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Flight Simulators: A Bird's Eye View

Pilot Daniel Rein applies his knowledge from both the Air Force and the commercial airlines business, to his top flight simulator game picks.

Flight Simulator `98. © Microsoft.

When considering animation in flight simulation games, Animation World Magazine wondered how the games compared to the real thing. As a result, the following software was evaluated by Daniel Rein, who is currently a Super 80 pilot flying domestic, U.S. routes with American Airlines. He has been flying with American based in Dallas, Texas since 1990 and is a 1982 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He is currently a major in the Air Force reserves. He graduated from Air Force pilot training in 1983 and has flown in the service for a total of 13 years, eight years on active duty and five years with the Texas Air National Guard in San Antonio. During this time he has clocked up a number of hours in various different fighter aircraft. He has 800 flight hours in the F-16 A and C model Fighting Falcon, 600 hours in the F-15C Eagle and 155 hours in the F-5E Tiger II.

Before I evaluate some of the best individual software packages, I had some impressions on the software genre overall. After learning the basics of each game's flight, I spent about 20 minutes flying each program and putting the various simulations through their paces. I played the basic games of each package and only considered flight characteristics and not how well it cycled through weapons systems or actually fired weapons.

Use A Joy Stick

The best way to play all the games is with a joy stick. While you can fly all the systems using the keyboard directional arrows, it is impossible to get the real feel of flying by typing on a keyboard and watching the screen respond. The best way is to use a joy stick because for the programs which are excellent, you can really get a sense of flying an aircraft.

The HUD in Flight Simulator `98. © Microsoft.

Not for the Faint-Hearted

Only serious game players who are interested in flying should buy these games. If you are looking for a product to plop into the CD-ROM and let the kids play for a few hours, these systems are not for you. In order to gain a working knowledge of each system, in-depth reading of instructions and memorization of the keyboard is required. This must be done in order to get the most out of the games. But those avid lovers of flight who are willing to donate 10-20 hours to reading, memorization and then practicing to become proficient will be rewarded with some great flying and a better understanding of flight. Obviously, the more a person knows about flying or has flown before, the quicker they will pick up the games. The total novice needs to plan on spending some time though.

Some Cooperation Perhaps?

It would be nice if the industry could standardize its controls. For example, on several games, the space bar fires the weapon and F1 gives you a frontal view for flying. However, to increase thrust, each game uses a different key to increase and decrease speed. While I understand the companies compete against each other, there could be some industry standards established for the basic functions of flying aircraft.

Review Of Products

I reviewed Microsoft's Flight Simulator `98; Jane's Fighter Anthology; Eidos Interactive's Joint Strike Fighter and Digital Image Design's EF 2000.

Jane's Fighter Anthology. © Electronic Arts.

Microsoft's Flight Simulator `98

This is a very tough package to play off the keyboard, and the use of a joy stick is mandatory. The reason is the number of cross checks (checking two gauges to make sure they are working correctly simultaneously) a person has to do while learning how to fly. The simulation is good, but the gauges on the dash board are small and hard to read. This would not be a big deal to a novice, but an experienced flyer would find it irritating and like bigger gauges. The system is also over-sensitive to the joy stick and keyboard commands. When you pitch the aircraft up or down, there is no feel to the movement and it's hard to measure. It would help if you could set the yoke (the "steering wheel"). A bigger help would be if you had a yoke pictured so that you could get feedback as you turned. Once a person gets used to the sensitivities and learns the gauges though, it flies pretty well.

Joint Strike Fighter. © Eidos Interactive.

Jane's Fighter Anthology

This is a very good flight simulation package. It has good simulation, a good heads up display (or HUD: in fighter planes key pieces of information are readily available in the HUD which is located in front of the pilot's face, versus scattered around gauges in the cockpit) and good reactions for its turn rate, airspeed, climb and descent. The best aspect is you are able to set the stick for constant high G turns (quick turns). The graphics are great, and when flying with a joy stick, it does have the feel of truly flying. Ground targets and terrain were not the best viewed, but were adequate for targeting. The numerous different views you are able to see while flying really helps in letting the pilot know where he is in relationship to his surroundings. It also turns in increments which is more realistic to flying fighters. Again, it's not a game you can put in and start playing. Reading the in-depth instructions is needed before, and along with, memorizing the keyboard to get the most out of the game. Most pilots would enjoy flying this simulation package.

Digital Image Design's EF 2000. © Ocean of America.

Eidos Interactive's Joint Strike Fighter

This is a pretty good package, but not as good as the EF 2000 or Jane's Anthology. The graphics are not as crisp, but there are more ground features than you find in other software. The flying was realistic except there was a little buffeting and jittering when conducting turns, which don't exist in real flight. The turn rate also seemed to be a little slow compared to normal flight, but acceleration was fine. The best feature was the full screen HUD view which is the optimum for flying these games. All games should have this feature. Also, the HUD was very realistic. This is a very good game which anyone would enjoy flying after taking the time to learn the instructions and memorizing the keyboard.

Digital Image Design EF 2000

This is the best software package of the four with a very realistic, basic HUD, great graphics and flying sound effects. There are also very realistic rates of turn, climb and acceleration. The software reacts like a fighter aircraft. It is not over sensitive and the different views out of your aircraft allow you to get a true sense of where you are in relationship to your surroundings. Everything about it feels like a fighter. Definitely not for those who aren't into flying because again, to learn the game will take a few hours of reading the instructions and memorizing the keyboard. For true aviation enthusiasts who want an authentic test of their abilities, this is the game for them.

Daniel Rein is currently a Super 80 pilot flying domestic, U.S. routes with American Airlines. He has 800 flight hours in the F-16 A and C model Fighting Falcon, 600 hours in the F-15C Eagle and 155 hours in the F-5E Tiger II.

Thanks to Major Mike Rein, who also contributed to this report.