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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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Ups: As detailed as you wanna be, great graphics, intensive training lessons. Hardcore simmer's dream.
Downs: May be too much for casual gamer, very heavy hardware reqs.; worst of all, the campaign is just unplayable.
System Reqs:
Pentium II 266 Mhz,
64MB RAM, 3-D Graphics Accelerator (Direct 3D or Glide), 8x CD-ROM, 400MB free hard drive space, Joystick w/Throttle.

falcona.jpg (7776 bytes)It’s somehow fitting that I found myself reviewing Microprose’s flight sim magnum opus, Falcon 4.0, during the same week that saw the release of Terence Malik’s film The Thin Red Line. They’ve got a lot in common; both are ambitious, beautiful, lush and detailed. Unfortunately, after viewing one and playing the other, you can’t escape the feeling that both of them are not quite finished, and could have used a couple more months of polishing.

But first let me say that Falcon 4.0 is in many ways a hardcore simmer’s dream; from the spot-on interactive 2D cockpit to the astonishingly accurate radar modes to the game’s detailed flight model, this is the most precise and realistic flight sim ever. If you want to know what it’s like to fly an F-16, this is as close as you can come without enlisting.

falconb.jpg (13137 bytes)And it’ll take a while to get comfortable with this bird; it ain’t no ME-109, and learning how to fly the plane and control its various subsystems will take a significant investment of time. This and the game’s extraordinary complexity may well turn casual gamers off; if you’re just into jumping into the cockpit and blasting away, I’d advise you to avoid Falcon 4.0. For those willing to invest the time, however, the payoff is well worth it—the game models everything realistically--from flight to navigation to communications to the plane’s dizzying array of weapons systems. Fortunately, the game’s weighty manual (almost 600 pages) includes a thorough 31-lesson tutorial that does a fine job of introducing the player to the plane’s capabilities and limitations. Hands down, Falcon 4.0 has the best, most detailed flight sim manual I’ve ever seen. Of all computer game genres, flight sims tend to be the most mandarin and uninviting to neophytes—very often, their manuals assume a great amount of knowledge that newbies just don’t have. Falcon 4.0’s manual gets it just right; with surprisingly few lapses, it’s neither too arcane for beginners nor too patronizing for hardcore types. The game also has nicely scalable realism settings, so you can gradually work your way up to the full realism this game was meant to be played at. I actually enjoyed playing through the training missions—they’re pretty open-ended, and you can spend a lot of time practicing maneuvers and learning radar capabilities. Also included is a terrific ACMI feature, which allows you to play back your missions in detail.

falconc.jpg (5247 bytes)Of course, one of the reasons it’s so easy to spend training time in the cockpit is because the game is just gorgeous. Falcon 4.0’s cockpit and terrain rendering are second to none, and even with some pixellating at low altitudes, the game’s graphics combine with its rigorous detail to create a very realistic feel. At its best, when you’re looking over a battlefield filled with burning tanks and buildings while navigating a sky filled with rocket trails and desperately maneuvering planes, Falcon 4.0 more than exceeds the expectations that even a game delayed as long as this one generates. It’s simply sublime.

falcond.jpg (11176 bytes)Unfortunately, the game’s potential magnificence is undermined by a host of faults that just can’t be overlooked. Since Microprose has committed itself to fixing these shortcomings, there’s hope yet that this game might achieve the renown of its predecessor, Falcon 3.0 (which was also initially plagued with problems). But right now, the game is hamstrung by glitches that render what should be the sim’s centerpiece—the dynamic campaigns set in Korea—virtually unplayable. In fact, Falcon 4.0 can almost be seen as two games—a flight trainer that works exceptionally well, and a flight campaign game that is fatally flawed.

falcone.jpg (12279 bytes)First among these flaws is the toll the game’s graphics engine and dynamic campaign’s recordkeeping takes upon your CPU. I run a P2 300 with 128 megs of RAM and a Voodoo 2 card—nothing spectacular, but a pretty sturdy system nonetheless. During the campaign I ran into a lot of chop. And I messed with the graphics settings, I turned off all background programs, I defragged my harddrive—all with pretty limited success. Don’t get me wrong, the game was still playable, but I had to compromise graphics more than I wanted to get smooth rates; and I can’t imagine this game running silky-smooth on anything less than a hog of a computer.

More distressing is the campaign game’s unfinished code; though you’re offered three dynamic campaigns wrapped in a wealth of detail, all this goodness is unfortunately swamped by a sea of bugs. Problems include clueless wingman and enemy AI, odd mid-flight amendments to one’s mission by AWACS controllers, mission reports that don’t jibe with mission results, and curious flight model and graphics glitches. These problems add up, and the only conclusion you can come to is that the game was released before it was ready.

falconf.jpg (6635 bytes)This is a shame, because as it stands this is a great trainer sim, and has the potential to be the definitive modern combat flight sim. But it’s not right now. The bottom line is that if you’re the sort who is intolerant of bugs and has a low threshold for frustration, you’d best steer clear of this game until it’s fixed. It’s also not for the casual gamer; learning to play this game requires the kind of commitment one usually reserves for stuff like marriages. Nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to unconditionally damn Falcon 4.0. When and if it gets fixed, it’ll be a beauty. So for right now, I’m going to give it an "incomplete," with a reminder to Microprose that at my university incompletes revert to F’s after six months.

--Rick Fehrenbacher