March 13, 2012
Strike Fighters 2: North Atlantic
Third Wire Didn’t Axe Their Beta-Testers, You Just Paid $30 To Be One
by Chuck “PFunk” Bellows
It’s been a long wait. The very first Strike Fighters game emerged in 2002 and the last truly new version came out around 2007. Up to this point, we’ve been playing a game whose coding roots started out around the time we were wondering if motherboards could count past 2000 (turns out they could), even the second generation of games were the same things, with various improvements on the way.
In 2009, we were treated to the first look at the first all-new Strike Fighters game featuring the Heidi Klum of military aircraft, The F-14 Tomcat. It would be the first truly new game, promising something just about every fan of the series wanted most — an improved terrain engine.
The good news is, after more than a year of delays and an endless parade of teaser screenshots, the first new Strike Fighters game in four years is finally here.
The bad news? The first new Strike Fighters game in four years is finally here.
This is a game for Windows 7 and Vista users only. And anyone still running Windows XP and DX9 doesn’t get a choice in the matter. It won’t run on your computer because this is a DX10 title.
Graphics and Sound
There have been several serious flaws over the years that many people have addressed and hoped for improvements upon, most notably, the terrain engine.
The terrains have been a point of contention almost from day one with low-resolution textures, sparse vegetation, and utterly forgettable buildings. It was one of the first things people tried to fix and many, MANY modders have spent countless man-hours toward making these digital battlefields a little less boring.
Anyone hoping for improvements to this is going to be a little disappointed in Strike Fighters 2: North Atlantic (SF2:NA).
That’s not to say there aren’t improvements, there are. Coastlines now look like the actual coastlines. The Third Wire Terrain Editor (used to create things like Black Sea v2.0 and dozens of other places to fly) has been the primary method of rendering the environment for this series. The new terrain engine uses 3DSMax to create a terrain .LOD file and it makes sense that Iceland would’ve been the place that Third Wire picked to model next.
Iceland is almost a desert; trees have to be planted in concrete in order to stay. So, now the distinct lack of trees normal to Third Wire environments is actually normal, but the place still looks like no one is home. Something else you will notice, when you have the terrain details cranked up to Unlimited, the poly count of the new terrain goes up by almost an order of magnitude (someone calculated it to be around 27 times the number of the old terrains), this means you need a serious rig to run it. You will see slowdowns, even when there’s nothing really there.
Another thing you will notice that’s nice is the new water. You can actually see wave action around your ships as you go to tension on the catapult when the water effects are cranked up, even if it does look a little "plasticky", like someone stretched Saran-Wrap over the surface. Either way, it still slows you down significantly as well.
But even with the coastlines that look more realistic and improved water, the landmass of the terrain is still as bland an uninspiring as previous offerings. Also, it seems there are some missing textures. Either that or the Navy only had the three primary colors to paint the roofs of the buildings around their base in Reykjavik.
But that’s not nearly as bland as the voice you will hear coming from your AWACS Hawkeye providing you an update of the battlefield. We’ve been complaining about the voice acting for years (anyone remember how jarring it was to be seated in an Israeli aircraft and hear a wingman's voice from the southern USA speaking on comms). It’s hard to imagine the speech files being worse… but they are. It sounds as though the AWACS guy is sitting next to your ear and is completely bored with telling you the battle space is going to hell in a handcart.
Let’s start with the Tomcat. One of the biggest worries that fans had was that the avionics would not accurately model the capability of the AWG-9 fire control system, namely the ability to "track 24, engage 6". One of the best reasons to buy this game is because Third Wire successfully implemented multi-target tracking. You can acquire up to six targets, then ripple-fire your Phoenix missiles and just lay the smackdown on anything. Just be very sure about what you’re targeting. It’s a good way to blue-on-blue somebody.
Another thing fans will absolutely love is that after having naval aviation since Strike Fighters: Project 1, we finally have better naval warfare capability. Carrier battle groups now include destroyers, frigates, and cruisers and there is even Soviet naval aviation added into the mix of opponents as well. The Kiev has a full complement of Yak-38 Forgers and you will be engaging Backfire bombers that apparently spawn in game, as if they were flying in from bases on the Scandinavian Peninsula.
