Microsoft's Flight Simulator series is one of the most successful and longest running computer game series in history, stretching from back in the early 1980s all the way up to the recent Flight Simulator 2000.
But until recently Flight Simulator was strictly for pacifists, with only the occasional appearance of a First World War Sopwith Camel biplane giving the more war-like amongst us any reason to get excited. After all, there is only so much fun you can have flying a Boeing 747, and most of it involves pulling barrel rolls while your passengers struggle to hold down their single portion dinners...
Eventually Microsoft saw the error of their ways and introduced Combat Flight Simulator, a World War II flight sim set in ravaged Europe, and this October should see the inevitable sequel taking to the skies, this time over the Pacific Ocean.
Set between 1942 and 1944, Combat Flight Simulator 2 covers many of the most important conflicts in the Pacific war between America and Japan, including famous battles such as Midway and Guadalcanal, although sadly you won't get the chance to catch Uncle Sam with his pants down at Pearl Harbour. The game does feature a mixture of full campaigns and stand-alone missions for both the Americans and Japanese though, as well as an excellent quick combat option for those of you who just want to get out there and shoot something.
The campaigns are really the heart of the game though, and are much better formed than in the first Combat Flight Sim. Thanks to a branching mission structure your performance actually has an effect on how the game plays out now, although whatever you do the Japanese will still lose the war. You also find yourself in command of a squadron of named pilots who you will have to nurture through the campaign, choosing which to promote, and making sure that they don't all get killed, as their replacements could prove to be a group of total rookies fresh from high school.
A series of comic book style cutscenes tell the story of the war as you fight your way through it, introducing key battles and turning points in the war, and giving the whole game a rather more human face. This style also spills over into the interface, with each side having its own illustrations for the various menu screens.
As with the civilian Flight Simulators, much of the attraction for hardcore armchair pilots will be the sheer attention to detail of the game - amongst the developers was a full-time research whose job it was to dig up as much information about the planes, pilots and battles as possible.
Veterans of the war on both sides have been interviewed and consulted, including fighter aces such as Japan's Saburo Sakai (who shot down 64 planes) and American Joe Foss (with 26 victories). Historical records, manuals and technical documentation have been unearthed, as well as recently declassified information.
The result is certainly impressive, and everything is painstakingly modelled down to the last rivet. Even the manual is comprehensive to a fault, and Microsoft are justifiably proud of it. Weighing in at over 300 pages, as well as telling you how to actually play the game it also includes everything from advice on flight tactics to maps and photographs of the areas you will be flying over, and information on the pilots, planes, weapons and strategies of both sides.
All of this detail is brought to life by a modified version of the engine which powered the recent Flight Simulator 2000. Thankfully the previously rather sluggish performance of the engine has been improved greatly, and a host of new features have also been added.
Most impressive is the improved 3D virtual cockpit, which gives you a full view out over your plane. You can look out the side of your cockpit and see the flaps going up and down as you toggle them, see the wings folding up as you park your plane on an aircraft carrier, and see the bullet holes and battle damage scarring your plane as the enemy riddles you with hot lead.
Out of the eighteen planes you will see in the game, a total of seven are fully flyable, including two versions of the classic Japanese Zero, and American planes such as the Corsair and P38F Lightning. Each is lovingly recreated in digital form, with incredibly detailed textures which show oil streaks, carbon residue from the guns, and weathering caused by the sea air.
The damage effects as your plane comes under attack are also impressive, with bullet holes peppering your wings, bits of debris flying off into the air, and even whole sections of wings and tail being blown off as the plane nears the end of its life.
Sound hasn't been forgotten either. Cannon fire roars suitably, and combined with a Force Feedback joystick the effect is jarring as you open up on an enemy at close range. Engine noises have been sampled from real aircraft, and the sputtering and smoking of your engine as you start it up is something of a feast for eyes and ears alike.
The terrain over which you will be fighting is equally detailed, varying from the coral reefs and small islands of the central Pacific to the mountains and jungle of Papua New Guinea.
There are softly rolling hills, vast open stretches of sea, and beaches that look like they have escaped from a travel show. The polygonal mesh which makes up the scenery is nicely detailed, as are the textures which cover them, although as with any flight sim if you get too close to the ground it can start to look rather blocky.
The skies are also nicely done, with a whole variety of different levels of cloud and cloud cover, as well as snow, rain and frost effects. You can fly at dawn and dusk as well as during the day, and thanks to the new lighting effects battles by twilight can be spectacular affairs, with the muzzle flash from your guns lighting up your plane in the darkness. You can even download the current weather conditions in the Pacific from the internet and apply them to the game!
Combat Flight Simulator 2 has the kind of depth and realism that hardcore flight sim fanatics demand, and yet also has simpler settings to allow even complete rookies such as myself to get to grips with the game, take to the skies, and shoot down aircraft .. preferably enemy aircraft though.
It also looks incredible thanks to the enhanced Flight Sim 2000 engine, and with a full array of mission editors and other tools available, as well as the opportunity to import planes and scenery from previous games in the series, you should never tire of the range of options on offer. This is one flight sim we're looking forward to.