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Aces High v1.05: Adventures in Humility
by Bob "Groucho" Marks


Once in your aircraft, an informative and easily readable 3D panel greets you. There’s not a whole lot of differentiation in panels between the types, but that just cuts down on familiarization time.

A bit of experimentation will reveal that HiTech Creations has designed a world-beater of a view system. This is fortunate, as view cheats such as transparent cockpits are not available. Even external views are limited to bomber and transport aircraft only, apparently as a game play balance issue. To offset this claustrophobic world somewhat, Aces High allows side-to-side and front-to-back movement in addition to the typical “swivel” view system. You can “adjust the seat” and lock your head position preference in.

Pushing the “e” key, or whatever stick button is programmed, fires-up your bird; that’s it, no complicated start procedure here. Button-pushin' magneto-settin' purists may let out their sigh of disappointment at this time.

Do you have a set of rudder pedals? While the yaw control in most sims can be faked by twist-grip sticks or keystrokes, this may prove to be a challenge for those of us whose coordination is less than that of a neurosurgeon. As you slide the throttle forward, the nearly sadistic torque / slipstream / P-factor of Aces High's flight model rears its ugly head. Really, heed Groucho’s advice and get a pair of pedals . . . preferably a set that has toe brakes. If you plan on flying this sim, you’re gonna need a set of pedals.

Ground looping: the Aces High National Past Time

It becomes immediately obvious that ground looping is the Olympic sport of the Aces High world, sort of like synchronized swimming without the soul-stealing boredom. I became fairly adept at it, though through practice borne of necessity I’ve kept my airframe-tweaking antics to minimum. With its contra-rotating propellers and tricycle gear, the Lockheed P-38L is the only AH aircraft immune to this. I’ve reduced more than my share of once-proud warbirds into piles of scrap that my local aluminum recycling plant would reject by ground-looping these torquey behemoths. Good ground control is especially important when operating off of the newly added aircraft carriers, for obvious reasons.

Once safely off the ground and the wheels are sucked up into the wells, you can start to get a feel for the aircraft of Aces High. Remember, there are twenty-nine flyable airplanes in Aces High. Each of these aircraft sports a unique, and usually unforgiving, flight model. Accelerated stalls, spins, torque effects, and damage are all modeled in sphincter-puckering detail. The onset of a stall is well telegraphed by a buzzing sound and mushy controls, and is ignored at the pilot’s peril. Want to tone down the flight model a bit? Tough. This is an online sim, so sit down, Nancy. Nobody gets a wussy break here. Are the flight models authentic? Hell if I know, but they do seem to match up with their historic reputations. Mustangs excel at high-altitude boom & zoom tactics, while Spitfires and Georges will climb like homesick angels with bottle-rocket suppositories (Editor's Note: You heard that one here first folks).

Pilots who learn the strengths and weaknesses of their steeds will simply destroy less studious opponents, superior aircraft or no. I was taught this lesson the hard way as some extraterrestrial in a TBM Avenger---yes, a bomber---stuck to me like white on rice and whacked my frantically evading, Mustang flying butt. Try as I might, I was in a bad place for a P-51 to be: low, slow, and quickly running out of ideas. You can bet that this was the last time I tried to use a P-51D as a close-quarters point-defense interceptor!

In a sim like Aces High, there’s no question that the fault was my own. No need to worry about FrankenPlane-building cheaters here. You know what I’m talking about---the guys who graft a MiG-21 .air file onto a Zero in The Zone. This is housed on HiTech Creation’s servers, not some guy’s server in his mom's house. This does, however, work both ways. When I had my butt served to me by that Avenger carrier-based bomber, I had nothing to blame it on but my own ineptitude. That, and the sun got in my eyes. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

The shoreline of an island. Very Kauai-like.

Graphic Violence
Graphically, Aces High can probably best described as adequate. The terrain, consisting primarily of mountainous islands, is obviously not modeled after anyplace in particular. It is somewhat reminiscent of Hawaii, with the steep volcanic-looking cliffs, deep canyons, and lush if flat greenery---but maybe that’s just homesickness creeping into objective thought. Clouds are modeled only very sporadically, almost to the point of being a non-issue. More weather effects would be a welcome addition, as the omission of clouds gives the skies of Aces High a sterile look. The 3D aircraft and vehicles are very well done, nicely weathered and with historically accurate paint schemes. A very nice touch is the reflective light play over the water, forests, and on the metallic surfaces of aircraft.

