Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Sharing Simulated Skies

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 1, 2015

ROF1It’s been a while, but lately I’ve been feeling the itch to fly the virtual skies again. In part, I think it was because I’ve picked up some simulators during various sales that I hadn’t played enough to really get my money’s worth out of ’em. But mainly, I miss playing them. The problem is that realistic flight sims take a good deal of time even to learn how to play, so unless you are in the mood to take an hour to simply learn how to start your plane and taxi to the runway, it’s hard to invest that kind of time. And as a grown-up gamer with a part-time job of making games… yeah. Hard to make that happen until I’m in the aforementioned learning-to-start-the-plane mood.

My fist flight simulator was Flight Simulator 2 by subLOGIC, and … I don’t know if it was my second one or not, but soon after it was Jet by the same people. Though it had horribly slow frame rates (seriously, one frame per second!) and I couldn’t dogfight my friends to find out who really was the best fighter pilot, I loved it. One of the cool things about these simulators is that long before the era of ‘expansions’ (1990s) or “DLC” (2000s), there were these “scenery disks” for the game (of which I think I only owned one, maybe two). And they worked for both Flight Sim 2 and for Jet. And you could fly around the Flight Sim 2 areas in a wireframe F-16 or F-18.

I remained a flight sim fan, enjoying the gradually improving graphics and realism as technology improved. The next truly mind-blowing flight sim for me was Falcon 3.0, by Spectrum Holobyte. I still proudly possess the original box for this game, and the MiG-29 add-on. This game had it all… or rather, it promised it all, and delivered an amazingly large chunk of it. Multiplayer? Yes, it worked, although it was extremely slow and painful. Hardcore realism? The most hardcore realism ever seen at the time. The ability to create your own missions and actually record a play-through. And the dynamic campaign was nothing short of amazing (and remains pretty impressive even today…)

But one fascinating aspect of Falcon 3.0 was the promise of the “Electronic Battlefield System.” The idea – partially realized – was that you could link in all these expansions or games together and have a big multiplayer war taking place with everyone flying different, realistic aircraft. Or – potentially – not even aircraft. I vaguely remember talk of having players drive the M1A1 Abrams tank as part of the world. Expansion to games were still a new idea at the time, and having something like this that applied across all games and expansions – interchangeably! – was wild stuff, and a massive multiplier for the game as a whole.

Unfortunately, the only expansions to the Electronic Battlefield Series were the F/A-18 and MiG-29, both similar aircraft in capabilities and role to the F-16, and “Operation: Fighting Tiger,” a new theater of operations and campaign. Again, all these pieces could work together — buying one expansion could theoretically enhance all the rest. I had a lot of fun with these – including a few great multiplayer experiences. But the one I was most looking forward to – the A-10 – never materialized, in spite of being proudly advertised in their 1993 catalog.


Now, in fairness, this was not a brand-new idea. The IEEE has a standard protocol for doing wargaming across multiple simulator platforms for the “real world,” and it was only natural that the idea should come to “serious entertainment” too. Sort of an “operating system” for combat flight sims to all hook into. It’s quite likely that Spectrum Holobyte knew of it, and knew it would be killer idea for gaming, too. And it was, as far as it went with highly limited technology and a shortened product series.

After that came a period that introduced the “survey sim.” Instead of having a whole bunch of hardcore simulators that somehow linked together in a shared world, since flight sims were (surprisingly) a hot commodity at the time, developers and publishers adopted a “many for the price of one” model. One game, several aircraft. Unfortunately, this necessitated a streamlining and abstraction of the simulators to get them to fit something close to a “lowest common denominator” of control systems for all of the planes. But they were still usually reasonably well modeled in their flight characteristics and capabilities, and the player didn’t have to learn an entirely new control scheme for each vehicle. If you didn’t need to know exactly how to launch an AGM-65D missile from a Block 50/52 F-16, the games offered a great chance to “kick the tires and light the fires” and play in cooperative and competitive missions with other players… even online.

