By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman
kay, let's get this right out in the open here. Falcon 4.0 is hard core. No question. I'm far from a major flight sim buff, but I've played most of the current pick of the litter (Microsoft Flight/Combat Simulator, Jane's IAF, etc.) and it's far beyond each and every one of them. If you're not up to the challenge, turn back now.
And jeez…what a challenge it is. I can't claim to have ever sat inside the cockpit of a real F-16, but I've got a sneaking suspicion that Falcon 4.0 is about as close as most people are ever likely to get. The flight model is so realistic it's scary (and when turned all the way up, is delightfully responsive) and all those blinking lights seem accurate enough to me. Oh yeah…did I mention that I hate flying? Seriously. I hate flying. As in…with a passion. I can't stand it. But I enjoy flight sims. Go fig. :)
So anyway, being the relative flying novice that I am, Falcon 4.0 appeared quite…intimidating at first, to say the least. Fortunately for me, the game comes with one hell of a manual. Or, at least…the first 200,000 copies of the game do. In a baffling move by Microprose, the first 200,000 copies of Falcon 4.0 come in a hardback binder, which is filled, with one of the best manuals I've ever seen. All the other copies…don't. If you can't get one of these copies, hunt around. I wouldn't have been able to play this game for five minutes without it. If you still can't find one, invest in the Falcon 4.0 strategy guide that's available. It's not as good, but it's still better than nothing.
So, giant manual in hand, I set out to learn how to fly an F-16. The manual is written by an actual F-16 flight instructor (Pete "Boomer" Bonanni…you may remember him from Falcon 3.0) and starts with the assumption that you don't know anything about how to fly a plane. This is a good thing indeed, as even though I was used to the "simpler" flight sims like Microsoft Combat Simulator, I wasn't really ready for the uber-realism of Falcon 4.0. Aside from much more sensitive controls (although you can turn them down, the manual starts you on the uber-realistic setting) there's the added problem of calculated g-forces, so those incredibly dangerous turns I'm used to taking are a definite no-no. The training missions start with very basic skills, like learning to turn, take off, etc. and then move into the more serious stuff like actually using weapons and advanced flight maneuvering. Even if you're a serious flight sim nut, I'd suggest going through these. If you're used to it, they'll go by very quickly, and there's bound to be a few things that are totally alien to you in here.
So okay, let's talk hardware, because Falcon 4.0 has some steep hardware requirements. The minimum system is a Pentium 166 with 32 megs of ram, but I can't imagine actually playing it on a system like that. I'd suggest at least a Pentium II 233 and 48 megs of RAM to get even a remotely decent framerate. On my Pentium II 450 with 128 megs of RAM and dual Voodoo 2 cards the game ran just peachy, although with some effort I was able to slow things down to a crawl by switching to my TNT card and cranking the resolution waaaay up there with all the bells and whistles turned on. It's rare that a game has such a wide range (although the bottom limit at 233 for a decent gaming experience is a bit on the low side) and I've got a strange feeling that as more advanced hardware comes along we'll start to really see what Falcon 4.0 can do.
There has been plenty written about Falcon 4.0's many bugs, although to be perfectly honest, I never actually ran into any of them. I feel silly saying that, because every review I've read, and every person I've spoken to about the game keeps telling me about all the "showstopper" bugs in the game…but I can't claim to have found a single one. The game takes some time to load to be sure, but beyond that I had no complaints whatsoever. Of course, try to remember that I'm using an extremely high-end system. You may not have the same experience. Also note that it's a loonygames policy not to review titles before any critical patches are released. So the first version of the game I actually played in depth was already patched…so that could explain it as well. No matter what, I guess I was pretty lucky.
So manual and hardware aside…how's the game play? Well, you're given a number of choices from the main menu. There's the "Instant Action" choice, which puts you right into an air battle where there's nothing at stake but your pride, "Dogfight" which pits you against the number of pilots of your choice, "Tactical Engagement" which actually lets you create your own missions (only the hard core need apply) and the "Campaign" mode which simulates an actual war. Let's go through each of these, shall we?
Once I got fairly used to Falcon 4.0's controls (this took some time) I got pretty quickly addicted to the "Instant Action" mode. Why? Well, it doesn't have any major background stuff going on, so you can really concentrate on just shooting down some planes. It's the perfect mid-afternoon distraction. This is hardly an innovation of Falcon 4.0…most flight sims these days (at least the good ones, anyway) offer this, but hey…it's great to have in here.
I'm not as big a fan of the "Dogfight" mode, because (for me at least) it was noticeably harder. Hey…I'm not a half bad pilot, but I've got a small problem when it comes to dodging incoming missiles…I suck at it. But nonetheless, it is fun for a while, and the AI is very capable.
The "Tactical Engagement" mode is pretty much alien to me. I tried it a couple of times and quickly decided that I'd need to play the game for a few years before attempting it again. It's great that it's in there…and I'm sure that once I've finished the campaigns a few dozen times I'll be ready to try it out.
