Archived Pages from 20th Century!!
|Reviewed by: Craig Strachan|
|Author:||Flying Legends||Price:||Retail:£44.99 UK, Street: £34.99 UK|
|Category:||Detailed fly 'em up||Released:||December 1995 (WIN95 Version)|
|Platform:||DOS, also on WIN95.||Version:||1.1|
|Multiplayer:||Up to 2 via IPX.|
|Controls:||Keyboard, Mouse, Joystick highly recommended|
|Sound devices:||Most popular cards|
|Computer||Memory||HD space||CD speed|
Reviewer's Hardware: 486 dx2/66, 10M RAM, 2x CD-ROM Drive, CH
These days, when I hear about some great new flight sim under development, I tend to stifle a yawn and reply "Oh really?" in that reserved British way for I know full well that the said flight sim will have as much chance of running well on my 486 as I have of being elected Pope and Prime Minister of Great Britain in the same day.
I must admit though that I started getting pretty excited when news first started leaking out from the mysterious east about a new flight sim based on the SU27 Flanker. The sim, written by Russian programmers was said to be very realistic and even better was being written to run well on the hardware available to the programmers, namely 386s with EGA graphics.
Hold on, that doesn't look like EGA to me...
It was a sickening disappointment therefore when the sim emerged in its final form, now under the auspices of SSI. In a complete turnaround, it was now a Windows 95 only product running in SVGA mode and requiring a minimum of a DX2/66.
Big Bill's spawn has not tainted my machine, nor will it until I can invest in some new hard disk acreage (and don't tell me hard disks are really cheap these days because they're still not cheap enough for me, buying Flanker wiped out the Strachan computing budget for the next six months) so I had to swallow my disappointment and hope that the rumours of a DOS version would bear fruit.
Finally, SSI have come good and the DOS version is with us. Early reports suggest that this could be the game to unthrone the Sultan of Sims itself (I refer of course to the sublimely terrific Tornado). Will it live up to the hype or will it flame out on its take off run? Strap on your bone dome with the red star on it and practice your Mr. Checkov impressions as we find out.
Flanker is a sim which puts the emphasis back on flying. The rookie Flanker pilot will search in vain for ways of creating a new pilot or customising their tail art. What Flanker boils down to is an extremely detailed mission creating package and a simulation module which lets you fly missions created in the mission creator. There is no campaign option and no quick start option or the like. Similarly, there is no choice of flight model, the only one available is one which is as accurate as the programmers can make it. The only concessions available to those of us whose reactions do not permit us to snap flies out of the air as they pass is the option to make our Flanker more bulletproof than the real thing and to set the skill level of the enemies.
In short, this is a simulation, not a game and the player looking for a chance to leap aboard a kite and pole about for 10 minutes should look elsewhere.
The Planner interface. Windows and toolbars everywhere.
As soon as Flanker starts up, it reveals its Windows origins. The programmers having had to design an interface for the windows version obviously decided that it would be pointless to redesign it for the DOS version and instead have produced something that has an uncanny resemblance to Windows 95. I hope the Microsoft 'look and feel' lawyers aren't feeling a bit slack at the moment. When the game first starts up, it presents the player with an open file dialog box to select a mission from. Just like all those business applications that dull people use their computers for. The similarities do not stop there. On the left hand side there is a tool bar and moving the mouse to the top of the screen reveals a menu bar packed full of goodies. In fact playing Flanker is pretty good practise for using a program like Word and if your boss objects to you playing during working hours, you can tell them I said so. I found that the interface worked well apart from a couple of early problems getting the hang of the map manipulation function, caused no doubt by my impending senile.
For a wonder, this sim does not take place in Korea, Iraq/Kuwait or any of the worlds other hot spots so beloved of flight sim writers everywhere. Flanker has as its sphere of operations the Crimea, an area which in the sim's near future scenario is claimed by both Russia and the Ukraine. One result of this is that both sides tend to use pretty much the same equipment meaning that the pilot has to be very sure of the identity of their target before they let fly. The choice of the Crimea is a good one because it provides a compact area of operations with plenty of variety in the terrain.
Strachan's fifth rule of computer games states that "The chances of a flight sim being any good improve dramatically if a decent map is provided in the documentation". For justification, I merely need to point out that Tornado came with no less than 5 maps printed on glossy paper which allowed the truly sad to plot their course on them with whiteboard pens. Flanker scores well in this respect coming as it does with a large scale map of the Crimea region printed on shiney paper. Another good point is that the map has been drawn especially for the game meaning that if a road or railway appears on the map, there is every likelihood that it will also appear in the game.
