Jane's Combat Simulations: Longbow - Gold
Windows - 1997
Description of Jane's Combat Simulations: Longbow - Gold
I find myself confused (not for the first time the unkind might say). I have been playing a sim which contains nearly all of the elements I find distasteful in a piece of software, texture mapped graphics, linear campaigns, and the output of an entire year of film school graduates in the way of multimedia add-ons. This work is so bloated, it comes on no less than 3 CDs, hardly exceptional were we talking about a state of the art adventure but unusual for a flight sim. I should hate, or at least be indifferent to the charms of this work of art but instead I find myself thinking that it is one of the best sims I have ever played, worthy of the highest accolades the Games Domain Review can throw at it. The name of this conundrum? Longbow Gold from Janes
Ok, I know. For someone whose finger is supposed to be firmly affixed to the pulse of the latest trends in the simulation scene, it's taken me a woefully long time to succumb to Longbow 's charms. The original AH64 Longbow has been out for a year or so now and even the Flashpoint Korea add on pack and Longbow Gold itself (Longbow Gold is an amalgamation of the previous two releases) have been out for several months. Why did it take so long for me to fall for Longbow 's charms?
Well, there's a couple of reasons. When Longbow first appeared, I was still gaming on a DX2/66 and that PC could no more have run Longbow smoothly than it could have tap-danced across my desk. By the time I had more powerful hardware at my command, newer sims were claiming my attention and Longbow slipped through the cracks. It was one of those programs I always meant to get in to but never quite got round to. My loss.
The Games Domain Review already has a review of the original AH64 Longbow up so this review should really only go into the improvements introduced by the Flashpoint Korea add-on. The problem with this plan is that as mentioned above, I have never played the original release of Longbow and so any comparisons of this sort must be based on second hand information.
One feature Longbow Gold includes which was absent from both the original release of the sim and the Flashpoint Korea add-on is a Windows95 native executable. As mentioned in a previous Simmer's Penance editorial, this was a slightly strange feature to expend time and effort on because the original DOS executable ran quite happily in a Windows95 DOS box and the only difference between the DOS and the Windows95 version is that the latter runs more slowly. I suspect the fetid touch of the marketing department in this decision. I tried both versions but found that the Windows95 version was just a wee bit too jerky for me, even on my mighty P200. Add to this problems with sounds and video being prematurely cut off and the fact that the Windows95 version doesn't allow any of the features which can make it worth gritting the teeth and using Windows95 such as task switching and all in all the Windows95 version is a bit of a non-event. There is a patch available which supposedly cures some of these ills but I stuck to the DOS version.
Longbow is quite clever when it comes to usage of disk space. Instead of filling up the hard disk with all five areas of the world modelled (Korea, Panama, Kuwait, the Polish/Ukrainian border and the training ground in the US), only one area is kept decompressed on the hard disk at any time. When the player wishes to move to a new area, that area is decompressed from CD over the previous one. On my machine, this process only takes a few seconds and seems a reasonable compromise. This scheme means that Longbow takes up less than 100M on the hard disk, a mere nothing these days.
Longbow almost restores my faith in the manual writers art. I had expected that the Longbow Gold package would include the original Longbow manual and the manual included with Flashpoint Korea but in fact what you get is a new manual seamlessly combining the previous two tomes. This shows an attitude to documentation which many other publishers would do well to emulate. The manual is ring bound, another plus point, and weighs in at a hefty 300 pages though this is slightly misleading since the last third of the manual is filled with the kind of detailed specifications on vehicles and weapons for which Janes are renowned. The remainder of the manual more than adequately explains the fundamentals of flying the AH64 and using its systems, no mean task since some of those systems are very complicated.
The only other item of paper documentation included in the package is an install and quick reference guide. I have one of my few quibbles with Longbow Gold over this. The guide includes a keyboard map showing what each key on the keyboard does. Since Longbow is a complicated package, nearly every key performs at least two and sometimes three functions calling for some heavy use of the shift, control and alt keys. The keyboard map attempts to indicate which combination does what by showing the commands in different shades of grey but unfortunately the reproduction of the map isn't good enough for my tired old eyes to differentiate between the shades. I believe the original Longbow came with a full colour keyboard map (I believe this because it was one of the few items of documentation X:treme Velocity came with) and it's a real pity that such an overlay was not included with Longbow Gold It's a decision that's not worthy of the rest of the package.
So what's new then?