And then there's the "Campaign" mode. Wooooeee. Let me just say this…you've never played anything quite like it. Here's the concept. You pick a scenario from one of three parts of the Korean conflict, and once you do…the war begins. Literally. There's a clock in the upper corner of the campaign main screen, and that represents the amount of time that's passed since the war broke out. Whether or not you're in the air (or even at your computer! Try it!) the war keeps going on, and it's nuts. If you've played any traditional space combat title (Battlecruiser 3000 AD being the notable exception) you're used to the whole war revolving around you. It's great for those types of games where the scenario is completely fictional, and you need to be immersed in the storytelling, but in Falcon 4.0 where everything is as realistic as possible, you're just another fighter pilot in a full scale war.
The end result is a brilliant combination of strategy and simulation, allowing you to choose the piece of the war you want to help out on and do your part. While you fly through the skies carrying out your mission, there are actual attacks going on below you on the ground. Other pilots will have their orders, and you can help them out or persue your own interests. You can kick ass in your mission and still find yourself on the loosing side of the war (although your side does get a "bonus" when you successfully complete a mission, if you're loosing badly, you're loosing badly. Live with it.). You can pretty much do whatever the heck you want within the confines of the war. It's incredible, and has a replay value that’s beyond any other flight sim I've ever played. Oh, one quick bit of advice: the game comes with a map of the Korean region (at least the version I have does…not sure about the boxed version) and I'd strongly advise you to hang it on your wall near your computer. You're gonna need it. As the game strives for realism wherever possible, there's no real way to pull up a map within the game…so you'll want to be able to consult it easily.
What really impressed me most about Falcon 4.0's campaign mode, is that I'm a novice at this stuff, and I really got a major kick out of it. The pressure of being the best pilot in the air force wasn't present here, instead I was simply given the much easier task of engaging my assigned opponents, or attacking the designated ground targets.
Like all virtually all aspects of Falcon 4.0, you don't enter lightly into the campaign mode. Expect to spend a lot of time with the manual (did I mention how important it is to make sure you get one yet?) before even attempting a campaign. You can certainly try to hop right in there, but if you're anything like me at first, you'll find your squadron pissed at you in no time at all.
What really excited me early on in Falcon 4.0's development was its multiplayer campaign possibilities. The campaign system was designed from the ground up for multiplayer, so you can have your friends flying along side you in combat, or even off on different missions in the war. Pretty cool, huh? But wait…it gets better. Because the combat system is a virtual war, the ability exists for future games to tap into this, allowing you to buy a tank-sim and hop into the same war as Joe's Falcon 4.0 game and fight on the ground while Joe's off being all he can be in the skies. It sounds well…revolutionary to say the least, and I have some very high hopes that its full potential will be reached.
Unfortunately multiplayer is where Falcon 4.0 really suffers. While all this potential exists for some kickass multiplayer action, or at least some enjoyable dogfighting, the game doesn't have a built in matchmaking system, and it definitely needs one. Badly. I might not have encountered any of the big "show stopping" bugs all the kids were ranting about, but I'll get behind the legions of people who are begging for a matchmaking service. NovaLogic has one for all their games, even if it is a bit rough around the edges…it works. I guess I could wish for GameSpy support…but I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for that one. Yes, Kali does support it, but I was unable to find a single game running in any of the ten or so times I attempted it. Oh well…call it the one genuine fault in the game's design.
The thing I want to stress about Falcon 4.0 is that if you're a newcomer to the combat flight sim genre you may be tempted to start with something easier. To that, I say a big hah! That's right…hah! And even a phooey! You could start with something easier, but why learn to drive on a used car when you can start with a Ferrari? Besides…once you get decent at Falcon 4.0, you'll find yourself totally badass at less complex flight sims. Trust me.
As for you seasoned, hardcore pilots…well, you guys probably already have an opinion about the game, and nothing I can say is going to change that. But hey…no matter what your level of expertise, you'll find yourself completely floored by Falcon 4.0's impressive visual detail and flawless controls. It might not have the swanky music of Jane's World War II (in fact besides the menus, there's no music at all…guess F-16s don't have stereos in them) but it does have the best flight model around. It's not perfect, with its obscene hardware requirements and its lackluster multiplayer, but it is one hell of a value. Think about it. For $40, you get one hell of a manual, (which will probably make you a halfway decent F-16 pilot if you study it enough) one seriously insane campaign system that offers a billion different possibilities, the ability to create your own campaigns, and download others, and hey…maybe even some day a really cool multiplayer. You can't beat that with a stick. Or a sidewinder missile for that matter.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a war to get back to.
- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman is the editor-in-chief here at loonygames. He doesn't sleep much.
|Credits: Bargain Bin logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This edition of Top Shelf is © 1998 Jason Bergman. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is a majorly hostile gesture.|