The bad news is that all this wonderful new Soviet naval power has a nasty habit of spawning in the middle of your carrier group, effectively bringing the game to a screeching halt.
When I first noticed this, I was sitting on the cat during my seventh or eighth mission into the campaign and I began to hear explosions behind me. I looked into the cockpit mirrors and noticed debris flying skyward and fireballs engulfing the aircraft at the back of the ship. My first thought was, "Third Wire is now modeling deck mishaps?"
Then I realized that a Soviet cruiser had spawned directly underneath the Nimitz and was now close enough that the NCO of the Marine guard aboard could have strolled down to the armory, checked out a .45 pistol, walked back up to the deck and shot the Russian radio operator of the cruiser behind the ear. I thought restarting the game would fix it. Nope. Still there, still shooting the tar out of everything in sight. And it brought friends.
Another game-stopper is the A-7 Corsair campaign. You can’t start one. The aircraft appears between the catapults and slowly ambles off the bow of the ship at 80 knots and crashes to the water below. Every time. I shouldn’t feel bad. Apparently, the Russians are suffering from the same problem on the Kiev as Forgers seem to slide right off the flight deck into that brand new beautiful water effect. I understand that if you start the A-7s first campaign mission in the air, subsequent missions will start on the ship’s catapult correctly, but that still shouldn’t be the case.
The only good news here is that these glaring errors only appear in campaign play. Single Mission Mode is unaffected, which brings up another point. We’ve had carriers since Wings Over Vietnam and no way to start them on a carrier in Single Missions without using a mission editor.
Not anymore. You can now start a single mission on a carrier in a carrier borne aircraft. It only took about seven years. I’m going to say something else unkind here, the Third Wire Tomcat, though it models the avionics properly, is a boring model. Normally, Third Wire has a history of trouncing third-party efforts, especially in cockpit detailing. For the first time, his community (namely the crew at The Mirage Factory) has beaten him. Yes, the Third Wire Tomcat models the AWG-9 radar suite better, but the Mirage Factory Tomcat has more detailed cockpit, a more enjoyable flight model, and it looks better.
Third Wire Tomcat cockpit
Mirage Factory Tomcat cockpit
There are other problems — a missing in-flight map and Phoenix missiles attempting to achieve low-Earth-orbit, but these pale in comparison to the showstoppers I’ve shown so far.
The Soviet fleet spawning in the middle of your battle group, the A-7 campaign that doesn’t start, these are issues that quite simply should never have made it out the door. Point blank, unless you just have to have a Third Wire engineered Tomcat, this one is best left alone until Third Wire patches it to a playable state. There is perfectly functional freeware available that is not just serviceable, but in the case of the F-14, better in some ways.
Third Wire has excellent customer service, these issues will be fixed, but until they are, save your money.
- Improved naval warfare (all kinds of new ships available).
- The AWG-9 fire control system is well-modeled.
- Coastlines of landmasses actually look like coastlines you’d see in real life.
Could Be Better
- Improved naval warfare (Soviet fleets should not engage at rock-throwing range).
- A-7 campaign that can’t start from the ship.
- Missing inflight map makes navigation a challenge.
- Missing textures on buildings around land bases.
- Unaccountably slow performance over a virtually featureless landmass.
- Bland terrain textures that don’t improve resolution over previous terrains.
- Odd weapons behavior (I once saw a Soviet ASM reach angels 70).
Reviewer's System Specs
- HP Pavilion p7
- AMD A6-3600 quad-core processor
- NVIDIA GTX 460 1GB DDR5 video card
- 6GB DDR3 desktop memory
- 1TB HDD
- Onboard sound
- OS: Windows 7 (64-bit)
- CH Products HOTAS
- Fighterstick 568
- Pro Throttle
- Pro Pedals
- Control Manager v4.52
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