by Chuck "SmokingCrater" Norton
Article Type: Review
Article Date: November 04, 2002
Product Name: Combat Flight Simulator 3
Category: WWII Air Combat Simulation
Release Date: Fall 2002
System Req.: TBA
Articles / Links / Files: Click Here
This week I got the opportunity to review the gold edition of Microsoft's latest foray into the realm of World War II flight simming: Combat Flight Simulator 3: The Battle for Europe (CFS3). I previewed it some time ago for COMBATSIM.COM and was, as you may have seen, not very impressed. Well, time has passed and code has been written and rewritten. So what's the end result? Another sub par flight sim that showed great potential but will ultimately have to be hacked to bits by third party programmers in order to be worth the money spent. This was a true disappointment. Let me explain.
|Tantalizing cover art |
I'll try not to rehash too much from my preview of the game, but being a real-life pilot and amateur military historian gives me a huge craving for realism. I always crank the difficulty/realism settings of any game to the max. Aside from satiating my realism wants, this is the only way I believe a game can truly be tested. I mean, come on, anyone can make a sim look good, but it takes time, talent, and care to make it fly right. It was with this in mind that I began installing CFS3 on my hard drive.
Before I get into the review though, I'd like to say that, for the record, I did my very best to view the gold copy with an unbiased eye. No, I did not like the preview version, but, hey, that was a beta and they are supposed to be rough, right? So, as the game was installing, I read through the materials included with the game (manual, printed readme file, maps). As I read, I felt something that could honestly be interpreted as enthusiasm for this new version of the game. From the printed material, it looked to me like Microsoft had gotten a lot of beta issues ironed out. The truth is, they did, but some of the issues that still remain kill what could have been a very good flight sim.
So here we go from the top. Get your popcorn, kiddies.
Installation:Again, like the beta, the installation process went off without a hitch. The interface is very easily navigated and user-friendly and CFS3 was up and running in no time. The only anomaly is that the installation program prompts you to reboot your system. When I did this, my computer stopped at the WindowsME loading screen and the hard drive chunked away for a full five minutes before finally showing the desktop. This is not a gripe, per se, just a heads-up of what to expect.
Stability of this game seems to be okay thus far. I have gotten two crashes. One was during game initialization and I have a feeling something just got loaded kinda funny. My screen flickered and flashed and locked hard, forcing me to use the power button to shut down the computer and restart it. It loaded normally afterwards. My second crash came when I upped the graphics settings. The game slowed down and began to stutter; pausing every few seconds like it was trying to catch its breath. Then my computer just rebooted for no apparent reason. Odd.
Interface and MenusVery little has changed in CFS3's front end since the preview edition that I checked out a few weeks ago. The addition of some nice background buildings, hangars and what-not to the main menu screens helped to liven things up a bit and overall, was a very nice touch. The menus in this game are very easy to understand and very straight forward. Even the CFS novice will have no difficulty navigating the game's various menus and commands. The main options available to the user are Quick Combat, Single Missions, Campaign, Multiplayer, and Setup.
Quick combat is just that. Combat: not now, but right now. With just a few clicks, you can set up a wide variety of mission variables and be flying before you know it. You can select from either Intercept, Ground Attack, Escort, Dogfight, or Free Flight. While most are self-explanatory, the latter is an excellent way to get familiar with the flight characteristics of your airplane of choice. In each of these mission types, the user is capable of choosing a vast array of options to custom tailor to their taste. Variables such as number of wingmen, number of enemies, type of targets to attack, type of escort, and the like can all be altered in just a few seconds' time. You are even able to set options like time of day and weather. Put this level of control together with a slick interface and it makes for a very powerful, user-friendly tool.
Single missions feature both historical and "What-if" scenarios. These missions, all included with the game (as no full-scale mission builder is present) explore what could have happened if jets had arrived in time to see front-line combat. This really is a cool idea. I mean, how many of us out there have ever wondered how a P-80 would fare against an Me-262? Questions like this are what these "What-if" scenarios attempt to examine.
The setup system works like many other Microsoft flight sims. A full list of control, display, and sound options are available to the user to let them get the most out of their CFS experience. Make no mistake about it, understanding the controls of the game are critical to your enjoyment of the game. Several issues I had with the beta copy turned out to be nothing more than my misunderstanding the control system. A mistake I made great pains to correct while reviewing the gold edition. In short, make sure to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the basic commands of the game before attempting to buzz off into the virtual history books.
