Oh dear. I've got a bit of an admission to make here - I've never actually played a flight sim before. Luckily though there's a very handy little Complete Guide To Flight Sims in a recent issue of YS, so if you don't mind hanging around I'll settle down with it and a few selected games and do a bit of research. It won't take long, so see you in a few minutes.
Erm, sorry about that. It took a little longer than I thought (three days longer in fact) but at least I know what I'm talking about now.
Right, from what I can gather from the YS piece, flight sims are infamous for their high boredom factor, ie most people don't find them very interesting at all. You have to take that with a pinch of salt, I guess (after all, JD wrote the piece and he finds all games boring on principle) but there's an element of truth in it - compared to your average Speccy game they can be ultra-technical, very hard to get into and in the end not really all that exciting once you've got there. I have to say though, that's not the impression I got from F-16 Combat Pilot.
Right, so where do I start? Well first off, a warning - this game is incredibly complicated. In fact, you'd be better off not thinking about it as a game at all, or certainly not a game in the Pang/Gazza II/whatever sense - this is about as close as you're going to get (with a Speccy at least) to the real thing. If you're mainly into coin-op conversions you can play without the need for instructions then it won't be your cup of tea at all.
For those who are still interested though, a brief history lesson. Spec-chums with long memories may remember a handful of Digital Integration flight games from the dim and distant past - the (really, really) ancient Fighter Pilot for instance, or the (marginally) more recent half arcade/half flight sim ATF (Advanced Tactical Fighter). They've been quiet on the Speccy front since but that doesn't mean they disappeared totally - there were their various 16-bit successes for instance, the greatest being (you guessed it) F-16 Combat Pilot. And now (at last!) F-16 has made it down to the Speccy and - whadaya know? - it's jolly good indeed.
Exactly as you'd expect, the game puts you in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon (one of the most manouvreable combat aircraft around). As you progress through the game you get assigned to different squadrons - each based in a different part of the world - and have to carry out a mission for them. There's the training squadron of course (where you get to familiarise yourself with the aircraft) and then there are the five combat missions - Scramble (an air-to-air interception mission), Hammerblow (a selection of ground attack missions on military targets), Deepstrike (ground attack on bridges, factories and so on), Tankbuster (anti-tank missions - very dangerous) and Watchtower (low-level, high speed reconnaisance). You pick your mish from an icon screen showing an overhead view of the Pentagon - each side of the building representing a different one. The central section is something else though - this represents Operation Conquest, a much more involved strategic option, which crunches elements of all the other missions together. The computer will only let you have a go at this once you've completed all the others though.
The idea with Conquest is to force your enemy to surrender by reducing his fighting ability and morale. You're in command of various squadrons, and assignment of targets and effective use of available aircraft is all down to you. Watch out though! He'll be trying to do exactly the same to you, so it's no good going for, say, an all-out attack on a series of enemy factories if it leaves your own fuel depots sadly vulnerable. As commander of the operation it doesn't matter if the aircraft you are flying happens to get shot down (you can transfer your command to another if you've any left) - it's the overall success of the operation that counts.
After each successfully completed Conquest you'll be offered promotion to another, better squadron, though beware - with each promotion the stakes get higher and the enemy tougher to beat. Each game of conquest can take a massive amount of lime - eight hours isn't uncommon - so luckily they've put an 'R&R' option in here to give you some well deserved mid-mission leave (ie it lets you save the game so you can go for your dinner and then come back for more).
Phew. That's the basic gist of it. Now let's take a closer look at the plane and how you fly it. Once you've chosen your mission and have your targets, you pick the basic weather conditions (night/day, clear/cloudy) and then load the weapons. There's a very wide choice and of course it's up to you what you take (though for absolute beginners it might be best to go for the 'groundcrew recommended' option which will load the plane automatically).
Now you're in the cockpit and - blimey! - what a lot of controls. You can play it on keys (though that's a bit of a nightmare) or on the joystick option where you really want two sticks. One is the throttle (and you have it on one side of the Speccy) while the other actually controls the direction of your aircraft. (This is pretty close to the real set-up on an F-16 apparently, though I wouldn't know). Then there's the vast array of utilities on the control panel - a moving map display which shows you where you are and also shows targets; radar which shows you where enemy aircraft are as well as other targets; a weapon status screen and a digital artificial horizon (so you always know how your F16 is oriented). Other displays show altitude, airspeed, rate of climb, fuel status, and the speed and altitude of enemy aircraft and so on.
Blimey. Now you can start flying, and this is the difficult bit. The F16 can do so many things - the rather massive manual outlines all sorts of clever combat manoeuvres - that although bombing along in a straight line is fairly easy, making the proper use of the plane in a dogfight situation takes some doing. That's not to say you don't get any help though - as in the real plane, lots of things are done automatically. Enemy aircraft are tracked for you, your targets are logged into the plane's computer (as is your flight route) and if anything's wrong you'll be told.
It's not just the incredible detail and correctness of F-16 that makes it impressive - graphically it's a bit of a treat too. Like in ATF all the topographical features and targets are indicated by grid lines. Daytime flying has a green landscape and blue sky (never!) with enemy aircraft, airfields, targets and hills in a paler blue. Night flying, thanks to the infra red, is all red and black. Occasionally cloud cover will mean that you're flying blind (eek!) which can be a bit scary.
There are some really nice little touches too - like the fact that if you turn too swiftly the blood drains away from your head and you black out. The screen goes completely black for a while and when you come to the picture returns. (Hopefully you won't have crashed in the meantime, but if you do - and this is another good bit - blood drips down to cover the whole screen.) All the opening screens have excellent graphics and bags of colour too.
Writing a conclusion for a game review like this is really difficult. It's an incredible feat of programming and has an added strategy element that takes it beyond most flight sims. The term 'game' is really a bit misleading - this is more like a pilot training programme! Once you've mastered this I've no doubt you'd be completely at home in the cockpit of a real F16. The flight manual even goes into the correct flying attire - this is a serious business!
And there you have it. Provided there aren't any major bugs in it - and I haven't seen any so far - this has to be the most complete Spectrum flight sim yet. Perhaps the most impressive we'll ever see. (Mind you, I'm glad I'm not an F16 pilot. I've a horrible feeling that all that tipping and turning would make my insides go wobbly if the truth were known.)
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