Once in a while a game comes along which redefines aerial combat simulators, and gives players a new twist on this decades-old genre. This is one such game, but probably not in the way you would expect.
Flight simulators and air combat games are notoriously difficult to master, and many tire of the difficult learning curve well before they tire of the gameplay itself. That’s not the case with Global Star Software’s Jetfighter 5: Homeland Defender, which focuses on gameplay, more than on details. Hardcore flight sim fanatics will not get their fix with this game, but it’s a good bet that this game will be fun for almost anyone who isn’t a twitch fiend, doesn’t hold a PhD in aerodynamics, and just wants to get up in the air and shoot things down.
This is not to say that it feels like you’re piloting an elephant on the Dumbo ride at Disneyland, and although there are only three aircraft in the game (which all fly somewhat similarly), the flight physics feel quite believable.
Turn too tight while going too fast, and the game’s screen begins to darken, until it’s eventually black... a graphical representation of a blackout caused due to sustained extreme G force (gravitational forces, not the chipset). This is sometimes irritating when you’re trying to lock your reticule in on that pesky enemy MiG who can outmaneuver you, but definitely adds to the realism of the game.
You can slide into the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, an F/A-22 Raptor, or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, all Lockheed-Martin aircraft. I’m surprised this game wasn’t sponsored by Lockheed-Martin as a playable advertisement, because I’d consider dropping the cool $37 million on an F-35 of my own, if I had it to spare. It’s in the game nearly five years before it will be in service though (slated to replace the venerable F-16), so now’s your chance to beat the U.S. and British military to it.
The game consists of over 30 missions putting you into various roles such as reconnaissance, ground vehicle destruction, escort and more, and the plot stringing them together involves a “super-carrier” off the west coast of the U.S., nuclear weapons, and a few interesting twists and turns. Ignoring that it’s not quite believable that a “super-carrier” could make it that close to the U.S. mainland without being noticed and sunk, the plot line still holds enough tie-ins to fears of attacks on American soil to come across as a little jingoistic and flag-waving.
Adding to this, there is multiplayer LAN play available for up to 16 players, internet play has been promised to come in a future patch, and a mission generator allows enough variety in tagging dogfights to provide a few extra hours of fun. The lack of an internet multiplayer game option at its release is a shortcoming, since few people get together in groups to play games on local LANs these days, but at least there’s the promise of it to come.
Most missions have you flying with other aircraft on your wing, but there isn’t any real coordination between you and them, which would have been nice. Radio chatter is limited to scripted scenes when critical game events happen, and this tends to make you feel like a solo warrior, rather than part of a fighting force.
Players will need to remember that combat flight sims are pretty limited in their scope to begin with, since planes generally only do three things in combat... shoot down other planes, blow up things on the ground, or identify things on the ground. Needless to say, this is what you’ll be doing a lot of through these missions.
Also provided are a few guided tutorials to explain the cockpit controls and some basics about the game, which will get most players flying pretty decently inside of twenty minutes.
The terrain in Jetfighter 5 is rendered using 90,000 square miles of satellite-mapped imagery, including green fields, farmlands dissected by roads, winding rivers, and mountainous terrain. This makes the maps look altogether believable, and I rarely noticed edges to the terrain patterns, which is quite an accomplishment considering the scale of the maps. It’s not uncommon to fly over 30 kilometers of continuous map during a mission, and never see the terrain miss a beat.
The city centers of several larger cities in the western half of the United States were replicated for this game, but the small number of building models and the middling graphics used to texture them merely leave these locations somewhat distracting from the rest of the visual feel of the game. For example, while flying over a skyscraper, I could see that the texture used on the roof was the same as the texture used on the sides of the building... which might have been okay, had it not included windows.
Jetfighter 5 is one of the latest games to make use of the multiplatform Renderware engine, by Criterion. This high-performance engine, available for the Xbox, PS2, Gamecube, and PC, has already been the brawn behind games including Starsky and Hutch, World Series Baseball 2K3, all the way to the high-speed Sonic Heroes. Graphics are sharp, fast, and leave little to desire. The ground textures, although somewhat low resolution once you get below a thousand feet, are quite nicely done. In any case, you hardly notice the resolution when screaming over the landscape at 400 knots. Although sparse, there are indeed trees in the landscape, which adds quite a nice touch.
Rendering of clouds, smoke, and contrails are particularly impressive, and even when flying full-speed into the edge of a cloud bank, the game maintains a full framerate. Lens flares are picture-perfect, and up close, the models easily maintain a realistic appearance.
The cockpit graphics are not quite up to par with the rest of the game, but they’re certainly not terrible. The cockpit instrumentation panels suffer a bit from lack of realistic texturing and shadowing, and the radar and weapons consoles look a bit too “clean” in their rendering to be real, but they’re quite good enough to get the job done.
Sound quality is quite good in the game, with the roar of engines, airframe rattle, and the whisper of wind blowing over your canopy at 600 knots as your afterburners flare leaving little room for improvement. The music in the game, while not an orchestral experience of note, is quite appropriate to the theme of the game itself and adds nicely to the game.
With recommended specs being a mere 500Mhz Pentium III processor, 128 MB of memory (64 MB minimum) and a 4MB 3D card (DirectX 9 compatible), Jetfighter 5 won’t be lining the pockets of hardware manufacturers, and that’s quite a benefit. Historically, flight combat simulators have been very heavy-handed in their hardware specs, and it’s nice to see a game developer remember that not everyone has a monster PC on their desktop, without giving up too much on the eye candy.
All in all, this is good, clean, air combat for people without the desire to learn enough to qualify for an actual pilot’s license just to get into the game. If you’ve logged more than an hour or two under the belt of a more advanced flight combat sim, you won’t be writing home about Jetfighter 5. For the multitudes with little or no background in the genre, this is a good, solid primer, which gives a good enough primer to leave you feeling less intimidated by the big boys.