by Chuck "SmokingCrater" Norton
Article Type: Preview
Article Date: September 24, 2002
Product Name: Combat Flight Simulator 3
Category: WWII Air Combat Simulation
Release Date: Fall 2002
System Req.: TBA
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What’s that old saying again? Two steps forward, one step back? Ah yes, that’s the one. That’s the general feeling I got when I laid my hands upon the preview beta copy of Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator 3 (CFS3). Just when you think that the flight simulation genre is opening up to limitless boundaries with titles like IL-2, Microsoft (MS) comes around and pulls the rug out from under you. Let me explain.
|Conceptual art for the box cover |
A few days ago, I came home to find a package in the mail. Knowing it was the beta copy of CFS3, I was pretty excited. This excitement grew as I perused the press kit supplied with the beta. It laid out the basics of what to expect from this title: “hair raising” low-level missions, thirty-four flyable aircraft, a new scenery generator, and a detailed dynamic campaign. These, of course, among other things which we’ll cover later. All this sounded so good. I mean, it sounded like they’d really hammered out the things that many had complained about with CFS2. So, that night, when I got home from work, I inserted the beta CD into the drive and clicked install. “Oh, baby,” I thought as navigated through the set up screens. “This will be fun.”
Now, before I get into the nuts and bolts of this game, I want to take a moment to give some background on myself. This will serve to give the reader a better perspective on where I’m coming from when I talk about this game.
I am a licensed civilian pilot and I live for realism. Often times I find myself being the Jonathan Livingston Seagull of the flight sim world, testing the limits of the flight models in every game I can lay my hands on. Sometimes, going up in a rusty old P-39 and cranking out aerobatics to the limits of a game’s ability is more fun to me than dogfighting thirty-two other players online. In short, though I’ve never physically flown any World War II era aircraft, I believe I have a basic understanding of how they should feel.
Also, in this day and age, graphics are important to me. (This from a guy who was playing the original B-17 well into the 21st Century.) With all the PC technology that’s around these days, there’s simply no excuse for a poorly-presented game. It is important to understand that I feel Ubi Soft’s IL-2 Sturmovik raised the bar for flight simming in both of the above categories and more. While many of CFS3’s features are, indeed improvements over CFS2, I still feel that they fall far short of where they should be, given the level of Microsoft’s competition.
Please take all of this information into account while reading my opinions of the game.
Okay, let’s get down to the nitty gritty…
|P-47D fires rockets |
InstallationInstallation went off without a hitch. The game requires a pretty substantial amount of hard drive space which is to be expected in this day and age, so that was no surprise. The installer was very straight-forward and was very similar to that of CFS2. However, unlike Flight Sim 2002, it allowed me to install CFS3 to my second hard drive. This was a pretty nice surprise. Being that CFS3 is based pretty heavily on FS2002, I thought I might have to fight the game in order for it to install to my D: drive.
Front EndAfter installation was complete, it was time to fire this puppy up and take it for a spin. The initial load time for the game was pretty long. This is because the first time you play it, CFS3 examines your system and determines what settings would give you the best balance of graphics and playability. This feature seemed to work pretty well. It may have been a bit conservative, however, setting my computer (AMD Athlon 1GHz, Radeon8500 128, 768 SDRAM) to a measly 800x600x16. No problem, as the menu system is easily mastered and allowed for a quick bump up to 1024x768x32.
Once the initial load was complete, I arrived at the main menu. The background is all done in the game’s 3D engine, which I thought was pretty neat. The character animations of the pilots shown there were really quite good. Things were off to a good start. At the main menu, the player is presented with five options: Setup, Single Missions, Quick Missions, Campaign, and Multiplayer. Unfortunately, my cable modem service went out shortly after I received the game, so I was not able to touch the multiplayer aspect. For this I apologize, but we’ll examine the rest of the options in detail.
|The main menu. Notice the background is done with the game's 3D engine. |
The setup menu is very straight-forward, allowing you to change everything from control settings to graphics options and the likes. Also included are a series of handbooks which give historical data and background information on many of the game’s objects. All are very nicely presented in Adobe Acrobat format and feature vast arrays of information regarding how to fly certain airplanes and things like that. Its obvious that someone took a good amount of time on these handbooks. However, it is unfortunate that they play such a small role in the game.
