A straight line runs from Chuck Yeager's Air Combat, one of the most revered and influential PC flight sims, to Jane's new survey sim USAF. The Jane's tradition of accessible flight simulations with plenty of planes and options has given us Air Combat, US Navy Fighters, Advanced Tactical Fighters, and Israeli Air Force, with steady improvement and little deviation from the formula. USAF is no exception, but is poised to take the survey sim into new territory.
The appeal of this sort of simulation is because of several factors: It has a lot of planes, numerous gameplay options, and moderate realism levels. Together these three elements create a package that gives the more casual fan a taste of air combat without the burden of too much detail. Hard-core simulation fans often shun such games for these same reasons, because the generic controls and lack of extreme realism or detail seem too far removed from the real-world complexities of in-depth sims like Flanker 2.0 and Falcon.
There's no question that USAF falls in the midrange on the realism scale. With eight flyable planes, you can't expect the refined flight model and sophisticated avionics of a stand-alone simulation. But for this trade-off you get those eight planes, each with unique cockpits and distinct, if not precise, flight models. To simplify things, controls are shared among the eight planes, so that the F-117 uses the same radar functions as the F-16, and so on.
USAF pushes the envelope by taking on several generations of air combat. Planes and missions come from Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the near future, creating a broad canvas of action rarely seen in a flight sim. You can fly in the F-15, F-16, F-22, F-117, F4, MiG 29, F-105, and A-10, plus some variations on these. This diversity serves as a sort of history lesson on the development of jet combat, as you go from the fast gunfights and rudimentary radar of the F-105 and F4 to the hi-tech stealth precision of the F-22. All three eras (past, present, and future) are ably served by full-blown campaigns illustrating the many roles of air combat. The four campaigns include a present-day training situation, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and a hypothetical near-future European conflict. Campaigns are semidynamic, meaning the missions are scripted with some randomization, and resources are tracked throughout the course of the campaign. If you use missiles and lose airframes carelessly, you'll probably find yourself short on funds later in the campaign. It's not the true dynamic battlefield found in the likes of Longbow and Falcon, but the missions are tight and the campaigns are satisfying.
The rest of the play options feature the stunning array of game types that are the trademark of the Jane's line. You can create almost any encounter you want with a quick mission option. Air-to-air and strike missions can be configured to pit any aircraft or group against any other in any situation, altitude, and position of advantage. Want to try a wing of Phantoms against a single Strike Eagle? It will take you about a minute. You can also simply start a random quick mission that will choose all these settings for you. Scripted stand-alone missions take on specific historical encounters and elaborate hypothetical scenarios that cover the entire range of air combat. USAF is playable online via Jane's Combat.net matching service, and will also form the core of the forthcoming Jane's World War: a massively multiplayer persistent-world air-combat arena. It will be your first point of entry to this ambitious project, but the beta and final launch dates of Jane's World War are uncertain as of this time.
Visually, USAF is inconsistent. The detail on the planes and objects is good, and while terrain looks decent from high altitudes, you'll see some real problems with it once you get down low. The landscape textures have visible seams. There's also an odd kind of texture pop-in as the terrain visibly smoothes during flight. Even the trees and bushes look funny: small, blinking, and quite distracting. Frame rates are adequate on a high-powered system, but the terrain problems in Pixel's Israeli Air Force persist in this newer simulation. In high-altitude aircraft this isn't a problem, but with the mud runs of the A-10 and F15, it becomes more of an issue.
Graphical flaws aside, USAF continues a revered tradition of accessible and diverse Jane's flight simulations. There are more missions and planes in this one package than in a dozen other recent sims, and its diverse features and the important place USAF will have in Jane's World War will keep it flying for a long, long time to come.