ATF: Advanced Tactical Fighters
Part one: excitement...
When I was given ATF to review I was told that it was bound to be the most brilliant flight sim in the entire multiverse. and I had no reason to doubt this - after all, everyone in the office was jumping up and down shouting "Hip hip hooray!". A bevy of exotic dancers had been brought in for the occasion. Bunting had been put up. Hags! Balloons! Glittery ribbons! There were trays of posh 'snacks' scattered about, too. and the champagne was flowing like nobody's business. Pa-aarty!
I exaggerate, of course, but you get the drift: I was handed the ATF CD and assured that I would soon be in seventh heaven. So I dashed across the room and plugged a Flightstick Pro into the back of the ludicrously tall office P133. With shaking hands (heart rate at 158 bpm) I placed the disc into the drawer. It seemed to take forever to close. Come on...
Install. Install. Install. Come on. come on. Yes. I would like ninja-scopic sound thank you (click). No. I don't want low-res. I want that one (click). Yes (click). Yes (click). Yes (click). Pause. Whirr. Pause. Whirr. Come on you bastard, come on! Whirr. Whirr. Whirr. Whirr. Whirr. Flashy intro starts. (It plays for 1.0394 seconds before I press the spacebar.) Whirr, Whirr, Whirr, whirr. The options screen appears. Yippy-de-yee!
- Quick, quick, quick (1)...
So where's the Quickstart? Doesn't seem to be one. I scan the on-screen list: play single mission; create quick mission; create pro mission; replay last mission; aircraft reference; other vehicle information; start campaign; load campaign; view pilot records. I decide (incorrectly, as it turns out) that the quickest in-road is going to be the top one 'play single mission'. (Click.) Oh no. loads of text. I don't care what the mission is yet. (Click.) Oh. wow, loads of little planes in a hangar, viewed from above. Neat. There are about 15 of them. I click on one. 'XF-32 ASTVOL' it says in the text box. I click on the Hercules Transport plane. 'AC-130U Spectre', I'm informed. Oh well, it looks like a bloody Hercules from this angle. And then I spot it. Its wings slope in the opposite direction to all the others. Cool or what. XF-29 FSW says the text box. An excellent name. As I click on 'accept', I realise that FSW must mean Forward Swept Wings. Of course! So simple! So perfect! Oh no. now I'm on the ordnance screen, and there are far too many weapons on display. There's like 50 of them. And I don't even particularly want to shoot anything down yet. Hmm. I'll take what I've been given. (Click.)
- Quick, quick, quick (2)...
At last. Take-off time! Uhh? Oh, this mission obviously starts in the air. No matter. I understand most of the hud immediately. How high am I? 10.000 feet, eh? Let's get below cloudbase quick-smart: I've got an appointment with 20 feet above the ground, flying upside-down... and hopefully between skyscrapers. I flip to inverted and pull back on the stick. Suddenly there's a sound sample from the rjo bloke in the back seat - a gasp, a groan, some heavy breathing. I initially suspect that he's spanking his donkey, but then I cotton on. Brilliant! If that's his reaction to a mere plus five gravities, let's hear what he's got to say about minus three.
Hang on. though, what's that beeping noise? Oh! The plane's gone all wobbly. Ouch. Oh no. we've been hit by a bloody missile! Where's the eject button? I'd better check the manual. (Sound of many pages being flicked, accompanied by an earth shattering explosion as the XF-29 Forward Swept Wings hits the ground, killing both crew members.)
- Quick, quick, quick (3)...
(Much time has passed.) I can eject pretty well now that I know the keys I need (<shift/e>). but this single mission stuff is simply too hard for someone who just wants to piss about for a while. I mean to say... a flight sim where the only way to get close to the ground is by being strapped to a parachute? Jesus! No doubt some of the other single missions will start on the runway, but I'm beginning to lose all patience. Besides. I've just discovered a much easier way of accessing low-flying shenanigans - I'm going to select the aircraft reference' option. There's stats galore in here: loads of photos, movie footage, graphs, charts, diagrams, and everything. But within this option, apart from the comprehensive trainspotty stuff, there's a button labelled 'Free Flight' - or no enemies, in other words. Smart. I select (once again) the Swept Forward Wings XF-29. and... uuugh. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
It may be smoothish svga down here near ground level, but it looks horrible regardless, and is about as convincing as Michael Jackson's nose. The texture-mapped 'floor' warps pretty nastily at the edges. But that's not all... a quick glance at the hud reveals that my afterburners are on full and I'm breaking the sound barrier, yet the bitmapped trees are passing by at about 90 mph. Know what I mean? I break to the right and approach a 'city'. According to my hud I'm now travelling at one trillion squillion zwillion miles an hour. As I pass one of the sparse city skyscrapers I look sideways at the thing. Does it flash past like buggery? A vicious blur? No... it simply saunters, like Patrick Moore on lithium. I'm in an airborne Austin Allegro apparently. Boo. I eject.
