For those who aren't avid readers of Jane's publications, F-22 Lightning II isn't a sequel, it's the name of the U.S. Air Force's newest "air superiority weapon" -- what in simpler times was called a "fighter." It's also the latest flight simulator from NovaLogic, the people who brought us Comanche; the revolutionary semi-arcade-style attack helicopter sim. Comanche debuted in 1992, leaving gamers agape at NovaLogic's proprietary, patented VoxelSpace terrain generation technology. NovaLogic largely disappeared from the market after that, with the exception of some Comanche mission disks, and Armored Fist, the tank simulator that proved that, while VoxelSpace terrain looked terrific from the air, from a tank on the ground it looked like pixels the size of ceiling tiles. Well, NovaLogic is back with a vengeance, having doubled their staff and more than tripled the size of their U.S. headquarters.
NovaLogic is justifiably proud of its flight model, and it's definitely better than average. It does have a few minor problems, such as the lack of energy loss in tight banked turns (unfortunately common in modern flight sims), but nothing serious. The cockpit graphics are nothing to write home about -- the main eye candy here is on the ground or in the external plane view. The latter features realistic retracting landing gear, movable flaps and ailerons, weapon bay doors and air brakes. The standard assortment of internal/external, flyby, and target/missile views are available. You can also call up additional screens that focus on Defense, Attack and Stores (weapon inventory), none of which I found particularly useful, since you can get all the information you need from the standard HUD and pop-up radar display.
Night missions are something of a waste, considering F-22's focus on graphics. The areas you're flying over are unpopulated, so you don't even get lights on the ground, just blackness with your HUD superimposed.
Enemy artificial intelligence is good, and cannon-only dogfights can be gripping events, after which you have to pry your sweaty palm from the joystick. It avoids the cardinal sin of flight sims: when you and the computer opponent end up endlessly chasing each other's tails in a circle. But real dogfights happen all too infrequently in F-22, since the whole point of the F-22 Lightning II aircraft is a stand-off, semi-stealth attack profile using long-range AIM-120 AMRAAM fire-and-forget missiles. You're outnumbered many times in the game, but come out alive because the bad guys have missiles with a 5-mile range, and you have missiles with a 20-mile range. That's not exactly up close and personal. But the game's Dolby Surround Sound is extraordinarily effective when you get into a rare head-on close flyby. The "whoosh" of the enemy fighter passing makes you duck involuntarily. The music, on the other hand, is repetitive. I turned it off after an hour or so. Similarly, the explosions are pretty, but look too much alike after a while.
Contrary to reports you may have read, F-22 is a non-Voxelspace title, NovaLogic's first effort without it since WolfPack back in 1989. It uses a new, SVGA-capable, polygon-based engine with high-resolution texture mapping and real-time light sourcing. That's a mouthful of technology, but how does it taste? The answer is, pretty darn good. F-22 is easily the best-looking combat flight simulator around. Aircraft look simply superb. Mountains and valleys are accurately rendered, with ground textures that don't break up too badly even when you get relatively close (at Mach 1.58 you don't want to get too close; a moment's distraction and you're airplane parts). However, once you've been on the initial Nevada training missions, everything starts looking like Nevada. The Mekong delta region looks like Nevada with jungle. Siberia looks like Nevada with snow. It's a terrific-looking snowy Nevada, but a Nevada nonetheless. And there's a bit too much fog effect in the graphics engine; sometimes it looks as though you've strayed over downtown Los Angeles on a bad Air Quality Index day. But these are mere quibbles.
(Note that I said best-looking combat flight simulator. F-22 is still not quite in the same league as Looking Glass Technologies' Flight Unlimited for terrain realism, but who cares when you can't blow things up? We can only hope that Looking Glass is working on the problem.)
Gameplay and Missions
The player can choose to fly individual missions or a campaign, which is nothing more than a set of individual missions strung together. The only difference is that a pilot name may be entered for the campaign mode, and a small amount of mission statistics are kept (i.e., number of kills, weapon hit percentage, number of crashes). Yes, that's right -- NovaLogic is to be congratulated for not having a heinous function that will delete your pilot irretrievably if you crash only once during a long campaign (when your cat runs across the keyboard); unlike some other flight sims which shall remain nameless. Oh, there is a bit of ongoing story for each mission, displayed in a small text window along with the mission briefing. The stories are variations on the standard theme: interdiction of drug lords who've purchased Russian military hardware, that sort of thing.
NovaLogic's Comanche was a wonderful avant-garde combination of a simulator and an arcade-style helicopter shoot-'em-up. F-22 Lightning II is much more on the Brooks Brothers side of the equation, serving up an extremely handsome, but otherwise quite conservative and ordinary flight simulator that brings nothing new to the table but graphics. In fact, it has fewer gameplay elements, and no better flight model, than the grande dame of the flight sim world, Falcon 3.0. NovaLogic could have made up for these shortcomings by pushing F-22 more in the pseudo-arcade direction of Comanche, or perhaps by doing the reverse; elaborating the career mode and adding a mission builder; but they didn't.
That doesn't mean it isn't a great game. If your gaming library isn't already stuffed with other excellent titles like U.S. Navy Fighters/ATF, EF2000, or even Falcon 3.0, then F-22 Lightning II is for you.
People who downloaded F-22 Lightning 2 have also downloaded:
F-22 Lightning 3, F-22 Raptor, F-22 Total Air War, F/A-18E Super Hornet, F-16 Fighting Falcon (a.k.a. iF-16 Fighting Falcon), F-16 Multirole Fighter, F-16 Aggressor, F-15 Strike Eagle III
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