The most obvious addition Flashpoint Korea brings to the Longbow package is the ability to move to the gunner's cockpit of the AH64. The player still has full access to the Longbow's flight controls while sitting in the gunners seat but in addition has access to a couple of views not available to the pilot, mostly associated with the TADS system. I've found that I don't actually make much use of the gunners position preferring to fly from the pilot's position most of the time. Apart from anything else, the gunner's cockpit has a heavy frame going across it at eye level which makes seeing where you're going slightly tricking. One big advantage of the gunner's cockpit is that it gives instant access to another two MFDs allowing you to display four out of the eight MFD pages at any time between the two cockpits. Another is that it allows you to access a full screen view of the radar or TADS MFD, useful for discriminating between targets in a target rich environment.
Various other enhancements have been included. There are now two types of FLIR modes, black hot which shows vehicles and the like as black objects on a white background and white hot which does the reverse. There are also more wingman commands available than in the original release.
While on the subject of your wingman, he really is a most obliging chap. Ask him to pop up to 200ft in the middle of the heaviest concentration of AAA in Eastern Europe and then switch on his radar alerting every bad guy for miles around and he'll happily do it without the slightest complaint. Since any targets his radar detects are automatically downloaded to your own targeting systems, you can be carrying out an attack on the most troublesome SAM sites from behind a convenient hill before your buddy's smoking wreckage has even hit the ground. Great stuff.
The other major addition which comes with Flash Point Korea is unsurprisingly a campaign set in Korea. This is well up the the standards of the Ukrainian campaign which came with the original release.
Why is it so good then?
Since I started looking at Longbow Gold I have been regularly castigating myself for not getting a hold of this package a long time ago. I haven't felt this way about a sim since ooh Tornado first made itself known to me. Just what makes it so good?
I think the main reason is that for once we have a sim that gets everything right or very nearly so. From the major items such as the flight model, the modelling of systems and the graphics to the minor items like the menu screens, the online help and even (God help me) the music, Andy Hollis and his team have hit the nail on the head. It's a complete package.
Special mention must be made of the tutorial missions which are superb. Spoken by someone who sounds like he is sight translating a Longbow technical manual written in an early version of Sanskrit into English, these introduce you to the business of using the Longbow in a painless interactive manner. Longbow Gold comes with two tutorials not included in the original release, a guide to the gunner's cockpit and a free flight tutorial which allows the rookie pilot to practice auto-rotation (or as your instructor would have it au-toe-row-tae-shun) amongst other things.
I also need to talk about the graphics. As regular readers (should such exotic creatures exist) will know, I am no fan of the textured mapped school of graphics for flight sims feeling that though they may look ok at some altitude, down low they look like a dogs dinner. It would therefore seem that a helicopter sim where the player will spend most of their time at 100ft or lower is the last sort of sim that should use textures but in fact I think this restriction may actually have helped Longbow. By being able to concentrate on how the graphics should look low down, the textures have for once been made to look good close up. The pay off for this is that a lot of textures need moved quickly when in motion which means that Longbow needs a powerful machine to be seen at its best.
It's well worth spending the money to pick up that ninja PC though. Longbow succeeds as few other sims have in presenting terrain which really looks different depending on which part of the world you are meant to be in. The jungles of Panama or the mountains of Korea look very different to the flat Ukrainian plains. Ground detail is somewhat sparse, there are no trees or other foliage and it sometimes seems like the only features you spot on the ground are those you should be shooting up. The overall effect is good though.
While you're in that spending mood, make a little extra room on that credit card to pick up a some hardware. You see Longbow makes extensive use of the mouse to interact with the various MFDs. Fine, that's always something I like to see in a sim. The problem is that flying your Longbow with any degree of skill or success almost demands the use of some kind of throttle control. I come from Aberdeen, a place with one of the highest background radiation counts in the world due to the large amount of granite from which it is built. Even with this evolutionary jump start, I have been unable as yet to grow a third arm from the centre of my chest meaning that in the heat of combat when I am holding my joystick in one clammy hand and my throttle in the other, I have no limbs left with which to use the mouse to select targets, define priority fire zones and all those other essential tasks the busy Longbow pilot needs to perform. Early experiments using my nose to move the mouse have proved unsatisfactory (and messy). What would really be useful is one of those throttles which incorporates a mouse control into the throttle handle. I can always dream..
So it's perfect then?
Yes Virginia, and Bill Gates is a nice man, concerned only with the future of computing. The Windows95 version of Longbow Gold as mentioned above is heir to a variety of ills ranging from choppy FMV and cut off sounds to a definite sluggishness and the occasional crash (of the PC that is not the Longbow. There's a lot of Longbow crashes) . The technical supplement supplied with Longbow gives some hints that this might be the case. Game running slow? Use the DOS version. Choppy sound effects? Use the DOS version. Computer bursts into flames every time you boot up Longbow? Use the DOS version. You get the idea.
