As with past editions over the years, Microsoft follows the latest version of its genre-dominating Flight Simulator with the release of a more action-oriented combat flight sim. Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 3 allows virtual pilots to fly for the Royal Air Force, the U.S. Army Air Force, the Imperial Japanese Navy, or Germany's Luftwaffe, in demanding missions above the battlefields of a war-weary 1943 Europe.
No matter the force for which they fly, pilots will face enemy planes in the sky and anti-aircraft fire from below. The game's mission structure is designed on the tactical campaigns that vied for superiority in the sky through later stages of World War II. The game features a flexible storyline that develops according to players' progress. Great success -- or unexpected failure -- can change the course of events, leading to an alternate history determined by the player's decisions and actions.
Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 3 offers 18 flyable craft, including bombers and early jet fighter models. A customizable graphics engine is designed to produce smooth graphics in great detail. Multiplayer games are supported over the Internet or a local network, allowing both head-to-head dogfights and cooperative missions.
Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator 3 (CFS3) is a mix of good intentions and surprising missteps. The creators behind the title knew the series lagged the competition in areas of dynamic campaigns, multiplayer versatility, artificial intelligence, and cutting-edge graphics. With the improvements seen in Flight Simulator 2002 and the knowledge that CFS3 would feature a new campaign system, simulation followers were hoping that Microsoft would give the genre a nice boost. Microsoft certainly makes some changes that move the franchise in the right direction, but the results at this point are disappointing, and CFS3 actually falls below standards set by previous series titles. What happened?
Only the developers know for certain, but CFS3 looks like a case of well-intentioned ambition that couldn't be harnessed by the ship date. The latest installment in the CFS series is clearly attempting to address the shortcomings of its predecessors. This effort required a considerable split from the past trend of incremental updates to the core Flight Simulator engine, however, and swapping blocks of the foundation around appears to have left it shaky.
The most dramatic of the changes is the game's addition of a brand-new campaign engine. Once CFS3 players have selected a career path (fighter or bomber) and a nationality (American, English, or German), the campaign gives them the ability to choose their own missions in the front line sectors. There are immediate benefits in this approach. Although the inability to fly bomber missions beyond the front line is somewhat unrealistic, the player has the flexibility to fly the types of missions they prefer (air-to-air, air-to-ground, escort, and reconnaissance). This also provides much better variety than a scripted campaign typically does, since there is usually at least one of each type of mission to choose from at each location on the front.
Players supposedly have some control over movement of the front line, but here's where CFS3 reveals some odd behavior. The documentation claims that two things move the line: flying successful missions, and manually triggering ground war advances. Yet, as we flew day after day of successful missions for the Allies, we saw the front line crumbling. It was horrible, as if Hitler had pushed ahead with his intentions to invade England. What's even more puzzling is that this happened after the front line initially had burst across the English Channel and into France.
We tried to engage the ground war by manually ordering a push. Players earn prestige points when their squadron flies successful missions and these points can then be spent on ordering ground war attacks. They can also spend prestige points to transfer to a different air base or gain a new aircraft type early. Ordering a ground offensive, however, is expensive, and it would be hard to sustain one by player intervention for extended periods of time. And, every time we tried to do it, it seemed to have little effect. The campaign engine seemed to be chugging along and doing something, but no matter what we did, we ultimately lost territory swiftly and without explanation. It's also uncertain how useful it would be to spend points to transfer to a different airbase, as the campaign would periodically transfer our squadron with no explanation.
The campaign provides little feedback to the player. Novices, and some experts too, are going to be absolutely flabbergasted because there's nothing but confusion about the ebb and flow of the front line. Successful missions and manually triggered ground movements have little effect, there are no battle reports about what happened in the ground assaults, and there's nothing to identify what the player is doing wrong. There is no tangible link between the player's actions and the results on the line. There's a news section players can view to see items about the war, but most are terse statements that the player's forces gained or lost particular objective, or useless trivia about what propaganda movie the troops are watching.
The campaign fails to create the sense that the player is a small but significant part of a grand war because their involvement is so abstract. They do not see their efforts making a difference and there's little evidence that other friendly air and ground forces are at work. There are artillery firings and explosions occasionally seen near the front, but the player still feels like a lone participant. Contrast this to Enemy Engaged: Comanche vs. Hokum. There, a player's mission was one of several air and ground force deployments, he could watch and assist the other troops, and he could then see the front line on the strategic map actively moving with the gain or loss of objectives.
It gets worse. The time warp feature is a crucial aid to helping busy players get quickly to the action. It's one that worked well in previous CFS games, zipping the players past the dull waypoint traversals, but stopping when necessary to let them tend to the action. It still works well for fighter missions, but falters with the game's increased emphasis on air-to-ground roles. Flying anti-shipping strikes, we noticed that the warp would send us directly to the primary target area, but wouldn't stop when passing other possible secondary targets.
