Jane's Combat Simulations: USNF'97 - U.S. Navy Fighters
Windows - 1996
Description of Jane's Combat Simulations: USNF'97 - U.S. Navy Fighters
About a year and a half ago, Electronic Arts released U.S. Navy Fighters, a flashy addition to the flight sim genre whose biggest initial claim to fame was its envelope-pushing graphics engine. It stressed even the highest-end computers of its day, and was indeed a beautiful thing to behold in a simulation world jaded by the dated, dull graphics of older games like Falcon 3.0. It wasn't, however, a hard-edged sim...it quite clearly chose to dance on the "entertainment first" side of the flight sim fence, and recieved a lukewarm reaction with purists. Electronic Arts read its market well, however, because the market as a whole loved it. It and its expansion CD, U.S. Marine Fighters, were both sales successes, as was the followup USNF Gold, which combined the two in a single package for those that had not bought the prior releases. Well, the game engine had not yet seen retirement. Several months later, Electronic Arts released Advanced Tactical Fighters, under its new Janes Simulations label. Buyers were somewhat surprised to find that the underlying engine in this "new" simulation was none other than the familiar USNF one, with simply different graphics for the most part. Well, those who thought that they had seen the last of this venerable game engine are being forced to think again, as Electronic Arts throws yet another chip onto the USNF pile with the release of USNF '97. Yes, in a grimace-inducing embrace of the current year-as-version fad that Windows 95 started, EA is releasing its latest USNF product. What does it bring to the table? Well, the first thing one will notice is that this latest offering is Windows-95-only, so DOS users will find themselves out in the cold. It adds one more campaign (Vietnam) to those already seen in the USNF products. There are also minor feature additions to gameplay, like a "best textures" option that will improve the graphics further at the cost of performance. What USNF '97 is, in essence, is "USNF Gold for Windows 95", with an extra campaign and some Janes reference material. Does that make it a good purchase? Maybe, depending on none other than yourself, dear reader. Read on.
Installation / Documentation
The installation is a relative breeze, asking only for a destination directory and needing about 40MB of hard drive space. There are no options for different installation sizes and the game cannot be played without the CD. DirectX forms part of the installation, but thankfully, the game not only asks the user before installing it, but will also detect if it is already installed and what version it is, and advise the user accordingly. Uninstallation is effected as with any other Windows 95 application; through Add/Remove Programs in the Control Panel.
One prime concern and complaint among flight sim fans these days is the lack of adequate documentation. Well, in USNF '97 's case, that is one worry that is, pleasantly, completely unfounded. In fact, one may wonder if the game's documentation isn't so good and complete that it doesn't qualify as the other extreme! The manual included with the game is excellent, covering gameplay and flight theory in equally comprehensive fashion, and it comes in a handsome spiral binding to boot, allowing for easy hands-off reference while laying the manual flat. And finally, that isn't all. The game also comes with a nice, complete reference card and a wonderful amount of bonus Janes reference information on the CD. This is just a wonderful example that sim fans can only hope the rest of the industry takes to heart. A true hats-off to Janes and EA for taking documentation as seriously as sim fans do, and for really delivering beyond the call of duty.
The graphics are, as with the original, impressive. There are numerous graphic options which, if turned completely on, will tax even a top-end P200 system in getting a smooth frame rate. There are multiple resolutions available, up to 1024x768, but as with the original, it is something of a diminishing return in that there are tradeoffs in every resolution but 640x480. With the higher ones, game windows just end up getting smaller as the resolution goes up, and cockpits are unavailable. On the lowest resolution of 320x200, not only is the player subjected to an ugly, cluttered display, but the windows are just too big, getting in the way of the already-limited viewing area. As a result, those playing on limited hardware and counting on using the low res to play will not be happy with the game, in my opinion, and I will make so bold a presumption as to say that the 320x200 resolution, as such, should have been removed from the game altogether. One thing that I did find truly perplexing was the addition of a large windows option, allowing one to choose large or small windows. One would think that this would address the problem in 320x200 perfectly, allowing the user to use large windows for high resolutions and "small" ones for lo-res, reducing the clutter and making lo-res acceptable. However, the option is simply unavailable in 320x200, and what's worse, the windows are large by default in that resolution! If someone can explain what the developers were thinking (or drinking) when they brainstormed this gem of a non-feature, and why in heaven it would be included in the game to begin with in its current inception, please let me know. In any case, as a result (and as with the original USNF), there are always disadvantages of some kind in playing at resolutions other than 640x480 - small windows and no cockpits at 800x600 and 1024x768, and a rather hideous display with limited viewing area in 320x200. 1024x768 could admittedly, given very high-end hardware including a large (17" or greater) monitor, be enjoyable, but not so much over 640x480 that it would be a real consideration of any kind for buyers.
