Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator 3 has been available now for several weeks. There was literality tons of ‘hoopla’, ‘fanfare’, and promotion before it’s release.. The Flight Sim public and various Gaming News entities were anxiously looking forward to experience the ‘ultimate’ in PC flight simulation games… but is the final product what it was portrayed to be? Is it what the flight sim consumer expected/wanted? The answer is controversial; some folks absolutely adore it.. others are complaining bitterly. It really depends on whom you ask. The same phenomenon exists in the Flight Sim Review community. The evaluator’s scores/recommendations are more varied than any other software product I can remember.
My big dilemma with writing this review is that I honestly don’t really know if I like CFS3 or not.. It has some pretty good… no.. great features, BUT it also has some pretty significant shortcomings. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what I consider important you may deem insignificant, so for this review I will state beforehand that my perspective is that of a ‘hardcore’ Flight Sim junkie. Maximum realism is the objective and the ‘yardstick’ to measure it by is my real life flying experience and competing products available in the marketplace. After all, that is how Microsoft advertised this game…and I quote: “As real as it gets”.
This review is really written to augment/complement Tom Cofield’s excellent CFS3 preview. I recommend you read it prior to this article in order to get a complete picture as to what this game offers. Many observations and features Tom mentioned are still valid and are omitted from this review. I don’t want to unnecessarily waste time and space restating facts that have already been discussed.
In the Box and Documentation
CFS3 comes in the now industry standard 5.5″ x 7.5″ small box. In it you will find 2 CD’s (in a cardboard sleeve), an abbreviated key card with a 1944 European map on the backside, and a small instruction book/manual titled ‘Tactical Air Power in the ETO’. It’s not what I would call a comprehensive book, but it does provide a pretty good overview, basic setup and play instructions. Additional information is available from ‘Online Help’ ‘The Combat Flight Simulator website’, and in the form of ‘Handbooks’ on the CD. The ‘Handbooks’, while being a little harder to use, are pretty well done and they contain all the information I needed to understand, setup, and play CFS3. Some areas are better than others but they did answer every question I had. It‘s not the optimal solution, and I would rather have a full hardcopy manual, but unfortunately this is a sign of the times. Gone are the days of spectacular game manuals ala Falcon 4.0 or F/A-18 Hornet Korea. A possible solution for game producers would be to provide an option for the purchase of a ‘real’ manual (At a fair discount of course! Like $10.00 including shipping!). A ‘Proof of Purchase’ postcard could be included in the box for interested customer to return for his ‘Extended Manual’.
Installation and Setup
Installation of CFS3 was painless, except for the extra time it took on my two low-end computers. The setup required a little effort though.. as soon as the game was loaded I jumped right into a ‘Quick Combat’ sortie and was greeted by funky psychedelic green and red screen. The game began to run but I was experiencing a combination severe ‘stutter’ and random psychedelic full screen corruptions. I diagnosed the problem and found a reference in the ‘read me’ that stated that it could be a sign of insufficient memory on my video card. WHAT? I have a GF4 4400 Ti… 128 MB.. not the latest leading edge technology, but it’s definitely not a card I consider having ‘insufficient’ memory! The ‘read me’ text provided relief. It was fairly complete and after following the Microsoft’s suggestions I was able to get the game running without my ‘virtual 1960’s Acid trip’.
Coincidentally to this review I upgraded my video drivers to the latest Nvidia version. The very next time I started CFS3 I got a warning that my configuration had changed and the program dutifully shut itself down. I was concerned that I had corrupted a file with the new driver installation, but when I reattempted to play CFS3 it opened normally. Unfortunately the virtual 1960’s were back. I had to re-tweak all the settings again to get CFS3 running. It did not like the video driver update at all; this problem was recoverable but I was rather surprised it happened at all.
Game Play Options
CFS3 has four game modes; they are: 1.) Quick Combat 2.)Missions 3.) Campaign and 4.) Multiplayer.
Quick Combat : Standard instant action mode. Want to kill something right now .. go here. You chose whom to fly for, either Allied or Axis Air Force, then select the aircraft, mission, pilot, base, and skill level. When the sortie begins you’re the flight lead engaged in a fight with the appropriate ‘bad guys’ or surface targets, depending on what flavor of sortie you selected.
