Simulation is a deceiving word as far as games are concerned. Everyone wants a simulation, but not everyone can agree on the meaning of the term; all flight simulations purport to simulate something, yet the level of realism gamers desire or the specific elements gamers most want simulated vary greatly. A game that tries to comprehensively model one particular aspect of air combat can end up depending on that element to carry the entire game, and it will appeal mostly to gamers who find that facet particularly important. Many such flight simulations compete for best graphics, best flight model, or most detailed avionics in the genre. However, Jane's F/A-18 makes no attempt to excel in any particular category. Does that make the game a poor simulation? Hardly.
Remarkably, Jane's F/A-18 succeeds in being a superb flight simulator without being truly exceptional in any specific area. The terrain graphics (with the exception of clouds and lighting) are not much better than in F-15, whose graphics engine was obviously refitted for use in F/A-18. The game's cockpits are entirely 3D and can be difficult to read at times. While the campaign has some variable elements, it's essentially scripted. In fact, at first it's unclear as to what makes F/A-18 such a good simulation, even as you play it into the early hours of the morning.
But that's precisely the appeal of Jane's F/A-18: The game does a tremendous job of putting you in the game world, despite the its apparent technical shortcomings. While "immersive" is a word thrown around so frequently in game reviews that it's easy to ignore, the word does accurately describe Jane's F/A-18 because of how the different parts of the game mesh. The degree to which you actually feel as if you're taking part in the game's events is very noticeable. That's partly due to the game's focus on a carrier-based aircraft; the focus isn't just for the novelty of trying to systematically model serious carrier operations to a high level of detail. It's also for the more mundane - though probably more significant - reason that the carrier, unlike an airfield on land, gives you a very defined sense of "home" that adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the simulation. There is something about limping back to the mother ship on one engine, with shot hydraulics and a thimbleful of gasoline, that engenders a sense of urgency utterly lacking in a similar approach to Tempelhof airfield, for example. In F/A-18's campaign, the USS Ronald Reagan isn't just a ship: It's your floating home off the shores of the enemy-held Kola Peninsula. And as your tailhook misses the arrestor wires and you hear "Bolter-Bolter-Bolter!" you'll practically feel as though you're being ripped from your mother's bosom as you're thrust out for another terrifying go-round. It's a detail that's anything but minor once you've experienced it.
To make the game feel so cohesive, its individual elements must be modeled realistically, and Jane's does an especially good job in several areas. The flight model is excellent, and if the F/A-18 seems to be having difficulty exiting controlled flight for an extended period, it's because of the fly-by-wire nature of the aircraft in which the control surfaces are adjusted by computer. Weapons are plentiful and are accurately modeled. The avionics appear simple but are comprehensive, because the cockpit displays contain a deceptively large amount of information. The only problem is with the 3D cockpit, which can be tricky to use as its various functions aren't always easy to read. Unfortunately, turning up the cockpit detail decreases the game's frame rate significantly, and it's a loss that you may not be able to justify, as the game's hardware requirements aren't trivial, even with the average terrain graphics. Don't expect to run Jane's F/A-18 at 1024x768 without a high-end Pentium III. Turning down the detail levels and running at a lower resolution will be necessary on slower machines.As mentioned, the game's terrain graphics are mediocre at best, and they certainly lag behind the current graphics engines in use in other flight sims, although the clouds in F/A-18 are quite impressive. Fortunately, the aircraft models themselves are also very attractive, yet those who expect consistently first-rate graphics in a simulation may be disappointed with the game's overall appearance. Of further note, Voodoo3 users will find themselves installing their older DirectX 6-compatible drivers, as the newest DirectX 7 drivers from 3dfx cause catastrophic graphics problems. Even without such conflicts, the game occasionally crashes on some systems.
Unfortunately, Jane's F/A-18 is not a game that the novice can jump into easily. The training missions are well narrated but far too short. This problem is compounded by the fact that while Jane's manuals have usually been excellent in previous sims, the F/A-18 manual suffers from what might be an attempt to cram too much information into a page-limited volume. While game functions are listed, some aren't explained completely; so while a veteran pilot will be comfortable simply finding out where the game's various functions are located, a novice will really need to sit down for several sessions just with the manual. To add insult to injury, the font used in the manual is quite small and will require some readers to pull out their bifocals.
Jane's F/A-18 includes a campaign that involves a Russian civil war, and you can play the full campaign or three shorter stages, all of which center on action around the Kola Peninsula. While the campaign is mostly pre-scripted, it does branch at certain points and includes some random elements within its missions. The game does have a robust mission builder that can incorporate such elements as variable chances of appearance for enemy forces. There's even a hidden campaign builder in the game (press F1 when in the tools menu), although it's undocumented and unsupported by Jane's. The game's multiplayer mode is perhaps the one facet of the game that excels on its own; you can fly cooperative missions as any element of a package. Communications options are extensive, and even in single-player mode there is so much radio chatter that you'll feel as though you're really part of a carrier squadron.
It's astonishing how three recent hard-core simulations, all of which model modern jets accurately, can have such different personalities. Falcon 4.0 put you in the middle of an all-out war with the most ambitious dynamic campaign ever seen in a flight simulation; Flanker 2.0 concentrated on re-creating the Su-27 Flanker aircraft in painstaking detail. And now there's Jane's F/A-18, which is immensely satisfying because the design team created a whole game rather than a specific set of parts. It may take a little while to get used to, but Jane's F/A-18 will hook you soon enough, and once it does there's no turning back. The year is off to a promising start for flight-sim pilots.