Ask any simulation fan worth his hands on throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) setup what the best combat flight simulator of all time is, and he's likely to reply "Falcon 4.0." Ask that same person what the worst combat flight simulation of all time is, and you're just as likely to hear the same answer.
Released in 1998, Falcon 4.0 was far from an unmitigated disaster, but the design goals were so lofty that there simply wasn't enough time or resources to climb high enough to reach them. The end result was a simulation that was so far ahead of its time that it feels current to this day, but it was buggy enough to turn off the demanding hardcore audience it needed to cater to for success. Crashes were frequent, the brilliant dynamic campaign system was full of glitches, and multiplayer was practically broken out of the box. As we put it back when it was first released, Falcon 4.0 offered "more potential, more promise, than anything else."
It took seven years, a number of false starts, and one of the most devoted fan communities in existence, but the release of Falcon 4.0: Allied Force shows that its potential has finally been realized and that promise has finally been delivered. This will come as no surprise to longtime fans who have dealt with the innumerable patches, fan-made content, and other fixes and enhancements that have appeared over the years to dramatically improve the original release. The tedious process of downloading the proper files and then installing them all in the correct order is known affectionately as the "dance," and it was enough to keep casual fans as far away from this game as they could get. The dance is finally over, and for the first time ever wannabe jet jockeys can install Falcon 4.0 from a single disc and enjoy nearly all of its numerous features as the designers intended.
For those who are wholly unfamiliar with this game, Falcon 4.0 is an exacting simulation of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Also known as the Electric Jet, the Lawn Dart, or, more popularly, the Viper, the F-16 is one of the most versatile fighters ever created. Its legendary maneuverability makes it a superb dogfighter, but it also has enough power to carry a respectable load of air-to-ground munitions for "mud moving" when necessary. This simulation lets you try your hand at both roles in instant action, single missions, or several incredible dynamic campaigns that are set in the Korean Peninsula and the Balkans.
The entire simulation has had a graphic overhaul, and the 2D cockpit looks as good as that of any modern simulation. All of the F-16's knobs, switches, and handles are depicted in photo-realistic detail, and the mouse can be used to interact with most of them. A heads-up display rendered on the front of the cockpit provides enough information to perform most tasks without needing to reference the cockpit instruments. The display changes depending on the type of weapon that is selected and the radar or targeting mode that is currently in use. The F-16's two trademark multifunction displays are displayed with terrific detail, and it takes hours of practice to become familiar with their seemingly endless menu pages and settings.
The 3D cockpit allows for smooth-view panning, though it's not interactive and it's extremely crude compared to the wonderful 2D cockpit. Fortunately, it works excellently with the simulation's many excellent padlock views, which smoothly keep your virtual head pointed at a selected target, since your eyes are on the target and rarely need detailed cockpit information. Cockpit reflections and a "lift line" displayed on the top of the cockpit are tremendously helpful in letting you maintain a sense of your plane's orientation in a swirling dogfight.
Terrain graphics are much better than those included in the original sim, although they don't compare to those in modern simulations like Lock-On: Modern Air Combat. Aside from a lack of detail, the terrain is at least very functional for low-level ground attack missions, as it is filled with hills, mountains, valleys, and other features that make air-to-ground strikes exhilarating. Clouds and fog help add to the ambiance, but explosions, weapon smoke trails, and other special effects are severely lacking compared to many other simulations. This doesn't affect gameplay in the least, however, and overall, Allied Force looks unbelievably better than the original release. Best of all it is that it works great with current hardware and operating systems, eliminating compatibility issues that plagued Falcon 4.0.
Sounds can generally be overlooked in a simulation as long as they don't interfere with the game, but here they enhance the action immeasurably. Air traffic controllers direct you around the airbase, chewing you out if you take off or land without permission. The radio is alive with chatter from other units in your operational area, cueing you into the various targets and installations that are scattered around the map. Within the plane the engine, weapons, landing gear, and various warning horns and beeps all sound fantastic, and the infamous "Bitchin' Betty" is there to let you know when you are flying too low (fortunately, a flick of a switch is all it takes to turn her off when you're flying at the nape of the earth to avoid radar and surface-to-air missiles).