Then there is the manual. Once again, Flanker is up against pretty tough opposition because it has to try and better the Tornado manual, a truly magnificent tome. In the end, it doesn't make it but it comes very close. At just over 200 pages, it is perhaps slimmer than might be hoped for but those 200 pages are packed with the kind of stuff the ardent flight simmer needs to know. The manual scorns the chaff lesser flight sims seek to pad their pages with such as a history of flight from the Wright brothers onwards and buckles straight down to the job of flying and fighting one of the most technically sophisticated sims going and it does a very good job with clear concise text and helpful illustrations. As we will see, the manual needs to be good because the Flanker will take more than the normal amount of time to get to grip with. If I have a quibble with the manual, it is perhaps that it is sometimes just a wee bit too technical. Try making sense of a sentence like
`When using the EOS, all contacts are displayed in an ``azimuth angle - elevation angle''frame of reference'
when you've got a Mig 29 locked up right in front of you. The other problem I have with the manual is that it doesn't have an index. By and large the sections of the manual are sufficiently well organised so that hunting for the exact procedure for letting fly with your weapon of destruction of choice isn't too bad. By way of consolation, Flanker also comes with a separate key reference card which saves having to thumb frantically through the manual at the most inconvenient of times (i.e. with several kilos of flaming rocket propelled death homing onto one's tailpipe) to find out how to turn on the ECM system. If you are running the Windows 95 version of Flanker, the entire manual is also online in the shape of a Windows help file. DOS users will have to exit Flanker and start up Windows (3.1 or 95) to have a look at this file.
Off into the wild blue yonder
Flanker caused a bit of an uproar when it first came out because it bucked the trend in flight sims. There wasn't a bitmap in sight. Instead, what we got were crisp SVGA polygons. In fact, the style of the graphics were eerily similar to (you guessed it) Tornado though of course in higher resolution. (May I just beg the readers indulgence at this point to say that in my opinion, if Digital Integration were to dig out the Tornado code, bolt on a SVGA graphics engine (the one from Apache would do nicely) and release it onto an unsuspecting world, they would sell millions. Perhaps their new (sigh) F16 sim will come up to scratch).
The evil enemy launcher unaware of the fate in store for it.
Other ground details are a strange mixture. The various SAMs, ships and airfields in the sim are some of the most finely detailed I have encountered in my simulated career. Radar scanners rotate and missile launchers swivel. in a highly authentic looking manner. On the other hand, civilian buildings all look as if they belong to the early Lego school of architecture. It's as if some giant has strewn a bag of Liquorice Allsorts across the Crimean landscape.
Take that you blighter!
There are three levels of graphical detail available. The differences between the three aren't immediately obvious (for instance the difference between the most detailed setup and the next one down is that roads have street lights, railway lines have pylons to hold up the overhead power lines and electricity pylons criss-cross the landscape, something that is easy to miss when doing Mach 1 at a height of 50 Metres). Frame rate demon though I am, I've found myself playing the sim at full detail on my lowly DX2/66 and accepting the inevitable hit on frame rate. Actually, the difference in frame rates between the graphics options is not so great and I certainly found that the sim ran acceptable on my setup.
Wait a minute. Is he allowed to do that?
How does it all looks when it is moving? Approaching Sevastipol through its surrounding valleys desperately trying to hug the earth at 0 meters (slightly lower than 0 feet) to evade the searching radars, the player gets a real sensation of speed. Unfortunately, the player will probably be too busy trying to keep their kite in the air to notice how the roads beneath are full of traffic, the shunting yards are hives of activity and the SAM site that has just volleyed off a swarm of missiles at them is modelled in exquisite detail. Until of course they are hanging beneath their parachute when they'll have plenty of time to notice these things.
Oh dear. How am I going to explain this to the boss?
Inside the cockpit, things look great too. Most of the Flankers instruments are of the mechanical variety and the use of SVGA allows them to be portrayed in razor sharp detail.
Lets see, if the big hand's at twelve...
Many will regard Flanker's graphics as being irretrievable out of date because of the lack of bitmaps but I for one have never been entirely convinced that bitmaps are altogether a good thing and Flanker provides a superb example of what can be done with nary a bitmap in sight.
People who have played as many flight sims as I have can expect to have some points of reference when we first load up a new sim. We know that a Sidewinder is a short range heat seeking air to air missile and a Durandle is a runway piercing unguided bomb. We also have a fair notion of what the HUD symbols means even though there may be minor differences between various types of aircraft.
The Flanker comes as a nasty shock to this warm complacency. Firstly, the death dealing ordinance hung onto your Flanker is all of Soviet origin complete with Soviet designations. Knocking down three Mig 29s in a furball is difficult enough without the added problem of trying to remember if a R27TE is a radar or heat guided missile.
Even the HUD cues are all in Cyrillic script and you haven't experienced panic until you've desperately tried to find the correct bomb dropping mode one and a half Km. out from your primary target. Thoughtfully the manual provides a translation table between Cyrillic and Roman lettering.
