Probably the first modern jet flight simulation I ever became obsessed with was Electronic Art’s U.S. Navy Fighters which was released in the early 90’s. It was a survey sim -- a simulation that lets you fly multiple aircraft with a basic, similar interface. This allows the player to fly each aircraft without spending hours learning the ins and outs of each flight model. This year, Jane’s Combat Simulations brings us USAF, a survey sim consisting of the aircraft in today’s United States Air Force. You can fly the F-16C Fighting Falcon, F-15C and F-15E Eagle, the stealthy F-117A Nighthawk, the futuristic F-22A Raptor, and the rugged A-10A Thunderbolt II, also known as the "Warthog" for its less than sleek appearance. You can also fly a couple jets from the Vietnam era, the F-105D Thunderchief, affectionately nicknamed the "Thud" and the F-4E Phantom II.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
After an opening video showing real-life USAF action that will make those little hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you are presented with a straightforward menu where you can easily navigate to the option you want. The usual options: Fly Now, Quick Mission, Training, Single Missions, Campaigns, Multiplayer, Pilot Records, Mission Recorder, and Preferences are all there for your choosing. USAF is unique in that once you set up your pilot, it will keep track of the kills, flight hours, points, and many more statistics that you will accumulate over time. You can also upload those stats to a web service called "Kill and Compare" where you can see if your statistics measure up to other virtual pilots around the world.
In case you feel intimidated about flying the multitude of available planes, fear not. USAF contains some of the best instruction lessons ever in a military flight sim. From the beginning of your training flight you will have a backseat instructor informing you of each step you need to take to accomplish the task you are taught. This is set up in such a way that practically anybody can sit down and learn how to fly these aircraft. The instructor will tell you when and even what keystroke to press, along with background information that is good to know. The only problem is that there are a few bugs in the training missions where your instructor will give you confusing information such as "Press the ‘A’ key twice to go into the autopilot mode" when you really only need to press it once.
USAF has four campaigns, two of which are historic campaigns based off the Vietnam War and Desert Storm. These are both really just a series of eight to ten single missions that you can play in any order. The two other future campaigns are semi-dynamic in nature where the player has a limited number of pilots, aircraft, and weapons. These missions however must be played in order and you must succeed in the mission before you have access to the following mission. There are even a couple of re-supply missions to restock your dwindling weapons inventory. Once you have completed any of these missions, they become available to play in the single missions menu. There are two ways to create your own missions -- the first being the Quick Mission Editor, where you can set up simple air-to-air engagements or strike missions. The second way is to use the included User Mission Editor. This program is separate from USAF and it allows you to choose the terrain, place enemy structures and aircraft as targets, and setup various mission parameters. There is not much you can’t do with this valuable tool. It is very easy to create complex missions where you can choose such things as success or failure conditions and you can set up primary and secondary targets. For instance, I designed a mission where I had to sink two enemy missile boats that were attacking a merchant vessel, then I had to destroy the enemy’s heavily defended castle. In order for the mission to be a success, the castle had to be destroyed and the merchant ship had to survive.
USAF models the characteristics of the eight planes surprisingly well. The F-105 "Thud" is not as nimble as the F-16. The F-22 Raptor and the F-117 stealth fighter incorporate a level of stealth that makes them invisible to radar. There are a large variety of weapons to use: guns, rockets, radar and heat seeking missiles, radar homing missiles (HARMs), Infrared guided missiles, Laser Guided bombs, GPS Guided bombs (JDAM), and TV Guided bombs are all featured. To fire a TV Guided bomb, once you are in range and fire the bomb you can switch to a full screen TV view. From there you can steer the bomb directly to your target.
There are three settings for the enemy A.I. skill level: Easy, Normal, and Hard. The enemy A.I. is quite decent and will put up a good fight in a head to head combat situation. The friendly A.I. on the other hand is a whole different story. There is no question, this category is the biggest flaw in USAF and hopefully will be fixed with a patch. Your wingmen and other planes in your flight group do some very strange things. Sometimes I would observe them flying erratically as if they were drunk but the worst is that they consistently crash into the ground for no apparent reason. Fortunately, if your mission requires some tasks to be carried out by others in your flight, you don’t have to rely on them to accomplish their part of the mission because you can do it yourself. In fact, in order to succeed, you must frequently jump from plane to plane and it is quite easy to do so. For example, there is a mission where you are flying an F-15C and you must clear out all of the enemy fighters around the target area. Once you have achieved this, you jump into the next flight of F-15Es where your mission is to destroy the enemy SAM sites around the target area. Finally, you jump into the third flight consisting of A-10s whose orders are to bomb the enemy bunker. Each flight’s orders must be accomplished in order for the next flight to have a chance at completing their mission. The chore of jumping from flight to flight is fairly simple. Pressing the ESC key will bring up a tactical overview map that shows the other planes in the theatre, then you just click on the plane and press the fly button and you are magically transported directly to the new plane. This obviously is not very realistic but it is loads of fun because you are always in the thick of the action.
