Virgin claims its new flight game, Sabre Ace: Conflict Over Korea, contains "superior aerodynamics and accurate plane physics" and is "the ultimate in realism." Realism implies certain basic qualities in flight model. Those qualities are not up for debate and neither are they optional.
After many hours of testing each of the nine flyable planes in Sabre Ace, I found dozens of modeling elements either badly handled or entirely absent, including more obvious elements like stalls, blackouts, surface drag, spins, speed-dependent turn radii, damage modeling, flap behavior, and on and on. If Virgin had told me that Sabre Ace was a fun little arcade game for novices, these sins of omission would be negligible. But when taken with its claims for realism, they are unconscionable.
And this is a shame because there are elements in Sabre Ace that make for entertaining gameplay. It takes on a rich and sadly neglected corner of historical aerial combat: the Korea War. Coming as it did hot on the heels of World War II, Korea was the place where aerial warfare entered the modern age. Characterized by high-speed gun battles and tough ground attacks, it is a great theatre to fly in, and the campaign captures the diversity of missions, from CAP and escort to bridge busting. The campaign is not dynamic but scripted, which will limit replay potential. You also have no control over how you approach a mission, with force composition, stores, and waypoints all hard-coded.
You can play as an American or Soviet pilot. This is puzzling, since Russia was not an "official" combatant in the war. The non-American career should be Chinese or North Korean. Missions are graduated by difficulty and plane type. As an American, you start with eight F-51 Mustang missions, then move on to the F-80 Shooting Star, and F-86 Sabre. In the Soviet missions, you begin with ten YAK-9 missions and then finish in the MiG-15. In addition to the five combat planes, three trainers are available for custom missions: the T-33 Shooting Star, T-6 Texan, and MiG-18. Each of the eight planes of Sabre Ace may also be flown in custom-created dogfight missions, which let you set altitude, arms, and opponents. Multiplay is available for dogfighting, though not for campaign. Internet play appears to have some stability problems.
The overall package of Sabre Ace is impressive, with a slick front end and great introductory movie. Graphics are sharp with 3Dfx support but also have some problems. While terrain looks good, it also has a tendency to undulate and pop in on the horizon. Planes and ground objects are modeled in detail, and explosions look fine. Frame rates are very good with 3D support, but on the whole the non-3D version is a poorer cousin: less sharp and more choppy. As for sound effects, they are quite meaty but just don't sound right. (And why do I hear bullets hit a plane two hundred feet away as though they were hitting me?)
But while the graphics are solid, the viewing system is not. External views cannot be zoomed or rotated, which greatly hampers gameplay. This is small potatoes compared to the abominable cockpit views. The few viewing angles leave gaps in the view, resulting in substantial blind spots that cripple both dogfighting and bombing. This makes the gameplay cumbersome to such an extreme degree that it lowers the enjoyment of Sabre Ace even as an arcade game.
Enemy AI is good on evasion but not on attack. Wingmen are better than we've seen lately, but the wingman commands are limited to formation and a generic "attack," making complex coordinated attacks impossible. A tiered autopilot mode called "FAD" helps keep you in formation, but it's needlessly complex (why so many levels?) and doesn't integrate well with gameplay.
It's unfortunate that there are so many failings in Sabre Ace, since the overall package, subject matter, and mission structure are all good. As an arcade sim, it's a competent effort with a few problems, but when measured against Virgin's claims of realism, it fails abysmally.