Missions : This is the single mission mode. There are three types of missions: ‘Historical’, ‘What If’ and ‘Training’. Your options are more limited here than in Quick Combat. The mission you choose dictates if you fly for the Allies or the Axis. There are surprisingly few missions in each folder: a total of eight ‘Historical’, four ‘What If’ and five ‘Training’ missions. I get the impression that Microsoft knew they could cut corners here and let the CFS3 community supplement them with additional single mission files.
The ‘Historical’ missions, and I use this term in a very liberal sense, are supposed to depict realistic World War II combat missions. They are very, very loosely based on fact and are far from historically accurate (I guess the missions do occur during the correct time frame of the war!). One ludicrous mission is an assignment to intercept a US P-47 pilot. The ‘frag’ states: ‘A well known American Thunderbolt Ace has become separated from his squadron’…. You are supposed to takeoff and ‘stop’ him before he can ‘flee back to his base along the river valley’! I did not know that the Luftwaffe had such a well-developed GCI system… I wonder how they knew who was flying the airplane!.. I wish I had that capability in the F-16!
Campaign : CFS3’s dynamic Campaign, while somewhat unrealistic and non-historic, is the ‘crown jewel of the game. It really does provide a very interesting ‘Career path’ for your virtual pilot, although some of the missions do get a little repetitive after a while . The Mission Objectives are clear and generally achievable. The re-playability factor of individual Campaigns is pretty good right out of the box, thanks to its dynamic nature .. and that should only improve with aftermarket add-ons that CFS series customers are famous for.
To ‘fly’ a campaign you first have to select a pilot, assign his name, his nationality, and whether he is bomber or fighter pilot. Your pilot is then assigned to squadron and has a choice of missions to fly. As you gain experience you accumulate ‘prestige points’. More prestige points means more available options and increased ‘health’ to the player in later missions. The typical mission starts on the runway, after takeoff you can ‘warp’ to the next significant event in order to avoid a long drive to the target. If you decide to take the time to fly the whole flight plan, you will find an ample assortment of targets of opportunity to shoot up…. But remember… you have to accomplish your primary mission goals in order to gain prestige/experience points! It’s better to clobber random targets on the trip home if you are serious about maximizing your pilot’s ‘career’.
For my first campaign I decided to do something don’t normally do… be a bomber pilot. My first sortie was an anti-shipping mission, which was the only mission available at this point of ‘my’ career. It was an attack on what appeared to be a German cargo ship convoy operating in the English Channel. A disproportionate number of the following missions were also anti-shipping, many against cargo ships. Some of the later missions were more historically believable than others, like one P-47 sortie that attacked what looked like a battleship south of the Cherbourg peninsula. This ‘could’ have been a feasible scenario in 1943.
Once again CFS3 basically ignores the historic aspects of World War II ETO order of battle. The Germans did not have vast cargo shipping operations operating in the English Channel; had they attempted it their losses would have been staggering. The German Navy had a hard time protecting the Bismarck and the Prince Eugen, both very heavily armed battleships, when they sortied for the North Atlantic in the spring of 1941. In 1943 the RAF and the Royal Navy, for all practical purposes, ‘owned’ the Channel. What do you think would have happened to ANY major Axis shipping anywhere near England in 1943? I can tell you…. Dr. Robert Ballard would be taking pictures of them laying on the ocean floor for National Geographic Specials today! Factor in the additional firepower available to Allied commanders after the US entered the conflict and the idea that German shipping transiting the English Channel with huge cargo convoys is ludicrous.
Another departure from reality is when you fly as a Luftwaffe fighter pilot. From mid 1942 the Allies were being significantly supplemented by the US 8th Air Force. The vast majority of the Luftwaffe’s effort from 1943 onwards was to defend Germany from the massive onslaught of Allied heavy bombers. Since CFS3 does not model the B-17, B-24, Lancaster, or any other heavy strategic bomber, it is difficult to intercept them in a realistic/historic campaign. I personally feel the biggest liability of CFS3 is the lack of historical credibility. I understand that if a game is fully dynamic it would pretty hard, if not impossible, to strictly follow historic progression…. BUT, that does not mean ‘high fidelity’ historic starting points and realistic constraints can’t be integrated into the dynamic Campaign algorithm.