There's another problem with the HUD. Your speed is given in Kilometres per hour and your height in metres. There are few things more annoying than realising on your final approach that you are only going half as fast as though you were although in fairness, you may also find that your altitude is three times as great.
The writers of the sim have extended its realism to the use of weapons. The missile lock key may have to be depressed for several seconds before a missile will lock, and the trigger may have to be squeezed for an appreciable amount of time before a missile will come off its rail, both delays apparently being faithful recreations of those encountered with the real aircraft. Similarly, the Soviet equivalent to the Maverick will not magically lock onto a target as it will in lesser sims. No, it has to be aimed using the cockpit MFD and then manually locked onto the target. Loose off an anti-ship missile and stand by to be amazed at the flurry of chaff and defensive fire that will come from your target. No sinking a carrier with a single missile here, defences have to be overwhelmed for an attack to be successful.
Most flight sim manuals when they get onto the subject of landings will tell you that in the final stages of an approach, the controls for speed and altitude are reversed i.e. the stick is used to control speed and the throttle is used to alter the rate of climb or descent. There are sound aerodynamic reasons for this which I won't go into now (as the teacher says when he doesn't know the answer). Try out this approach (ha ha) in most flight sims and you will end up sitting in a smoking wreck a couple of miles short of the runway threshold because the flight model simply isn't good enough to reproduce these effects in a flight condition which only lasts for a couple of minutes at the end of the flight.
In Flanker though, it all works exactly as it should. Similarly, though some sims may pay lip service to the concept of trimming the aircraft, Flanker is one sim where it is absolutely vital to trim correctly if you don't want your joystick arm falling off through fatigue at the end of the mission. It's not enough to just press a couple of buttons at the start of the flight either. Flanker's trim varies with altitude, speed and aircraft weight, just like it should.
Despite the sophistication of the flight model, the Flanker is a relatively easy aircraft to fly until the ragged edges of its flight envelope are reached whereupon things can go pear shaped very quickly indeed. Fortunately two training missions which covers recovery from normal and inverted spins are included with the sim.
Although designed as a fighter, the Flanker can also put on a pretty fair show as a ground attack aircraft and this aspect is not ignored in the sim. There is a large selection of air-to-ground ordinance available ranging from dumb bombs to the latest in missiles. I must admit to having some doubts as to whether the radar in the real Flanker can produce as detailed a map of the ground as the sim version does but I'm not complaining. Ground attack missions are hard enough as it is. The Flanker's real purpose in life though is to shoot down other aircraft and here the hard pressed pilot finds even more high tech kit to either assist or baffle them according to experience. The flanker has two systems for detecting aircraft, a sophisticated radar and an Infra Red system. The radar has a longer range but the IR system has the advantage of being undetectable by other aircraft.
Up close, both these systems can be switched off and another two used. Firstly a missiles seeker can be locked directly onto a target in front of the Flanker without any input from the search systems, handy if these systems have been damaged. Finally, the helmet mounted sight can be used for off bore sight targeting. Simply look at the target and if the target is within the field of view of the missile seeker, you can lock it up. Some of the missiles the Flanker carries can practically shoot off at ninety degrees to the direction of flight so this is a very useful ability. There's just one drawback. Remember I said that the opposition you would be going up against used much the same equipment as yourself? that's right, they've got Flankers too and they all come equipped with the same kit. As old Chuck Yeager says, "Remember, it's the man, not the machine".
As mentioned before, Flanker comes with a full blown mission creator which also serves as a mission planner, albeit with a couple of buttons greyed out. A floating tool bar on the left hand side of the screen gives access to most of the planning tools and the rest can be accessed from the pull down menus. The interface soon feels natural to use and most of the hard work is done via pop up dialog boxes. For example, to place a new aircraft in the mission, you would first click the aircraft button on the tool bar then click on the map where you wish the aircraft to appear. On doing this, two dialog boxes will appear, the aircraft's property box and a waypoint box. In the property box the type, nationality and mission of the aircraft can be set. The skill of the pilot of this plane can also be set. There are two special settings in the pilot skill box. Choosing 'me' designates this aircraft as being the one the player will fly during this mission. Choosing 'remote' designates the aircraft as one that will be flown by another human in a network mission. Up to three wingmen of varying skills can also be attached to an aircraft.
Each flight can have up to 31 waypoints attached to it, and a variety of actions can be associated with each one. Flight planning for other aircraft both friendly and hostile is done in exactly the same way.
It's not just your Flanker that looks good...
As well as aircraft, a wide range of ground objects can be placed on the map. Placing these is not nearly so complicated a task because in the Flanker world at present, the only thing that moves are aircraft. Ships, tanks, radars, they're all there but none of them will budge one millimetre from their starting position. This makes war in Flanker a somewhat static affair.
