Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Strike Fighters 2 Review

Strike Fighters 2, developed and published by Third Wire Productions.
The Good: Unique setting, plausible flight mechanics that are easy to learn (relatively speaking), scalable realism, randomly generated missions, dynamic campaigns with mercenary options, friendly to modifications
The Not So Good: No tutorial or manual, lacks multiplayer, poor performance for the graphical quality
What say you? This casual military jet simulation needs more well-rounded features: 5/8

Combat flight simulators used to be quite popular: the Falcon series, Enemy Engaged, IL-2 Sturmovik, and all of those Jane’s titles. As with most of the simulation sub-genres, the popularity has subsided quite a bit and we only the occasional simulation appears on the PC. The sims basically covered World War II or modern aircraft, and there was quite an open space in the middle to be filled. That cavern was filled by Strike Fighters, a game I previewed way back in the dark ages. Strike Fighters: Project 1 was released way back in 2002 to lackluster reviews because of its unfinished state, but now it’s back in sequel form with Strike Fighters 2. Will the return of these early jet aircraft make for a notable simulation sequel?

Usually, graphics are the aspect of the game that flight simulators push the most, since pretty screenshots sell games. Strike Fighters 2 is clearly behind the curve in this aspect. Apparently most of the changes in Strike Fighters 2 are graphics related, but the game's presentation is disappointing overall. The aircraft themselves look good and it’s clear that the focus of the game was put here. The weapon effects and explosions are pleasing, and watching opposing planes break up after a nasty missile impact is a satisfying experience. While the 3-D cockpits are nicely detailed, the terrain is far behind even IL-2 Sturmovik-level quality, and that came out in 2001. Strike Fighters 2 looks like earlier versions of X-Plane before all of the new terrain was added. It's nice to have realistic aircraft, but if they are flying over poorly textured landscapes, then the simulation loses some of its realism. Plus, most of the time you'll be in the cockpit anyway, so having fully detailed airplanes and weapons is almost meaningless. In addition, the game performs poorly given the level of quality you receive: my computer should handle “high” settings with no problem, but noticeable lag and low frame rates are present. This is strange since I can’t visually tell a significant difference between Strike Fighters 2 and a screenshot of Strike Fighters 1 that came out over six years ago, although the developers are insistent that changes are present. Granted, they would know better than I would (especially since I am basing my comparison on vague memories of a preview from six years ago), but I would expect the terrain detail to match that of the aircraft, particularly since you'll be staring at the ground more than opposing fighters. Apparently, there are enhancements for Windows Vista and DirectX 10, but since (according to my site stats) only 25% of us use Vista (60% XP, 5% Mac, 2% Linux, and some others), those additional features will be missed by most, including myself. The sound design seems OK: you have (what I would assume to be) the real effects when engaging enemy aircraft and satisfying explosion and engine sounds. The game utilizes canned radio chatter that sounds a bit hokey, but it’s better than having computerized voices instead. The music in the game is very strange and out-of-place, especially in the options menu; luckily, the tunes do not permeate the actual simulation at all. Frankly, I was expecting a dramatic improvement in the graphics in Strike Fighters 2, but we get generally the same package as six years ago.

Strike Fighters 2 features jet fighters from the 60's and 70's in a fictitious Middle Eastern setting, pitting American-backed forces (that's you) against Russian-backed forces (that's them). Strike Fighters 2 features three planes you can fly: the ground attack A-4 and the F-4 and F-100 fighter-bombers. There are different varieties of each aircraft, so if you know what the difference between the F-4C and F-4D is, then more power to you. I personally prefer the F-4 because of its ability to attack both ground and air targets and its superior technology (namely radar). There are three main modes to the game: single missions where you can choose the aircraft and mission type, instant action where it's picked for you, and five campaigns. There are a variety of mission types that anyone familiar with other military flight simulators will be familiar with: fighter sweep, intercept, CAS, armed reconnaissance, SEAD. You can also customize the time of day, weather conditions, and level of opposition. If you want a more structured setting, the campaigns are a good choice. You can't choose the next mission, but they seem to be semi-randomly generated and dependent on your performance in the previous sortie, so that's a nice feature. Before each mission, you can consult the map and alter your loadout, although the game does a good job choosing the appropriate weapons for you. A very interesting wrinkle to the campaign is the ability to play as a mercenary squad. While the U.S. military has essentially infinite resources, you need to manage your budget carefully while playing as the mercenaries. Each missile you fire costs money, and if you run out of funds you are out of luck. It's a very neat feature that I don't think I've encountered in any other flight simulation. While the campaign is not up to the same level as Enemy Engaged 2, it is decent enough to be entertaining, especially in the mercenary mode where you have to manage your resources.

One notable feature that is absent from Strike Fighters 2 is multiplayer: this is for singles only. I guess we all kind of assume that computer games will always feature some sort of online component, even if its simple LAN or IP play, but not having multiplayer at all (especially after six years of additional development time) is a questionable shortcoming. Finally, Strike Fighters 1 was apparently easy to modify and add your own custom aircraft, weapons, and the like. I would follow, then, that Strike Fighters 2 would have the same abilities. Flight simulators are notoriously difficult to learn, so it's extremely surprising that Strike Fighters 2 features absolutely no tutorials whatsoever. In addition, the game actually lacks a manual as well. It is absolutely inexcusable to provide no documentation whatsoever, especially in something as complicated as flying a military aircraft. I actually had to go download the manual for Strike Fighters Gold in order to figure out what the heck I was doing, and even then the manual doesn't nearly cover everything the game has to offer, namely bombing (I still can't figure out an appropriate strategy). No manual and no tutorial make Homer something something. Go crazy? Don't mind if I do!

Because Strike Fighters 2 takes place in the 60's and 70's, a lot of the technology that is present in modern military flight simulations simply isn't there. This time period is the bridge between the dogfighting of World War II and the long-range missile combat of Desert Storm. It's an interesting mix that requires both a familiarity with some early technology and the ability to scramble and maneuver. The game does allow for some help on a heads up display, which can superimpose waypoints (with available autopilot) and enemy positions for easy identification and navigation, but these features can be turned off. There are two main ways of targeting enemy units: visual by cycling through targets with the T (for air) or E (for ground) keys; in the F-100, this is the only option. You can also use radar, which is a two step process: cycle through blips (with the home key) and lock on one (with the insert key). It's not that complicated since, well, it wasn't that complicated back then. Thus, it's relatively easy to learn, even in the absence of a tutorial or manual. The weapons are also very basic: there is one radar-guided missile that requires a constant lock, but the Sidewinders are heat-seeking and the bombs are completely dumb (meaning no targeting required or available). The manual for Strike Fighters 1 that I found does an extremely poor job explaining how to successfully bomb enemy targets, so this aspect of the game I found to be exceedingly difficult. There's a sight but I can't figure out what it's for or when to drop the bomb. In more modern simulations, you could lock on ground targets and the HUD would indicate when to drop the payload, but since that technology is unavailable during the time of Strike Fighters 2, you are left scratching your head.

Strike Fighters 2 does offer copious options to customize the realism of the game. You can start each mission right next to the action or on the ground, and almost all aspects of the game simulation, from flight model to weapon accuracy, can be altered to make the game easier or more realistic. It's nice that the developers let you choose the level of immersion you would like. These planes are not very well designed (meaning in real life; Strike Fighters 2 simulates them accurately as far as I can tell), as I commonly stalled while doing routine turns. The Russian planes are far superior in flight, so you have to use your superior technology to blow them out of the sky before they come close. Since Strike Fighters 2 lacks multiplayer, you'll be battling the AI exclusively, and it's not that good of an opponent. The AI forces rarely fire missiles, instead opting for dogfighting which they are quite skilled at: it's extraordinarily difficult to shake an AI pilot once they are “on your six” (that's military talk for “on Uranus”). However, if you can utilize your missiles before they get a chance to circle around you, the advantage is yours. Being outnumbered provides the only true level of difficulty, which (naturally) happens quite frequently. Still, the mix of technology and old-school dogfighting makes for some intense battles and the actual gameplay of Strike Fighters 2 is satisfying more often than not.

I like Strike Fighters 2, but the game lacks some key features that should have been included. There are certainly some good aspects to the game that make it appealing: the unique setting, the easy-to-learn aircraft (thanks to early, comparatively uncomplicated technology), and the ability to modify the game. You can turn on and off the realism settings to make the sim more true-to-life or ease yourself into the game. However, I was expecting at least some additional features to be present in this iteration of the series. The graphics are generally the same as far as I can tell and they perform more poorly than I would expect given the low level of detail of the terrain. The game lacks multiplayer, which wouldn’t be an issue except that the enemy AI is poor at best on all but the most difficult settings. Not including a tutorial or even a simple manual is an immense error. I can’t shake the feeling that I played almost exactly the same game many years ago, as the aircraft, scenarios, and campaigns are identical to the memories I have of games past. Still, Strike Fighters 2 brings a distinctive experience that dedicated flight simulation enthusiasts will appreciate. The budget-level price makes investing in this simulator more tolerable, so if you’re looking for something different, Strike Fighters 2’s early jet aircraft may fill that void in your soul. That, or chocolate.