But for certain players, the hardcore flight sim that offered an optimized experience for a particular aircraft and role was something extra cool. Not that anyone who wasn’t already a military pilot expected the chance to use these unique skills in a real cockpit, but part of the fun came from learning real skills and experiencing (within the limitations of the technology) exactly what a real pilot must do.

IL-2 Sturmovik was a peculiar entry in the field because it began as a hard-core “study” sim – detailed for the hardcore pilot. But even though the IL-2 was the most-manufactured combat aircraft in history, it was relatively unknown in the west, which limited the appeal to a larger audience. So 1C Maddox broadened the appeal by broadening the number of aircraft, turning it into a more general sim. It ended up kinda falling into the shared world idea across multiple expansions and stand-alone titles, culminating in a full compilation IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946, which includes well over 200 flyable aircraft (albeit many of them variations of a particular model) and 300 total aircraft, across four different maps and campaigns, with multiplayer capability with up to 100 players. The 1946 compilation took things a step further by including a bunch of “what if” aircraft that were still in prototype stage or simply ideas on the drawing board which never saw combat by the time the war ended. While the modeling of all of the aircraft is incredibly ‘hardcore’ and detailed by mid-90s standards, the natural limitations of a one-size-fits-all “survey” product does bring about some limitations. However, the series continues, and as whole remains the go-to game series to this day for World War II era combat flight simulation.

The final entry of the Falcon series, Falcon 4.0, came out in 1998 and was famous both for it’s audacious ambition and its failure of implementation. At least meeting the top standards for hardcore simulation detail of the era, it included a dynamic campaign unmatched even today. Unfortunately, it was crippled by bugs and what was clearly a rush to ship the game before the studio went bankrupt. However, through some really weird licensing arrangements, a fan-made sequel was produced and published using heavily modified (and fixed) original source code and data. Falcon 4.0: Allied Force, which finally brought the simulator pretty close to its original promise, long after the original studio had shuttered. Amazingly, it still holds up reasonably well (albeit with no support for wide-screen monitors)… It still has the most incredible dynamic campaign ever attempted in a flight sim. But there were plenty of other flight sims in that same era that more than exceeded Falcon 3.0‘s promise of multiplayer capability, multiple playable aircraft in the same simulation, and hardcore realism. Sometimes even in the same package.

And as a curious repeat of history, the makers of Falcon 4.0: Allied Force planned a whole series of simulators that could be linked together in a series called “Battlefield Operations” – which again never materialized. But that was the promise started with the original Microprose release: a whole bunch of super-hardcore flight simulator packages that would all be interoperable together as one giant simulator package. Why couldn’t somebody actually pull this off? Like, Ever?

After about 2001, flight sims largely dropped off the radar (as did PC gaming in general, for a while).  They were still being made and played, but the quantity dropped off. In part, I think this was due to the genre splitting in two: On one hand, you had the super-simplified action games that borrowed some extremely simplified flight sim qualities, and on the other you had really hard-core realism. The area in-between appears to be a no-man’s land nowadays.

So now we get up to the now. The DCS World (Digital Combat Simulator) is the modern entry into the shared-simulator concept, exactly what the Electronic Battlefield Series and Battlefield Operations were supposed to be: that whole super-hardcore simulator system that other sims could be built on top of, all working together seamlessly. However, in this case, they’ve actually pulled it off, both with first-party and third-party support.

While they may have some similarities in interface, these are not “survey sims” with similar controls (with the exception of the Flaming Cliffs 3 aircraft, but even those “medium fidelity” aircraft would be more than a match for the hardest of the hardcore flight sims of the 1990s). Each aircraft is meticulously and uniquely modeled, including their controls, to be as close to an exact match of the real aircraft as possible. At least as far as combat flight sims for civilians using unclassified data, it’s about as detailed as you could ask for. Probably more so. Unfortunately, as a realization of the concept behind the Falcon series, it fails on two counts: First of all, the F-16 is not represented (yet), and there’s no provision for a dynamic campaign (although third parties have created some interesting add-ons to try and provide this).