That said, the graphics are beautiful, but again as with other flight sims it comes down to the individual user to decide whether or not texture-heavy games like USNF (and their usual use of bitmaps) are preferred over the less-flashy but more "physically realistic" graphics of polygon-based games. For example, in ejecting, you can see a pilot sinking down to Earth in a parachute, but if you move the view angle in any way, you will notice that the otherwise detailed pilot graphic is 2-dimensional and completely flat. The same applies to several other graphics in the game. It's a small beef, but one that convinces me that I am more for a polygon-based, detailed world as opposed to the flash of bitmaps. I love the feeling that I get in games like Hind, where I know that the game world is more detailed than first meets the eye, and that any surprises I encounter in exploring the game engine are likely to be pleasant ones. With games like USNF, the joy is in the initial exposure, and surprises after that tend to be of the disappointing variety. It is an individual choice, though, and an individual beef. It shouldn't really hamper game playability.
The game uses DirectX 3 (or higher), so as is becoming the case with a majority of games lately, players need to be using drivers that are DirectX-compliant. It's becoming less and less of an issue every day, as Win95-only, DirectX-using games take over the mainstream, but it is something to consider nonetheless for those using non-standard drivers that may have problems with DirectX.
The videos found on the reference portion of the CD played smoothly and with good clarity, full screen, on the test hardware. They really are a nice bonus and flesh out the CD's contents with solid material of interest to aviation aficionados. This is a nice little extra in a game industry that perhaps does not take little extras seriously enough (does anyone else remember Infocom?).
USNF '97 is a game with rhythm. Throughout missions, the armchair pilot is treated (or subjected, depending on one's point of view) to catchy pop/rock beats while soaring through the skies on his or her errand of death. I personally found the music quite good, giving the game a Hollywood-like feel, and although this would probably be anathema to purist sim lovers, it does play perfectly into the game's intended role and target market of being a purely "for fun" sim. I personally, although something of a purist at heart, do love to have music while I play any game, sim or not, and so its appeal was not lost on this otherwise jaded pilot. Sound effects are also quite good, and the interspersed speech found through missions is also nice enough, if generic. (Don't ask me how much I enjoyed attacking allies just to hear the anguished "What the HELL are you doing?!". You don't want to know.) And finally, as with the visuals, the audio in the CD's reference video clips is good, with clear and professional narration throughout. For the most part. Heaven knows a glaring exception would be the opening video sequence for the Ukraine campaign, one of the cheesiest pieces of multimedia I've ever seen on a product of USNF '97 's caliber. The heavy aspirations to American patriotism in the videos can also be a bid hard to stomach sometimes, but your eyes will probably, at least, get a good "rolling" workout, and so it isn't a total loss.
One of the first things one must note and keep in mind about USNF '97 is that it is a game foremost, a simulation second. There are many planes available to be flown by the player (at least 13 by my count), and when one considers that most great flight simulations concentrate on just one, it's easy to understand that there have to be compromises made in the realism attained. In USNF, that is a fact easily realized by the player. The generic feel to the flight models, the lack of true cockpit insturmentation, and the overall arcade-like feel to the game all contribute to confirming it. That isn't a bad thing...in all sims, there are compromises, and extreme realism demands a strong learning curve from the player and effort and time spent on details. Sims like USNF '97 instead concentrate on the entertainment aspect, and for its fans, there is no better compromise. It really is a question of personal preference, and one that most will have no problem deciding on. You just have to be aware of each sim's strengths and weaknesses, and what you yourself are looking for.
The game's interface is nicely laid out and clean. Radar windows and the like can't be moved, which in the Windows context and that of the game's game-like bent is a wee bit disappointing, but not crucial. An inflight-menu of items is accessible with a touch of the ESC key, allowing for nice and easy in-flight changes to configuration. Game resolution, though, can't be changed on the fly, as can be expected, only before missions in the main menu.
Now, to the flight models. Ah...this can be a touchy subject, both in general with flight sim purists (myself included, admittedly) as well as in direct context of this game. The truth is, even the use of the plural is incorrect; there are no real flight models to speak of, just one basic one with slightly modified variables for each plane's case. In and of itself, it isn't that bad of one, but only a delusionary would claim that it does the job of adequately modelling each plane available to the player. That being said, devotees of sims like SU-27 Flanker, which aspires to such accuracy and realism that even moderate mastery of the sim (and its one plane) requires a fair bit of education and effort on the part of the player, would do best to pass USNF '97 over. Its reason for being is simply not the same. USNF is about "fun" foremost (and I cringe in using that word because fun itself is subjective and purists are likely up in arms over it as they read it), and complete realism quite a distant second. It is obviously geared to the flight-sim novice or casual sim player, and the flight modelling reflects that. That said, again, the modelling is good enough for what it was intended; planes can stall and spin, bleed energy properly, and generally behave as they should, in a general fashion. Just don't expect to really learn about an F-22's flight characteristics after trying one out in this game, and you'll be fine.
