While complex, realistic flight simulations have waned in popularity, Russian designer Oleg Maddox and his crew at 1C continue to develop rich, rewarding combat flight sims. Maddox's IL-2 Sturmovik is widely considered to be the best World War II flight sim yet made, featuring layers of historical authenticity and realism, not to mention exciting gameplay. After re-creating the titanic air war on the Eastern front with IL-2, Maddox is now focusing on the Pacific air war with his latest game, Pacific Fighters. This isn't an expansion to IL-2, but rather an all-new game. That's bound to garner the interest of flight-sim fans, so we got our hands on an early version of the game for some exclusive hands-on impressions.
Pacific Fighters covers the vast scope of the Pacific theater of conflict, though its primary thrust is the conflict between the United States and the Empire of Japan. The game will feature several different gameplay options, including single missions; a career mode with dynamic campaigns that will let you fly for seven different military services, including the US Navy, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the Imperial Japanese Navy; a full mission builder that will allow you to create custom missions; and multiplayer with support for up to 32 players. You can dogfight in multiplayer, fly cooperative missions, or even fly an entire campaign with other players.
For those who remember the large number of flyable planes available in IL-2, the developers aim not to disappoint with the aircraft in Pacific Fighters. The game features more than 40 flyable aircraft, and most major planes of the Pacific war make an appearance--some several times, as different variants and production models are included. There are, for instance, multiple varieties of F-4U Corsairs and P-51 Mustangs to choose from, reflecting the modifications and changes that were engineered during the war. It's not just fighters, either, as you can pilot larger aircraft, such as bombers and patrol planes. In addition to Japanese and American planes, Pacific Fighters will have its share of Australian and British aircraft, including the Supermarine Seafire, the naval version of the famed Spitfire. All the cockpits are rendered in excellent detail, and you can admire the gauges, though most of the time your eyes will be fixed on an enemy plane.
The flight model is highly scalable, and there are more than 20 different options in the realism settings that you can tweak, including torque and gyro effects, stalls and spins, wind and turbulence, blackouts and redouts, and more. You can also disable takeoffs and landings, since trying to land a plane on an aircraft carrier is one of the toughest jobs in aviation. Serious flight-sim fans can turn on all the realism settings for a challenge, while rookies and beginners can use the easier options. From our experience, the flight model was very forgiving on the easier settings, and we were able to shoot down several fighters during dogfights. More importantly, the combat feels realistic, even on the easiest levels, so it doesn't feel like you're playing an action-style sim.
As the version we played still lacked many single missions, we spent a lot of time with the mission builders. The custom mission builder will let you create a wide range of aerial battles, from straight dogfights to bombing missions on enemy carriers, bridges, or air bases. Each side can have up to four flights, with up to four aircraft per flight, and you can modify loadouts, markings, and the appearance of the pilot. That means you can also set up fanciful battles, with Japanese Zeros with Soviet markings, or American Corsairs in Royal Navy colors. We set up a carrier attack mission in which a swarm of bomb-toting American fighters went after a Japanese carrier, and the results were exciting. You can see Japanese fighters scrambling off the carrier deck, even as the bombs are falling, and the carrier's escorts are sending huge amounts of antiaircraft fire in the sky. The artificial intelligence can be a formidable opponent, but you can also lower the AI settings for an easier time.
Pacific Fighters uses an updated version of the graphics engine that powered the IL-2 games. As expected, the game looks quite sharp, and the planes are all rendered in excellent detail. The fact that most of the game takes place over the ocean probably helps the frame rate, as there are few terrain features to render. Still, the developers have done a good job of rendering the water and weather effects, and you can see beautiful whitecaps at the highest detail settings. Combat is also a visual treat, as enemy planes will come apart and you can see the debris fall to earth. The sound effects are also very good, from the sound of the engines at different power settings to the creak of the airframe as you pull a hard turn. The game is still in the middle of development, so much of the radio chatter is still in Russian, but that should change shortly--depending on the side you're flying on, you can expect to hear realistic radio chatter in Japanese or English.
Put it all together and the combat in Pacific Fighters is looking very good. The air combat is very immersive, even on the easier difficulty levels, and the visuals are impressive. The game is coming together well, and the developers are busy fleshing out all the final pieces. We can expect Pacific Fighters to ship later this year, but for now, make sure to check out the exclusive new trailer.