Nearly five years in development, the Falcon 4.0 that finally hit shelves in December is a bit of a dichotomy. At times, it's arguably the most detailed, ambitious, and realistic depiction of modern air war ever attempted. It's a sim that's so full of details you'll spend weeks making awed discoveries of new capabilities, of minute aspects of war never before re-created in a flight sim. At other times, Falcon 4.0 feels like it's more potential, more promise, than anything else. Bugs, glitches, and performance problems pop up all too often in some areas of the sim, a clear indication that even after all that time, the sim was slipped out the door without enough testing.
So is Falcon 4.0 the second coming of flight simulation or a buggy mess? Alas, it's a bit of both. Sim pilots willing to explore the plethora of options in Falcon 4.0 that do work fairly well, while awaiting the inevitable patches, are likely to find dozens of hours of play here. But gamers who want to be able to try any feature and be assured that it will work properly will want to wait and be sure that MicroProse comes through with its promised patches.
The promise of the sim is evident when you first open Falcon 4.0's package and are greeted by a monster manual packing approximately 600 pages. The more methodical players will want to start with the excellent tutorial section, which features 31 missions designed by F-16 pilot Pete Bonanni. These missions will take you step-by-step through learning to handle the plane and its weapons systems properly.
Of course, if you're more the instant-gratification type, you can skim the concise Cadet's Guide booklet, jump into the setup section, activate the easy flight model, simplified avionics, and exaggerated weapons effects, and dive right into the instant-action mode. With a variety of realism options, Falcon 4.0 is one of those magic designs that can ease a gamer from novice to expert, little by little. (Contrast this to Jane's F-15, which had arcade and expert modes, with little in the way of intermediate settings.)
Along with training and instant-action modes, you'll find dogfight mode, which lets you set up aerial encounters between up to four flights of aircraft. There's also a mission builder for creating your own missions. The heart of the sim, however, is the dynamic campaign. It's here that you may find one of the most engrossing, immersive simulated combat experiences ever. Unfortunately, it's in the campaign that you'll run across most of the sim's current problems.
Falcon 4.0's campaign is set in Korea, with three scenarios that start you with your forces ahead, at a stalemate, or in danger of defeat. The missions here aren't scripted but rather are generated on the fly by the dynamic-campaign engine. This tracks not only the entire air war, but the ground war as well. You'll see (and hear, on the radio) combat in the skies and on the ground around you. That's a big part of the sense of immersion - as you head towards your own target, ground battles are going on around you, contrails are above you, and air defenses are firing at flights miles away. Your actions do affect the outcome of the campaign, but not to an inappropriate degree. Overall, this is easily the most comprehensive dynamic campaign yet attempted, and the missions come across in a very realistic way.Much of what you'll see here will blow you away: surface-to-air missile sites unleashing volleys of SA-6s at attacking F-4 Phantoms, MiG-29s engaging F-15s in realistic air-combat maneuvering, and artillery shelling distant ground forces. Unfortunately, even with the latest patch, you'll also see wingmen returning to base immediately after takeoff, AWACS controllers sending you to intercept enemy planes hundreds of miles off your course, inaccurate post-mission success ratings, and the rare but annoying crash back to the Windows desktop. In fact, if you're going to be playing the single-player campaign, you're better off not installing the initial patch, as the program is more stable and the AI more intelligent without it.
Where the patch does help is in multiplayer mode. In the initial release, it was difficult to make a successful multiplayer connection. With the patch, you're treated to a peek at what has the potential be an amazing multiplayer experience - once the sim is tweaked. Not only can you set up multiplayer single missions and melee dogfights, but you can also have multiple human players take part in the campaign. Players can enter and leave the simulation at will, so those with permanent Net connections can leave the sim up and running as a continuous sever. Unfortunately, there's no matchmaking server available for finding other Falcon players.
The sim does excel in flight and systems modeling. The plane handles in an extremely authentic manner, from the realms of basic maneuvering through the deadly F-16 deep stall. Be warned that with all realism options on, Falcon 4.0 should pose some new challenges for even experienced PC pilots. In fact, despite 15-plus years of sim experience, I broke the landing gear off my F-16 on seven of my first eight landings. All pertinent cockpit systems and switches are modeled, with a full suite of air-to-air and air-to-ground radar modes. The 2D cockpit is "active," so instead of memorizing dozens of keypresses, you can actually manipulate the controls on the panel. Situational awareness is aided in flight by multiple padlock views, as well as fixed snap views. The "check six" view is a bit slow to come up, but if my experience in the backseat of an F-15 is any indication, twisting to look directly behind you while strapped into an ejection seat wearing bulky flight gear is rather difficult, so this may not be inaccurate.
Falcon 4.0 features detailed and convincing graphics, sounds, and special effects. The Korean terrain isn't flashy or vibrant in color, but if you compare the somewhat hazy look with what you see out the window on your next civilian aircraft flight, you'll find the effect is very accurate. Details such as explosions and burning targets (especially impressive during night missions), contrails at altitude, and smoke from factories flesh out the environment. Only the occasional appearance of obviously polygonal fragments or bizarre purple sparks detract from the environment.
Be warned that Falcon 4.0 has sent many gamers scurrying to their local computer stores to buy souped-up hardware. The single and training missions and instant action and dogfight modes will run fairly smoothly on a fast Pentium with 64MB of RAM. But the campaign mode is capable of bringing the fastest system to its knees when visual details and simulation modeling are cranked up. My P2/400 system ranged between 10 and 21 frames per second in campaign mode, compared with 25 to 41fps in dogfight mode. With less than 128MB of RAM, you're likely to see slight pauses during campaign missions as data is swapped to the hard drive.
So is Falcon 4.0 for you? Despite the bugs and broken features, I've been game-locked on this simulation since the day I booted it, forsaking even the WWII sims I'd waited so long for. No other sim has come so close to re-creating the feel of my one flight in a jet fighter. If you stick to the sections that are fairly solid - the training missions, instant action, and dogfights - you'll keep yourself busy for quite a while. And hopefully, by the time you master the plane's systems there, the next patch will be out, and the campaign glitches will be ironed out. (MicroProse's Gilman Louie has committed not only to patching all the major bugs, but also to keeping a team working on the program for up to six months after release to add user-requested enhancements.) But if you're the type of gamer who gets really frustrated when things don't work as they should, you'll want to wait until the bugs are ironed out.