. We had that photo real texture laid on the ground so at any distance it looked like a city. But as you got closer, you would have just a few buildings relative to what you expected to see. This was done in EF2000 as well and I didn't like it but EF had more buildings than what F4 currently has. We recommended more buildings even if they have to give up the detail. Jeez, you could see the rails on the upper floor outside hallways. The sky was fine. The clouds were present but not really complete. At any distance they looked fine and you got partly cloudy skies. I think a few more cloud variations would be nice.
Csim: I understand lighting is dynamic and includes moonlight effects etc. What did you think of the lighting in F4?
Jeff: Other than the shadows on the ground and the distant mist reflecting the moonlight, I didn't see too much else. But to be fair, I spent almost no time looking at how cool the graphics were. I was more concerned about how well I could fight the plane based on views, sounds, avionics, weapons, frame rate, objects graphics. In that order.
Csim: What about special effects. Any surprises there? What were the explosions like?
Jeff: They were nice but very loud. Aircraft reproduced secondary explosions. But everything did. I am sure this isn't complete yet.
Csim: What were your impressions of flight and physics modelling, ballistics etc.
Jeff: The flight model felt great. It had everything that B2B had except they modeled the joystick action to not be so sensitive. In B2B, if you yanked on the stick you got this great instant AOA and it bled speed instantly to nothing. Probably real, but not the way most guys will fly. In B2B moving the stick more than 1/4" meant it was going to bleed energy fast. F4 handles a bit better and it will bleed speed. All the missiles seem to fly right. Nothing like a dogslow maverick stuck out in my mind. because all the weapons are not fully implemented, and the options for how these will perform, I couldn't spend that much time with them.
Csim: I understand that damage modelling is somewhat more general than the state of the art as in A10 Cuba. How did you find the modelling in this area?
Jeff: Not completed yet.
(Ed.Note: "Every object in the game is assigned a "point value"; when this value is exceeded, the object is destroyed. Objects are split into about ten classes, such as "thin skinned-airborne" or "heavily armored-ground". Each weapon delivers a pre-determined number of hit points, depending on the class of target. Obviously, 20mm is more effective against an aircraft than a tank. The flight model for each aircraft is affected by damage, with the airframe and avionics treated separately. Controls can be shot up or radar destroyed by hits. This doesn’t necessarily occur all at once but that is possible." from Strategy Plus.
Csim: Was there wind modelling present and what was it like?
Jeff: Not noticed at this stage but weather is planned.
Csim: Tell us about other kinds of force modelling: gravity, inertia, drag.
Jeff: All done rather well.
Csim: What weapons were available to you? What were your impressions of weapons modelling?
Jeff: We had mavericks, mk82's, aim9's and aim120's. Everything seemed fine but one mk82 did topple high rise buildings. We pointed that out and probably it was just a case of early damage modeling not being fully implemented.
Csim: What was your impression of enemy AI, and was the AI fully developed?
Jeff: Dogfighting was tough. If they got on your six it took work to shake 'em. B52's flew a little too gracefully and executed some helacious turns. Hopefully they will do something close to F3 and limit the turn and roll rate in the AI on big aircraft. Without the other features active, it wasn't possible to see all that was going on. None of my bandits lawndarted though. The B52's did. Perhaps it was because they had accurate flight models but the AI in the buff pilots didn't limit their avoidance aggression and they executed maneuvers that induced stalls. How's that sound?
Csim: Give us an overview of the avionics as you experienced them.
Jeff: Way too early to tell. There were cases in which I could hardly read the mode I was in but remember, this is very early stuff and most of the modes weren't yet implemented. I was disappointed that I had no functioning MFD's or HUD in padlock. They assured me that was planned but not implemented yet.
Csim: How did you find the radar modelling?
Jeff: I couldn't see behind me. That was good. I also had to make sure that my bandit was in the proper cone to get a lock. I spent 90% of my time in ACM mode because not much else was working yet.
Csim: Will we see the LANTIRN variant of the F16 in Falcon 4? If so, did you get to test it?
Jeff: Yes, I think so. No.
Csim: I understand that there has been considerable discussion regarding views, especially the padlock. What is in place now and what are the range of possibilities?
Jeff: This is always a hot topic. Many users have their preferences based on their most enjoyable sim experience. Some guys like the Air Warrior system and others preferred F3 style views. Many designers have tried to walk the line between human ability and gameplay and the limitations of the computer or PC viewing ability. Some do well. Others fail.
