So long, AI. Thanks to Microsoft's Fighter Ace, flight sim pilots won’t have it so easy any more. Darwinism has truly reached the gaming community, and now only the strong will survive. Enemies possess real, not artificial intelligence in this online-only World War II aerial combat simulation. Actually, the game doesn’t require much human intelligence beyond an attitude, but the simple kill-or-be-killed philosophy goes a long way when dogfighting with potentially over 100 real opponents in the same arena. This type of game does not just "support" multiplay, it pretty much defines its future.
VR-1 developed Fighter Ace for Microsoft based on the popular ideas in the more gameplay-savvy WarBirds and Air Warrior III online sims (Air Warrior III even supports a successful microphone transmission system). Some argue that Fighter Ace is too young to be out of beta. But Microsoft has billed it as a premium game (requiring a subscription fee to play, $1.95 daily or $19.95 monthly) on the Internet Gaming Zone. The Zone also features many free games such as board games, card games, racing games, and first-person titles such as Jedi Knight (CD is required for some games). Also, players can launch most any game that supports IPX in the ZoneLAN area.
Fighter Ace pilots can choose to fly any of sixteen familiar World War II fighter aircraft including the P-51 Mustang, P-38 Lightning, Spitfire, BF-109, and Yak-9. Cadets begin in either team and free-for-all boot camp arenas. The goal is to advance far enough in rank to leave the boot camp arena and fly in officers’ club arenas as 2nd Lieutenant or above. This is achieved by racking up kills without being killed.
Realistic and arcade arenas allow users to set difficulty. I crashed about ten times before getting airborne in realistic mode. When I finally got off the ground, I was promptly returned to earth by an enemy ace. For a brief moment, I wished I that I could take out my frustration on some brain-dead AI. But soon I was back in the air and racking up kills of my own.
I noticed that the buildings around the airports "blowed up real good" so I couldn’t help but wonder if there were any plans to incorporate air-to-ground warfare (against enemy vehicles, airfields, ships, etc). I see lots of potential for an online game like this especially when bandwidth broadens. I can imagine squadrons of Messerschmitts scrambling to attack B-17 bombers. Further, I fantasize of future online games that might be based on modern aircraft and weapons.
Some problems I encountered were that many of the skilled officers insisted on stalking newbies in the boot camp arenas. This practice is highly discouraging to new players, and there should be a way of keeping them out. Also, on the occasions that I downed an enemy, he would soon try and take revenge on me for my transgression. That’s fine until you’ve played for an hour and have many enemies singling you out for vengeance. Truces were routinely made in team play, but due to the large number of players coming and going, the agreements were impossible to enforce.
I too often encountered the "Server Too Busy" error in my browser when trying to access the Zone website. The dreaded internet latency or lag was minimal, although there were occasions when I swear that my guns were scoring hits that never registered. One must take care when approaching an enemy airfield, because the anti-aircraft guns spray rounds in the same predictable bubble every time. They never miss. One tactic is to lure an enemy into the kill area of a friendly base until he is crippled by anti-aircraft fire, then turn and attack. Damaged planes lose engine power and must return to base and come to a complete stop to be repaired.
Despite all the fun, after an hour of rigorous gameplay against about fifty opponents, my interest began to wane. I yearned for strategy, missions, teamwork, etc. I started looking over my shoulders nervously to see if there was a line of kids standing behind me waiting to play. I instinctively looked for a slot to insert quarters. In other words, the gameplay smacked of the arcade genre.
I was genuinely surprised at the quality of the graphics. I expected the graphics to be trimmed back to make Internet gameplay as smooth as possible. I could not have been more wrong. The planes were beautifully modeled, and the sky and terrain were more dazzling than I could have imagined for an online game. I saw debris on collisions, long smoke trails, nice explosions, shadows, and distant tracer fire.
On the negative side, polygonal sierras popped up on the horizon, and those rascally pixels checkered the terrain as planes approached ground level. Aircraft and text tags bled through mountains to my dismay. Most sims seem to have problems in these areas. I would have appreciated puffs of flak from the anti-aircraft guns rather than the streaking fire that riveted my plane.
All the sounds I heard were of exceptional quality. The engine modulation, ricochets, and Doppler flybys were equal to those of any boxed game. Annoyances include the limited number of sounds and the fact that the same sounds were heard in all planes. More sound variety and the ability for users to add custom sounds on their machines would be nice enhancements.
I kept looking for the typical wire-bound manual. Of course, due to the deliberate simplicity of the game’s design, none is needed. Plenty of online help is available from the Zone website. Even the occasional weekend warrior can log on and start racking up kills after a glance at the online keyboard map.
If you’re tired of being cussed out by cowardly strangers in Quake 2, Fighter Ace will be a refreshing multiplayer experience because of the Zone’s neat method of preventing abuse of players. Although sim players tend to be more genteel than action game players, offensive cussers, spammers, and pranksters can be called to account by a systems operator. Sysops are volunteers who make themselves available to help people with problems or mediate disputes. They even have the authority to eject players from game rooms if necessary. To speak privately with a sysop, simply ask one to join you in a game room. This ensures an atmosphere in which children and adults alike can get what they came for -- fun.
The minimum requirements to play Fighter Ace are: Pentium 75 MHz or higher, Windows 95 or Windows NT, 16 MB RAM, 9.5 MB available hard disk space, SVGA 256-color monitor, 28.8Kbps Internet access, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.02 or later and a mouse. For better performance and improved gameplay, Microsoft recommends a Pentium 133MHz or higher microprocessor, 32 MB RAM, PCI or VESA Video Adapter, Windows 95-compatible sound card, speakers or headphones, and a joystick with throttle and rudder.
What excites me the most is the potential that Fighter Aceholds. Online gaming has a bright future ahead when the Internet bandwidth arrives. Imagine 3Dfx and force feedback-supported games over ADSL or cable modems. For the present, if Microsoft doesn’t either drop the price or add some complexity, they may have trouble with customer retention. Unless the game is expanded, there will be no unofficial Fighter Ace web pages, no Fighter Ace squadron meets, no bragging about Case’s Ladder rankings, and no enthusiasm to maintain longevity. Are there plans to add new aircraft, arenas, and possibly missions in the future? I hope so. Currently, Microsoft is maintaining radio silence on any upcoming features. I’m sure going to miss all the fancy store boxes.