One of the longest-running online-only massively multiplayer flight sims is iEntertainment Network's Warbirds, which has survived competitors, massively multiplayer RPGs, the death of the flight sim genre, and its own high fees. The latest version, Warbirds III, went into "paid production" near the end of March and is probably the most substantial upgrade since the game first started running in 1995. Although this version adds new features like an expanded strategic level and an entirely new graphics engine, it still has some of the obstacles Warbirds has always had: a prohibitive pricing structure and an even more prohibitive level of difficulty for newcomers. In a way, it's an example of how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
At any given time, Warbirds will have between 30 and 200 people in the main arena, flying a selection of aircraft from World War II and fighting over control of airfields. The goal is to damage enemy airfields with your bombers and then drop paratroopers to take them over for your side, all the while covering the vulnerable bombers and troop transports with fighters. You can pick from dozens of faithfully re-created historical aircraft, ranging from old favorites like British Spitfires and American P-51 Mustangs to more esoteric planes like the Italian C202 or the German Ju-88 medium bomber. The arena uses a "rolling plane set," which means aircraft are available according to a 21-day timeline approximating the progress of the war. On the first day, only the planes from 1940 are available. By the end of the 21 days, they've been phased out for the more advanced planes from the end of the war. Although the battlefields are maps approximating France, Malta, and Tunisia, there are no historical sides--players choose to fly for "green" or "red," each offering the full complement of Allied or Axis planes. You'll find Messerschmitts fighting Messerschmitts, Mustangs fighting Mustangs, and Zeros fighting Zeros.
However, Warbirds also offers some alternatives to the main arena's nonhistorical multinational mixers. There are regularly scheduled scenarios designed to re-create historical situations. These are played in arenas with special rules for scoring, available aircraft, victory conditions, and limited lives. A recent example is the re-creation of the American attacks on Japanese bases on Formosa in the Pacific theater in 1944. This limits the choice of aircraft to what was historically available. The scenario begins at a certain time, and each player gets one life. After an hour, the scores on either side are tallied, and a winner is declared. Scenarios like these are run at least four times a week, and they do a great job of giving Warbirds a historical flavor that falls halfway between role-playing and wargaming.
There are also arenas with relaxed rules for realism, but these are so sparsely populated that you might as well play offline against computer-controlled drones. There's no avoiding that the core of Warbirds is an unflinchingly realistic flight model. If you're trying to get around this level of realism, you're in the wrong sim. This is one factor leading to Warbirds' incredibly steep learning curve, but it's also the easiest factor to address. Doing well involves knowing the particulars of each aircraft, knowing the nuances of air combat maneuvering, and managing the view system (there's no padlock for tracking enemy aircraft, so fiddling with the various view keys is a crucial skill). There are plenty of opportunities to practice these things. In addition to flexible offline training against drones, there are regularly scheduled training sessions with live tutors. During these sessions, an experienced player is always available to talk you through anything you might need help with.
But the most daunting part of the learning curve is the other players. For various reasons, the Warbirds community consists largely of hard-core flight simmers. This is not a game for casual players. It's no exaggeration to say it'll probably take a new player at least a week of nightly play before he gets his first kill. In fact, you shouldn't even bother learning to land, as it's going to be a while before you make it back to base instead of getting shot down.
However, unlike the insular and clannish communities you'll find in first-person shooters and massively multiplayer online RPGs, Warbirds players are warm and open. You won't hear new players being called lamers, losers, newbies, or worse. In fact, there's virtually no taunting in Warbirds. It's as if these guys all remember what it was like when they started out, and they want to encourage new players to stick with it. It can be helpful to ride with experienced players as an observer or just jump into the gunnery station on a bomber, watching how the action unfolds. There are squadrons open to new players so you can fly with a group rather than repeatedly getting shot down solo. As an online community, Warbirds is one of the most welcoming and friendly you'll find.
The greatest obstacle to Warbirds III is the pricing structure. Part of the reason the community consists of dedicated players is because there are cheaper online flight sims out there that do a better job of attracting new and casual players. At $25 a month, Warbirds III is probably the most expensive online game available. There are cheaper plans that offer a limited number of hours, but Warbirds doesn't lend itself to watching the clock. It can take a long time to get your plane where you want it to be. It's difficult to imagine anyone squandering his limited hours climbing to 10,000 feet or waiting at a marshaling point for other aircraft to arrive. Warbirds demands the sort of patience you can't afford if you've got only five hours a month.
Although the new graphics engine in Warbirds III is obviously built for networking (Warbirds is friendly even to dial-up connections), the game looks clean and detailed. The terrain is sharply drawn with enough varying elevations to make low-flying dogfights interesting. Although the aircraft models are simple, they're detailed enough to look good during those rare moments you see them at close ranges. Most enemy aircraft appear as dots with text labels until you get them in your sights. Once engaged, the graphics engine does a fine job of giving you a gratifying gunfire effect with tracers, smoke trails, and parts falling off of damaged aircraft. The working cockpits look especially nice and effectively provide information and also give a splash of personality to each aircraft. On the whole, there's just enough dazzle in this new engine to keep it from comparing unfavorably to flashier sims like IL-2 Sturmovik.
The strategic level of Warbirds III isn't complete yet, but in addition to airfields of varying size, there are towns, villages, and outposts for each side to fight over. These new sites can spawn ground vehicles, which are also new to Warbirds III. These have always been a feature of Air Warriors, one of Warbirds' earlier competitors, and they're a staple of World War II Online. In Warbirds, you can drive troop carriers to capture sites, you can man mobile AA guns to fend off enemy aircraft, and you can drive tanks to destroy enemy ground vehicles. Jumping into an AA gun around a contested airfield is a nice way for some instant action, but otherwise the scale of the game isn't very friendly to ground vehicles. Why drive the distance to attack an enemy base when you can fly there in one-tenth the time? Hopefully as the strategic game is refined, there will be more of a place for ground vehicles. As it is now, they're a strange sideshow.
There's no denying that Warbirds is at once the most difficult, expensive, and ultimately gratifying online flight sim currently available. If you're looking for an action-oriented sim, or if you're just looking to dabble, this isn't the place for you. But if you're looking for a seriously complex flight sim with a dedicated and friendly online community, there's no place like Warbirds III.