"At least they tried" will be Interactive Magic's epitaph. At least they tried to compete against the major sim companies. At least they tried to create a new 3D graphics engine in-house, starting from scratch and with limited internal development capability at the beginning. At least they tried to create realistic sims for the hard-core market, building a knowledgeable design team and proceeding with the best intentions.
Now that its second-and-a-half title is out, it's clear that Interactive Magic has failed. But it failed grandly and accomplished some major feats of design. It failed because the designers were let down by the programmers and testers. And it's a shame, because it didn't need to happen.
iF/A-18 is, in many ways, an excellent and superlative sim, from a purely modeling standpoint. If you just put the Super Hornet through its paces, it feels incredible, from the systems to the physics. This is a hard-core flight model that will please even the most jaded of sim fans, because its realistic elements not only create a sense that you're flying the real thing, but also directly affect the way you approach the missions and play the game. Its agility and speed are re-created in detail, as well as its degraded performance with heavy loads. The sensors and MFDs feel just right in full realism mode, with performance limitations and environmental variables. It feels good, like a flight model should.
There are also plenty of gameplay options and features, enough to keep you flying for a long time and with a wide array of missions. Interactive Magic's excellent dynamic campaign system is back and improved, with mid-East and Aegean theaters of operation. Each campaign generates new mission sets based on the current battlefield situation, creating an experience that is never the same twice. Training, single missions, instant action, custom missions, and multiplayer round out the gameplay options as fully as anyone could want. I tested two-person multiplayer and found it stable and acceptable.
The main interface is greatly improved, as it should be considering that its military-base graphics are almost identical to Longbow's. There are numerous setting and realism options, full keyboard remapping, and plenty of background material, all laid out in an easy and attractive format. The strong visuals of the menu do not, however, extend to the game itself. Object modeling is good, but not great. Terrain modeling is a matter of taste. Some find the DEMON engine's satellite-based terrain mapping realistic and attractive. I think it looks like a lumpy tweed bedspread thrown over the cat. It just looks weird sometimes, as if a thin layer of snow is covering everything, even the desert. At least it performs better than iF-22. Most of the really serious CD-reads and choppy frames have been smoothed, though long load and unload times still predominate. Hardware and software modes are available, though software-only graphics are a waste. Visually, it earns a C.
So far, so good. We have a sim that isn't the best looking thing on the block, but which does have it where it counts: in missions and modeling. So what's the problem? Well, there are the bugs. And then there are the bugs. And a few more bugs. Did I mention the bugs? How about an infinite "compiling" screen, random and frequent crashes, wingman that act more like Thunderbirds than fighter pilots, and the complete inability to successfully finish most missions due to a bug that blows up your plane if you sit on the carrier for more than four seconds.
Yeah, these can and probably will be fixed, though even that is not assured, since Interactive Magic has a shaky record on product support. But so what? Why are they there in the first place? Did no one notice them? How could you miss them? Interactive Magic has repeated all the mistakes of iF-22. It seems as though they learned nothing. Are we going to see iF/A-18 5.0, a whole new version whose major appeal is that it works as the initial version should have?
The question remaining is: If it's fixed, will it be worthwhile? Will it, like Falcon and Tank Platoon II, rise above its initial shoddy release to become a classic? Certainly its features and modeling are strong enough, even if visually it's a disappointment. But that misses the point. The game on my hard drive right now shows potential that can't really be tapped, because I'm unwilling to invest time in a mission that I will probably not be able to finish or not get credit for. As it stands now, the game is a failure because it cannot be played, and there is no excuse for that.