Multiplayer : There two ways to play CFS3 with your friends, LAN and online. There are also two ways to play online, one is a private game using specific IP addresses (same as you would in a LAN); the other is through a feature called CFS Gamematch after establishing a free account. I am lucky to have a younger brother to beat up on, if you don’t happen to have willing sacrificial siblings then Gamematch is a good way to find other players to ‘fly’ with! A maximum of eight players are allowed. Once all players are connected there are three flavors of Multiplayer available, Dogfight, Team Dogfight, and Missions. They are just what they sound like.. with the Missions being the cooperative multiplayer mode.
My first attempt at CFS3 Multiplayer was trough my LAN in a cooperative sortie with my second computer. I tried several missions and they all worked pretty well, I was very satisfied with how smooth it went. Very little lag was evident.. but that has to be tempered with the fact that with only two ‘players’ I really did not test the full capability or limits of CFS3’s multiplayer mode. I few odd things concerning game play did occur, like seeing other friendly aircraft on one machine and not the other, but that kind of thing does happen in real life. It did not affect the outcome of the missions so maybe these events are intentional.
My experience with CFS Gamematch Multiplayer resulted in mixed results , depending on what game I joined. I did see some irritating ‘lag’ and ‘warping’ but I believe most of it had to due with the quality of the other player’s connections. (I have DSL) To be honest, this is not really the way I like to fly multiplayer so after a small sample I decided .. yeah it does work.. yes there are some minor problems… but those problems do not appear to be caused by CFS3 so…‘nuff said’!
Additional Features : There are some unique customizing options available in CFS3, including the ability to configure the ‘health’ of your pilot. Poor career choices (like not accomplishing mission goals) result in a low prestige ‘bank account’, conversely better mission performance adds prestige points. Some selectable items are unavailable unless you have enough prestige points accumulated to ‘purchase’ what you want.. like a more advanced/newer aircraft in the ‘unit’ you are assigned. Interesting feature, and it was included to improve the game’s role-playing value, but I am not sure how important this will be to the majority of CFS3 players. I personally found it to be frivolous and of little operational use throughout the game. A more useful/fun feature is the ability to select individual nose art, aircraft ID letters (only two), and the color of trim strips on the nose, wing, fuselage and tail. Everybody wants to be an individual and this provides an opportunity to personalize your airplane.
Speaking of aircraft, there are 18 flyable airplanes in CFS3. Some are sub-types or newer models of the same airplane , but the selection is large enough to keep most folks entertained until the inevitable add-on aircraft become available. The flyable aircraft Microsoft included in CFS3 are:
USAAC : B-26C, B-26G, P-38J, P-38L, P-47D, P-47D-25, P-51B, P-51D, P-55A, and P-80A.
Luftwaffe : Bf-109G-10, Bf-109G-6, DO-335A-1, DO-335B-2, Fw-190A-5, Fw-190A-8, GO-229A, Ju-88A-4, Ju-88C-6, Ju-88P-4, Me-262A-1A, Me-262A-1A/U4, and Me-262A-2A.
RAF : B-25C, B-25H, B-25J, Mosquito IV, Mosquito VI, Mosquito XVIII, Spitfire IXC, Spitfire IXE, Tempest V, Typhoon IB, and Vampire I.
This is quite an interesting array of unusual aircraft for a WW 2 ETO flight sim game. I have absolutely nothing against including as many diverse aircraft as possible, but I don’t really see any logic behind why some were selected and other more appropriate aircraft were not (Like a B-17!). The P-55A? Interesting airplane to be sure.. but it had no influence on the bloody WW 2 ETO air battles; in fact it was only a moderate success as an Experimental Prototype for the USAAC research and development branch. For the ‘What If’ scenarios the Boeing B-29 Superfortress would have been a much better choice.
I can only assume that Microsoft’s airplane selection decision was based, to some extent, on a desire to differentiate CFS3 from competing products. I can’t fault them for that.. in fact I commend them for it, BUT why not do it with aircraft like the B-17, B-24 and Avro Lancaster. I really think most CFS3 consumers would appreciate a heavy strategic bomber with fully functional / ‘Jumpable’ crew stations much more than some of these more obscure airplanes. This could have made CFS3 the heavy bomber simulation that Mircoprose’s B-17 II was not!