by James Sterrett
Article Type: Review
Article Date: January 27, 2003
Product Name: Falcon 4
Category: Jet Simulation
Release Date: December 15, 1998
Req'd. Spec: PII 266MHz (PIII 450 Rec'd.), 64 MB RAM (128 MB Rec'd.), 3D Video Accel., 400 MB HDisk Space
Articles / Links / Files: Click Here
Falcon 4.0 was published late in 1998, proclaiming itself “The new benchmark in flight sim technology”. It was ambitious, full of promise, and so riddled with bugs that it could barely run for sixty seconds out of the box. Now it’s 2003, and some people are still out there playing Falcon 4.0. Are they a lonely bunch of freaks blindly obsessing over a shattered hope, or do they know something the rest of us don’t?
|This sky is not empty - but labels are off. |
Let’s begin by taking a step even further back in time. Remember 1991? Spectrum Holobyte published Falcon 3.0, which many of us remember fondly for many hours of flight sim fun. In that rosy glow, we forget that it was a festering mass of nearly-unworkable code for at least six to twelve months, until a steady series of patches brought it to the stable state we recall. Falcon 4.0 headed down the same runway, and was more or less playably stable with the 1.08 patch when Hasbro decided to cut its losses and terminated support for the project in December of 1999.
|The same scene, with labels on. Labels are also on for all the other screenshots so you can see more of what's going on! |
There the story would have ended, but Falcon fans often wind up on the fanatical side. A large number of dedicated and computer-savvy fans took the program and ran—in one case literally, with leaked source code—and applied themselves to the task of making Falcon 4.0 be all it should have been. Despite some rocky periods when various groups haven’t gotten along, and times of great confusion for mere mortals when the installation options would humble rocket scientists, the various Realism Patches, eRazor patches, and now the SuperPaks have steadily improved Falcon 4.0’s stability and realism. COMBATSIM.COM reviewed Falcon 4.0 when it came out and we’ve run a number of articles on it since (see the resource section below for a full listing). Let’s take another look, this time with SuperPak 3.
|Durandals slam into an airfield |
The first clear improvement delivered by the SuperPak series is the ease of installation. Gone are the days when installation required a degree in computer science or the assistance of a two-part article from COMBATSIM. No longer do you need to worry about choosing between the Realism Patch or eRazor’s improved executable. Instead, you install Falcon 4.0 from the CD, apply the 1.08 patch, and apply the SuperPak patch. You’re done. ERazor’s codework is integrated with the rest of the tweaking, and the SuperPaks are also fully integrated with Joel Bierling’s configuration editor, so tweaking your patch options is easy as well. The whole process has been brought back into the realm of possibility for mere mortals. (If you want the full-scale over-the-top install method complete with endless defrags, see this thread; I used the one described above.
|Floating down over the battle-lines |
What does the SuperPak series add to your Falcon experience? According to the SP3 manual, the primary new features include a vast array of stability improvements, a redesigned user interface that incorporates easy-to-use theater selection, significantly improved 3D models, flight models, cockpit, avionics, and weapon modeling, and much-improved multiplayer code. Taking the first claim first: stability is definitely much improved. It isn’t perfect, but I can spend all afternoon flying a solo campaign without entertaining such arcane worries as whether Falcon will crash if I use laser-guided bombs. One bizarre feature that remains: to get my Saitek X-36 software to integrate with Falcon, I have to ALT-TAB out of Falcon once. Subsequent ALT-TABs out of Falcon alternate between having X-36 programming in Falcon or not! The wider case here is also true: Falcon 4.0 SP3 is a heck of a lot more stable than earlier versions, but it still sometimes requires coddling to keep it from going off in a huff.
|One ordinary sky, with aircraft and missiles |
I cannot compare the current multiplayer code to the older code, because descriptions of getting the old code working were enough to deter this mere mortal from trying. Using the SP3 code with my cable modem in Pennsylvania, I’ve been able to fly regularly with a friend in Wyoming who is on a 56k modem. It isn’t perfectly stable or trouble-free, though we suspect the primary culprit is his bandwidth, as more complex missions are much more likely to cause his machine to crash.
Dogfights are highly stable, as are smaller tactical engagements, but large tactical engagements usually result in a crash, sooner or later, while the campaign has yet to remain running on the 56k computer when flying past the FEBA and its associated profusion of game objects. (That same 56k modem-equiped computer runs the campaign quite stably in solitaire play.)
There are also some weird settings that need to be in your command line for Falcon to make multiplayer work (see Frugals), and the connection system is a bit unusual, requiring the host machine to be connected to itself. However, when everything works, the result is loads of fun: more than enough fun to keep us coming back despite the troubles. Reports from others that they routinely fly multiplayer campaign missions keeps us hunting for ways to attain the same blessed state!
|The campaign planning screen with all known objects displayed |
The 3D models definitely look nicer, and I’m willing to simply trust the folks who worked on the project that the weapons and flight models are more accurate (if you want a taste of the dedication to detail these folks have, download and read the Realism Patch 5 manual). Where punters like me can see the newer modeling is in the avionics and cockpit. Some things haven’t changed. Firing an AMRAAM or a Sidewinder is still pretty much the same as it was in earlier versions. Firing Mavericks or laser-guided bombs, however, is so different you’re likely to need to relearn it completely from scratch. It’s more complicated, more difficult, and as far as I can tell, a heck of a lot more realistic—and it’s probably still too easy!
The countermeasures systems have also been changed, such that you now need to program your own chaff and flare dispenser patterns, or else set the system to “auto”. For the extremely hard-core, you now have the option for a “ramp start” for your F-16. This doesn’t mean “taxi from the hangar”; this means “You enter the sim with your F-16 unpowered and spend the next 10-15 minutes flipping switches so you can move it.” It isn’t for everybody, and wimps like me have the option of starting the game with their F-16 ready to roll down the runway. However, the effort to model that startup process also means that virtually every switch you can see in the cockpit has a function in the game. A clumsy player could potentially power the jet down in mid-flight! [Ed. Note]
|Lining up on a runway in the HUD-Only view |
For the hardcore sim pilot, offerings in jets have been thin on the ground of late, and this is probably part of the reason for the sim community’s dedication to Falcon. However, a significant part of the attraction is the loftiness of Falcon’s goals. The campaign aims to simulate an entire war, including all the bridges, factories, airbases, and tanks—and then sets you in this war in your F-16.
|Blam! My wingie hits an airbase |
You fly your missions, and as you do, missions with no relation to you at all go past. Ground units slug it out below you in fights that look bitter enough that you’ll be tempted to haul along ordnance to help them out as you go about other business. Some mission designer didn’t dream up the missions you’re on as a scripted sequence on the road to your glory; the mission came out of an AI planner’s assessment of the state of the war and the best employment of your F-16s in winning it. If you haven’t experienced this, folks, you’re in for a treat. It’s an immersive continuous persistent campaign like nothing else out there. It feels real. SuperPak3 makes Falcon 4.0 more realistic, more challenging, and more stable than ever before. It isn’t perfectly stable, or realistic, or unbeatably challenging; but neither is anything else out there.
F4 Unified Team's SuperPak 3
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