MultiplayerOnce again, as in the preview, I was unable to test out the multiplayer (MP) function. Believe me, this irks me just as much as it irks you and you can thank my worthless ISP for that. My internet service cut out a few days before the CFS3 Gold arrived and won't be reinstated until the end of November. So, given that my only other Internet access is my workplace, I have not been able to test the multiplayer system at all. I'm sorry about this, as MP might very well be one area were CFS3 shines.
CampaignThe campaign system has outwardly changed very little from the initial beta copy I played a few weeks ago, though I'm sure that much work has gone into refining the underlying code. In general it seems to perform as advertised and can be very immersive if you get into it. It tracks all sorts of stats for both pilot and squadron and allows you to take command of the war as the supreme leader of Allied or Axis forces. (Never mind the fact that you might be holding the rank of lieutenant.)
Basically, as you fly and fight, you determine the outcome of the war. Depending upon how well (or how poorly) your squadron performs, you might see the war end in time for Christmas. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you could conceivably see Operation Sea Lion to a successful conclusion. If you're into immersive campaigns and gathering stats and things like that, the campaign system will likely keep you coming back for days on end, even if other areas of the game don't shine quite as brightly. To the same end, you must be prepared to spend a lot of time with the campaign system to truly see yourself go anywhere. It was a long war, folks, and CFS3 reflects it. For people like me that like long, all-encompassing campaigns, this is a good thing. Those people looking for a quick fix will likely find Quick Combat more appealing.
That's about it for the game's front-end. The long and the short of it is that CFS3's frontend and menus look and function very well. The variety of available game types is wide, but fairly standard. However, the campaign system shines. In fact, I think it is CFS3's biggest selling point. No other WWII flight sim currently on the market has a campaign that even comes close to the one found in this game. The disappointing thing is that when you get down to the actual flying, it makes you question whether or not the campaign is worth it all.
Flight Models (FM):Relative to the beta copy, the flight models in the gold are, in a word: better. Please notice I did not say "good." Again, to reiterate from my preview, I have never flown any WWII-era aircraft, but I am a civilian pilot with experience in high-performance aircraft including aerobatics. Can I tell you that the maximum dive speed for a P-51D is off by five knots or some other persnickety little detail? No, but what I will tell you is my opinion of how the airplanes in CFS3 feel. I do know what an airplane does and how it performs at the edge of its flight envelope, (Generally speaking of course, as each airplane is different and behaves in its own way.) so I feel fairly confident in my assessments. When the faults are as big as they are, even the novice would begin to be suspicious. Also, please bear in mind that I used 100 percent realism settings for the following flight tests.
|A Ju-88 meets the business end of a P-47. |
Okay, enough disclaimers. Let's get to the issues at hand. As with the beta, the aircraft in this game perform as expected during take off, climb, cruise, descent, and landing. All of these are normal realms of flight well within the plane's flight envelope. But again, as you start approaching the edge of the envelope things get kind of ugly. No, there's nothing as bad as the P-80's infamous tumble-climb (see preview), but there are major issues with stalls. In short, they don't happen in some airplanes at all. Even then, when they do happen in others they are not realistic at all.
Example: Take just about any airplane in the game and jam the stick full aft just after rotation speed is reached during the take off run (Rotation speed is loosely defined as the speed at which the nose wheel or tail wheel comes off the ground.). It begins a severe nose-up climb like nothing is wrong. The problem is, it will hold this attitude (say about 45 - 75 degrees nose up) and climb like crazy without ever stalling. The speed will bleed off and slowly you will begin to drop off to one side, but you won't stall. The yellow about-to-stall text appears in the upper right corner of the screen, but that's about as far as it goes. This was tested and repeated in the P-47, P-80, Spitfire, Bf-109, and a fully loaded, fully fueled B-26. Come on, if you know your history, you know that trying to climb a heavy Marauder like that would be tantamount to suicide…but not in CFS3. So why is this a big deal? Well, it makes aerial combat a joke. Yanking and banking your airplane around the sky with impunity makes the idea of dogfighting just about as boring as it comes, to say nothing at all of realism.
Then what happens on the off chance that one of these airplanes does stall (at any speed/configuration)? Not much. The nose pitches forward a few degrees then pitches right back up to where it was (assuming you're still holding the same back pressure on the stick.) Then it pitches forward again, then back up, repeat ad nauseum. This little series of oscillations is a bit sickening to watch on several levels. First off, it looks like your plane is suffering from some sort of seizure, and second of all, it is utterly unrealistic. I mean, come on, not even a docile old Piper Warrior can pull off that kind of crap. Sadly, the stalls in CFS3 are done in such a manner that it becomes hard to even compare them to those in reality. Anyone who's ever flown a real airplane can tell instantly – INSTANTLY – that these stalls are nowhere near correct.
