No less than four-and-a-half simulations of the next generation F-22 Lightning fighter jet are winging their way to computers, developed by Novalogic, Mission Studios, DID, and Interactive Magic (with EA's effort in ATF counting as a half). Novalogic and now Mission Studios have both weighed in with their entries, but gamers will have to wait for DID and IM to see a real simulation. While F-22 Lightning II and now JetFighter III both have good graphics and gameplay, as sims they're closer to TIE Fighter than Su-27.
And that might not be a bad thing, depending on what kind of gaming you like. If you like just getting up in a high-tech fighter and running through air engagements and ground strikes without a lot of simulation fuss, then JetFighter III is a good package. Since it's going toe-to-toe with F-22 Lightning, we'll spend some time comparing the two, but first the basics. JetFighter III continues the tradition of this venerable series by including the older F/A-18 Hornet, as well as the new F-22. The game engine is set around a virtual cockpit that you can walk through to access different parts of the game. This becomes more of a nuisance than an asset after the novelty value wears off, leaving you with several separate screens full of navigation before you get from briefing to cockpit.
Gameplay is based around two full campaigns and an extensive set of training missions. Some stand-alone canned missions are included, but no custom mission builder is available as in ATF, USNF, and F-22 Lightning. Your role as a pilot in a UN rapid deployment force puts you onboard a carrier during ops against Cuban-backed drug lords and an Argentinean invasion of Chile. Missions are a familiar and satisfying mix of stand-off air-to-air engagements, tight furballs, and ground strikes with dumb munitions and AGMs. You can continue through a campaign despite mission failure. Mission AI is actually pretty strong, stronger than that in F-22 Lightning. This means you have fewer instances where you launch an AIM-120 and take out the enemy before you see him, allowing for more intense, close-in dogfighting.
Graphically, JF3 is sharp, but not as sharp as F22 Lightning. Both have significant frame-rate problems on many systems, but JF3 seems to have the weaker performance. I got a fair chop on higher settings despite running it on a P200 with 32 megs of RAM and a Mach 64 Rage board. There were also frequent 3-5 second pauses which, I later found out, could only be remedied by manually copying some terrain files to the hard drive. JF3's external views are handled quite well, with the notable exception of the "external padlock view" (where both you and the locked enemy are kept in view from outside the plane), which is absent. The virtual cockpit in JF3 is quite well done, however, with a smooth-flowing perspective as you move your "head" around the cockpit. The cockpit itself is not as well done as F22's, and the HUD didn't look right at all. Switching between instrument views was easy enough, but the optional one-fourth-screen band of cockpit along the bottom was inexplicable, especially since it polarized several times.
Flight modeling is, alas, simplistic, with the usual complaints of over-forgiving handling, poor drag effects, ridiculous stalls, "turn-table" rudders, and the rest of the sins that will take it off the lists of serious sim enthusiasts. Still, it's a better flight model than F22's, with all these problems being far less pronounced in JF3 than in F22. For instance, rudders in F22 would spin you on a dime, while in JF3 it's more like spinning on a quarter. None of this will matter, however, if you just want to get into the air and shoot stuff, and at this JetFighter performs admirably. Gameplay is good, with plenty of action and easy cheat options available USNF-style from an ingame drop down menu. There is never a shortage of targets, and several missions are just fun shooting galleries, such as one with a phalanx of stationary choppers.
The most important thing to note is that JetFighter III makes no claims of realism, and actually boasts that it's the "easiest-to-use" flight simulator. For this alone Mission Studios scores the extra point for delivering what they promised, a point F22 lost with their outrageous claims of realism. Ironically, JF3 DOES have a more realistic flight model than F22, though they make no claims for it.
Unfortunately, while JetFighter III wins in gameplay, it fails in features. There is no multiplayer option and no custom mission builder, as in F22 Lightning. You also can't edit mission parameters or waypoints, or customize your flight group. You can, however, create custom squadron logos and place them on your planes: a useless but nice feature.
JetFighter III is a good game, if not a great sim, and that's good enough. Neither it nor F22 is forgiving on your system, and for higher res modes you'd better have a Pentium, and even then some features will need to be turned off during engagements. JF3 has better actual gameplay due in no small part to better opponents and mission structure, and it is very easy to use. F22 has multiplayer play, more customizable features, and better graphics. Which you buy depends upon your priorities.