The attention to detail is as great here as else where in the program. Placing say a Kub SAM system on the map is not just a question of clicking the mouse at the right place on the map. Each component of the missile system (the control vehicle, the search radar and up to four missile launchers) have to be placed individually and they have to be placed in the correct position otherwise that missile site will simply not function. After placing the vehicles, the facing of the site and its skill must be chosen. This can include a random chance that the site will not appear at all.
There is some scope for the Flanker mission planner to add some kind of plot to their missions. Each mission starts at a set time and objects can appear at any time after the start of the mission. This includes the player's Flanker so it is quite possibly that the player may have to sit twiddling his thumbs fore some time watching the mission proceed before it's time to jump into the cockpit.
Another way of bringing some excitment into the jaded Flanker Pilot's life is to make use of the system failures menu. Many of the Flanker's systems can be assigned a time of failure. This can be either a fixed time or a period during which the system will fail. Want to make things hard for the poor sods flying your missions? How about making their port engine fail just as they start their attack run or knackering their radar just as they meet up with those three enemy Mig 29s? Just to show the devious cunning of the Flanker community, there was a debate raging on the Flanker mailing list when I was first getting to grips with Flanker over whether it was fair to start a mission with the Aircraft Control System (ACS) already out of action. This makes the plane harder to fly but also increases its capabilities since it permits maneuvers which the ACS would normally prevent.
A sure sign of Flankers quality is that it has a large following on the Internet. There is a thriving mail list with a varied and knowledgeable readership, email campaigns and competitions and several web pages devoted to the sim. The best place to start is probably the Su 27 Flanker On-line page which is a good introduction to the Internet support for Flanker. There is also an American mirror for the site.
Flanker is up to version 1.1 now and most of the bugs and missing features of the original release have been dealt with. Nothing is perfect though and Flanker does have one rather large skeleton in its cupboard, the dreaded 'stutter'. A unique feature of Flanker which can in certain cases cause a 486 DX2/66 to run the game more smoothly than a P133, it is caused by an interaction between the graphics and the flight model maths routines which adversely effects the smoothness of Flanker's framerate. The faster the machine, the more noticeable it will be although its severity also seems to vary with machines' setups and even the perception of the user. At time of writing (early October), SSI have just announced that a patch for this problem will be entering beta testing within the next couple of weeks.
There is no doubt in my mind that Flanker is a true classic worthy of every accolade the Games Domain Review can throw at it. When I first started this review, my feelings were that Flanker, though very good was still not quite good enough to displace Tornado from my personal number 1 spot but as I have played it more and more, doubts have entered my mind.
Just the other night, I was playing a mission I had hastily lashed together where I attempted to shoot down several aircraft using only the cannon. I quickly got onto the tail of a SU25 and for the next five minutes chased him all over the sky trying for a sure shot so as not to waste precious cannon shells. Within seconds, flying the Flanker felt as natural as breathing. No matter the maneuver I wanted to perform, it was executed almost as if the sim were taking commands from my brain, rather than through the medium of a sweaty paw clasped round a CH Flightstick Pro. I cannot possibly describe the elation that gripped me when I finally managed to send a 30mm wake-up call up the foe's jet pipe. Watching chunks fly off the enemy machine, the canopy flying off and finally the ejector seat rocketing away from the wreck of the Frogfoot had me howling with glee and my cats running for cover. Then I went and spoilt it all by getting nailed by a TU 95's tail gunner after an overconfident approach. No, I think that Flanker may even be better than Tornado. There, I've said it.
Is Flanker for you? I think the key to this lies in the category you place the game in. Do not compare it to sims such as EF2000 and US Navy Fighters. Instead put it in the company of Flight Simulator 5.1 and Flight Unlimited, sims where the experience of flying is more important than any surrounding decoration. Did you find Flight Simulator 5 and Flight Unlimited boring after half an hour? Then give Flanker a miss. If on the other hand, you spent countless hours flying across the States from airport to airport or trying to perfect your hammerhead turn and the idea of shooting something appeals, then rush off to your favourite software emporium, trampling the old and slow underfoot, and snatch the box out of your dealer's (the word seems not inappropriate because to the right mind, Flanker is as addictive as Crack) hand. You will not regret it.
A typical end to a Strachan mission
|Appeal:||Die hard propellor heads|
|Originality & Storyline:||The subject of the sim is an original one, as is the location in which it is set.|
|Graphics & Video:||I love them, others may think them old fashioned|
|Audio:||Usual engine noises and bangs|
|Longevity:||If it's your kind of game, you'll be riveting the CD drive door shut. If it's not, you'll be bored in half an hour.|
|Presentation:||Fine, mission planner is clear and uncluttered.|
|Packaging & Docs:||A comprehensive manual and a map on shiny paper. What more could you want?|
|Bugs & Problems:||The dreaded "stutter"|