"Okay, okay, big deal," you say, "so the stalls are a bit wishy-washy. I can live with one little fault in the flight model." Sure. So could I. Too bad that's not the only problem I'm having with them. While the overall FM's have issues, it seems that individual planes suffer from quirky bugs here and there too. Most notably is the late model Spitfire and the early P-47. Both of these have unrealistically effective rudder controls. Hit full deflection in either direction and the airplane yaws an unbelievable amount. Start oscillating the rudder back and forth and you will throw the airplane into a perverse form of a spin in no time flat. I don’t think it's a joystick sensitivity issue because its not present in all aircraft. Just a few. As of yet, I've been unable to ascertain exactly what conditions are more conducive to this rudder issue, as it is only present during certain realms of the aircraft's envelope.
|Just smoothly apply the rudder... Oh, well, that works too. |
In the long run, if you're looking for realism in the flight model department, then you better be prepared to be disappointed with Microsoft's offerings. This is one realm where third party programmers will absolutely shine. Given what these folks have done for other Microsoft flight sims, there's no doubt that they will heed the call and rise to the occasion. On the other hand, if you're looking for arcade-style gaming, but you find that Crimson Skies just isn't getting the job done anymore, you may not take any issues with the flight models. Being a realism enthusiast, I was deeply disappointed.
Graphics and SoundGraphics and sound are hit and miss in this sim. To be a bit more specific, the airplanes look cool externally, the terrain isn't great, and all the airplanes sound like lawnmowers. Given the amount of time and effort that goes into a flight sim, there's not really any feasible excuse for cutting corners in the sound department, especially when one considers the company backing this product. Yet, sadly this seems to be a highly neglected point of the game. Let me attempt to relate.
There are two types of engine sounds: inline and radial engines. The radial sounds decent, but the inline engine (Bf-109, P-51) sound like they were made by Briggs & Stratton. Nowhere is the howling purr of that beautiful Merlin. Engines don't load up at low speed any more than they start screaming in a dive. The classic howl produced as the prop tips near the speed of sound isn't in the game and overall takes away from the sense of speed and urgency in a dive.
|The little lawnmower that could(n't). |
Engines aren't the only area overlooked in the game. The gun sounds are all frighteningly similar. From German to British to American, there is very little variety at all. Cannons sound a little deeper and slower than their MG counterparts, (possibly just a slowed-down .wav file?) but they sound no different when in external or internal views. Its kind of a small point, but isn't it the little things that count?
Speaking of little things, let's get on to graphics. Okay, first the good. The airplanes look pretty nice. Still a bit too factory-fresh when compared to their real life counterparts, but I guess that's another area where the third party folks will come to the rescue. On a side note, there seems to be something very strange going on with the shininess /sun-glint algorithms. It seems that its not limited to natural metal finish aircraft. When in the right light, you get a weird glint effect off olive drab and gray airplanes too. Its hard to explain, but it looks like sheet lightning is coursing over your airplane's skin. This produces a fairly neat effect on natural airplanes, but it looks awful on every other airplane and sadly, it happens quite often.
Now, the bad. The cockpits are pretty sub-standard on many airplanes. The early P-47 is still one hideously ugly airplane when viewed from the pilot's seat. MS forgot to texture any of the canopy hardware, so the result is a series of blurry, messy lines that serve to do nothing more than eliminate the suspension of disbelief. Fortunately, this is a fairly isolated incident, but none of the cockpits can hold a candle to those found in other sims, most notably IL-2 Sturmovik.
|Behind the desk of the P-47. |
Environmental graphics are good but nothing spectacular. The ground looked pretty ugly from 5000 feet, so I decided to crank up the settings and see what would happen. Sadly, the game slowed to a crawl then deemed it necessary to reboot my machine. Its not unexpected to notice slow-downs when upping the graphics settings, but you should be prepared to keep the settings fairly low if you've got a machine comparable to mine. I found the best – to use the term loosely – trade-off of graphics, speed, and stability with all my detail sliders set to two out of five. Even then, I noticed some stutters here and there when around densely populated cities. These stutters were worse in the beta, but I didn't mention it because I thought they would get fixed by release. I guess they didn't, as this game has a tendency to bring my 1GHz Athlon, Radeon 8500 128, machine equipped with 768 megs of RAM to a crawl sometimes. I'm hoping its just my machine, but I don't really see these problems with other games. And yes, all my drivers are up to date within two weeks.