Part Two: Excitement lost
Entirely disheartened I slump in front of the monitor, staring at the options screen. Several people pass behind me and say. "Hey, that's just like US Navy Fighters!". Three of them inform me f that it's been done by the same team. I suddenly recall watching Tim (Ponting, publisher) going completely gaga over US Navy Fighters. I also recall Simon (Bradley, reviewer) doing the same over the sequel. Murine Fighters. Either I'm right and they're wrong, or it's the other way around. So it's lime for an entirely new approach. I select the option 'create pro mission', and you know what? After an hour. I realise that I've been a bit shit... ATF is starting to seem very good indeed.
Part Three: Excitement regained
Putting together your own mission is completely fab - and it's dead easy too. There are three scenarios to choose from: Egypt, France and Vladivostok, and once you've decided on your location, you can start to populate the map. In the objects menu there are over 250 fully texture-mapped things' ranging from the ridiculous (a moose right through to the sublime (the much aforementioned XF-29).
Between these extremes there are tents, people, buildings, cranes, trucks, tanks, boats, and so on: name an object and it'll probably be there. Once you've placed an object, you can then give it your instructions and waypoints (unless it's a building, of course), and toggle its importance regarding the final outcome of the mission you've selected.
If you're familiar with US Navy Fighters you'll know how the system works, but if you aren't I'll just say that there are a few lines of text about the state of the object in question, and that some of the words are 'hotspots' - click on one and you'll be given a list of alternatives which, when one is selected, will alter the slant of things quite drastically. You can, in this highly user-friendly way. tell one aircraft to fly a holding pattern above a tank, and that it should see off any aircraft that strays within five miles.
The tank itself, if you've given it way-points. could be moving all over the shop. You might tell another plane to fly a holding position around the plane that's guarding the tank... and that this second plane should see off any enemy plane that strays within 50 miles. You could tell the tank that if it's destroyed, the game is over. Then you could plonk down a zillion enemy planes, of all different varieties and pilot skills, and tell them to kill the tank. Then you can plonk down the plane that you'll be flying youself and start the mission, seeing how long you can hold out for before the tank gets zapped.
And that's just a crappy little mission. You can go bonkers if you like. And you can be silly too. Ships moving along the land. A trio of planes flying in a circle, each instructed to shoot down the one in front but evade the one behind. Tell them to ignore your plane if and when it appears, and you'll have a right old laugh. Bring some biased sam launchers into the equation and it's even better. How about making a moose a target of opportunity, earning you a medal if you manage to bag it? Or set the friendly and enemy sides so that your mission scenario is America. Britain, China, Germany, France, Jordan, Israel, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Syria, Arab Egypt and Islamic Egypt all versus Belgium. Ho ho, And on, and on, and on.
By this time I'd started to forgive the iffy sense of low level speed and bendy texture-maps. And seeing as how the 'play single mission' missions were obviously put together using the very same mission creator. I decided to have another bash. Yes. it was time to venture into the highly taxing but supremely playable 'campaign'.
Part Four: Deep joy
Strange how one can change one's mind so profoundly in such a short space of time. The fact that scenery-inspired, low altitude joyrides were a bit of a no-no, now mattered not a jot. The advanced tactical fighter AI routines are brilliant, and the closure rates of the aircraft when dogfighting bear no relation to the dodgy slo-mo stuff on the ground. Quite why. I can't imagine. But anyway, the action in ATF is pretty much second to none, and the planes fly brilliantly (all noticeably different, some massively so). Furthermore, let off a big weapon like an excocet, and you lurch up as your plane's overall weight suddenly decreases: all that sort of stuff is programmed in. And the visuals? The explosions? Smoke? Bits of debris pouring off the plane in front as you splatter it with cannon shells? All superb. I'm happy to say; it's a pyromaniac's delight. And the sound's pretty smart too.
Part Five: lYainspotters
ATF has been put together with help from Jane's (the aeroplane book people). What this means is that the ATF cd is also an interactive reference jobbie. I briefly mentioned the player reference' section earlier (which contains more in-depth information about the planes available to the player than could be considered healthy). Then there's 'other vehicle info', a section dealing with the computer controlled aircraft, with photos of all 30, plus about 150 pages of text to bool.
I may as well end on a really train-spotty note, with a list of the aircraft you'll be killing things in: the XF-29 FSW (hooray): the XF-32 ASTVOL (once shown on Tomorrow's World. it's the one that can vector its jets and do cartwheels and stuff): the AC-130U Spectre (I still reckon it's a Hercules): the B2 Spirit (a giant flying wing): the Yak 141: the XF-3I EFM; the F/A-18D Hornet: the Rafale C: the AV8B and FRS2 Harriers (ie the Yank one and the Brit one); the F-117A; the F-14B Tomcat; the SU-33 Flanker; and Finally, the F-22 Rapier.
Oh, and don't worry about the mention of the P133 earlier... I also played ATF on a P75. and it was Fine (after a modicum of toggling). If you're on a lowish 486, however, you may be forced to play in 'giant pixel' mode.