Where we really start to get into the heart of the game is the flying. I mean, after all, it is a flight sim, isn’t it? Single missions provide an assortment of both historical and “what if” missions. The historical missions are pretty self-explanatory It’s the “what if” scenarios that make things interesting. What if the P-80 Shooting Star had been completed in time for European conflict? What if the Pfeil had been fully utilized and realized as a bomber killer? Questions like this, for example, are what these scenarios attempt to examine. Jet vs. jet combat in the skies over WWII Europe is a pretty interesting concept that hasn’t been covered since the days of “Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe.”
The next area I tested out was the quick mission generator. This fully-functional mission builder allows the user to set a wide variety of different variables with just a few clicks. In the slide-out menu, players can choose what type of airplanes they will fly, what type they will fly against, weather conditions, ground targets, and weapons loadouts. For example, the first quick mission I flew pitted my two P-51’s against a pair of Ju-88’s and Bf-109G’s. Aircraft were clean (no bombs/rockets) and the weather was clear. One really nice touch that I enjoyed was the ability to paint your aircraft in custom colors. This doesn’t mean that you get to create all new skins per se, but you do get to select different ID letters in addition to wingtip, tail, fuselage, and nose colors. This can make for some pretty mean looking airplanes.
The final menu area that I was able to test was the dynamic campaign generator. This one’s pretty important so…
CampaignsRemember how we all hated those scripted campaigns in CFS2? Kind of took away from the replayability, didn’t it? Well, Microsoft has taken great pains to right this wrong. Campaigns, to me, are the heart of any offline experience in a flight sim. It's just no fun flying canned missions that lead from nowhere to nowhere. So, the new campaign system implemented in CFS3 is a huge step in the right direction. Even though it still needs a little work, it shows great promise; especially for a beta. So, let’s get into it.
The campaign can be looked at as a sort of mix between a role-playing game and a strategy game. The first thing a new pilot does is to select a series of attributes for their virtual character. This includes options like naming your player, your squadron, and selecting your age. Additionally, if you’re feeling particularly long-winded, there is an option to write up a small bio on your character. This is a neat little feature, but I usually just opted to use the bio that appears by default. (Who knew I was from Prussia?)
Other variables you set (via slider bars) are max health, max G-tolerance, and vision. Upon starting a new campaign you are given a certain amount of points and it is up to you to distribute these as you see necessary. The higher the points, the better your character performs at a given field. For example, a higher G-tolerance setting means that your pilot won’t black out as quickly as one with a lower G setting. Or, a high vision attribute will allow you identify targets from far away.
All of these can be improved throughout the course of your career by completing missions and staying alive. As your campaign progresses, you accrue more points to be distributed how you wish. Therefore, your pilot’s abilities grow with experience. Also, as you get further along in the war, you acquire what are called “prestige points.” These accumulate for both your pilot and your squadron. As your stash of prestige points grows, you can use them to do things like acquire new airplane types for your squadron, or “buy” your own personal aircraft, complete with nose art. In this way, the war will never play out the same way twice. Maybe the first time your war ended, you only got to purchase P-51’s, but the second time maybe you got enough points to buy P-80’s. This whole concept of user-variability is quite a refreshing change from CFS2.
After taking care of your character, you are presented with a theater map. Be sure to read the pop up menu and the legend to familiarize yourself with the various features it includes because this is where you conduct your war. The grid squares indicate the location of the front lines, enemy facilities, and bases. Clicking on any one of the red front-line grids will bring up a target in that sector. Most of the early missions consist of anti-shipping in the English Channel, so I got to see a lot of that. As your war progresses, the front lines move according to your squadron’s performance. Fail a series of missions and don’t be surprised if the enemy is knocking on your door. Complete a series and you just might be in Berlin by Christmas. (That is assuming you’re playing as an Allied character.) For the most part this seems to work correctly. Every now and then the front lines seemed to move rather erratically of their own accord, but remember the copy I have is still in beta form.
|The game's dynamic campaign map. |
Another neat feature of this campaign system is that it automatically generates a war for you. “Okay, what the heck does he mean by that?” you say. Well, what I mean is that, based on the strategic situation and the position of the fronts, vehicles, trains, bridges (i.e., targets) are generated for you to attack. For this reason, the warp feature was done in a different fashion from CFS2. Instead of hitting X and appearing somewhere else, the warp feature acts as a sort of super time-accelerator. As you fly along you may see something that catches your attention, so, you come out of warp and investigate until your heart’s content. This is a pretty cool feature of the game.