With all of the flyable planes in USAF, it is no surprise that there are extensive multiplayer options. You can immediately play online with the help of JanesCombat.net. But the big news is that USAF will be the first flight sim to be compatible with Jane’s World War. Jane’s World War will be an extensive online virtual battlefield that will be compatible with all of Jane’s future simulations. This means a future Jane’s submarine simulation, tank simulation, and USAF can all be playing online together on the same battleground. This ambitious plan is currently in a Beta test program that should be ready in the first half of 2000.
The satellite terrain of Baghdad, Vietnam, Germany, and Las Vegas is marvelous! In Las Vegas, you can see the freeway interchanges, Lake Mead, and even the hotels along the strip such as the Stratosphere tower, Luxor pyramid, Circus Circus, and the MGM. It’s nice to conduct a little bombing practice on my favorite hotel as revenge for taking all of my money on my last visit! Resolutions up to 1600x1200 and 32-bit color with surprisingly decent frame rates make for the best graphics yet seen for a flight sim in my opinion. Flying a mission at sunset really is amazing and you may find yourself spending all of your time drooling over the jaw dropping scenery rather than paying attention to your mission orders.
Your wingman sounds like one of the Duke boys jumping the General Lee over a river in Hazzard County with all of his Yee-haws after he downs an enemy fighter. That can get a bit annoying after a while but turning down the speech volume is recommended if it bugs you. Otherwise the sound is good. USAF is one of the first flight sims to come bundled with built in speech recognition. This means if you have a microphone and don’t already use a program such as Game Commander, you can use your own voice commands to direct wingmen, change radar modes, activate view systems, or any other game control. Just by saying "Engage my target" your wingman will do so, instead of having to press Alt-E on your keyboard. Say "Landing gear" and your landing gear will raise or lower. This is a very cool feature and works pretty well but with any speech recognition software, it can pick up other voices and it may misinterpret those commands as if they came from you.
Minimum: Windows 95/98, 200 MHz CPU with 64 MB RAM or 266 MHz CPU with 32 MB RAM, 450 MB Hard Drive Space, 4 MB Direct3D Graphic Accelerator card, 6X CD-ROM drive, and DirectX 6.1.
Recommended: 350 MHz CPU, 64 MB RAM, 24X CD-ROM drive, 16 MB Direct3D Graphic Accelerator Card, 1145 MB Hard Drive Space, Joystick, Throttle, Rudder Peripherals, Microphone for Voice Recognition component.
Multiplayer: USAF Disk #1 in CD-ROM Drive.
Local Area Network (2-16 players): Network with IPX/SPX-compatible protocol or TCP/IP-compatible protocol; Network interface card.
Internet (2-8 players): Internet connection via ISP with 33.6 Kbps. Modem.
USAF also includes support for Intel’s Pentium III Streaming SIMD Extensions. Those of us without a Pentium III CPU will not be allowed to slide some of the Graphics Detail sliders all of the way to the maximum setting. No problem if you already own a Pentium III CPU but for the majority that don’t, you may feel a bit jaded that you won’t be able to view USAF in its full glory.
As with all Jane’s titles, the manual is near perfect. Informative, wire bound, and easy to read and understand but it can sometimes be difficult to find what you are looking for because there is no index. There was a lot of crucial information that didn’t make it into the manual such as the User Mission Editor, information about the scoring and medals, and instructions for the Speech Recognition. Within the game itself, there is a handy reference section that gives you pictures and statistics of all of the aircraft, ground units, and weapons featured in the game.
USAF is a lot of fun! It will appeal to both hardcore and casual flight sim players because of the fun factor. Beautiful graphics, a promising online experience, and a limitless User Mission editor all add up to an excellent simulation. The issue with the friendly A.I. and some other minor bugs must be fixed however and I’m am confidant they will. Jane’s has a good record of releasing patches on a timely basis. With this in mind, if you have any desire for a good military flight sim that will provide hours of enjoyment, this is the sim for you. I highly recommend it!
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP