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Combat flight simulators are video games (similar to flight simulator or amateur flight simulation software) used to simulate military aircraft and their operations. These video games are distinct from dedicated flight simulators used for military flight training which consist of realistic physical recreations of the actual aircraft cockpit.
Prior to the rise of video games, Sega produced arcade games that resemble video games, but were in fact electro-mechanical games that used rear image projection in a manner similar to the ancient zoetrope to produce moving animations on a screen. One such electro-mechanical game by Sega was Jet Rocket, a flight simulator featuring cockpit controls that could move the player aircraft around a landscape displayed on a screen and shoot missiles onto targets that explode when hit. In 1975, Taito released an arcade video game simulator, Interceptor, an early first-person combat flight simulator that involved piloting a jet fighter, using an eight-way joystick to aim with a crosshair and shoot at enemy aircraft that move in formations of two and scale in size depending on their distance to the player.
The earliest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator (1982) had crude graphics, simple flight models – and a combat option, with "dog fighting" in a World War I Sopwith Camel. This feature was removed in the simulator after v4.0, though the Camel itself remained as one of the standard aircraft for some time. Shortly after Microsoft Flight Simulator was released for the 8-bit computer, Microsoft released Jet in 1985. This simulator used simple filled wire frame graphics and a small generic battle space to allow players to fight MiGs in an F-18 or F-16. The five or six frames per second refresh rate was barely playable. There were also titles released for the Atari 2600 that attempted to simulate flight combat. Two of the more successful examples are Mattel's Air Raiders (1982) and Milton Bradley's Spitfire Attack (1983). However, flight controls are limited on these as the 2600's controller consists of a joystick and a single button.
The early 2000s saw several rival publishers such as NovaLogic with titles like the Comanche Series that simulated helicopter combat and later Jane's WWII Fighters which had small features that the Microsoft titles lacked, such as more detailed visible damage. A breakthrough occurred when Namco launched Air Combat, for PlayStation 1, which would go on as the Ace Combat series. The series would continue with sequels for PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Although mass interest has waned in recent years the genre is still popular today with many titles specialising in certain types of aircraft or historical periods or wars with Microsoft remaining one of the market leaders. Microsoft currently has three combat flight simulators: Combat Flight Simulator WWII Europe Series (1998), Combat Flight Simulator 2 WWII Pacific Theatre (2000) and Combat Flight Simulator 3: Battle for Europe (2002). Ubisoft is now a leading publisher in the genre with the acclaimed IL-2 Sturmovik series,which some claim to be more realistic than other games in the genre, the first of which was first released in 2001.
Combat flight simulators are usually classified according to their historical period, type of aircraft, level of detail (survey is less detailed than a study type) and single- versus multi-player.
There are simulators for most modern periods and wars, including the following:
Many of the historical combat simulators are classified as "survey simulators", because they include a variety (or survey) of aircraft from the period in question, typically from all nations participating in the conflict. Early simulators often suffered from flight models and instrument panels that differed little between aircraft, but more recent examples have excelled in this regard, forcing the virtual pilot to learn the carefully modelled strengths and weaknesses of the various types (e.g. the different fighting and flying styles of a Spitfire versus a Messerschmitt 109 in IL-2 Sturmovik or a Mitsubishi Zero versus a US Navy F4F Wildcat in Combat Flight Simulator 2). There have been modern jet survey simulators as well (US Navy Fighters by Jane's/Electronic Arts 1994, USAF by Jane's 1999) typically with simplified and generic modelling of radar, navigation, and weapons.
Modern jet combat aircraft and helicopters have a variety of complex electronic and weapon systems that are specific to a particular aircraft. This has led to a genre called the "study sim", which focuses on modelling an aircraft's systems as accurately as possible, often requiring thick manuals that rival the real manuals in detail. EF2000 might be an early iteration of such games, and when released by Digital Image Design (DiD) in 1995 it quickly garnered a cult following, including a user group that produced a detailed online manual of weapons and tactics. Soon afterward, a collaborative effort between Electronic Arts and Jane's specialized in such sims in the 1990s with titles such as Jane's Longbow, Jane's Longbow 2, Jane's F-15 and Jane's F/A-18.
Falcon 4.0 is perhaps the highest regarded example of this genre. This detailed simulation of the USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon was based on a series first begun in 1987 (Falcon). Later iterations improved the fidelity of avionics, weapons systems, physics, and flight models until version 4 was released by Spectrum HoloByte (later marketed by MicroProse) in 1998. Official development stopped after a few updates, but thanks to the intervention of MicroProse Chairman Gilman Louie, the Falcon 4 community took over development of further versions and add-ons. As of 2011, the community development is still highly active.
