This makes or breaks a game. The enemy you’re facing as well as your own wingmen have to behave in such a manner that you can at least believe it could be real. This is my main gripe with an intentionally casual sim, Strike Fighters. My wingmen are fairly decent at hitting things on the ground, but experience vapor lock when I tell them to engage enemy aircraft. This annoys me when I have to do all the work.
I don’t have that problem to any extent in any of the three hardcore sims. My wingmen act intelligently, are fearless, exercise good fire discipline and sometimes manage to get out of the engagement intact. It’s so hard to rank them; it’s a three-way tie.
Falcon 4.0’s AI seem perfectly willing to handle things on their own, even if the radio commands are a little unwieldy to the noob. They pound on ground targets, decimate enemy air defenses, and generally get the job done with little fuss. LOMAC’s wingmen get themselves shot down. A lot. They are, on the other hand, deadly accurate, and the radio commands menu is MUCH easier to use than in Falcon 4.0, if less in depth. There are enough options and commands in Falcon 4.0’s radio comms menu that I was shocked not to find a command to your wingmen to use their relief tubes. LOMAC, on the other hand, was all business and very simple and intuitive to use.
Jane’s F-15 probably has the best friendly AI of any game. When you task a wingman with a primary target, he hits it, the flight forms up after show is over and you all leave promptly. As a matter of fact, in the few air-to-air battles you’ll face in the Iran campaign, your wingmen will annihilate anything in their path to the point that you might not get a chance to engage anyone. The radio commands menu is very much like LOMAC’s, and your wingmen follow them smartly and efficiently.
Enemy AI in each is a different kettle of bass. On its’ easiest settings, Jane’s F-15 has enemy pilots that remind you of the little blue-haired elderly ladies at the wheel of a Caddy in the apex of the holiday shopping season. All you can see is their knuckles on the top of the steering wheel and they drive with the same situational awareness you might find in a tree. As the theatres in this title are Middle Eastern (campaigns in Iraq and Iran) this might be more realistic than we suspect, given the last performance of the Iraqi Air Force in 1991.
Falcon 4.0’s bad guys are much more intelligent. You might expect that since enemies from both countries you’re up against were Russian-trained. Thanks to a relaxed flight model, your playing field is even. There is an opposite end of the spectrum. LOMAC’s bad guys are the meanest, ugliest bunch of folks you’ve ever seen, a holdover from the enemy AI found in the original Flanker titles. Equipped with air-to-air thunderbolts-from-Zeus, these are the most formidable enemies you’ll ever encounter in a flight sim.
Between the three, there’s a marked contrast in the quality of the simplified avionics. For switchology, nothing beats Falcon 4.0 for the myriad of switches, buttons, levers, and knobs you use in the cockpit. It gives the casual simmer a lot of things to do in the cockpit and half the fun is getting everything set in your cockpit before you roll in on your target. The radar display — both air and ground — have been completely reworked. The original release of Falcon 4.0 did have a casual avionics setting, but the radar display for air-to-ground work was cluttered to the point of being unusable because it showed every return on the ground, friend, foe, or cow barn. This has been replaced by a VERY usable and simple radar display that shows only targets and other items of interest. The air-to-air radar follows the same path. One good thing about the reworked radar displays, there’s less of a need to use labels, thus easing the clutter in your external views.
Jane’s F-15 did the same thing, and not just with the air-to-ground radar, but also the TEWS, the air-to-air radar and just about everything else found on the MFDs. What was also very nice was the fact that you could hop into the back-seater’s slot and play around with the panels and switches back there while the pilot handled things in the front office. My usual practice was to take off, get to altitude, turn on the autopilot and then jump into the back and set up my ordnance. I spent most of the flight to the target in the back seat. I spent the time over the target and fleeing from the scene in the front. This merely added to the suspension of belief.
I’ll say it again. LOMAC was never intended to be flown by the casual audience. It’s not a knock; it’s just an observation. It’s like trying to drive a Ferrari in bumper-to-bumper traffic. That’s not why you have it. The simplified radar display isn’t necessarily bad, quite the contrary. It’s relatively easy to read, but the problems I encountered begin here. I don’t know if I’m missing a keystroke or there’s a bug, but when switching from the navigation page to air-to-air, I can engage targets, but if I ever switch to air-to-ground or back to navigation, I am no longer able to lock a target on the radar. This forces me to use the Scroll Lock key in order to lock up a target. This becomes a serious pain the tail because that happens to be the same hotkey my KVM switch uses. Hit that key twice, and I’m staring at my Windows 98 desktop. This is a real knee to the groin when in the middle of a furball. It also forces me to use the keyboard when I have the commands all mapped out on my HOTAS.