Interestingly, although DCS World really focuses on modern aircraft, it has been a platform for some older aircraft as well, including the P-51 Mustang, FW-190 D9, and Bf-109 from World War II, the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre from (primarily) the Korean War, and the MiG-21 from the middle cold war (still in common use today). There are also three helicopters available (the Ka-50, the UH-1H Huey, and the MI-8MTV2 “Magnificent Eight”), and a slew of modern combat and trainer jets. And yes — you can even command and drive ground vehicles. They are all interoperable, though I’m not sure what kind of mission would mix Su-27s with P-51s.

In another cool move, DCS World ships for free and includes the SU-25T and a trainer (unarmed) version of the P-51. Considering I once bought an Su-25 simulator (SU-25 Soviet Attack Fighter by EA… EGA and VGA modes available!!!) at only slightly under full price, I think that’s pretty neat. Ever since that simulator, I’ve been a fan of the Su-25. If you are a fan of moving mud, it’s a pretty decent deal… if you don’t mind taking the time to learn how to fly a Russian attack jet.

One of the better deals available for it is Lock On: Flaming Cliffs 3, which no longer acts as an expansion to the 12-year-old “Lock On: Modern Air Combat” game, and offers a good mix of modern combat aircraft of “medium fidelity” to fly. Considering the level of detail exceeds even that of the original Falcon 4.0 release (Allied Force added a bunch of extra goodies) by a fair margin, I think I have a different definition for what constitutes a high level of detail and fidelity. It offers IMO the best bang for the buck for the series (especially if you find it on sale) if you don’t need to use the game as a training tool for your day job as a fighter pilot. It includes the A-10A, F-15, Su-27, Su-33, MiG-29S, MiG-29A, SU-25 and SU-25T as aircraft.

Is it the ideal of what was envisioned way back 25 years ago by Spectrum Holobyte developers for a ‘shared world’ between flight sims? No, not the ideal. At least not my ideal. Until you can have lots of players jumping in on either side of the conflict in a dynamic campaign on a giant digital battlefield, able to take on roles of any of the (significant, active) vehicles in the arena, not really. I don’t see it happening with this iteration of the engine, and the folks who attempted such a feat aren’t around anymore.

But in the meantime, at least we can share arguably the most realistic simulated skies with other players given current technology.


Filed Under: Flight Sims - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    This is probably the biggest genre that I WISH I could get into. I love the concept of flight sims, but the time and money investments for the more realistic ones kicks my backside.

    I have a friend with a 4 monitor setup and a complete desk sized flight interior. It looks like it’d be amazing to play but it’s so far out of my price range.

    The closest I’ve come was IL-2 and my best achievement was being able to take off and land (sometimes). One day I’ll get back to it, but it just requires more dedication than I can afford.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I’ve got a whole article about that which has been waiting in the wings for a week… it may wait a little longer, I don’t know. It’s a little bit ranty.

    But yeah, I think in the end, you just have to suck it up and embrace the joy of just learning to take off and land for a bit. For me, just figuring out how to turn on the power to the instrument panel took me a long time playing the F-15 in DCS. Kind of embarrassing, and I may have already forgotten what the keyboard command is to do it, but it’s kinda buried amidst a gazillion commands.

  • McTeddy said,

    Yeah… DCS.

    It took me about two and half hours to get my plane off the ground after which I promptly lost control and crashed.

    It was the most fun I ever had turning on a plane though.

  • Modran said,

    That’s a shorter post ?!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Nope, that’s one of my maybe-once-or-twice-a-week bigger posts. I’ve got another big sim-related one coming up either this week or next week. I’m just avoiding making this the common case. 🙂

  • Captain Kal said,

    “The closest I’ve come was IL-2 and my best achievement was being able to take off and land (sometimes). One day I’ll get back to it, but it just requires more dedication than I can afford.”

    You can still try Strike Fighter 2! A very decent “survey sim”, not too much effort to get in the air (although you should learn the trick of bombing a target, with cross hairs only 🙂 ), and many planes from different eras!! And I fell in love with the A-4 Skyhawk!!!!