In my experience I greatly like the F3 system. Now since we have progressed to other systems I find SU27 my favorite right now. Maybe even TopGun's padlock. My least favorite viewing system is the Hawkeye type used in B2B. I say this so you'll know my opinion is weighted but I'll try to be objective.
F4 will have 3 "padlock" type of views. We only saw 2 of them. The Hawkeye view in F4 is quite like B2B. It is different in that it shows multiple aircraft so you will have as many pop up windows as you can see aircraft. It is very hard to explain how it works without setting up some tests but it looks like it presents pop up windows when you have the ability to see within HUMAN FOV. It might be off your PC but if it is within say 135 deg., you will have a pop up bandit. If the bandit flies behind you or outside of your human FOV, you lose the pop up window. You can look behind you and if he is in HUMAN FOV you get a pop up window. If he is on your PC screen, the window disappears and you would see him normally.
The real advantage to this is near perfect situational awareness. If you are looking forward you'll always know where your aircraft is pointing and you will always have your avionics looking at you. So why don't I like it? I read an interview with George Kevarian about B2B's Hawkeye view a while back in which he was quoted as saying, "the Hawkeye view keeps the pilot's head where it should be, on his instruments." I couldn't think of anything sillier about a knife fight. Maybe BVR but not a dogfight. We are talking about WVR combat with these views.
The SA is way too good and I hate little boxes floating around my screen. I expect a dogfight to be a bit confusing. I want to feel like my head is turning. I want to have to be aware of my aircraft's position and speed and work at it. I just don't feel like my aircraft is truly in a furball. What it does it does well. for beginners, they'll love it. If your an Air force pilot, you'll know it. If you love F3 or SU padlock, you'll probably not use it.
The other style of padlock we saw was kind of like F3 but different enough for me to hope that more work is coming with padlock views. It definitely let you slam you head to the nearest enemy target. I think it may have even let you do that with bandits behind you or outside your current FOV. It gave us the F3 style "floating window box" on the left of the screen and it took about a full inch off my 17" monitor. Below this window was indicators for speed, altitude, rate of climb and a HSI. None of these worked but you know that this is about all you need for the physical input the PC doesn't give you.
The avionics were not working on the cockpit either. I found this critical that I get a working hud in padlock. The thought of going to a front view prior to firing is frightful. Again EF2000, Falcon 3, Hind and SU27 are exceptional in this area. (Alright, I did hate that EF never gave us a HSI and that it never broke padlock and that it had that "Linda Blair" head turning thing) I was reassured that the avionics would be working in the padlock mode. I really want to see the third padlock option.
Csim: What is the virtual cockpit like in F4 so far?
Jeff: Not functioning but I've heard that every switch that is in the art, will work. The art is based on the real cockpit so it should be very cool. I'll need to get more buttons for my flight sim station.
Csim: I understand that communications will receive special attention. Tell us about AWACs interaction, wingman interaction, ATC etc.
Jeff: I wish I could but that option was almost non existent in this pre -alpha version.
(Ed.Note: "Falcon 4.0 has more sound files than any of the previous games. There will be pilot chatter, situational awareness warnings from the AWACS and more. The files include a variety of voices, utilizing about a dozen different actors. All of the transmissions make use of correct information in approved military formats; from threat warnings to vectors, they are what you’d expect to hear in combat." from Strategy Plus.)
Csim: What about other kinds of sound modelling. What were your impressions here?
Jeff: This was probably my least favorite area. many of the sounds were from the TopGun library. I am not sure if these are real F-16 sounds but I know they sound nothing like B2B or Hornet 3.0. Now if Pete Bonanni says these sounds are accurate, I'll buy it. Also, when flying past aircraft , your cockpit was overwhelmed with THEIR external sounds. I found this rather annoying, wanting concentrate on my avionics and more importantly, audio cues to what my aircraft status was. I suppose if you had some super sound card you would hear choppers flying by and behind you, but I just wanted it to be in the background.
My cockpit needs to be in the foreground. I heard no sound for brakes deploying. The cockpit was so noisy that any audible cues went mostly unnoticed. The explosion sounds were really loud and since everything had secondary explosions, there were constant explosions going off. After about an hour of that, I found the wav files and modified them by reducing the volume or changing the sound altogether. The gun sound I couldn't fix. Oddly , I like the gun sound in TopGun, but I prefer Hornet 3's. In instant action the launch tone was so active that it sounded more like background noise. But it was me against the world. This seems like the easiest area to fix and it was certainly my most disappointing experience in F4.
Csim: Did you fly any ground attack missions? What was your experience like?
