Flight sim fans, as a rule, like detail. Lots and lots of it. The more background information the title has the better - so long as the gameplay remains intact, of course. So, for a game which does more than just thumb through Jane's Book of Fighting Planes, why not play the RAF spotters manual - Birds of Prey?
This year has seen the release of some excellent flight sims, most notably F-15 II and SuperFulcrum. But Electronic Arts are hell-bent on out-doing even these two gems with a title that would receive a listing for 'most heavily-researched software' in the Guinness Book of Games Record, if one were ever to be published.
Birds of Prey is without a doubt the most ambitious flight sim ever. It features dozens of planes, ranging from the hi-tech B-2 Stealth Bomber to the lumbering Boeing 747 and Hercules transport craft. And here's just a few more: F-117A, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, F-14 Tomcat, A-10 Tank Killer, Panavia Tornado, MiG-29 and the T-27...
The game is based around an East-West conflict, although the setting is fictional. A lone pilot, it's difficult to affect the outcome of the conflict, but as you do your bit, enemy resources diminish and friendly forces start to get the upper hand. The whole thing is played in realtime, so if you quit base to go on a mission it could be blitzed by the time you return. Graphs are used to show the status of both sides, although these remain pretty static until the fourth mission.
Initially. Birds of Prey is hard. The more manoeuvrable fighters are extremely tough to control; they tend to slide all over the place. And I found myself wrestling with the controls of a sluggish B52 bomber while I learned what all the keys did. Although the joysticks and keyboard are catered for, this is undoubtedly a head game' for those who like mouse controls. It took me several attempts just to get an aircraft off the tarmac, and more than a few stalls before straight and level flight was accomplished. Perseverance is definitely called for, but once the basics are mastered the whole game opens up.
To eliminate boring stretches on long range missions, a novel autopilot feature has been incorporated. Select your target, cruising-height, and how close to the target you want to be when the controls are returned. An external shot shows your plane flying off into the distance, and a couple of seconds later you're at your destination, providing nothing intercepted you en route, that is.
The presentation is extremely slick. When the game loads all you're required to do is enter your name, difficulty level, what time of day you want to fly at, and what kind of terrain you'd like to strut your stuff over. From there on, select what type of mission you prefer to fly and what plane you feel comfortable handling. The aircraft select screens are very detailed, showing a rotating 3D version of the plane, a description of its capabilities, as well as a full technical break-down and what weapons it can carry. The mission orders and arming screen follows, and then the player enters the cockpit. The whole process is very simple and easy to follow, and you can go back to any of the previous screens if you think you've made a mistake.
The attention to detail is extremely impressive. Each mission starts in a hanger, whether you're flying from an airbase or carrier. When the graphics are in high-detail mode, the weapons on the plane are visible, and ground based objects are visually very impressive. I particularly like the the way bombs go off with a large crash and a flash of light. The handling characteristics of the different types of plane is as you would expect. Trying to do any stunts in a 747 usually results in structural damage, while the fighters are amazingly manoeuvrable. Most incredibly the game comes on just one disk, and uses a minimal amount of loading. I thought you could only get compression like that with a steam roller.
There's also a huge variety of weapons, although some can only be loaded on to certain planes. There are general purpose bombs, loads of different guided and unguided missiles, cluster bombs and air-to-air missiles. Most aircraft are capable of carrying at least a cannon, whereas the B-52 can carry 100 unguided bombs in its hold.
Plenty of ear-battering digitised sound effects have been used for engines noises, missile roars and explosions. All these make a change from the normal cop-out white noise effects of other flight-sims. The graphics are very utilitarian, as with most flight sims. There are some nice touches, though. If the missile view is switched on, every time you launch a rocket or bomb the screen follows it to its target. The drawback with this is that in the meantime you can't see what's happening to your plane. The control panel can be switched off, which frees up processing space and gives you a better view of the surrounding area.
Birds Of Prey takes flight simulators about as far as they can go on the A500. You'll certainly not be stuck for choice with this sim. A game you must not miss.
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