With most games, a handful of annoying bugs and intermittent crash problems are enough to negate whatever potential fun factor there might have been. With DID's Total Air War, on the other hand, the gameplay is so good and the overall game design so solid that it's pretty easy to overlook its flaws. This is, quite simply, one of the most addictive, entertaining, and approachable jet combat sims I've ever seen.
Total Air War is the sequel to F-22 Air Dominance Fighter, and it improves upon its predecessor in numerous ways. The most notable new feature is Total Air War's comprehensive campaign mode, which lets you take part in ten fully dynamic conflicts in the Red Sea region. In each campaign, the AI will plot out a general strategy while you take part in combat and AWACS missions to further the overall war aims. The campaigns are broken down into stages, with the AI addressing a different segment of the enemy force structure in each. This is based on the Air Force's "Five Rings Process" whereby a campaign focuses on various types of targets (political, infrastructure, command and control, and so on) at various times. To simulate the effects of real-world political pressures (such as the "100 hour" limit on Desert Storm), each stage of the campaign has a time limit. Also, political alliances can shift during a campaign, so if you stray over a neutral country one too many times, that country may enter the war on the side of your enemies.
While you don't exercise much direct control over campaign strategy, the eventual outcome is highly dependent on your performance in combat, AWACS, and scramble missions. As the campaign unfolds in real time, the AI maintains a running list of available combat missions. You begin each campaign as a novice pilot, and, since combat missions are ranked according to difficulty and importance, you can only access the easiest escort and CAP assignments. As you gain experience and rank, however, you'll be able to take on deep-strike assignments and more dangerous escort missions. One of Total Air War's most notable features, the mission planner, lets you customize every aspect of a given mission. Using this planner, you can modify the waypoints, weapons loadouts, and even the number and type of escort flights for every mission available to you. Of course, since the campaign chugs along in real time, you can't take too long to plan your missions - if you do, the AI will handle them itself, and they'll disappear from the list.
In addition to the combat missions, you can also take control of an AWACS patrol at almost any time during a campaign (provided that you still have some AWACS aircraft left in your arsenal). From these patrols, you will have a bird's-eye view of the air campaign and will be able to direct allied aircraft to intercept enemy forces or patrol specific areas. Periodically, you will also receive requests to vector inbound friendly aircraft to tankers or alternate airfields. Best of all, you can jump from the AWACS into the cockpit of any F-22 in the theater at any time. So long as your E-3 doesn't get shot down, you can continue to jump from F-22 to F-22 until the end of your patrol. If you'd rather just observe from afar, you can track any object on the map (air and ground targets alike) through the mini-camera view on the AWACS interface.
The last type of mission in Total Air War is the scramble. If you volunteer for scramble missions, you will be prompted whenever an intercept flight of F-22s goes on alert at an allied airbase. If you accept the mission, you will find yourself in the cockpit of an F-22 on the runway, ready for takeoff. These missions are generally brief and nasty, as scrambles usually don't occur until the bad guys are within AMRAAM range. Scrambles are, however, one of the best ways to move up the ranks so that you can access the tougher combat missions.
Because of the dynamic campaign engine, no two missions are ever exactly the same (though several are very, very similar). As a result, Total Air War offers nearly limitless replayability. Also, since each campaign runs in real time and not as a series of predefined scenarios, you can fly a mind-boggling number of missions in each campaign. For example, I had already taken part in 70 sorties - including combat, AWACS, and scramble hops - before my first campaign was even half over. The sheer number of missions available makes it ideal for flight sim buffs who are tired of the same old scripted scenarios.
Part of Total Air War's appeal, however, is the fact that you don't have to be a hard-core sim fan to appreciate the game. At its core, Total Air War is a sophisticated and realistic combat sim with solid flight modeling and challenging enemy AI. But thanks to the various difficulty settings and a versatile autopilot mode, novice pilots should be able to enjoy this game as well.
Of course, novice and veterans alike will have to watch out for a handful of annoying bugs. The autopilot is particularly irksome. In addition to occasionally slamming my F-22 into a mountain during automated landings (which I can optimistically chalk up to the realistic modeling of computer reliability and MTBF) the Total Air War autopilot sometimes fails to engage at all during takeoffs. While many sim pilots will scoff at the idea of autopilot-assisted takeoffs, there are times in Total Air War when they almost appear to be necessary. For example, even if you manually taxi out to the runway and await proper clearance at the proper time, your wingmen and escort flights will not always take off with you. This can be troublesome on deep-strike missions when you find yourself alone with a gazillion SAM radars smiling up at you. Fortunately, you can usually get around this problem by using the game's time-skip feature to move quickly from mission start to an airborne position en route to your target.
Additionally, the game's "target view" feature during mission briefings is often inadequate. While I'm sure the developers were trying to simulate the quality of data available in a real wartime situation, the images of target buildings were sometimes useless. The camera was usually zoomed out too far and moving too fast to provide an accurate idea of the building's size and shape. Though you can typically get an idea of its location, this information is nearly meaningless when you arrive over a target and have to pick out one building from the dozens below.
One of the biggest problems with Total Air War, however, is the fact that you are severely penalized for ejecting - even after successfully completing a mission. While I agree that a pilot should not receive full mission credit if he doesn't bring his ship back to base, I also recognize that making it to the ground alive is pretty damn important. DID should really modify this aspect of the game, perhaps giving only partial credit for bailouts, and then only when they occur over friendly territory.
Finally, I encountered an intermittent crash bug that was quite infuriating. Several times, often after I had successfully completed a particularly difficult mission and landed, the game would crash out to Windows 95 for no apparent reason.
Still, Total Air War is such a solid game that these flaws seem almost forgivable. I anxiously await a patch that fixes some of the obvious bugs and hope that DID will in some way address some of the game's other minor flaws. In the meantime, I will continue to play Total Air War, logging countless hours in the skies over the Red Sea region and enjoying a truly enjoyable and unique jet combat sim.