The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith
THE END OF THE BEGINNING, OR …
As this book goes to press, it seems possible that there will be no Eagle IV. Spectrum HoloByte, publishers of the Falcon series (see Chapter Four) and its add-ons, "MiG-29" and "F/A-18 Hornet," has bought out its old rival MicroProse, publishers of the Eagle series. Falcon itself is up for a major overhaul (Falcon 4.0), mainly because its out-of-date graphics are so crude that ground strikes look like attacks on children's Leggo construction sets. Spectrum HoloByte wants to expand its Electronic Battlefield Series to include not only low-flying A-10 "Warthog" tank-busters but also the ability to link up with a tank simulation on the ground. For this, they need photorealistic ground detail.
Once Falcon 4.0 has raised the graphics standards, Spectrum HoloByte's corporate culture will probably be more amenable to incorporating an F-15 sim into the Electronic Battlefield series than the other way around. Thus, the Eagle series may well become an add-on to Falcon.
And talk about convergence—there's a move a foot among the major flight sim developers to adopt a common scenery/geography format (based on actual satellite photography), so all future sims will be playing from the same copybook. Developers will save millions by not having to reinvent every square foot of the Earth's surface when they dream up a new game.
In the interim, I am pleased to report that a follow-on to F-15 Strike Eagle III, yclept F-14 Fleet Defender, has addressed and corrected all of my objections to Strike Eagle III. Herewith a brief description:
F-14 Fleet Defender is the game F-15 Strike Eagle III should have been in the first place. It shares Eagle III's "look and feel"; that is, the graphics engine, the physics model, and the interface are remarkably similar—any player comfortable with Eagle III will be right at home with Fleet Defender. What's different is the game play, which shifts the emphasis from simple, solo sorties against nickel-and-dime ground targets to complex, coordinated missions in defense of this nation's highest-value military targets, the mighty carrier groups (CVBGs), each one of which consists of dozens of high-tech vessels collectively worth billions and billions of dollars.
What's different for you, the gamer, is that Fleet Defender plays like a happy marriage between Eagle III and Gunship 2000 in that instead of feeling like the Lone Ranger, you have two whole squadrons of interactive wingies at your beck and call. You can order them to cover your butt, change formation, attack, fall back, and other tactical moves. You fly—and die—together.
Best of all, although threats to the carrier group may come from other surface ships, submarines, and cruise missiles, the most satisfying scenarios have you engaging worthy adversaries in air-to-air combat, from classic one-on-one dogfights to one-on-many to many-on-one to free-for-all furballs. And instead of splashing ill-trained Third World pilots in low-rent Tweety Birds, obsolete Fiat G.91s, clapped-out Freedom Fighters, and other hangar queens, you're up against the best hardware the Soviet Union ever produced: Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers, MiG-29 Fulcrums, MiG-31 Foxhounds, and a dozen or so others.
Tomcats on the Prowl
Grumann's F-14 Tomcat is the oldest of America's four primary fighters (the others: F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, and F/A-18 Hornet). Like its illustrious predecessor, McDonnell Douglas' F-4 Phantom, the F-14 was originally designed solely for fleet defense. And like the Phantom, the Tomcat is an airborne weapons platform, a flying battle cruiser. Its radar can track up to twenty-four targets at once, and engage six of them simultaneously. The Tomcat is the only fighter capable of carrying the awesome Phoenix missile: thirteen feet long, it flies at Mach 5, can zoom to 100,000 feet, and can reach out and whack someone at a range of almost 120 miles.
Yet despite the Tomcat's bulk, it is surprisingly agile, thanks to its complicated, expensive "swing-wing" design. Trimmed for dogfighting, with its tennis-court-size wings swept forward, it can pull almost eight G's…then fold its wings aft and overtake almost anything in the Soviet arsenal. Like all Navy interceptors, it carries two engines and two pilots, although the GIB (Guy in Back) is a full-time RIO (Radar Intercept Officer).
And while the glamour-puss Eagle is the very model of a major modern war-bird, the hoary old Tomcat is a far cry from being a fly-by-wire electronic wonder. You wouldn't be at all surprised to discover a vacuum tube or two lurking within its ancient Hughes AWG-9 radar; even its cockpit is furnished with analog instruments that predate the digital era.
In MicroProse's simulation, the cockpit is accurately reproduced—not only do most of the dials and pointers of the gauges work, but you can use a mouse to actuate some of the animated switchware. The sparse MFDs (Multi-Function Displays) look like 1951 Philco black-and-white TV sets in comparison to the Eagles seven hi-res readouts, but by the same token the Tomcat's are a lot easier—and faster—to interpret.
F-14 Fleet Defender's graphics are better than F-15 Strike Eagle III's in every way (the external views are gorgeous, the night launches spectacular), and the flight model conveys indications of the effects of mass and aerodynamics that Eagle III's does not. And not only are your enemies flying considerably more advanced—and dangerous—aircraft, but enemy AI seems markedly improved as well, raising the stakes for both sides.
In F-15 Strike Eagle, the campaign mode feels truncated. You get to choose a theater but thereafter are handed a love-it-or-leave-it list of missions to accept or decline. But that's it—no scenario, no overarching strategy. In F-14 Fleet Defender, you get two fictional campaigns, both from the 1980s, when the Evil Empire was in a state of hair-trigger readiness. The first is in the Mediterranean—always a powder keg, with combatants like Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Iran all at each others' throats…and shifting alliances among the superpowers. The second is in the North Cape (familiar to fans of MicroProse's F-117A Stealth Fighter; see Chapter Seven), which begins with NATO forces reeling from a Warsaw Pact attack on Norway, continues with a northern European counterattack, and ends with the threat of global thermonuclear war. This is a much headier brew than taking down one more drug lab in Central America.
The sportiest thing about Fleet Defender is that, since you fly with a blue-water squadron (although training takes place at Oceana NAS on the East Coast), you get to fly carrier ops, on (and off) the decks of the Nimitz, the Forrestal, and the Kitty Hawk. The CLS (Carrier Landing System) is quite useful in bringing you in, as is the feedback from the LSO (Landing Signals Officer) when you're straining to catch the second arrestor cable. Carrier traps are always a rush, but not as rigorous in F-14 Fleet Defender, surprisingly, as in the much easier JetFighter series (see Chapter Thirteen) or the deliberately difficult "F/A-18 Hornet" addon for Falcon (see Chapter Four).
About the only thing missing from Fleet Defender is a multiplayer mode. If you want a real, live opponent, stay with F-15 Strike Eagle III. In all other respects, F-14 Fleet Defender is the superior game.