An Ostwind fires into the perfectly blue skies. it's always like this.

Smoke and fuel / coolant vapor effects are nicely rendered. Explosions and fire are a pyromaniac’s dream. The machine gun and cannon tracer effects in particular are excellent, far better than in any other WWII simulation currently available. With an uncanny resemblance to actual gun camera footage, only the imminent Il-2 Sturmovik is as nicely done---and you can’t have that yet.

Most of the problems graphically are the run-of-the mill weirdness, things like chunks of the carrier deck becoming “transparent” and the like, minor annoyances that really affect nothing and are quickly blown off.

There are some critical problems, however. Buildings and other structures such as AAA emplacements (read: targets) have an awful tendency of disappearing and then reappearing as you swoop in on them. This is very bad, as invisible structures are damned hard to get a bead on. This may a form of “warping” or online lag, but I’m not certain. Whatever the cause, it’s an extreme nuisance.

Other graphical anomalies include the ability to see distant aircraft through mountains and the metal parts of your aircraft. While the label that indicates country, aircraft ID, and range disappears when the target aircraft is obscured, the dot of the aircraft itself remains. This situation isn’t as annoying as the ability to see through mountains, as this effect makes it impossible to tell how far away you target is. I’ve chased unknowns over two mountain ranges, only to find out that they were just CAPping their home base--twenty miles away! Problems like these could be shrugged off in a beta version of a boxed sim, but seemed sloppy and out of place when the sim costs US$29.95 each and every month. I quick call to the Aces High folks was in order: apparently, according to Doug Balmos, some recent code improvements, that were made to optimize framerates for everybody, had unwelcome effects with certain video cards. So, they are aware of it and they do plan to fix it.

Your views are limited to in-cockpit points of view only (bombers and transports excepted). While this makes sense from a gameplay standpoint, it makes for booooring screenshots.

Veiw from the TBM Avenger's rear turret

The Human Factor
A big part of massive multiplayer sims is the fact that you are, by definition, not operating in a vacuum. This interaction with real people is at the heart of Aces High. It has been my experience that folks are very helpful, with a minimum of snootiness and elitism. This is indeed refreshing. A couple of years ago, I tried my hand at Warbirds, another massively multiplayer sim. There, a question like “Hey, how do I tune my radio” was often met by calls of “RTFM” and other smart-ass, less-than-helpful responses. It’s hard to put a finger on it exactly, but the general atmosphere of Aces High seems to be much more laid back, as if most of the folks playing online are there just to have fun. This attitude is reflected in some of the squadron names: “Squishy Dead Things” being my personal favorite. I fell in with a group of guys who formed a very loose knit squadron---no required practice sessions and minimal militaristic B.S. This is a perfect match for someone like me (spare time isn’t always usable for online silliness), and it greatly enhances your enjoyment and survivability to take part in a coordinated multi-aircraft attack. Having a purpose enhances the fun, whether your assignment is to escort a squadron mate’s bomber flight, drive an ass-and-trash C-47 flight full of Goons, or even flying as a gunner aboard a buff in a large strike force. Being a part of a team with a mission, even a doomed one, usually proves a lot more fun than playing the lone wolf and leaping headlong into random furballs. Unfortunately, my squadron of choice lacked a really cool name like the squishy dead guys had.

There's a flip side to every coin, and in this case it’s the fact that people can see your screw-ups. It’s a good idea to remember the fighter pilot’s mantra: It’s better to die than to look bad. Things aren’t helped much by the fact that HiTech Creations keeps a very informative and way customizable score sheet on their website. Those interested need only know the pilot’s callsign to access it. Go ahead, pull up Groucho on the score sheet. Just promise not to laugh, as my ego is already bruised like a side of Rocky Balboa workout beef.