All in all, the campaign generator shows quite a bit of promise. If Microsoft can tweak it out and fine tune it by release, it should satisfy most any offline gamer’s needs. This is, of course, assuming that they can stomach the actual flying portion of the game. Where the campaign system shines, the flight systems falter. And here’s where we get into the true disappointments of CFS3.
FlightOh where to begin? I guess I’ll just say it. Flight modeling in CFS3 is, well, sub par. With the flight models set to maximum realism, I flew every aircraft in the game and not one of them performed normally. In all honesty, these airplanes might as well say Union Pacific on the side of them, because they’re riding on rails. The truth is, if you keep them within a normal flight envelope, there’s rarely any problem. They take off and land just like you’d expect them to. Heck, they even suffer appreciable performance losses when loaded down with bombs and rockets.
“Normal.” Therein lies the problem. The very nature of combat flying doesn’t allow pilots to keep their aircraft within a normal flight envelope. The whole concept behind dogfighting is to take your aircraft to the razor’s edge of its flight envelope and sometimes a bit beyond in order to succeed and survive. But, when you start taking the aircraft in CFS3 to the edges of their flight models, strange things begin to happen. It seems almost like the game doesn’t know how to behave when you start really wrenching an airplane around the sky. Let me give you some examples.
From level flight in a P-80, I slapped the stick to the stops aft and right while adding in full right rudder. With the power at idle and the controls held in this position, the aircraft began to cartwheel as it departed controlled flight. This was not entirely unexpected in a violent maneuver such as this. What was unexpected, was the fact that the airplane gained 5,000 feet during it’s tumble. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the vertical speed indicator showed, and sustained, a 3,000 foot per minute ascent. Do the math, kiddies. Climbing at 3,000 fpm, means that this airplane cartwheeled its way up for well over a minute. Common sense will tell you that this is not how a ‘40’s era fighter jet should have handled.
|The P-80 in a tumble climb. |
Exhibit B: The B-26 Marauder. The airplane won’t stall in level flight. It approaches a stall (and you get the appropriate yellow text warning alerting you) but with wings level, power at idle and 90 percent of its fuel on board, the plane just wouldn’t stall. Put it into a turn and it will break for a moment, then it’ll return right back to its pre-stall condition. This from an aircraft that was historically known as “The Widowmaker” for its uncanny ability to stall at high speeds.
Another thing is that the speed modeling seems to be a bit off. Now, I’m no programmer so I don’t know if this is a graphical issue (which I’ll cover shortly) or a flight model issue; but, the press kit said that “This will… really raise the hair on the back of your neck as you scream along at 350 mph 200 feet of [sic] the deck.” This has always been a big point with me, even since the days of European Air War. In that game, you could take your P-38 down to the deck at 400mph and it would seem like the world outside was just crawling by. That game was released circa 1998, so I thought that by now, everyone would have this problem licked. B-17 II gives an impressive feeling of speed when down low. So does IL-2. Though, admittedly neither give you a true feeling of raw speed, but they’re light-years beyond CFS3. Believe me I’ve been there and the world was a blur when I was doing 250mph on the deck. Having been there, I know it is a feeling that CFS3 just doesn’t capture. It feels like I’m flying an ultralight as the trees and terrain outside putter along, seemingly oblivious to the fact that my airspeed indicator is pushing 400mph. This is unfortunate considering how hard this game focuses on being fast and down low.
As I said, I’m not sure if this is a graphical issue, or if it’s a flight model issue. In either case it destroys the sense of realism that means so much to a lot of gamers. Given that the flight models seem to have some pretty large holes in them already, I would begin to turn a suspicious eye in their direction. In all, this flight model system seems to be set up and fine tuned for a civilian flight sim rather than a military one. Straight and level, and this game is fine. Start pushing the limits and things go very badly, very quickly. I know this is a beta, but the current state of the flight models is alarming. However, according to the press kit, “the flight models are still undergoing tuning, but most are complete or very nearly so.” Take that as you will.
