Monday, January 19, 2009

Mach 2 Into the Sunset

It’s 1991. Saddam Hussein may no longer have an air force but I do, and it’s a damn good one: I’m sitting on my father’s knee, playing Microprose’s 1989 flight simulator, F-15 Strike Eagle II. Dad flies, pressing the plus /minus buttons to control our airspeed, and using the arrow keys to dip our wings and change our heading. I have the important task of pressing the spacebar. Dad says “fire,” and with an unintelligible “blip” (this is before the days of Soundblaster) I unleash death in 8 bits.

With a cursory scan of recent titles, one can rightly assume that the flight simulator is extinct. With a few exceptions (Microsoft will continue to pump out Flight Simulators, and 1C’s IL-2 is beloved by all), few are taking to the painstakingly detailed, complicated skies. Instead, they’re hopping in cockpits that bear more similarity to First-Person Shooters than, say, Falcon 3.0, Spectrum Holobyte’s eminently inaccessible simulator. When I picked up Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, I was surprised by how much had changed.

For example: did you know that most fighters can now carry up to 150 missiles?

I’m being glib, but I have a sliver of my soul invested in the genre. The first games I played were flight sims. A few months after the purchase of a Gateway 2000, one of my father’s Dallas-based coworkers sent us a shoebox full of flight manuals and floppy disks. I spent hours paging over the doorstop tomes, absorbing the names of missiles, bombs and aircraft. I memorized the jargon, the clumsy acronyms without which you’d be lost in the sky – if, of course, you figured out how to take off. These games were not for beginners, and while I was definitely a beginner, I relished the whiff of adulthood, secrecy and sophistication behind their inaccessibility. Those wanting a joy ride should plunk a few quarters into AfterBurner. This was serious stuff.

A few titles stick out. Dynamix (of Starsiege and Tribes fame) made a game called Aces over Europe. Realism was optional, and with a few clicks you could fly an omniFighter, invulnerable to bullets, fuel scarcity or and gravity. Like most games those days, the sound effects seemed cobbled together from a Yamaha synthesizer, and the graphics consisted of single-tone planar polygons. This was pretty much industry-standard in the early 90s. Imagination was required.

Other games, like Falcon 3.0, were less kind. If you strayed off waypoint during a mission – easy, if you’re seven years old and can’t perform long division – the game wouldn’t make any effort to correct you. Instead of bombing a boat yard/fuel depot / ammo dump / airstrip, you would simply run out of fuel and crash in the desert. Or ocean. Really, it was just a different color of featureless terrain.

Around the time of TIE Fighter, I left the stratosphere for deep space, and others did the same. The public lost interest in fuel economy, elevators and ailerons. I can’t blame them. Flight sim junkies were going the way of hex-based wargamers – back to the hobby shops, away from a medium that had forsaken them for First-Person Shooters.

Enter the sim-lites. In this genre, the word simulator hardly applies. The modern pilot no longer needs to worry about fuel, or blackouts. Stalls aren’t a problem. The worst examples are glorified rail shooters, existing entirely between 500 and 1,000 feet. The brighter specimens make some effort to make their aircraft feel like aircraft, obsessively detailing the fuselage, allowing some slowness and heft to the banks, and sending a reassuring hum through the controller when the player stokes the afterburner. Sure, you can carry 20 bombs and 150 missiles (which, by the way, are equally effective against air and ground targets) – the player who would be bothered by this didn’t make it through the door. He’s at the hobby shop, drinking Maxwell House out of a Styrofoam cup, paging through an issue of FLYING magazine.

Ace Combat 6 is currently the best of the sim-lites. It summons a heartfelt, operatic drama that we couldn’t see from the icy remove of 40,000 feet; it captures the excitement of Hollywood-style dogfighting without succumbing to camp or rock-n-roll Neanderthalism; it is remarkably beautiful, reminding us why we turned to flight simulators in the first place: to simulate not only the technical aspects, but also the sensation of flight.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X, despite its embarrassing title, looks promising. Early hands-on reports are positive, encouraging a cautious optimism in my heart (the last time that happened was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I’m a sucker for abuse, sure, but that last one hurt). I don’t miss the old way of flying – or not flying – but I feel compelled to tip my hat to a genre with such high standards. Faced with a changing market, it had the grace to disappear. Its offspring, despite the occasional disgrace, do well by their predecessors. Maybe they do them one better – they make it fun.