Sometimes when I'm cleaning my ears I push the Q-tip just a little too far in, and it hits something that hurts like hell. It kind of hums for a while and then settles into a dull ache. The thing is, I can experience this sensation all I want for about a quarter cent per tip, whereas Bethesda would have me pay upwards of $40 for relatively the same sensation. That throbbing in the brain, that jabbing pain in the head: That's about what I took away from Bethesda's first attempt at a flight simulation, F-16 Aggressor.
British flight sims are like the British: They may have one or two good bits, but it always goes to hell when you get to the teeth. In the case of British sims, things always go to hell when you get to the controls. They wind up assigning simple commands like "fire guns" to Alt + Ctrl + ~ and so forth. Let's face it: There has never been a British sim that was worth a damn out of the box. DID took two years to get EF2000 up to par, and Total Air War still isn't exactly burnin' 'em up. Rowan seems to assign controls by having a chicken pick at three successive keys and binding all three to a common command like "raise flaps." And now we have GSI, composed of former employees of DID, and their brainchild F-16 Aggressor. Their key assignments aren't as baroque as in other games, but they've managed to commit the Unholy Trinity of sim no-nos: no key mapping, no joystick configuration, and, stunningly, no keycard included in the packaging. It's almost like they want to make your brain hurt.
F-16 Aggressor has puzzling aspirations. The designers actually set out to re-create Strike Commander. Remember Strike Commander? It was going to be Origin's flight sim version of the Wing Commander format, a narrative-driven mercenary flight simulation. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out quite right. It was incredibly late, pretty buggy, and just not all that impressive. So of course it makes perfect sense to emulate it. And then, to really nail the lid down, GSI emulates it badly.
The real shame of it is there is a fine, fine flight simulator at the core of Aggressor. GSI has modeled the F-16's flight properties with commendable detail. The funky handling of the rudders at certain speeds, tough landings, speed bleeding, and other things related to flight are all smack on. It's a flight model worthy of the best F-16 sims, poised to offer the hard-core crowd everything it could demand... until you get to the systems modeling. These are more on par with a Novalogic game. The complex instrument modeling of Falcon 4.0 and other true hard-core sims is only hinted at in Aggressor.
This is not a problem for a midlevel sim, but Aggressor has pretensions of hard-core greatness - pretensions that crash to the ground due to grossly simplified radar controls. A sim has two prime components: the modeling of the flight of the plane and the modeling of the systems. On one count, the developers succeed at realism, and on the other, they fail. In the end, they scuttle all their good programming by failing to offer any realism or difficulty switches whatsoever. The flight model is set to its full realism level at all times. When you have a very realistic flight model, an unrealistic set of sensors, and no ability to change the complexity of anything, you have some truly schizoid problems.
Graphically, while F-16 is quite good, if at times mind-blowing, it's true that there are better-looking, better-performing sims out there. The terrain is a bit patchy, but object modeling is good. Cockpits look very good and have effective dynamic animations for throttle and stick. HUD overlays and quick-view keys provide excellent perspectives on the instruments. In another stunning lapse, however, GSI has failed to include a padlock view. This makes situational awareness well nigh impossible and deals another serious blow to the sim.
Possibly the most baffling aspect of F-16 is its alleged "mercenary flight sim" nature. You would expect to have to fly missions to earn money to pay for weapons and upkeep on your planes. That was the plan in early specs for this game, and there are traces of it left. You still fly for money, but the money is merely used to rate your performance. It has no other function. As for the "mercenary" element, it's mainly limited to mission structure and some cursory background info. Missions range across Africa and include a fair selection of strike and dogfighting action. Without any in-game mission statements or target priorities, it's often hard to remember just what you're supposed to be doing. The quick-start missions allow for some custom dogfighting configurations, but there's no mission editor. As for the AI, it's OK, but nothing special. Wingmen (when you have them, which is rarely) aren't much help, and enemy pilots aren't all that aggressive. At least Aggressor has multiplayer, which compensates for these failings only slightly.
Aside from a very good flight model, there really isn't a lot for which to recommend F-16 Aggressor. For a company to create a sim with not only no key mapping, but also no key assignment card, is just mind-blowing. (You can find the key assignments buried in a 200-page manual.) This feels like a game that started out really good, with some strong elements and good design intentions. But then it got delayed over and over, features were dropped, sections removed, and finally it just shipped. You know, like most computer games.