Strike Fighters: Project 1 is a combat flight simulation game featuring the famous and versatile McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. The setting is the 1960s, a primitive but rapidly changing period. Players will engage in dogfights with enemy planes and undertake search and destroy missions involving ground targets. Missiles and early guided weapons are available late in the game, but are unreliable and players will have to rely on their trusty machine guns.
The terrain engine utilizes both fractal and digital elevation maps, and the graphics engine runs in 32-bit color with a high polygon count. Advanced features such as colored point light-sourcing, specular highlighting, multi-layer textures, bump mapping, and reflective environment mapping are all supported. Players will encounter the following aircraft: F-100 Super Sabre, Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Martin B-57 Canberra, Lockheed C-130 Hercules, Cessna L-19 Bird Dog, MiG-17 "Fresco", MiG-19 "Farmer", MiG-21 "Fishbed", Su-7 Fitter, IL-28 Beagle, Tu-22 Blinder, and An-12 Cub.
It's a rough time for flight simulation fans. The genre is already subject to a much-publicized loss of popularity and many flight sim makers aren't doing much to defend their niche. Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator 3 is a disappointment and Strategy First's Strike Fighters is half a game in a box. And, this is actually Strike Fighters' second chance! The title made an initial appearance in a special Wal-Mart edition that was, at best, an alpha release. The publisher and developer took the time to keep working on the title, and while the results show promise, the current retail release of Strike Fighters is still an incomplete product.
Blast from the Past
Strike Fighters pays fair respects to things from the past. The sim is set in the 1960s and gives players jets like the venerable F-4 Phantom II, F-104 Starfighter, and A-4 Skyhawk to fly. The aircraft models look beautiful with accurate color schemes and insignia, crisp detail, and articulated control surfaces. Moving rudders and ailerons aren't new, but seeing the A-4's side-mounted speed brakes and leading-edge slats in action should bring a grin to any simulation nut. Each aircraft also has a distinctive flight model, and these beasts don't hesitate to lose speed and stall under violent maneuvering. These Cold War era jets haven't been modeled much recently, and it's a real eye-opener to handle their roll inertia. The planes are generally great, but there's considerable distance to go to build a complete combat simulation, and for the rest of the game it's all uphill.
Strike Fighters needed a lot more time to cook. There's only one campaign and it's set in a desert setting -- although the sim's planes would have been perfect for Vietnam scenarios. The desert campaign isn't dynamic and doesn't attempt the sophistication Combat Flight Simulator 3's shoots for, though it does have a randomizer to generate different missions.
The lack of a robust campaign is hardly the weakest point of the game. The aircraft fly well, but their avionics packages don't work the way the documentation claims. The air-to-ground targeting systems seem non-existent and the targeting brackets don't appear on the HUD. Wingmen won't follow orders to attack ground targets, and the game sometimes has aircraft perform in missions that don't make sense. Aircraft without night fighting capability, for example, sometimes receive nighttime assignments. The opponent defenses are completely silent with no anti-aircraft gunfire or surface-to-air missiles to worry about.
That may be a good thing, because the manual is weak and skips both ground attack and missile defense instruction. Planning for a mission is pointless; other than choosing the weapons the plane will carry, there's little to do because the planning tool permits only minimal changes to the route and the map lacks useable levels of zoom.
Air-to-air combat fares better. The missile systems in Strike Fighters represent early systems prone to failure, and they operate in appropriately cantankerous fashion. The artificial intelligence flies competently and tail gunners in craft like the IL-28 Beagle will fire at attackers. Wingmen are much more enthusiastic about engaging in air combat, though they will engage without first jettisoning extra weight like bombs or tanks. There's also some good radio chatter between pilots and air traffic controllers. Strike Fighters also includes a solid suite of useful snapshots and external and a padlock views.
The end result is that Strike Fighters ends up being a fair dogfighting simulation, but falls short in its efforts to deliver the strike experience. There's plenty of gameplay in running the single missions and campaigns, but the broken or missing features leave the product feeling empty. Multiplayer supports play via local area network and supports deathmatch and cooperative mode.
Good News/Bad News
Strike Fighters is clearly missing some pieces, but the product may be salvageable. One of Third Wire's goals was to keep Strike Fighters fairly extensible, so post-release patches and third-party work may make Strike Fighters much like Falcon 4.0, which was even more broken at its release, but eventually earned some respect from the sim community.
Woody Allen said that "half of success is showing up," but that doesn't apply to computer games. Strike Fighters actually showed up twice and sim fans can certainly hope for a third and more successful appearance, but it might have been better if it had arrived just once, fashionably late.
People who downloaded Strike Fighters: Project 1 have also downloaded:
Wings over Europe: Cold War Gone Hot, Wings over Vietnam, U.S. Navy Fighters Gold, Mig Alley, Whirlwind over Vietnam, Super EF 2000 (a.k.a. Super EuroFighter 2000), Sabre Ace: Conflict Over Korea, Strike Commander (CD-ROM Edition)
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