Helicopter simulations have their own story, beginning with Gunship, by MicroProse, in 1986. Nearly ten years later, in 1995, Digital Integration released Apache Longbow. The most sophisticated helicopter game to date, it would only be exceeded by Origin the year following. In 1996, Jane's AH-64D Longbow was created by Origin and released by Electronic Arts as part of the Jane's Combat Simulator series. The sequel, Jane's Longbow 2, was released late in 1997, improving every aspect of the game, particularly the terrain and objects. (Longbow 2 was one of the early simulations to take advantage of hardware accelerated graphics including advanced lighting). The following year, in 1998, Empire Interactive released Enemy Engaged: Apache vs Havoc allowing players to choose to fly for either the USA or for Russia. Meanwhile NovaLogic released the final iteration of their Comanche series in 2001.
The Digital Combat Simulator started with its first release DCS: Black Shark in 2008 a series of simulations, which can only be compared with Falcon 4.0 (and may excel the older simulation). The PC game simulates the Russian Kamov Ka-50 attack helicopter and was developed by Eagle Dynamics in cooperation with helicopter-manufacturer Kamov (the Kamov-logo can be found in the main-screen). The simulation features a complete and detailed cockpit of the Ka-50. All relevant switches are accurately modelled and functional. Over 500 key-commands are mapped, but the fully interactive cockpit allows virtually every switch and radio-button to be clicked and changed.
Besides the traditional input-devices such as joystick, throttle and pedals, DCS has a built-in support for TrackIR with 6 DOF, creating (in conjunction with the interactive 3D-cockpit) a very realistic experience.
Due to the increased flexibility of the DCS system, additional fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter add-ons will be released as (independent) "modules" one by one, each module providing another realistic vehicle. The latest module released (release date September 21, 2012) features the North American P-51 Mustang.
This type includes all simulators of modern jet aircraft. These simulators can usually also be classified by their historical context or level of details (study versus survey). There have been many modern jet sims, some of them listed above under Survey Sims (USNF, USAF) and Study Sims (F-15, F/A-18, Falcon 4.0, Tornado). Some have concentrated on future fighters (e.g., F-22 Total Air War by Digital Image Design in 1998), while others have simulated well-known existing fighters (several AV-8 Harrier II sims, Fleet Defender, by MicroProse, F22 lightning 3, the latter based on F-22 Raptor, and many others). A recent example is Lock On: Modern Air Combat, which attempts to bridge the study/survey gap with quite detailed models of several US and Russian aircraft.
Most simulators listed can only be played by a single player, although most titles from the late 1990s on include some sort of multi-player/network capability. With single player combat simulators, everything other than the player's own aircraft is controlled by the program's "AI" (artificial intelligence). Although modern video games create fairly intelligent and independent behaviour for adversaries ("bandits") or allies ("friendlies"), advanced players find even the best to be too predictable. Multi-player games allow players to oppose one or many human players for a much more realistic and challenging experience. Some simulators exist only or primarily in internet multiplayer versions (e.g., Air Warrior, the massively multiplayer Fighter Ace, WarBirds, Aces High, World War II Online, Ace Online, War Thunder and others).
However realistic their flight, weapon, and system models may be, combat flight sims remain video games and as such, many players seek replay value. Simulators enhance the replay value by not only offering a variety of single missions, but also randomly generated quick missions or longer campaigns consisting of several smaller mission or objectives. Many simulators also include "mission builders" which allow the player to create missions. The mission builder for Red Baron II was quite powerful, as was the mission builder for IL-2 Sturmovik and Rise of Flight.
Most campaigns are "dynamic flowing", which means they change according to the results of each successive mission, e.g. if the player destroys a "target of opportunity" which turns out to be a truck carrying an enemy leader then the campaign starts to take a different path. Some campaign models have been developed which are fully dynamic, and where successive missions take place in an environment which is persistent (destroy a building in one mission, it remains destroyed in the next and will only be rebuilt in view of limited resources, realistic time and strategic priorities, etc.). A notable pioneer in this area was Andy Hollis, producer of the Jane's Longbow series. Digital Image Design, with their release of F-22 Total Air War in 1998, took this to a level comparable to or beyond that of Falcon 4.0 allowing a transparency into the larger strategic battlefield by use of multiple screens and a "God's eye view."
As real-time applications with a lot of things going on, combat flight simulators are among the most computer and graphics demanding applications at any given time, and many sim fans are constantly upgrading their hardware, including the most advanced graphics cards. These sims have also given rise to a variety of hardware add-ons such as "HOTAS" (hands on throttle and stick") controllers that allow full control of most functions without touching the keyboard. Voice control and head-tracking view control systems are also available for home flight sim enthusiasts.