Some add-ons bolt new features onto games, and others make good games better, but the rarest mod is one that transforms a decent title into something truly outstanding. FirePower is what Combat Flight Simulator 3 should have been in the first place, and it is a must-have expansion for current or potential owners of that sim.
FirePower makes so many changes to CFS3 that it's difficult to know where to begin, but the included FirePower Series Certified Aircraft are arguably the best part of the package. The development team interviewed more than two dozen WWII vets who actually flew and fought in the aircraft of the period to get a sense of each plane's unique characteristics that goes way beyond raw stats. The end result is that the "certified" planes fly the way they are described in pilot biographies instead of "by the book," and each has a distinct personality. This is most evident in their stall behavior, which is modeled much better than stalls in IL-2.
There is a good mix of new planes to wring out, and the bombers are the best of the bunch. Although they were not used in the European theater, flyable B-29As are included and are great for what-if scenarios. B-17F and B-17Gs also are included, and all of the stations on these new American bombers are modeled in meticulous detail.
Brit aficionados get the Lancaster bomber and English variants of P-40N and P-40F fighters, and there's even a French D.520 that's a hoot to fly, but German pilots get most of the new toys. These include two versions of the Do 217 night fighter, four versions of the versatile Me 410 fighter/bomber, two Ta152 high-altitude interceptors, two Ta154 all-wood fighter/bombers, and that's just the beginning. There are also jet and rocket aircraft like the Ar234-B bomber, the He162A-2 fighter, and the swept-wing Ta183 that was the precursor to fighters from the Korean War era. The oddest additions are the Me 334, which fuses a tailless pusher-prop fuselage with the wings of an Me 163, and the Ho 228 V5, a supersonic version of the Go 229 flying wing jet fighter. All of the new planes look fantastic inside and out, especially when light reflects realistically off the virtual cockpits.
All of the new aircraft are just window dressing unless you have something to do with them, and FirePower doesn't slack off in this regard. A variety of instant-action missions are included that use the new planes, and additional missions are hosted at fan sites throughout the Internet, but the real highlight is a 25-mission re-creation of the B17-F Memphis Belle's tour of duty. You get to participate in all of the daylight bombing raids that this famous real-life aircraft (and her crew) completed, and once you finish the campaign you'll understand how thankful the crew must have been to return to the US after that last mission to participate in a War Bond drive.
FirePower definitely lives up to its name, as nuclear bombs top the long list of weapons additions and enhancements. These are the real deal--Fat Man and Little Boy are both selectable as payloads, and dropping one results in an enormous mushroom cloud and an absolutely devastated landscape. Unless you're careful with the release, shockwaves reach up to flip your heavy B-29 like it's being rattled around in God's own dice cup. Players who want to get serious about becoming death incarnate without going nuclear can instead load up a specialized Lancaster with a Grand Slam bomb that weighs in at 22,000 pounds--7,000 pounds heavier than the largest "daisy-cutter" bunker-busters used today.
The game's graphics--particularly the special effects--are overhauled completely. The first thing any FirePower player should do is load up a night bombing attack over a target that is heavily defended by antiaircraft guns. The fiery bursts of flak that pop in seemingly random patterns around the plane as you approach the target illuminate the interior of the aircraft and make for a harrowing experience. Explosions from dropped bombs are spectacular, and manning a gun turret and watching tracers arc all across the night sky as bright engine fires from stricken wingmen begin to appear all around you is downright eerie. Bombs and other explosives cause their targets to smoke and burn, making it easy to line up for a second pass or just to determine where weapons are hitting. This is important, because the new damage model means smaller munitions must strike several times before destroying armored targets. Air combat is much deadlier than in the standard game, and engines (especially jets and water-cooled inline engines) are particularly vulnerable to damage. Sound effects are pumped up a bit, but the graphical enhancements are definitely more noticeable.
All of these sweeping changes and additions would be more than enough to justify the price of the add-on, but numerous little touches also are included that add much more depth to the sim. G view is a perfect example. One of the main differences between real and simulated flight is that pilots in the real world get constant G feedback to ease seat-of-the-pants flying. Sim pilots have to keep an eye on the amount of speed they are bleeding off, watch for blackout or redout effects, and waste time looking or listening for all sorts of other clues as to how many Gs they are pulling. G view provides at least a little more feedback by shifting the pilot's view slightly to visually depict G forces. If you pull a lot of positive Gs, the virtual cockpit appears to move upward slightly in your view as you sink into your virtual seat. If you relax pressure, your view becomes centered again. The movement is tied directly to Gs and not to speed or any other factor, so it is helpful in dogfights but virtually nonexistent (and therefore completely unobtrusive) during landings.
The appropriately named taxi view helps during takeoffs. Most WWII aircraft were long-snouted tail-draggers that completely obscured the pilot's view of the ground when the plane taxied to the runway, and most WWII sim pilots work around the problem by switching to an external view or making the cockpit invisible. Taxi view solves the dilemma by using the same technique WWII pilots used--opening the canopy and sticking your head out of the side of the cockpit. It's a feature that every other WWI and WWII sim should copy.
The only downside to all this good stuff is the impact it has on the game's frame rate. The stock installation worked smoothly at 1600x1200 resolution on our test system, but we had to bump the resolution down to maintain the same frame rate during most FirePower missions. The improvements are worth it, and sim fans with powerful machines will definitely want to spring for this upgrade. IL-2 may reign as king of the skies, but thanks to FirePower, nothing can touch CFS3 in terms of ground-pounding thrills.