Jeff: Yes. The Instant action is much improved over F3. You have an option to participate in mainly a-a or a-g. In A-a the world attacks you just as in F3. We saw many NATO aircraft in IA and we were unclear as to weather or not we were supposed to kill them. I did, and I scored points. We all wanted the Friendlies to be gone from IA. Maybe have switch that allows NATO aircraft. If we wanted to kill F-15's, we could still do that in the Red Flag area. (now called something different).
In the A-G arena it was very tough seeing anything on the ground. No G-A avionics were implemented yet so I couldn't use them. The vehicles are camouflaged and everyone had a tough time seeing them. We were fortunate that vehicle exhaust was modeled. Maybe too much exhaust, I thought they were burning. Without the name tags and/or the exhaust, no one will ever see a ground vehicle. It was very tough. As for realism, yes, it should be tough to see a camflagued tank sitting still in the brush. Impossible, in the woods. Driving along a road? It better be crystal clear. If I had been able to use my IR sight, maybe it wouldn't have been an issue. But those things get shot out as well.
Csim: I assume that you were flying connected to real pilots most of the time. How did the networking go?
Jeff: Be careful when you assume. Multi-player didn't work yet. The REALLY nice thing about F4 is that the whole game is made for network play. What ever you do in the game is made so that a human can join it. This alone, is going to keep F4 around for awhile. The LAN groups will love it the Internet guys will enjoy it, modem players will enjoy it.
Csim: How much of the campaign was working and did you get to try it out? What were your impressions?
Jeff: My initial impression was that I was part of a very large operation. Each flight had someone's name and rank attached and I guess his past performance rating will be included. I got some pretty detailed information and I was able to zoom in on the map to get a satellite shot of the target area. I was one of the few that got it running but I was able to take off and land and also taxi around a bit. The hangers and lighting from the hangers was great. I felt the runways needed more work and wingmen taxied through me. There is still a lot of work to make this right but I think we'll see something like EF's campaign with very active airfields.
Ed.Note: "The AI is detailed in other ways, too. Assume you fly a successful mission against a bridge vital to an enemy tank battalion’s route of march. When the tanks can’t cross, they won’t sit like motionless morons and wait for some ace with a wingload of Mavericks to light up their life. Their commander, Comrade CPU, will immediately try to find another way to cross the river and achieve the objective. Similarly, if you elect to deviate from your mission orders and take out North Korea’s Illustrious Leader in his palace, there will be repercussions. At the very least the tank battalion will achieve its objective and get new orders. The tanks may overachieve and do serious damage to the allied cause. Your attack might cause immediate intervention by Chinese forces." from Strategy Plus.
Jeff: More importantly is how the network play will work. Anyone can log into the mission at anyplace, anytime. They will not place a new aircraft in the campaign but take an AI flown pilot away. For LAN groups this will be great. When someone shows up late, all he has to do is get his machine up and running and then log in to the campaign. If he wants to fly with me, for instance and I have an AI slot filled in my flight, he can jump right in. It doesn't mater if I'm taking off, taxing, enroute. I think the only limitation is that after ingress, the AI pilot is locked in the aircraft. The other limitation is that if my flight has only 2 aircraft, no one can add another aircraft to that flight. it did look as though the player will be able to only change his loadouts in the campaign. We hoped that mission editing would be an option but I don't think it will. Kind of like WARGEN, pre-tactcom.
Csim: What was the overall "feel" of flying in this alpha?
Jeff: It's great to be back in an F-16. It's great to see F4.
Csim: What was your biggest beef?
Jeff: Sounds. I would say the padlock views but I think this is more of a personal choice issue. The sounds though, most of know what a Vulcan cannon sounds like. Just in case my SU27 beta team reads this, I must add this; Frame rate, frame rate, frame rate. There is no frame rate too high and not everyone owns a dual PPro system to get it.
Csim: What was your greatest delight?
Jeff: It would have to be just seeing Falcon 4.0 on the disk. It has been a long wait and no one seems to want to reengineer F3 so we flight sim nuts get sims with some great things but still lacking all of what F3 had. Now, we will have it and more.
Csim: When do you test another version?
Jeff: I don't know. Hopefully soon. We have to see the multi-player before Yoda dies. ( Lou "Yoda" Mayers is the oldest known flight sim pilot.)
Ed.Note: As for add-ons, there will be a new Hornet, a new MiG-29 and additional theaters once Falcon 4.0 is established. Other improvements are enhancements will be considered as new technology becomes available. Might we see multiple mfd support under WIN98? Seems likely...