The warp really breaks down on escort missions. We tried it several times and it always zapped us right by all the waypoints, without stopping to let us protect the bombers when over the target. We'd finish the mission having abandoned the bombers, but maybe that was okay: if the warp didn't stop that meant there weren't any enemy fighters. But if we didn't find any enemy fighters, how come the bombers could never manage to do their part and hit their targets?
There are other inconsistencies and places that CFS3 lacks the polish of its predecessors. When zooming in the external view, sometimes the camera steps in increments by keystroke, and other times it moves continuously in a smooth pan until it reaches its movement limits. There's a little more radio chatter than there used to be, but sometimes wingmen use a generic, "I shot one down," even when attacking ground targets, which sounds a little funny.
The simulation does make some headway in other areas. The graphics continue to improve in the series, and object detail is nice. The damage effects are the best yet in the series, with engine fires and smoke helping to identify damage levels. The ground looks better with the abundance of trees in forests and is much more convincing at low levels with weather effects leaving snow or water everywhere. Strike fighters have a nice visual enhancement when strafing ground targets with CFS3's zoomable view. At higher magnifications through the targeting sight, the view looks a lot like old war footage where tracers can be seen reaching and crossing the guns' convergence points and scattering among the target, leaving impact signs as they hit.
Ground targets also look better, and ships, tanks, trucks, and structures are easily identified. These targets also have damage effects and can expel smoke or explode. The death sequence of the ships is particularly well done, with explosions followed by a listing and sinking, and ultimately an oil slick left in the water. The price for all this is the usual; CFS3 is less forgiving on slower hardware and really prefers a strong video card.
There's also a role-playing element in the campaign. The player's alter ego in the game earns experience points, can gain levels, and can earn points to spend increasing their skills such as vision or g-tolerance. Along with the aforementioned squadron points, the role-playing can add a little more player involvement for those that like such features.
Tying in with the increased emphasis on the air-to-ground role, CFS3's allied fighters are all steeds also known for strike duty, such as the P-47 Thunderbolt, the P-51 Mustang, the Typhoon, and the P-38 Lightning. The German Fw 190 and Me 109, and British Spitfire, return for more action. All nationalities gain medium bombers such as the B-25 and B-26, and the inclusion of the rarely modeled Junkers Ju88 and DeHavilland Mosquito are fine additions to the series. Players can man the bombardier and defensive gunner stations on these aircraft in addition to piloting them. There aren't any heavy bombers yet, and this really hurts the German campaign, as the German fighter pilots on the western front spent a lot of time trying to knock down the heavies.
The sim's attempt to take the players beyond the stretch of the real war is seen in the inclusion of several experimental craft like the German Dornier 335, and the American P55, and jets like the amazing Gotha 229 flying wing, the P 80 Shooting Star, and the Vampire. These remarkable craft are featured in CFS3's selection of "what if" missions. Sadly, the flight models in CFS3 aren't as accurate as we expected. Aircraft can stall, but throwing them into a spin takes some real effort, especially with the jets.
The documentation comes in digital format on the CD, which is unfortunate as most flight sim fans appreciate a printed manual. On the bright side, there are several digital manuals and each is nicely decorated with a nostalgic sepia tone and photos, and features historical anecdotes.
Multiplayer doesn't appear to use the Microsoft Gaming Zone as earlier CFS games did, and the change has both positives and negatives. The good news: the multiplayer lobby and matching function is now integrated into the game and facilitates quickly getting online. The bad news: CFS3 seems to rely on the players to provide the hosting by using their own PCs as servers. This may not be a problem for broadband users, but where earlier CFS games played well on the Zone even for dial-up gamers, CFS3 has more noticeable lag. CFS3 does add cooperative play (in missions, not campaigns), which is an improvement.
Another knock against the CFS series attacked the poor wingman artificial intelligence. CFS3's wingmen are better -- in some ways. They're about the same in dogfighting, but now they'll participate in the strike role, and they're pretty good shots. The interactivity with wingmen is a little improved, and players can issue primitive commands to squad mates, though such communications are still far behind the competition.
Microsoft: Can Do?
We hoped the game would follow the trend Microsoft set with its history of "third-time's-a-charm" successes. CFS3, to its credit, tries hard to be something different, but in the process also veers away so much from the path of its forebears that it really is a first version instead of a third one. And, in that regard, perhaps it upholds the Microsoft tradition more than we'd like. The changes are so deep that the game even loses some of the extensibility features it used to have and isn't backward compatible with previous aircraft and scenery or user-made materials.
People who downloaded Combat Flight Simulator 3: Battle for Europe have also downloaded:
Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator: WWII Europe Series, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, Jane's WWII Fighters, Combat Wings: Battle of Britain, Comanche 4, Jane's USAF, B-17 Gunner: Air War Over Germany
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