Once you pop your eyeballs back into their sockets after your first aerial tour of JSF, you begin to sense both its strengths and limitations. The prime strength is right there on the screen: the most detailed, fluid, impressive graphics of any combat simulation now available. Period. Even without a 3D card, this sucker screams. Terrain isn't a lumpy wet blanket of wiggly textures and flat horizons, but a finely contoured, artistically shaded rendition of four different regions: Afghanistan, Korea, Columbia, and the Kola Peninsula. The terrain doesn't come apart like a cheap suit once you're down in the mud: It looks as sharp at low altitude as at high. Most structures are modeled in detail and well integrated into the terrain, with the exception of city buildings, which look like cracker boxes with holes punched in them.
So you get the main point here: JSF looks very, very nice. But what, in fact, is it? And how does it fly? Well, it's a midlevel sim of two new designs being considered for the new Joint Strike Fighter program by the DOD: the Boeing X-32 and the Lockheed X-35. These planes are not yet online (hence the "X" designation), but one probably will be in the next century. Since we have no idea of how these birds will fly or what their avionics, weapons systems, and performance envelopes will be, any comments of the realism, or lack thereof, in JSF would be spurious.
However, we can make educated guesses based on simple physics and the handling of similar high-performance fighters. Airframe performance varies with maneuvers, loadout, and altitude. Speed bleeding and some degree of variable fuel consumption are here, though whether they are accurate is up for grabs. The controls, however, feel touchy. Even with a welcome dead zone setting slider in the configuration, control takes some serious time to get used to. World physics also feel flaky, especially during landings.
The dodgy control isn't helped out by a complete and utter failure to properly map important controls to the keyboard or to provide custom keyboard mapping. The instrument system, particularly in virtual cockpit mode, is right out of EF2000 but without the ease of use. In a bid to become the most cumbersome flight interface on the market, Innerloop requires the various MFD modes and submodes to be manipulated with a mouse pointer. The mouse can be engaged at all times so that you don't have to use the carpal-tunnel-inducing Shift-mouse combo, but any hopes of a HOTAS (or even HOKAS) system is shot. Considering that most of us have our stick and mouse on the right side of the keyboard, this Twister-like setup is far from ideal and needs serious work.
Another area that needs work is the campaign system. When you start one of the four campaigns, you are dropped to a map with a set of six or so predesigned missions. Except there are no briefings to tell you the purpose of these missions or the primary targets! If the furthest waypoint is over a truck convoy, you can assume the primary is the convoy. But they don't tell you that, and in many cases several enemy targets are grouped together. Only from the cockpit can you determine primary and secondary targets. Despite this glaring flaw, the mission planner is full-featured and robust, allowing complete control over waypoints, altitude, loadout, and force composition.
The campaign system is semidynamic, with some randomizing factors and force attrition, though there is no real sense of an ongoing battle. Though there is a quick dogfight mode, single missions, training missions, and a mission creator are glaringly absent. Dogfighters have some custom features, but without the ability to practice ground attacks, you wind up learning "on the job." Not ideal. Eight-player dogfighting via IPX, TCP/IP, and MPlayer and two-player on modem and serial are also supported. Team and solo modes are available via custom configurations, but no co-op campaigning.
How the inability to form IR locks slipped through QA is a mystery, but it has mostly been corrected, as has the vertical speed/AOA indicator for the HUD. Wingman AI is pretty sharp overall, and enemy responses are vigorous and prompt. The released version had some horrible bugs that have been partly fixed.
The problems with JSF are not minor, but they are also not prominent enough to keep it from being an often-entertaining game. Many of them will be dismissed by the target audience: midrange simmers interested more in US Navy Fighters-style action than Longbow sophistication. Only the control issue is a major problem, but I've talked to many players who had no problem adapting to this. It all depends upon how you're used to flying and using the instruments. In the final analysis, JSF is mighty fun and points toward a promising future for Innerloop.