Your copilot-gunner is a slimy piece of work as well. "They might just give you a medal for this mission sir" he smarms after a desperate piece of work where you have bounced from disaster to disaster missing death by inches and generally fouling up big time. Oh for a pilot operated ejector seat and let the rotors take their chances.
A tragic omission is that of a dynamic campaign engine. Both campaigns are scripted trees and though this may be fine the first couple of times you play through them, the novelty will wear off eventually. There is a vast quantity of single missions included with the game and a random mission generator for when those have been exhausted so the player is not likely to find themselves getting bored anytime soon but dynamic campaigns would have been the icing on the cake.
Well, I better stop or my reputation as a hard hearted reviewer is going to be in tatters. One of the problems of seeing as many flight sims as I do (if you have tears prepare to shed them now) is that you can become a trifle jaded. One sim blends into another, seperated only by a unusual subject or a novel graphics engine. It takes a lot these days for a sim to grab my attention and make me go "WOW!". Longbow Gold has done exactly that and as a consequence has vaulted straight into my top three sims of all time (since you ask the other two are Tornado and SU 27 Flanker with Hind in fourth place and Warbirds coming up strongly from the back of the pack). It gets just about everything right and does it with style. The only rival that comes anywhere close is Hind from Digital Integration which scores on the challange of flying the Hind and the sheer variety of mission types provided.
If by any chance you have not yet come across Longbow in the course of your simulated flying career, make its acquaintance as soon as possible. Then you can join me in slavering at the prospect of Longbow 2 due out later this year which features dynamic campaigns, better graphics, more helicopters, network play and more besides. I can't wait.
Review By GamesDomain
Captures and Snapshots
Comments and reviews
AIM-9X 2020-11-08 1 point
(continued from my 04/03 comment) If you have an older machine, (Pentium II/III preferred), stick with AGP or PCI video cards with 8 MB of video RAM, such as the NVidia Riva 128, ATI Rage Pro, 3Dfx Voodoo/Rush, or other chipsets of the time. I have verified that a 4 MB ATI Rage works great, and results in no crashes during the campaign missions. Otherwise, stick with the MS-DOS version. As always, I always recommend trying to find the original CD-ROM collection with the spiral-bound manual and key reference card. This simulation is an absolute labor of love, even almost 23 years after its introduction. Absolutely recommended.
AIM-9X 2020-04-04 0 point
(continued from previous comment) 8 MB of VRAM or less, such as the NVidia Riva 128, ATI Rage 128/Pro, 3Dfx Voodoo 1, etc. Good hunting, out.
AIM-9X 2020-04-03 0 point
Jane's AH-64D Longbow Gold set a whole new standard for military flight simulations at the time. The tutorials (which are still the best I have seen in a flight simulator), huge spiral-bound manual, fantastic videos, limitless reference material, and the incredible detail of the flight model/systems blew everything else out of the water. The campaign missions and accompanying videos made you feel like you were actually part of a large geopolitical conflict. Reading through the mission briefs, reviewing intelligence reports, mission maps, threat data, etc. allowed you to see not only the tactical level of warfare, but the operational/planning and strategic levels of warfare as well. It was easy to see how each mission's tactical objectives were tied to regional operational objectives, and how those objectives fit nicely into an overarching general/flag officer-level (geographic combatant command) strategic picture. As for the learning curve, while it is somewhat steep, the tutorial missions make learning the AH-64D a piece of cake, and the icing on that cake is that you can always review the material, experiment with new tactics/knowledge in the "free flight" area, and then apply them in the campaign missions. Hardware/specs wise, this was released right at the advent of 3D acceleration and runs in either MS-DOS or Windows 9x. Even a "beefy Pentium 200" at the time had a hard time at 640x480 resolution. To run Longbow Gold on a modern machine, your best bet is DOSBox. Install Longbow Gold via DOSBox from the first CD image, then, in your local DOSBox configuration file, you want to add "mount" lines for all three CD-ROM images as separate, lettered drives, (assuming you have all three discs), and then use a 4-axis joystick (allows for cyclic, collective, and tail rotor/yaw control). If running natively (i.e., on real hardware) within Windows 9x, the MS-DOS executable is still king. Setting up CONFIG.SYS isn't too bad..you need to set FILES=45 and BUFFERS=45, load HIMEM.SYS and EMM386.EXE with the "NOEMS" switch. On real hardware in Win9x, the DirectDraw version will give you serious trouble for video cards with 16 MB or more of graphics memory. You will experience frequent, random crashes in the campaign missions with a 16 MB (or more) video card. If you have an older machine (Pentium II/III perferred), stick with AGP or PCI video cards with
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