CFS3 Multiplayer

by Bob "Groucho" Marks

Article Type: Review
Article Date: November 12, 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

It's Not About You

By opening up this password-protected page, itís obvious that you, dear flight simulation consumer, care at least on some small level about Microsoftís newest offering. Perhaps youíre thinking of purchasing it, and are looking for some insight into the multiplayer aspects of Combat Flight Simulator 3. Maybe youíre on the fence, teetering between taking a chance on it but also wary due to these early reviews. Itís also possible that youíd like to see me slam CFS3 without mercy, circling the way a crowd always forms around a schoolyard scuffle.

If thatís the case, move along. Nothing to see here. Besides, I think the playground monitor is coming.

Donít get me wrong. Itís not that I like this sim. I donít. I have my reasons, such as the simplistic, stick-gorilla-resistant flight model, the inefficient and bloated required system resources-to-eye candy ratio, and the general half-assed / half-finished look and feel of CFS3. Chuck Norton has already detailed these issues in a superb review, and I am going to wipe this thing off of my hard drive immediately following my completion of this article.

Folks like you and I are freaks, my friend. We are fringe loonies and flight-sim nerds. Microsoft didn't make this sim to placate us, they made it to make money. They went for the casual game player, the regular guy: Joe Twelve-Pack. And Joe, he likes stuff easy. They know their market. To reach this end, Microsoft has done a pretty good job of making the multiplayer aspects of CFS3 as painless as possible.

Get over yourself. It's not about you.

Chewed up, spit out

It Works. Except When it Doesnít

In keeping with CFS3's obvious (if sneakily unstated) focus on the casual flight sim / action game crowd, the act of finding someone online to fly against is made transparently simple. Joe Twelve-Pack is not going to want to screw around with getting IP addresses and mucking about with port settings; heís going to want to talk trash, fly around, and blow things up.

I must admit that the multiplayer modes of CFS3 carry a certain sterile efficiency with them. This shouldnít be much of a shocker. Love 'em, hate 'em, or be a wussy non-committal type about 'em, even the most diehard MS-basher has got to concede that Microsoft has had years of building net-enabled software. They are the world's most powerful software company, after all, so it should be no surprise that they have succeeded in getting at least the technical aspects of something right. In this case, itís the near-seamless implementation of on-line Internet play into a game.

In theory, firing up multiplay in CFS3 is a simple affair when using the CFSMatch server. CFSMatch is a discovery server (actually a part of The Zone) that is only accessed within the game itself. This serves as a ďmatch-makerĒ of sorts, and promises to eliminate cheating bastards who graft F-16 flight model tables and the firepower of a Missouri-class battleship onto a P-40, or at least relegate cheaters to their own nasty little battle space. The idea is that only people with like aircraft files will be able to hook up together.

Simply log in with your player name and password, wait for the game to hook up with the server. If you are lucky and the planets are aligned just so, you may have success. It was my experience that the damned server was down for a day-and-a-half, freaking me out a bit (I had a deadline, dammit!) and scrambling to find someone else who (a) would admit that they bought CFS3 and (b) had an Internet connection. I had no takers those first couple of days, so I was stuck playing the home version against the AI. Luckily, the CFSMatch server came back on-line and I was able to hook up. Hopefully this was not something that will be a common occurrence.

The CFSMatch game list

Once into the server and logged in, a list of avaliable games pops up with icons indicating connection speed and game name. Selecting a game on the list discloses the realism level and the geographic location of the host computer. Joining any of these is a simple matter of double-clicking the listed game and, if the host set up no password, youíre in. Select your mount, set your fuel level and stores, and fly your butt off. It has been my experience, however, that something catastrophic will happen to the connection long before your gluteus maximus actually departs.

There are some utilitarian filtering options, allowing you to screen out slower connections, low realism settings, and geographic locales. During my time online, however, there werenít enough people up for that to be handy. As more people buy the game, however, this will matter more.

Build It, and They Will Come. Or Not.

Mission builder, page 1

If the listed games donít look enticing enough, you can build you own mission and either publish it on the CFSMatch server or invite buddies over for an IP-connected flying frag fest. Creating games is a cinch, as they are all based on the various Quick Mission scenarios. Like the actual act of hooking up, Microsoft has made the act of setting up a mission of your own simple by limiting your options.

Weíre not talking about an in-depth mission creator here. The choices are pretty much limited to what airplanes you want to fly, is this a free-for-all skirmish or a team dogfight (axis vs. allies being a popular format), do you want it published on the CFSMatch list, how many clouds do you want, etc. The flight model and weapons damage modeling scaling are also selectable. No fancy-schmancy scripting here. While this makes mission set-up very idiot-resistant, the very limited ingredient list also makes for little or no variety. Build it, publish it, and wait for somebody to show up. Simple.

