The Jane's Combat Simulations line leaps from peak to peak, with nary a bum title in the bunch. ATF, Longbow, Longbow 2, 688, and now F-15 have secured the company a place as the pre-preeminent developer of simulation software. Following hot on the heels of Longbow 2, F-15 is, if possible, an even more impressive piece of work. By taking on the sadly neglected F-15E Strike Eagle, it fills a crucial gap in the air combat realm.
The last true Strike Eagle sim was F-15 Strike Eagle III from MicroProse, also produced by Andy Hollis. That it has taken five years to create another, while we are flooded with Tomcat, F-22, and Falcon sims, is a mystery. The F-15E is an extraordinary, versatile aircraft. It seats two (pilot and weapon systems officer), carries a heavy payload, and is designed to penetrate deep into enemy territory at low altitudes. In many ways, it's not as sexy as a conventional air superiority fighter, since it engages aircraft from beyond visual range. (That is, if it hopes to survive.) With a full payload it can be sluggish, but shorn of the extra weight it can hold its own in a close-in dogfight. Its mission is to deliver precision munitions to ground targets and protect itself while doing so, and F-15 captures these roles admirably.
The first thing that strikes you about F-15 is the amazing attention to detail in the cockpit. On full realism mode, the array of sensors and controls is awe-inspiring in its accuracy. Since the F-15 relies so heavily on these sensors, they are the heart of the game. Their complexity can be reduced to ease gamers into the sim, but that misses most of the point. The multifunction displays for both front and back seats may be custom configured for air-to-ground, air-to-air, and navigation modes, placing five MFDs at your fingertips at any given moment. There are hundreds of potential commands and combinations, which makes the custom keyboard mapping a welcome and essential feature.
Full virtual cockpit look-around views and padlock mode are effectively implemented. This goes hand in glove with an assortment of exterior views that enable you to track pretty much everything going on. The flight model adheres to the most rigorous standards of accuracy. It has a terrific feel for weight and motion, and the variations in handling characteristics are spot on. If a flight model can get better than this, I wouldn't be able to tell. Artificial intelligence is strong in both friendly and enemy aircraft, and the laundry list of nested wingman commands lets you issue any order you may need to, to the entire flight or an individual plane. And these wingmen won't run into you.
There are myriad ways into missions. The numerous training missions aren't as effective as the Longbow tutorial, but they get the job done. Single missions allow you to hone various skills, and instant-action settings provide basic custom missions. The powerful mission editor puts every element of the game into your hands, enabling you to craft complex missions through placement of assets, waypoints, and event triggers. Finally, the two campaigns (Iran and Iraq) get you to the heart of the sim. The dynamic campaign system keeps missions constantly fresh and diverse and gives the battlefield itself a realistic, alive feel.
There are some mild disappointments. Multiplayer support for two to eight gamers is stable, but fails to allow for co-op missions, reducing head-to-head to fur balls. This is silly for an F-15 game. One sadly missed feature is an in-flight recorder for mission playback. Visually, the game is striking, but even with a 3D card, full detail requires a Pentium 300 and 32MB of RAM. Other games achieve similar, and in some cases better, results with less hardware. And, even with a huge manual, numerous difficulty settings, and an extensive tutorial, you'll need some serious chops to fly this sucker. Even on easy levels, it is very instrument intensive, and the learning curve is steep. The payoff, however, is a superb, thorough, and vastly entertaining combat sim.