Instrumentation is another potential sore spot in this game for purists, because there is no real instrumentation to speak of. Each plane gets what is basically the same HUD (Head-Up Display), and there is no cockpit otherwise visible to the pilot. All other "instrumentation" available shows up in pop-up windows that can be opened and closed at the whim of the player, and basically just includes view, status and radar windows. The use of the instrumentation (such as radar) is pretty simplified as well. Again, adequate and nice for the game-first premise of USNF, but lacking for those who seek realistic cockpits and instrumentation.
The game's equivalent of padlock view is still quite annoying and unwieldy. It will only padlock enemies on radar and requires using the keyboard to initiate (see Miscellaneous Comments).
The game's mission planning comes in two "flavors": a quick mission creator and a full-blown planner. The former is used to set up very quick engagements, the latter to plan in detail. The full-blown planner is simple to use and intuitive, and surprisingly complete. USNF '97 has quite good mission planning capabilities.
USNF '97 combines the original USNF product and the U.S. Marine Fighters expansion with a new campaign in Vietnam. As such, the game has a huge potential for lots of play time, for the avid player. There are tons of missions when one combines the single missions in the game (65 of them) along with the campaigns, as well as the mission builders that allow for either quick or detailed custom missions, as the player wishes. Those who never played USNF before will be enjoy an enormous value in buying this game, provided it suits their tastes. The campaigns themselves are not dynamic at all, being simply a bunch of single missions strung together in fitting a given storyline. Essentially, the goal on the part of the player is survival of the campaign, with fewer than five mission failures. The campaign storylines don't change in any way from player action or inaction (although the storylines and mission scenarios themselves are acceptably creative and enjoyable) - the campaign simply ends for the player when he/she fails five missions, dies, or is captured. The campaigns are always salvageable, though - at the end of every mission, even if they failed, players are given the choice of accepting that mission's performance or doing it over.
Among the game's single missions, players will find several tutorial missions that get novice players up to speed gradually, focusing on specific aspects of gameplay and plane handling. These missions, coupled with the manual's extensive instructional information, make for great, effective learning tools for the new player. USNF '97 has, gratifyingly, not ignored this important aspect of flight simulation.
The game's multiplayer capability is nice enough, if nothing ground-breaking. The game in its purchased form supports up to 8 players on an IPX/SPX network, or 2 via serial connection (modem or null-modem cable). The host of the game chooses game parameters, which can include team play. A patch to version 1.1 is now available (see link at top of review), which adds TCP/IP capability as well.
Now to answer one of the most important questions some may have: is USNF '97 a worthwhile buy for USNF owners? Well, that depends. Prior owners get a $15 rebate off USNF '97 (with the return of the old CD to EA), which will bring the street price down to about $25-$30 or so. In return, you get a Win95-only package, one extra campaign and a few relatively minor tweaks like better textures (requiring more computer horsepower). I would say that if, though the releases of USNF, USMF, and ATF (not to mention USNF Gold!), you're not entirely sick of the same basic game engine, and have a relatively high-end computer, then USNF '97 would indeed be worth it. I would imagine that would apply to relatively few that bought 2 or 3 of those products, but again, this game would not be a loss to those who do want more of the same.
This game is Windows-95 only. USNF was DOS. This game's minimum CPU is a P-90. USNF's was a 486/66. They use the same basic engine. Me say no more.
The game's default joystick configurations is really rather lacking. A standard Thrustmaster FCS configuration, for example, doesn't include padlock view, and the selected functions for the buttons are questionable (one devoted simply to the gun?!).
One annoying thing about resolution changes involves, I believe, Windows 95 itself since I have seen the phenomenon with other Windows 95 products as well. Essentially, when a resolution is used that is smaller than your default Windows resolution, you can come back to your desktop to find icons that used to be near the right and bottom edges of the desktop, displaced toward the center of the screen and causing a small mess of icons that requires you to replace each one individually. There was also the occasional palette problem, where Windows' default colors screwed up once the game was exited, but problems like this, I would imagine, may probably be unique to given video cards and drivers. There was nothing really serious encountered, bug-wise, in the game.
Bottom line : is USNF '97 worth the purchase? Well, the primary considerations are whether or not you place realism high on your list of priorities (in which case I'd ixnay the game), and if you were a prior owner of USNF-based products (in which case I'd say go back a few paragraphs). Overall, however, this game is a reasonable buy in general and an excellent buy for those who want a good, entertaining flight game or a "lighter" sim with good educational qualities before moving on to something more hard-edged. Don't forget the beefy hardware required. USNF '97, with caveats to purists and USNF veterans, gets a thumbs-up.
Review By GamesDomain
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