Mission builder, page 2

This brings me to some of the problems I have with games on the CFSMatch server. First and foremost is the imprecise way that the realism is stated for a created game. These realism ratings are expressed in percentages, rather than actual parameters that detail what functions are turned down. When a game is said to have a realism factor of 80%, what is turned off? Is the flight model toned down? Are the weapon efficacies increased to uberkannone proportions? You wonít know until you join.

Stability is also an issue. More games end due to glitches rather than actual match-ending scenarios. This may be due in some part to the game creatorís shaky connection and not the CFSMatch list server, but it can be somewhat frustrating nonetheless.

Within the Game

The Ass-Ender, just because it looks cool

OK, youíre in a game. What to expect? The first thing to remember is that this ainít no Aces High or Warbirds or any other massive-multiplayer game with a persistent battlefield environment or even rules. These are free-for-all shoot-em-up fests. Yes, CFS3 debuts cooperative mission capability for the first time in the series. With co-op capability comes the ability to crew bomber gun turret and bombardier positions, if thatís your kink. Even so, the very temporary nature of hosted games, limited number of possible players (yeah, I know MS says that up to thirty-something players, but just try it), and inherent shakiness of host connections limit large-scale co-op missions.

If you can get a buddy to fly with you as a wingman, however, you could probably rule just about any game you log into. Otherwise, itís pure chaotic dog-eat-dog fly-by shooting. If this spins your turbine, then great, but I find my interest wanes fairly quickly. When the flight model is so tepid, thereís neither particular satisfaction in shooting someone down nor any particular shame in being axed. It just inevitably happens, and it gets boring. But thatís me.

With its arcadey flight model, I feel no shame about turning off the cockpit and pulling up the HUD gauges. Heck, you KNOW the guys youíre flying against are doing it; why put yourself at a disadvantage? Besides, turning off the majority of the cockpits in CFS3 help reduce the amount of ugly in one's life, and canít we all use a bit less unpleasantness?

Screencaps can't catch the strobing

Warping exists, but was not as rampant as it is in other games with mis-matched Internet connections. I ran across a strange phenomena I have not seen before, one that I believe to be a bug within CFS3. Sometimes, closing on an intended victim, it would begin to ďstrobeĒ violently. If I have the target selected by the yellow bracketing, it too will shake in time with the targeted aircraft. This is not a common stutter (these are a problem, but a few hours of messing with settings minimized that problem) but some kind of spastic vibration of the targeted aircraft and brackets that moved at a very high frequency and the amplitude of approximately a fuselage length. I found this to be the case both during both CFSMatch server-published games and direct IP-address connected games. Very odd, and highly annoying. Besides making the intended target damned hard to hit, I donít much like the possibility that closing in on a kill might very well send me into an epileptic seizure of some kind.

But Really, Itís OK

Look, I know Iíve done my share trashing CFS3 in my tirade above, but reallyóitís not that bad. I think the most frustrating thing about this sim, from the standpoint of we nerdy hardcore types, is the missed opportunity that CFS3 represents. The seamless integration of the CFSMatch server system into the fabric of the game, the attempt to control cheaters, and the ease of setting up and joining missions are all steps in the right direction. The frustrating thing is that these are all overshadowed by the horribly lame flight modeling and generally unfinished-look of the game. There are SDKs being introduced by MS, and CFS3 can be improved by modders, but to what end? When tweaked by well meaning modders, will the proliferation of user-improved aircraft wreak havoc on the CFSMatch cheater-checking system?

Probably. Which I guess misses the whole point. Microsoft has made hooking up online with other players as painless and as surprise-free as possible. With the exception of the CFSMatch server occasionally going south, it works out of the box. This hits their obvious if unstated consumer base straight between the eyes. Joe Twelve-Pack hasnít heard of IL-2 Sturmovik, and doesnít give two hoots that accelerated stalls are ignored completely or that torque effects are non-existent in Combat Flight Simulator 3. He wants to go shoot somebody else flying their airplane right now, and with CFS3 thatís what he gets. Promise delivered.

Joe, youíre welcome. Whoever you are.

Can we, please?

Reviewer's Spec:
  • CPU: Pentium 4 1.7GHz
  • OS: WinXP Home w/ DirectX8.1
  • RAM: 512MB PC800 RAMBUS
  • Video: GeForce3 64MB Video card (Detonator 40 drivers)
  • Sound: Soundblaster LiveDrive IR soundcard
  • Internet: 384 Kbps wireless broadband connection
  • Controllers: Thustmaster Cougar HOTAS w/ modified Thomas Brothers rudder pedal prototypes



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