Remember, Pinkie Extended
Aces High is, at its core, really just a social gathering. OK, it’s a social event where the main purpose is to kill and maim, so let’s just say it’s a very dysfunctional gathering. Whatever. When a large group of people congregates, there are certain rules of etiquette. As is the case with most rules of conduct, most are common sense codes that have been around since Homo Erectus first whacked a giant saber-toothed gerbil with a thighbone. Don’t shoot your hunting partner. Don’t steal someone else’s kill, unless they break off. Don’t talk too much---this ain’t a chat room. Belching loudly into an open Roger Wilco channel is frowned upon. Simple stuff like that.

Put a fork in him; he's done.

The most compelling reason for dropping your hard-earned money and flying on line is the challenge of it all. It’s Aces High's lack of scripted and predictable AI opponents that make this damned thing so much fun. The same guy who performs awesome sierra hotel maneuvers can then blunder badly by loosing control of his/her aircraft during a simple approach. This mix of dazzling brilliance and abysmal stupidity is the essence of online aerial combat. It’s a stone fact that a computer just can’t model human unpredictability. Greed, sloth, and lust for a kill have yet to be digitized.

An excellent example of this in action is how the element of stealth---not in the high-tech radar evading sense of the word but old-fashioned sneakiness---comes into play in Aces High. All accounts I’ve read of fighter operations have a recurring theme: most of the victims never saw what hit them. This is extremely difficult to model, but very prevalent in a virtual sky filled with real live humans. Many of my kills never even knew I was there until their airplane was being torn asunder by 20mm cannon fire. Conversely, I often never saw what had spanked me until I was missing something important, such as my empennage. Hearing a member of our motley flight shout “Groucho check six!” over Roger Wilco was often the only warning I had that I was under attack. The element of having to be sneaky is a great addition, and one that is missing in conventional flight sims. During fighter operations, view cheats are not available like they are in boxed sims; there is no opportunity (or temptation) to get an external view and slew around or to make portions of your plane transparent to get a better look-see. Situational awareness is done the old-fashioned way: either by sticking your head out of the cockpit and keeping it on a swivel or having a wingman. Preferably, you’ll have both. There isn’t an AI routine in existence that can actually be stalked and hunted like a real live human pilot can be. When your elusive prey reverses his turn as you try to keep your lag pursuit on him, the feeling is one of sheer victory. He's lost sight of me. He’s desperate. He’s mine.

Your blood lust satiated, all seems right with the world. No bad guys around, you have plenty of fuel, and the carrier is in sight. Suddenly the sounds of metal being torn apart fills the cockpit as some guy in a bomber---a freaking torpedo bomber, for gawds sakes---shoots you down.

Save the strut for later, ace. Are you gonna eat all of that humble pie?

An aerial shot of South-Central Los Angeles

Bang for your Bucks
The meat of Aces High is in the massively multiplayer arenas. This is where the artery-hardening fun is. Only after your two week trial period is up will HiTech hit you up for credit-card information (prepay via check is also available) upon attempting to enter the Online arenas, you have fourteen days to mooch and decide if this playground is your style or not. This is fortunate, because the price of admission is decidedly steep at US$29.95/month for unlimited play. This may seem like a lot of money, and, to be brutally honest, after playing off-and-on for the past three months or so it still seems like a lot of money. When broken down to grins per dollar, however, Aces High seems well worth the expense. These words were selected carefully, as bargain or steal seems an odd way of describing a simulation that costs $360 a year. Man, don’t let my wife find out.

While not perfect, and what is, Aces High proves to be quite an experience, even for those of us who like to think that we’re pretty good at this combat flying stuff. A session of HiTech Creation’s massive-multiplayer flight combat sim may be just what you need to knock your cocky butt down a notch. Besides, if something isn’t done about that swagger of yours, you’ll have to see a good podiatrist.

Reviewer's system:

  • CPU: Athlon TBird 1GHz
  • RAM: 384MB VC133 SDRAM
  • Video: Hercules GeForce2 64MB (Detonator3 v6.31 drivers, 4X FSAA)
  • Harddrive: IBM DeskStar 60GB ATA100 7200RPM HD
  • O/S: WindowsMe
  • Controllers:
    • CH Products Flight Sim Yoke USB
    • CH Products F-16 CombatStick USB
    • CH Products USB ProPedals

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