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A New Height in Flight Simulation

October 12, 1998|AARON CURTISS

You know the intended audience for a computer game is hard-core when the 150-plus-page instruction manual starts out with a long disclaimer warning users not to rely on the maps for real-life navigation.

That's right, the details in Interactive Magic's "iF/A-18E Carrier Strike Fighter" are so realistic that it's sometimes easy to forget that it's just a game. This combat flight simulator ranks among the best technical games I've played in a long time.

The F/A-18E, or Super Hornet, is the next generation of the F/A-18, the all-purpose strike fighter used by the Navy and Marine Corps. Players put the fighter through its paces as they take off from and land on an aircraft carrier in various combat missions around the globe.

Even before they start their first mission, players who read the hefty manual--which is required to get the most out of the game--are treated to discussions of flight physics, overviews of the Super Hornet's control console and briefings on how best to land on a heaving carrier.

During flight, all but three of the keyboard keys are used--in addition to the joystick--as players use a soft touch to guide their Super Hornet through hostile airspace. Spastic motions produce real-world results. Dive too deeply and the screen turns bright red, replicating the redout that occurs when negative G-forces send blood rushing into a pilot's head.

For players expecting arcade-style action, this is not the game. Missions unfold slowly. Players are assigned to squadrons and go through detailed briefings even before they slide into the cockpit on the carrier flight deck.

Once in the air, it's possible to cruise for several minutes without encountering a single bogy or even seeing much scenery change. Missions at high altitude are nearly devoid of visual reference points, making vertigo a real risk.

Enemy aircraft zip by in the distance, and getting a lock on them requires patience, smooth flying and wise use of weaponry. During routine air patrol, the plane carries only 16 missiles. Prodigal use can leave the plane unarmed at just the wrong time.

And those times seem to come from nowhere. As in real air combat, it's possible to never even see the enemy. Several times, the only warning I got that I was about to die in flames was the shrieking of my wingman and the digital cries of my radar warning system.

No, this is no kids' game. But for fans of technical air combat, "Carrier Strike Fighter" is a slick way to tool around in a war bird that not even very many Navy aviators have had the chance to check out.

The game requires a Pentium 166 with 24 megabytes of RAM. But with a Pentium II 266 running 32mb of RAM and a 3-D accelerator card, the game shines with better cloud and terrain effects.

Sim fans who don't like heights would do well to check out another Interactive Magic game, "Spearhead," which puts players in command of an M1A2 Abrams tank on deployment in Tunisia.

Although easier than "Carrier Strike Fighter" to load and play quickly, the straightforward "Spearhead" demands more skill than the average tank shooter. Terrain slips smoothly across the screen and dark blips on the horizon reveal themselves slowly for what they are: armored bad guys.

Control is relatively easy to get the hang of and players with any kind of hand-eye coordination should be making 57,000 kilos of guns and armor dance across the desert floor.

"Spearhead" requires a Pentium 133 with 16mb of RAM and a video card with 4mb of RAM. The manufacturer recommends at least a Pentium 166 with 32mb of RAM.

Now, simulations that reproduce the adrenaline rush of piloting a sleek jet fighter or the sweaty determination of commanding a lumbering tank make sense to me. Honestly, it's the closest most of us--thank goodness--will ever get to the implements of war.

But I really don't understand simulations that reproduce something most of us can do any time. Take fishing, for example. As a kid, I loved to fish with my old man. I'm not so sure, though, that I would be as thrilled nowadays to sit next to him and pretend to fish on a computer screen.

Two games try to re-create the experience of bobbing a quiet lake waiting for bass. One works, sort of. The other fails. The one that works is "Bass Masters Classic Tournament Edition," which bills itself as the "only 3-D fishing game!"


As fishing games go, "Bass Masters Classic" works. The graphics are great and players can flip to an underwater view to see how the fish are behaving. But the action is pretty much the same cast after cast. For those who enjoy the exhilaration of competition, the game includes a mode that allows players to compete for a spot in the "Bass Masters Classic" championship.

Not my cup of tea, but I can see how die-hard fishermen might enjoy having it loaded on their PC at work for a few casts during conference calls. The game needs a Pentium 133 with at least 16mb of RAM.

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