By Roxanne Distefano |
Right out of the box first in-house flight sim, iF-22, has many problems. It also happens to have many interesting elements and a lot of potential.
For a freshman sim effort, iF-22 is impressive. It is the latest in an endless stream of F-22 sims, following and , and preceding DID's F-22 sim. It features the best flight model and cockpit of any F-22 sim to date, as well as a great campaign and solid mission structure. Unfortunately, it is also bedeviled by bugs and poor programming.
Let's start with the graphics engine. iF-22 uses Interactive Magic's new DEMON-1 terrain engine, which draws on satellite data and imaging to accurately map a large chunk of Bosnia and the Ukraine. From high altitudes, where the F-22 will be performing its missions, it looks good. Down in the mud, however, it breaks up into a choppy mess. Buildings are handsomely rendered, but they're plopped onto the muddy terrain and stand out in stark, disorienting relief. As you fly over the shoreline, the terrain pops in and out, as though the beach is crashing on the waves, rather than the other way around.
IM decided to code for 3-D card support using Direct3D, and the results are disastrous. With the ATI Mach 64 card enabled, the game crashes with every missile launch. Each theater of action is loaded onto the hard drive separately, with about 60 megs needed for each one. Much of the data remains on the CD, however, and the program hits the CD to load graphics every few seconds, causing show-stopping hitches and dumping the frame rate into the gutter. Some of these problems might be alleviated by dedicating a mere 600 megs of hard drive space to the game, as recommended by IM. After putting my system through numerous contortions, (including a fixed 100 MB virtual swap file), I finally got mediocre (instead of appalling) frame rates and a moderately smooth response.
Inside the cockpit, things look quite good. The instrument display is superb, with full push-button functionality using the mouse. The F-22 is the most intuitive and easy-to-use cockpit out there, and anyone who can't pick it up quickly should go back to biplanes. Several MFD modes instantly set the four display screens for the optimal configuration, such as navigation, attack, or dogfighting. (If the configuration also changed HUD modes, it would be even better.) The veracity of the sensor suite remains to be seen. The radar sub modes and precise controls (scan azimuth, antenna elevation, etc.) expected in a hard core sim are absent. It is hard to believe that the F-22 cockpit does not have these controls.
These MFD modes can even be custom configured from the main screen, which is a wonderful feature. Cockpit views are incremental, without the smooth-scrolling virtual cockpits that have become standard. You can spin your head, Exorcist-like, 360 degrees around the cockpit, with no real blind spots. If this is the way the F-22 really works, then god bless Lockheed Martin, but it seems rather idealized. Padlock mode is also non-scrolling, so that your head snaps to the enemy in a rather disorienting fashion. A blip on the HUD shows which way your head is turned at all times, which does help a bit with orientation.
Sound effects are good, with static-laced, crackling voice effects on radio calls, though wingmen tend to all talk at the same time. Gun effects sound pretty tiny. This may well be how they sound from inside the cockpit of the real thing, but one does expect a good, meaty gun sound in a computer game.
As a simulation, iF-22 is quite excellent. Control and response feels real (then again, we have no idea how an F-22 really flies), with varying rates of turn relative to speed, and decent rudder control. (What IS the deal with the F-22 rudders? Does anyone know?) Radar cross section is handled well, with a radar profile display showing your current level of stealth. This increases with such factors as external stores and open bay doors. Since stealth is the key to the F-22, this is an important factor in gameplay. The sensor suite is terrific, with a good approximation of passive and active detection. There's even a radio call to activate an in-flight data link with your wingmen, AWACS, and FACs for a more accurate picture of the battlefield. Shoot lists make target tasking a snap, but having a hot key for each weapon would be preferable to scrolling through all of them each time you want to change active ordnance.
Mission structure is diverse and intriguing, with SEAD, air superiority, close support, escort, and just about everything else you could want. The campaign mode has an excellent semi-dynamic structure. When you start either campaign (Bosnia or Ukraine), the engine rolls up about a half-dozen various missions. You fly the one you want, come back, and then the campaign updates the battlefield data and rolls a new set of missions. I've found destroyed structures rebuilt again by the next mission, but I've also noticed instances where the enemy's air defense, for example, is degraded by my previous mission. The battlefield always seems hot, with friendly and enemy craft in the air all the time.
The mission editor has a high degree of flexibility. There are settings for altitude and formation at each waypoint, and waypoints are drag and drop. There are only two zoom levels, however, and you can't get in close enough for detailed planning. A set of filters allows you to call up all threats and structures. There's also a neat feature that I could not get to work. In theory, you can actually set the altitude at which a threat would be relevant to each plane. For example, you can set the filter not to show AA threats that can't reach an F-15 above 15,000 feet. Nice touch, if it worked.
The campaign also happened to generate one of the greatest bugs I've ever encountered. I rolled a new campaign, picked a SEAD mission, and entered. There on the tarmac, not twenty feet from my airplane, was a stationary armored column. What's this? I wondered. I requested clearance from the tower, and got it! While I was pondering how to take off through all this armor, about twenty other aircraft appeared behind me, piled on top of each other in a tiny space, wings sticking through fuselages and cockpits lined up five in a row, in one of the finest examples of clipping I have ever seen. These jets, all fused together, took off THROUGH me and through the armored column. Maybe the armor was an optical illusion. Hell, if they could do it, so could I, was my thinking. I was wrong.
The wingman AI runs from "pretty good" in one mission to "couldn't hit a stationary drone" in another. Wingmen are constantly telling me the missile I told them to fire "went stupid." Funny, my missiles don't go stupid. Mine mostly hit the targets. Wingmen also must be dumping ordnance, because they also tell me they've "gone Winchester" without having fired a shot. Enemy AI is mixed on the lower difficulty levels, but good when set very high. Ground defenses aren't aggressive enough, but enemy pilots seem decent. Wingman AI skill is tied to enemy difficulty level, by the way, so it supposedly gets better as the threat increases.
But there is so much still wrong with iF-22. Load times for each mission run to two full minutes. There is no animation for ejection or for crashes - just a still splash screen. There are no night missions and no moving map display in the MFD. The manual would benefit from some more detail on instrumentation. Also, why do I get full credit and a promotion to first lieutenant for ditching my plane in mid-mission? The F-22 has thrust-vectoring exhaust nozzles (20 degrees up or down), so where are the controls for them? These things are a mystery.
More views are needed, including wingman cams. Better communication with wingmen, including formation settings and some way to tell what remaining ordnance they have, is needed. Native (and better) joystick support for the major sticks is in order, as is a fully programmable keyboard. You have to start left and right engines manually with the Shift L and Shift R keys. Someone wasn't thinking when they made Shift E (which adjoins Shift R) the ejection key. (Yes, I have accidentally ejected on the tarmac.)
But, but, but... I keep coming back to iF-22, despite the mountain of flaws. The cockpit, the flight model, the dynamic campaign and battlefield, the customizable pilots: All are aimed in precisely the right direction. Fix the terrain engine, the wingmen, the many bugs, the niggling litany of small flaws, expand upon the avionics, and you'll have a great sim. (Let's hope this happens, since IM has a mediocre track record of patching. Witness M1A2.) Su-27 Flanker, Falcon 3.0, and EF2000 also hit the shelves with countless seemingly insurmountable problems, but through diligent patching they became favorites. iF-22 has this potential, but it's going to be a long, long road.
iF-22 is not a failure, but a missed opportunity, and if Wild Bill's crew is serious about competing with the big sim boys, they'll knuckle down and make this the superior sim it has the potential to be.