Combat Flight Simulator 3: Battle for Europe
22nd Jan 2003 | 00:00
Can Microsoft's latest combat sim take IL-2's crown? Dave Mathieson investigates...
With IL-2 Sturmovik around, any new World War I| sim has its work cut out to compete with the sheer realism of the best Russian game since Tetris. IL-2 wasn't quite everyone's cup of tea (especially as it's set on the Russian Front), and Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator 3 features the same sort of realism, but is attempting to bring in new elements such as a dynamic campaign and individual pilot attributes in order to make itself a bit more accessible.
bring out the heavies
CFS3 is set in Western Europe from 1943 onwards and, as you'd expect from a Microsoft sim, there's a good range of fighters to fly from the three featured airforces - the RAF, USAAF and Luftwaffe. New to this version though is the ability to fly bombers, too, as well as man the bombardier and gun positions. The only slight whinge I'd have with this feature is that they're all medium bombers, with none of the big four-engine heavies that were used in such huge numbers during WWII. Still, the bombers include the Mosquito and the B-25J Mitchell with 12 forward-firing machine guns, so there's plenty of fun to be had. CFS3 also features a variety of types that didn't quite see combat before the war ended, ranging from the crap-looking Curtiss P-55 Avenger to the nifty little de Havilland Vampire.
The main gameplay is split into single missions, quick missions, campaign and multiplayer, but there's no mission editor that allows you to create custom missions. This seems pretty silly, since CFS2 had a pretty good editor. Still, the mission files themselves are pretty easy to understand, so it won't be long before either Microsoft or someone else puts an editor together.
Dynamic campaign, anyone?
One much-vaunted feature of CFS3 is the dynamic campaign engine, something not currently shared by IL-2. What 'dynamic' means in this context is that the success of you and your squadron has an effect on the outcome of the campaign. While this isn't strictly accurate in that the actions of a single pilot were extremely unlikely to have much of an impact, it makes for great gameplay and watching the frontline move gives you a real incentive to try that bit harder to avoid being shot down. Another benefit of doing well is that your pilot and squadron get 'points' which can be used to acquire better planes or give your existing one custom markings.
When it comes to flight sims, graphics are all-important as the 'simulator' bit means you want an accurate depiction of the view out of the window, as well as nice-looking planes. The graphics in CFS3 are something of a mixture - the external plane models are excellent, with fantastic lighting effects, but the cockpits are far inferior to those in IL-2. The terrain looks OK from 20,000ft, with photorealistic textures like those in Flight Sim 2002. These are crap from 2,000ft, when the textures get very blocky, but good at 100ft, when the detailed ground textures and trees come into their own. The terrain engine seems very PC-hungry as well, and you'll need quite a bit of horsepower to get things running smoothly. You can turn detail levels down, of course, but this makes the scenery look a lot worse.
The combat itself is pretty exciting, with spectacular explosions and other effects, and the enemy AI, while obviously not as good as human opponents, is improved over previous releases.
The flight models seem somewhat on the lenient side though, and it seems very hard to stall, so you can keep yanking your plane round in a hard turn with no real penalty. Try this in IL-2 or Battle of Britain and you'll be spinning downwards in no time.
Da plane, Da plane
Of couse, having never flown a real WWII plane (or any plane, for that matter), I can't authoritatively tell you that CFS3's flight models are better or worse than those in other sims. But I can tell you that the combination of graphics, cockpits and flight models in CFS3 didn't give me the same feeling of 'being there' that makes IL-2 such a great sim, especially when it requires some fairly serious hardware to get the graphics up to scratch. That said, CFS3 still has enough good points (the campaign in particular) to make it a worthwhile addition to any sim collection, especially once third-party mods start appearing.