|Falcon 4.0: A Dickens Christmas
by Leonard "Viking1" Hjalmarson
It was the best of sims, it was the worst of sims. Falcon 4 is a testament to complexity, development pressures, corporate budget issues, and sheer genius. To say it's impressive is an understatement. To say it's finished is a lie. Thankfully, no one is making that claim, and to the contrary the Microprose team is hard at work completing the product.
Falcon 4 redefines "atmosphere." It reminds me that there are software developers who care about their work, and it gets me dreaming about the next generation of hardware and the software that will inevitably follow. Like a fine wine, it makes me forget almost everything else out there. But also like a fine wine, it sometimes leaves a bitter aftertaste that has me reaching for something more agreeable.
Ma, It's Broke!
Falcon 4 is broken. The amazing thing is how little this detracts from the overall product. The depth of the simulation is almost terrifying; I think the programmers themselves would agree. Will it ever run exactly as intended? If anyone can do it, these boys can. But like it's namesake of some years ago, it may be twelve months and twelve patches before the promise is fulfilled.
I respect Microprose for making the plunge. 1997 and 1998 are testimonies to companies who approached the brink, and shrunk back. F22 ADF was originally supposed to sport a dynamic campaign: it did not. Total Air War was supposed to sport a dynamic campaign which integrated a complete ground war with an air war. It did not. Again and again developers have had to temper their enthusiasm with the realities of time, talent and tuppence. Microprose did not. Eventually this gamble will pay off in spades for the hard core sim crowd. But it may be a while before the tarnished reputation of MPS recovers.
Unfortunately, it isn't only the obvious things that plague F4: the CPU hogging 2d cockpit and campaign; the unfinished Mission Builder; the uneven wingman AI. But in the campaign, which is the heart of this giant, things constantly go awry. AWACS calls can be bizarre (intercept a bandit six hundred miles away); mission reports can likewise fail to pass muster; ground radar is powered down; and ATC will sometimes ditch you; bomb hits which are spot on register no damage.
In a conversation a few days after release Gilman Louie, Chairman of Microprose and perhaps the most responsive simulation developer in history, admitted that the game was released early and on a shaky footing. But he also promised to see it through, and noted that part of the reward for buying a shaky product came in the form of a ring bound manual that was very expensive to produce.
It's up to you individually to judge whether that position holds merit. Given the financial realities, Hasbro/Microprose probably had no choice but to release the game or kill the project permanently.
Personally, given these options, I would rather buy Falcon 4 now and join the ranks of unpaid beta testers around the world. But not everyone is content with this position, and no one, Microprose included, is happy with the current state of the sim. What's a fella to do?
A Many Patched Garment
For those who have some history in the simulation world, and especially the old timers, the pattern is evident. Mere days after Falcon 4 hit the stands the first patch was also released. But the team had pushed beyond the breaking point, and in some cases things that previously worked were broken by MERE TYPOS.
The consequences of the release of the first patch have probably outweighed the problems with the initial release. Now the decision is even harder: release a second quick fix to deal with the problems caused by the initial patch, or work on a more comprehensive fix and force the loyal fans to fly with a bent bird for an extended time (time frame on patch two is late January)?
"Impaled on the horns of a dilemma," will well describe the current predicament. I would argue that Microprose ought indeed to release a second quick fix, even if this patch is only available to the dedicated and intense crowd on the Internet. But you can see that the decision has become complicated, political, and nasty.
The Sim's the Thing
So what about the game itself? As you can tell from my opening paragraphs, F4 is a thing of beauty. Sure, we woke her early in the morning and her makeup is lacking.. in fact she hasn't had her coffee yet... er, some mouth wash would help!
But beneath the rough exterior is a grand interior. The question is, how many will stick around to notice?
The hard core crowd likely will. A good share of the mid core crowd will likely persevere also. But many won't. Even if the problems themselves don't turn the players off, the sense of having been cheated often will. Good will is a precious commodity, and the tender feelings of the lovers of things that fly and fight, once bruised, don't always recover.
The Right Stuff
Although Janes F15 is a very different simulation, it comes up constantly in discussions with serious sim fans when talking about F4. The avionics in F4 compare well mostly, but somehow lack the flare and snap of F15. In fact, this is literally true when down in the mud knocking off a ground radar or similar target. The ground objects in F15 are excellent, and effects may be somewhat overdone, but they draw the player in at that level in a way that F4 often does not.
But in the terrain department, F4 is victor. Graphics are close to state of the art, and clouds and objects are nicely rendered. Better still, you can run all this at 800x600 and beyond if you have the hardware. "Aye, there's the rub," some will say. More on that later!
Effects on the whole do not measure up to F15, and in fact this is one aspect of the graphics engine that appears unfinished. It's difficult to guage whether this was a compromise in favor of precious CPU cycles, or whether in fact there simply wasn't time. But the bottom line is the same: effects, fire and explosions are underwhelming mostly, even though the overall immersion factor remains extremely high.