Graphics and SoundThe next area I’d like to cover is graphics and sound. Sadly, as with the flight models, a large portion of the visuals in CFS3 is sub par. Given the advancements in graphics technology lately, so much more could have been done. Your first experience with the game’s engine (aside from a tidbit in the menus) will be the cockpit of the first aircraft you choose to fly. Choose wisely because it may affect how you see the game for the rest of its tenure on your hard drive. You know the old saying. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
My first airplane was the P-51. Though aesthetically pleasing from external views (aside from the fact that it, like all airplanes in CFS3 look like they’re fresh off the factory floor) the cockpit is well, ugly. No instruments are readily visible and are only accessible through a separate view. (More on this will be covered in the gameplay section.) The canopy ironwork is, in many cases, untextured and blurry. This is especially true for the cockpit of the P-47. Some aircraft have instruments visible from the standard gunsight view, and some don’t. For those that don’t, it is extremely hard to judge your speed without switching to a different view.
|Tracking a bomber in the Tempest. |
In general, it seemed that the German aircraft had superior cockpits. The amount of instruments available and just their general presentation seemed to be better than with their allied counterparts. While they’re all “3D” virtual cockpits, none of them really gave a true 3D feeling. Most of them, especially in the gunsight view, tend to be very flat and uninteresting. Look down at your feet and things get a little better, with working controls and pedals and such, but it still just looked very boring.
The external views are hit and miss. Most 3D models look good, if not very edgy. There’s very little in the way of curves where wing meets fuselage, etc. The models themselves though are very accurate. By that I mean that the planes look right. You can identify a Bf-109 just by looking at it. I make mention of this because, in the past, some flight sims have had trouble modeling aircraft correctly. Again, it appears that most aircraft are straight from the factory. Not even a hint of grease or oil stains these planes. In fact, the P-80 was very shiny… almost too shiny. In fact, it was so shiny that it just looked strange, like some sort of unearthly metal was used in its construction.
|The P-80 showing off its ultra-shiny exterior. |
Animations were, on average, solid. Gear bounces as you rumble down the runway and bomb bay doors are fully animated. Control surfaces move as expected. Bomber guns actually point wherever you left them. All pretty standard items that are to be expected in today’s simming age.
Visual damage modeling left a bit to be desired. Some aircraft seem to accrue damage like you’d expect. Holes appear in wings and tail, etc. Engines begin to smoke and things like that. The problem is, that some aircraft don’t show any damage at all. For instance, I assaulted a B-25 with a Bf-109G and paid the price for it. My airplane was raked from stem to stern by machine gun fire and one by one my systems began to drop offline. Fuel poured from my tanks and I had no control authority, but was there a single hole in my Gustav’s skin? Nope. Still looked factory new despite the fact that it flew like a brick.
The ground details are again hit and miss. At points the automatically generated (autogen) scenery really shines, other times it flops. The trees and buildings look great, but they are sometimes placed rather erratically. For example, I was passing over a heavily forested lake the other day… Yeah, that’s right. It seems that when there’s water off in the distance, autogen doesn’t know that its not supposed to draw trees on it. As you get nearer to it, the trees will eventually disappear, but it really serves to suspend the belief that you’re actually flying around WWII Europe. Hopefully this will get fixed by release.
Additionally, the water texture is very bland and well, untextured, making it nearly impossible to judge height above the water as you come in for a torpedo run. Flying low over the water gives you a form of sensory deprivation and within seconds your depth perception drops to nil. I lost more bombers to this than to enemy gunfire.
Sound in CFS3 is okay. Granted, I don’t have a surround sound system, but none of the sounds are particularly impressive. Gunfire can give you a bit of a start when it begins hitting your airplane, but that’s the most I got out of CFS3’s aural FX. One area of note is the fact that the engine sounds are a noticeable loop. Sadly, there are not many other ways to do engine sounds in a video game, but with some of the British aircraft, you can actually hear the loop begin over and over. The Typhoon is especially bad. Not only does it sound EXACTLY like my lawnmower, but there’s an audible click every time the engine loop replays. Thirty seconds of that was enough to cause me to never fly the Typhoon again.
GameplayAnd here’s the final question. Is CFS3 fun? I mean, you can have a game with less-than-stellar graphics and still be blown away by it. You can still be in love with a game that features terrible sounds. Why? Because it all boils down to game play. How fun is this beastie to throw around in your spare time? Well, for me, not very.
