In the ever-growing world of combat sims, games now live and die by their graphics, realism and originality. I liked Joint Strike Fighter mainly because it wasn't just another F-22 sim. This is the first game I've seen that permits access to the fighters of the Joint Strike Fighter, a special air strike force. The planes are new, even if there aren't many of them, and the idea is fresh. Now that these fundamentals have been secured, it was up to the developers to follow up with a solid sim and great graphics. Did they succeed?
The gameplay in Joint Strike Fighter is consistent but very limited. Initially, there are only two planes to fly, but there is a way to get access to the others. The game is centered around two craft: the Boeing X-32 and the Lockheed Martin X-35. If you're getting really sick of the monotonous F-22, these planes will provide a refreshing change of pace - especially the Lockheed Martin X-35. The plane flies nicely and is really cool-looking. However, the sim itself is very touchy and can become very irritating after prolonged play. Your best bet is to tinker with the sensitivity settings, but it takes some time. If you get frustrated easily, then you might want to think twice before buying this game.
The controls in Joint Strike Fighter are fairly standard. It uses the keyboard and joystick. It also supports rudder pedals and force-feedback devices. One problem, however, is that although the two main planes look distinctly different, they fly almost identically. They do hold different weapon configurations and such, but they don't actually feel different in the cockpit, which detracts from the realism terribly. The developers missed out on a big opportunity to cash in on the variations of these two distinct-looking craft. After all, if they don't fly any differently, then you really only get one plane to fly; one simply holds different weapons than another. That was perhaps the most limiting factor of the gameplay.
Joint Strike Fighter is one of those games that never really found that happy medium with AI. The problem is that when it is set on rookie, it is way too easy, and when it is set on Ace, it presents a very difficult challenge to even the most experienced sim pilots. Some people like a good challenge, and I happen to be one of them, but there is such a thing as 'too difficult'. Joint Strike Fighter came very close to that line. As for the intermediate setting, it was barely a step up from rookie. So you get one of those pesky little situations where you can't find the right setting to provide the challenge you want; but if you're an inexperienced pilot the rookie and vet settings should provide adequate challenge.
In short, the graphics of Joint Strike Fighter are about as good as it gets in the combat sim genre for the time being. Since this is a combat sim, the emphasis is not as much on the scenery as it is on the in-flight graphics. The game makers only gave you four terrains to fight over. This can feel limiting, and it is, but on the plus side the terrains are distinctly different. Some sims just seem to change the color of the ground, so you have to decide for yourself which you'd rather see: a lot of terrains that are really all the same, or just four or five really good ones.
Joint Strike Fighter is fantastically detailed and supports 3Dfx for those of us with the privilege. Even at an altitude of 10,000 feet the detail of the ground comes through bright and clear. It really is very well done in that respect. The planes themselves, both allied and enemy, are also very detailed. If you're in the mood for some fun and you're an experienced sim pilot, put the settings on easy and randomize the enemy craft types. Then if you're good, you can fly close to the enemy and get a really good look at some of the other craft, if you're into that sort of thing. If nothing else, Joint Strike Fighter lives up to the graphical end of quality that every combat sim should uphold.
The audio portion of Joint Strike Fighter was also somewhat disappointing. It simply wasn't a factor in the game. It didn't necessarily take away from the game, but it certainly didn't add anything, which is sometimes just as bad. The sound effects, on the proper speakers, are well done. The gunfire is kind of cheesy, but the missiles sound great, as do the explosions. There is also an on-board talking computer which you might think is cool in the beginning, but trust me, she becomes real annoying real fast.
Joint Strike Fighter is a quality title that lacks some of the finer elements that would make this game a great one. It could use some tuning up, but is generally fun to play. One very solid argument for the game is that it provides a break in the monotony of F-22 sims that seem to be flooding the market these days. If you've had your fill of the F-22, then you might want to give this one a shot. However, if you're an experienced pilot, you might find this sim a bit limited and may want to pursue other endeavors before attacking this one. But if you're not the most experienced of pilots, or you are experienced and are just done with the other stuff that's out there, Joint Strike Fighter is definitely worth a shot. So happy flying, and watch your 6.
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Jane's Fighters Anthology, MiG-29 Fulcrum, Jane's F/A-18, Lock On: Modern Air Combat, Mig Alley, Jane's USAF, Longbow 2, F-22 Lightning 3
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