Flight simulations set in the Korean War are few and far between. Not only is it the "forgotten war" in the history books, but the Korean conflict is rather neglected as a setting for flight simulations, at least compared with games focusing on World War II or the latest hi-tech jet fighters. The last Korean War game was Virgin Interactive's Sabre Ace, and the sooner it's forgotten, the better. So perhaps it was to developer Rowan Software's advantage that the scarcity of Korean War sims and the failure of Sabre Ace lowered gamers' expectations for MiG Alley. But as it turned out, Rowan didn't need any such advantages, because MiG Alley is good enough to stand up to the best flight simulations available simply on its own merits.
MiG Alley is very promising right from the start, as it provides flyable models of several different planes including the F-80 Shooting Star, F-84 Thunderjet, and F-86 Sabre, as well as the F-51D (also known as the P-51 Mustang). In addition, the game even lets you jump in the cockpit of the MiG-15 and MiG-15bis. Planes like the A-1 Skyraider and Yak-9 are also present although not flyable. (Flyable -A, -E, and -F variants of the F-86 are included as well.) What makes MiG Alley's range of aircraft so effective is the diversity of the flight models. Not only are the flight models accurate, but they really bring out the differences between the various aircraft. The jets in MiG Alley are all idiosyncratic, as each presents a different set of handling considerations, and MiG Alley has done a brilliant job capturing these differences in performance. You'll learn to fly and fight very differently in the F-86 Sabre than in the MiG-15, and savvy pilots will use their aircraft's unique characteristics to their advantage.
A corollary to the accuracy of the flight models is the fact that the planes are quite difficult to fly. Fortunately, Rowan provided enough options to make the learning curve less steep, and all manner of in-flight effects, such as realistic flameouts and extra thrust, can be toggled on and off for pilots just getting the feel of the jet. Novice pilots will spend a good deal of time flying with "training wheels" before graduating to the real thing. When you are flying with all the realism effects in force, MiG Alley is a challenging flight simulation by any standards. And that's even without having to deal with people trying to shoot you down.
The graphics and sound in MiG Alley are mostly as good as the physics models. While the terrain textures might tend toward brown, it's to be expected from a game that depicts Korea in the middle of a war. The only problem with the graphics is at low altitudes, where terrain features become rather indistinct and even interfere a little with ground targeting. Although the terrain in MiG Alley isn't that great, the aircraft models look excellent and can even be customized with various nose art to add to the already excellent atmosphere. The atmosphere is further heightened by the game's great sound effects, which combine to provide a sense of immersion uncommon in most flight simulations. The jet engine sounds are realistic and create the sense of being in an early jet as opposed to some more modern machine with a hermetically sealed cockpit. The cockpits themselves, while sparse, look beautiful and show off the relative antiquity of the planes. In-flight radio chatter is plentiful, and the sound of gunfire is enough to rattle your teeth.MiG Alley includes a 116-page manual that does an adequate job of explaining the game and providing most relevant information in a legible manner. To complete the package, there is not only a keyboard card but also a 46-page booklet detailing the differences between the MiG-15 and the F-86, which is actually a reproduction of a 1952 RAF briefing paper. While it's of limited practical value, it makes for interesting reading and underscores the fact that Rowan has imbued the entire simulation with a surprisingly strong attention to time period, such that the game feels like a historical document almost as much as a flight sim.
MiG Alley provides five great dynamic campaigns that let you fly the various US aircraft during six months of war. Missions are preplanned in the first four campaigns, so that you can practice for the Spring Offensive 1951 campaign. In the Spring Offensive, you have control of 112 aircraft, 96 of which can fly at any one time. You can either plot each mission yourself as the frontline air commander or simply sketch out general objectives and let your command staff worry about the details. The results of missions can have specific consequences: Knock out a bridge and the Communist advance is slowed, but neglect the enemy airfields, and you'll find a swarm of MiGs on hand to greet you on your way to bridge-busting duty. The dynamic nature of the campaigns makes MiG Alley even more immersive and adds to the appeal of ground-attack "mud-mover" missions that flight sim fans often find less interesting than dogfighting. In any event, in the Spring Offensive campaign you can not only assign all the missions, but also choose which ones you want to fly. You can stick with one particular aircraft or hop in any one you choose. Such flexibility is welcome for those who want to stick to fighter jets but nevertheless want to sample the breadth the campaign has to offer.
All of its features make MiG Alley a technically excellent simulation, and the campaigns give it longevity. But the actual gameplay experience surpasses the game's technical accomplishments. Dogfighting in MiG Alley is one of the best experiences a virtual pilot can hope for. While the speed of the early jets featured in MiG Alley was incredible compared with their propeller-driven predecessors, both generations of planes were limited to guns as their main weapon. A Sabre or MiG-15 pilot won't be clicking through different radar modes; he'll be struggling to get on the enemy's six without stalling, spinning, or flaming out, all the while knowing that one or two bursts from his opponent will mean defeat. The artificial intelligence of MiG Alley's computer-controlled pilots is good enough to invoke such fear and thus accomplishes something that is often missing in military flight simulations. Even veteran pilots will be surprised at how intense the game's dogfights are.
You might wish MiG Alley had even more features. The F4U Corsair is missing, even though the aircraft was ubiquitous in Korea. There are no aircraft carrier operations. However, MiG Alley does just about everything you could possibly expect from a simulation that comes in a box instead of in a multimillion-dollar professional trainer.
Once in a while, a simulation comes along that you can tell will be fondly remembered by dedicated flight sim fans years later. Only a select group of games earns such a place in the hearts of fans as demanding as those who use their computers to simulate air combat, and MiG Alley is now a part of that group. It's certainly the best military flight sim of 1999, and you'll continue to hear about it for years to come.