Microsoft's Flight Simulator series has been a mainstay of computer gaming for many years, but it was barely two years ago that Microsoft first released a simulation of military planes. And while Combat Flight Simulator was a solid first effort, it didn't manage to dominate the genre in the same way the Flight Simulator series had reigned over civilian flight sims. Combat Flight Simulator 2 is Microsoft's attempt to improve on its predecessor while simultaneously shifting the venue from the skies of Europe to the vast, blue Pacific. It's been several years since the last high-quality WWII Pacific-theater sim, so the combination of an improved Combat Flight Simulator and the travails of carrier takeoffs and landings proves successful in Combat Flight Simulator 2.
Combat Flight Simulator 2 is an improvement over its predecessor in almost every respect, and it particularly shows that the development team was committed to improving the aspects of the original game that were lacking. The most notable of these is the graphics. Both the aircraft and the terrain models have been significantly upgraded, and the result is a very good-looking simulation. Considering the limited variety of terrain in the Pacific - sand, jungle, and water - the terrain graphics ran the risk of being monotonous. But Combat Flight Simulator 2 does an excellent job of making these three recurring types of terrain look realistic and attractive. The overall effect does much to make you actually feel as if you're in the Pacific theater - you'll occasionally spot an island in the middle of the huge expanse of ocean, which conveys the feeling of tremendous space and distance. The good weather effects further enhance the scenery, and the game even supports transform-and-lighting effects with compatible video cards, which improve the graphics even further.
The aircraft models are particularly good in Combat Flight Simulator 2, and they stand in stark contrast to the shiny planes of the original, which looked like flying toys. The aircraft in the sequel look much more like real combat planes, thanks to a combination of detail and improved textures. Furthermore, while the intact aircraft models are impressive enough, the damaged ones are even more so. Unlike in its predecessor, damage in Combat Flight Simulator 2 is accurately reflected in the aircraft models, to the extent that you can even see a plane's infrastructure exposed when you shoot off pieces of the plane such as the tail or a wing. This visible damage corresponds well to changes in the flight models, and effects like smoke not only represent physical damage but also convey the different levels of aircraft damage. That is, if you see streaming black smoke coming from your enemy, you can write him off. But sputtering or intermittent smoke means he's still dangerous. Similarly, if you see black smoke coming from your own plane, get home or get out.
The improvement in the graphics goes beyond the terrain and the aircraft models. The cockpits are tremendously improved since the previous installment, and this is one area where the deficiencies of the original Combat Flight Simulator have been fully addressed. The 3D cockpits in the original game were a real weak point, so much that they were almost useless. However, the cockpits in Combat Flight Simulator 2 are superb in 2D, and the 3D cockpits are also much better than before. The only area in which the graphics fall a bit short is in the campaign screens: The 1940s-comic-book look, while not ugly, is a bit plain and doesn't do enough to create a feeling of participation or immersion. Fortunately, the game seems more authentic when you're actually flying, where the radio chatter is just persistent enough to add to the atmosphere without being distracting.
The flight modeling in Combat Flight Simulator 2 is very good, and at the highest difficulty settings, it will satisfy most experienced pilots. While not as unforgiving, and presumably not as realistic, as the flight model found in some of the more hard-core online-only sims, Combat Flight Simulator 2 does an excellent job of accentuating the differences between aircraft. Factors like the Wildcat's diving advantage and the Zero's superior turn radius and climbing capability are modeled well. These aircraft also depart controlled flight more readily than their counterparts in the first game, which makes skillful flying a tricky business. At lower difficulty settings, Combat Flight Simulator 2 flies a lot like Microsoft's hybrid action-simulation, Crimson Skies, which will allow inexperienced players to get used to air combat without the frustration of constantly going into uncontrolled spins. The manual for Combat Flight Simulator 2 runs almost 300 pages and includes everything from game information to WWII Pacific-theater history, descriptions of fighter combat tactics, and interviews with both Japanese and American aces and provides a great resource for those just getting into computer flight simulations.
The centerpiece of Combat Flight Simulator 2 is undoubtedly the carrier operations, and these highlight the differences between a land-based European war simulation and a Pacific war simulation. Landing on a carrier is a completely different experience from landing at an airfield, and for inexperienced pilots, attempting to do so will often end in failure. Combat Flight Simulator 2 conveys orders from your landing signal officer through a window in the corner of your screen, which shows a figure giving flag signals as you approach, as text captions tell you that you're "too low" or "too fast." A mission isn't a complete success until you're safely back on your carrier deck, and if you're flying a damaged plane, the task becomes much harder. The experience of carrier operations adds a whole new dimension to the game, and one that's immensely enjoyable, even as you learn it.
Fans of hard-core simulations will find that Combat Flight Simulator 2 does have several shortcomings. The first is in the campaign. While Combat Flight Simulator 2 does offer a large, branching campaign, which includes over 120 possible missions and lets you fly either as an American or Japanese pilot, the experience offered by fully featured dynamic campaigns such as those found in Enemy Engaged, MiG Alley, and Falcon 4.0 is absent. While dynamic campaigns were once a novelty that attracted considerable attention simply for what they tried to achieve, the aforementioned games have done much to make this feature something that serious simulation fans expect in a truly complete game. Fortunately, the campaign in Combat Flight Simulator 2 does have a lot of replay value, and the powerful mission editor that's included - the same one the developers used to create the campaign missions - will add a lot more for some players. But there's nothing quite like the sense of a real dynamic campaign in a military flight simulation, and so it's too bad that Combat Flight Simulator 2 had to stick with scripted missions.
The game's multiplayer options are also lacking. You're restricted to deathmatch or team head-to-head play, which means that if you want to create a virtual squadron in order to fly single-player missions cooperatively, you are out of luck - although, with the lack of flyable bombers, such squadrons would be restricted in the types of missions they could fly anyway. This is also a shame, as unique experiences like flying early-war torpedo bombers go unrealized in Combat Flight Simulator 2. In fact, the lack of variety in flyable aircraft is another weak point in the game: seven types of planes (counting the two Zero models as separate planes) is pretty limiting. Flyable Oscars, Warhawks, and Airacobras are nowhere to be found. You'll encounter several of these as enemy or friendly aircraft throughout the game, but it's too bad you can't jump in the cockpits of some of these less common planes. Fortunately, the expandable nature of the Combat Flight Simulator series means that you'll probably see these in an expansion pack some time in the future.
Even with its problems, Combat Flight Simulator 2 still has a lot to recommend it. In fact, the game comes very close to being perfect for casual flight sim enthusiasts: The flight models can be adjusted for difficulty, the graphics are eye-catching, the campaign is varied enough, there are several good training missions, and the manual is always there to offer tips and explanations. Hard-core flight sim fans who are used to detailed dynamic campaigns and robust cooperative multiplayer options will find these aspects of the game to be lacking, but even the most experienced virtual ace should find the carrier operations to be both interesting and challenging. The carrier ops are easily the single most enjoyable aspect of the game, and just practicing traps on these early flattops should keep you busy for a long time. If you somehow get tired of this, you can still import aircraft from the original game (although you'll be stuck with the less attractive aircraft models) and fly as British or German pilots if you choose.
Due to its attention to detail and wide range of features, Combat Flight Simulator 2 has something to offer almost every simulation enthusiast. Besides, it's been too long since the last great Pacific-theater flight sim. Although it's not the definitive WWII flight sim, Combat Flight Simulator 2 was definitely worth the wait.