Cruise along toward a fire fight and witness a tank battalion and TOW missile squadron exchanging blows. In fact, at higher resolution (say, 1024x768 or 1152x864) you can watch the smoke and muzzle flash from twenty miles and more.
Similarly, cruising toward an airfield at twenty five miles and scanning the sky and scenery out the window, one can almost believe one is there! The cockpit is exceptionally well done, and snap views or panning views are solid. No, we haven't got the virtual cockpit of Hornet: Korea (still one of the best in my mind), but it's good none-the-less.
Padlock itself comes in two flavors and even has the optional F3 padlock mode. Combined with reflections and lift line, it's amazingly easy to maintain orientation in spite of pulling acrobatic manouvers that would give pause to other pilots in other sims. I do like this cockpit, and I have found maintaining situational awareness as well as visual lock with a bad guy fairly simple stuff.
However, padlock has it's own bugs. Using realistic padlock can get you killed. Enhanced mode is the mode of choice until some AI issues are addressed.
In the same way, after the first patch it can be tough to get out of the can! Yes, you can eject using the handle, but only if you are running with the 2d cockpit at 800x600. But unfortunately, there is a busted line of code in there somewhere that causes the 2d cockpit to tap the CPU on the shoulder every .0001 seconds or so, and another busted line of code that tells the keyboard EJECT sequence not to bother! Again, these little things are adding up.
Then there is the Squadron Leaders' Edition. This first run of 200,000 copies comes in an honest-to-God ring bound hard binder, with a map of Korea supplied. Yes, the map is a bit small, but the ability to add pages to this binder as changes, improvements are made is a touch of genius and a very nice bonus. The manual itself is probably the best ever released with a sim.
And there are the training missions. This series of missions is complete and well executed. Each mission is written up in the manual as a complete tutorial to take you through the learning curve of this complex beast. The manual finishes with a section on Mission Planning by Pete Bonanni that is clear and helpful.
And there is ACMI. Needless to say, the hard core crowd are in heaven with this one. It's an unbelievable module. You can save any mission to film, and these films occupy incredily little space. Played back later you can view any object from and perspective and any distance. You can add speed and alt labels to the view, you can view from inside and out, chase and satellite and more. You can even choose a track view from one object to another, great for debugging missile hits. It's incredible.
We haven't touched on the Mission Builder yet, that nice little module that will probably be the salvation of this simulation in the long term. Having spent almost twenty hours (!!!!) in the Tactical Engagement module this past week, I can affirm that it has great potential. But the reason I spent THAT much time building my mini campaign is that there is no effective error checking, and another batch of nasty bugs.
Still, I DID manage to build my mini campaign, and after learning the peculiar tricks necessary, have a fun and predictable running war on my hands. It's true that for the most part the ground war is broken in TE and we can't do much with it, but the problems are already identified and will likely be remedied in the first patch.
TE holds particular promise in Falcon 4. This ability to build custom wars in a dynamicly responsive environment, and then to issue orders and call up new missions IN REAL TIME, opens up incredible new possibilities. Example.
You are flying along in my custom campaign "China Intercept." You have carefully watched the progress of the war after your last flight, and you know where the enemy tank battalion 75 miles northwest of your Airbase should be.
But here you see it has taken a direct turn off the road and is heading straight for your Airbase! Why? Because your buddy playing via TCP/IP in a force on force scenario against you has just clicked and dragged this battalion your way!
Unnerved, you jump out of your Viper, leaving the AI pilot to finish the mission. You click on the T 62 battalion which now shows on your campaign map (since it was just spotted by YOU), and you create a strike package of two Vipers and four F15C escort to do some mud moving. Yes, this will all be possible in F4 as early as the next patch.
But for all that promise, the promise of "next patch" seems somehow less than it should be. If you are one of those who have your Viper now, you may feel disappointed, cheated, disillusioned. Understandable.
Personally, I too am disappointed. F4 is less than it could be. I feel badly for those who feel burned. I even feel badly for Microprose. I know that many of these guys have poured their heart and soul into this game.
And I know what is coming. I know the promise of MiG 29 and F18, and an expanded naval theatre. I choose .. I put my faith in these guys to pull it together and to pull it off.
Maybe that's what it's all about, in the end. Maybe it's not just economics after all. If we criticize the powers that be at MPS for putting this simulation out too soon, we are saying we want it to be more than economics. We want it to be a vision, and a faith. But if we want it, we have to first "BE" it. We have to be willing to care more about the game than about the dollars too.
And I think most of us do. We want Microprose to succeed at this grand experiment. We want Gilman Louie and crew to make money and do well. We want our Viper to fly and our wingman to fight.
Mostly, we just want to have fun and immerse ourselves in a game that has so much promise, it hurts. I hope, I believe... that with time, we will.
For more on F4 or to download files, go to F4 Index
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Last Updated January 5th, 1999