Gameplay:Gameplay is the true issue behind any piece of entertainment software. Whether its role playing, first-person shooter, or flight sim, the question they all must face is: Is it fun? That's what they're there for, isn't it? The entertainment factor, right? As with so many other areas, this game had potential, but it just didn't seem to measure up to standards set by other games. Some areas are better than others, so I'll try to hit the good points along with some of the bad too.
Obviously, flight models have a huge affect on gameplay, but I won't bother going over them any more as I already hit them earlier. Just for summation purposes I'll say that gameplay will be more adversely affected for those of us out there seeking realism. For the more casual gamer, the arcade-ish flight models probably won't bother you as much.
I will say this: for those of you that read my preview, you know I squawked the view system pretty severely. Well, it turns out that most of my issues with that area were my fault, and once I got the hang of it, I found that the game's viewing system was pretty good. A full range of padlock functions are available and you can quickly change between a 360 degree track view (where the screen follows the selected target as you maneuver), or a fixed view (with a 3D cone that points towards the selected target.) The internal views can be smoothly panned by using the hat switch, you just have to make sure you toggle that feature by using the scroll lock key. (Conveniently, this is now mentioned in the readme file.) All in all, once you get the hang of them, the views, both internal and external aren't too bad.
One area that gets extremely weird, though, is bomber gunnery. The tracers still don't line up with the gunsight. They didn't in the beta and they still don't in the gold version. I think I can see where MS was going with this idea, but I feel they overdid it a bit. What happens is, when you fire at an angle to the course of your airplane (say you fire off at 3 o'clock) the tracers appear well aft of where the gunsight says they should. I think Microsoft did this to account for the fact that you're firing from a moving platform, but the tracers appear so far off target as to make bomber gunnery extremely frustrating. Just for kicks, I opened fire on a trailing B-26 and it took some time to actually hit it because I had to lead it by a staggering amount. This was a nice idea, but very poorly implemented. What I found even more interesting was that the readme file plainly says "..tracers may not line up precisely with the gunsight." Maybe its just me, but this tells me that Microsoft knew about this issue before CFS3 went gold, and it sounds like they just didn't care to fix it. If this is the case, it bothers me greatly. In fact, it borders on insulting, but on to other things.
Still, as with the beta, the sense of speed is absolutely putrid. Get down low in a P-80 at 500 mph and watch the ground outside just creep by as if you were flying an ultralight. Maybe this is a small point too, but for a game so heavily focused on ground attack missions, you'd think they'd give this area a little more concern. No game that I've ever played conveys a true sense of high speed, but CFS3 is worse than most.
Final Thoughts:In the end, I feel that Combat Flight Simulator 3 is high-potential material that fell well short of its mark. The fact that games released a year ago stomp CFS3 into the ground in graphics, sound, flight models, and gameplay says a lot about the true nature of CFS3. In fact, the campaign system is the one area that I found truly well-done. But, what difference does it make if you can't stomach playing the game? I mean, you still have to fly the missions in order to affect the campaign, so a lot of the gee-whiz factor of that area is negated by the core of the game itself.
I am not going to sit here and tell you whether or not you should buy this game. That's not what I’m here to do. I'm here to tell you exactly what I thought of this game and what I thought was that it doesn't measure up to the expectations of this gamer. As I've said before, the amount of time and effort put into this game, coupled with the resources that should have been supplied by Microsoft should have produced an absolutely phenomenal game. I mean, honestly, put Microsoft's financial backing into a solid development studio and give them sufficient time and you should have a world-beater. Instead, CFS3, to me, represents a regression in flight simming.
In my opinion, the only thing that will save this game will be the blood, sweat, and tears of the heroic third party programmers. They have breathed life into other Microsoft games before and I believe they may be about to face their finest hour. The fact is, through all its faults, this game will sell – and very likely sell well. Why? Because it says Microsoft on the box. Knowing this, its time for you third party programmers to rise up, and show the world what you’ve got. Good luck.
- In depth campaign
- Easily managed menus and commands
- Good view system (once you get the hang of it)
- Arcade-ish flight models
- Difficult gunnery
- Ho-hum graphics
- Monotonous and boring sounds
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.
Home of the VMF-124 Death's Head Squad