In a flight sim, flight models have an obvious and understandable affect on gameplay. But, as I’ve beaten that topic to death, I feel you can make your own conclusions as to whether or not the flight models will bother you. There are some out there who will love the more arcade-ish feel of CFS3’s flight models and there are some who will loath them. What category you fall into is up to you.
The viewing system is not very well implemented. Instead of being able to pan the cockpit around fluidly like in IL-2 or B-17 II, you are forced to use one of eight locked views: forward, 45 degrees left/right, 90 degrees left/right, 135 degrees left/right, and 45 degrees up and forward. This makes it next to impossible to try to track a target manually. Fortunately there are padlocks to help with this but the interface for using them seems a tad clunky, requiring multiple keystrokes. During the heat of battle that can get a bit frustrating.
Speaking of frustrating… The gunsights on the bombers’ defensive guns are either A) non-existent, or B) completely inaccurate. Any kind of reflector gunsight is not in the game. It looks like the framework is there for it, but the actual sight reticule is missing, thus eliminating any chance of defending your bomber from attack. Likewise, the old-school ring-and-bead sights used by most flexible-mount guns is totally inaccurate. (i.e., The shells don’t go where the sights say they will.) Say what you will about ballistic drop and all that jazz, but physics this is not. The sights are just plain off.
Damage modeling is decent in this game. Hits in certain areas will knock out certain systems, etc., but its nothing that hasn’t been done before. And again, the lack of graphical representation on some aircraft can be really bothersome.
Though the instruments, in many cases, aren’t readily available from the cockpit view, there is a rather nifty HUD function. Pressing F5 brings up five basic instruments that float along the bottom of the screen, allowing you to tell where you’re going and what you’re doing. Though totally unrealistic, this was one feature that I felt really helped CFS3’s gameplay. I just wonder if it was put in there out of necessity.
In general, the gameplay isn’t absolutely terrible, but it’s not particularly great either. Some standards have been left out (instruments in a standard view, workable view controls) that just shouldn’t have been left out. And, in the end, the gameplay is not enough to keep me coming back.
ConclusionIt has been proven that you can make an excellent game without an enormous budget. While I’m sure it was no monetary slouch, Ubi Soft’s IL-2 Sturmovik did just that. Now Microsoft, a company with virtually limitless resources comes along and produces another regurgitation of an already-dated flight sim franchise. Given that the engine is a modified version of the one created for FS2002, it seems that the developers could have spent more time making this game an absolute show-stopper. Instead, they decide to visit Western Europe again, with the same old slew of P-whatevers again, giving the gamer little more than a dynamic campaign to gloss over its already lackluster playability. Didn’t anyone at MS take a look at IL-2 and wonder, if only for a moment, if they were doing the right thing? The moral implications are for another time and another venue.
That said, I’ll take one last look at this game as a whole. The flight models are complete, or nearly so, and still very flawed. This lends itself to a very unrealistic sense of flight for nearly every airplane in the game. The gameplay isn’t especially noteworthy, still showing major flaws that other games have proved, don’t need to be there. Moreover, it is not an especially pretty game. As stated, MS had ample resources to make this an absolutely, bar-none beautiful flight sim. Instead, it looks like just a ported copy of Flight Sim 2002, and in some cases, that’s giving it more credit than it deserves.
This game’s only saving grace is its campaign generator. Once fully tweaked, I believe it could be one of the best out there. Giving the player full control over his or her destiny in the skies is an excellent idea. If implemented correctly, it could provide hours of replayability, previous gameplay issues notwithstanding.
To put it shortly, the sheer amount of resources available to this project alone could have made it the best flight simulator on the market. However, it falls quite short of the expectations placed upon it by this previewer.
|Bailing out of the Ju-88. |
On a final note, I apologize again for not being able to test out multiplayer, which may very well turn to out to be enjoyable. If I could have, I would, but my only other Internet access is at work and I don’t think they would take too kindly to me playing flight sims on their computers.
- Dynamic campaign generator
- Detail pilot career tracking
- Easily mastered interface
- Flawed flight models
- Poor cockpits
- Erratic scenery
- Limited views
Combat Flight Simulator 3:
Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater
There are hundreds of add-on files for CFS and CFS2. Too many to list here. Check the above sites as many have dedicated add-on directories.
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