Even in the original release the flight and physics modeling was outstanding, and in this release it has improved to the point that arguably no other simulation can match its fidelity. You can read a book about the flight characteristics of a real F-16, load up the simulation, and re-create those situations to a degree that is almost eerily accurate. A great example is the F-16's tendency to enter a "deep stall" when a ham-fisted pilot pushes the plane well beyond its flight envelope. The F-16 was the first fly-by-wire plane ever manufactured in great quantities, and it relies on constant computer assistance to overcome the inherent aerodynamic instability that gives it such a tremendous edge in terms of maneuverability. Even in straight and level flight, with no input from the pilot whatsoever, the control surfaces of the aircraft make constant, tiny motions to keep the plane flying in a straight line (with everything controlled by the computer).
Because the computer is always looking over the pilot's shoulder during maneuvers it makes the F-16 incredibly forgiving to fly. But the downside to this is that it's easy for beginners to get into a situation where their speed is so low that the plane becomes uncontrollable. It doesn't simply stall like most other planes would, quickly dropping their noses and picking up enough speed to give the control surfaces some bite. Instead it enters a "deep stall" where the plane falls like a leaf and the nose gradually pitches up and down as the computer vainly tries to find some angle that will end the stall. This happens in real F-16s, and the only way to get out of it is to manually override the computer, push the stick back and forth in time with the natural motions of the nose, and gradually rock your way out of the stall. Deep stalls also happen in the sim, and you get out of them exactly the same way you would in the real aircraft. Everything from the plane's best cornering speeds to the fact that the controls are deadened significantly as soon as the landing gear is dropped (for more precise control during landings) is modeled to near perfection in this simulation.
With all of the highest difficulty settings enabled, even the most experienced pilots will have their hands full managing the aircraft, especially when they have to deal with improved artificial intelligence opponents. The computer did wacky things in the original version of the game, especially during the buggy campaign missions. But now you can expect to face a competent enemy both on the ground and in the air. Surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft emplacements are a real threat, and enemy pilots dogfight and work together much better than they did before. This makes the instant action missions more exciting, but it really transforms the campaigns. The ongoing war on the air, on ground, and even at sea plays out in real time and is more believable than any simulation campaign ever released. Players can assign target priorities themselves using slider bars, or they can let the computer handle it, which automatically generates missions to meet the overall campaign goals. Players are free to jump into any of these missions, taking on the role of flight lead as they try to make a difference on a virtual battlefield that is constantly in action. The level of detail is staggering, and few simulations do this good a job of making players feel like there is a real war going on around them at all times.
If all of this sounds like too much for you, it probably is. Newcomers can tone down nearly every aspect of the simulation by giving themselves unlimited weapons, a bottomless tank of fuel, or even invulnerability. But this isn't the kind of game casual users can simply fire up and get a lot of enjoyment out of right away. Falcon 4.0: Allied Force rewards those who take enough time to really understand every aspect of the F-16's cockpit and capabilities, and also those who are willing to put in the research necessary to personally manage the deep and complex campaigns. A 716-page PDF manual is included for those who really want to dive in, and it surpasses even the 600-page-plus tome included in the original game in terms of usability and completeness. It explains in detail how everything in the game works, and it's also packed with examples that show why you would want to use a particular weapon mode or radar setting, or whatever, in a variety of situations. There are also 30 training missions included in the sim that the manual provides guidance for, and you'll need to fly all of them to master the plane's various systems. A 109-page printed quick-start guide is included that covers the basics, but it barely begins to scratch the surface of what Falcon 4.0: Allied Force has to offer.
If you're a sim fan in general or a Falcon 4.0 aficionado in particular, this version of the game has pretty much everything going for it. It is cheap, about as complete as a game of this nature can be, and thanks to the plethora of missions, the inclusion of a mission editor, and especially the several dynamic campaigns, the sim offers limitless replayability. Multiplayer mode finally works well and is a blast either head-to-head or in cooperative mode with up to 16 total players, adding even more value to the game. Newcomers should know by now what they are getting into, but there's an entirely different life waiting on this CD for those willing to make the time investment.