It has been a long time since "Pacific Air War" allowed us to chase Zeros and torpedo carriers. In the intervening years we have had numerous visits to European skies, escorting B-17s across a hostile Germany, or pounding tanks in the Ardennes. We have abandoned our old warbirds and conducted low-level strikes on Iraqi airfields during Desert Storm and strafed Egyptian Migs in the Six Day War. The Pacific Theatre even gained a jinx - it was supposedly commercial death.
The Wide Blue Yonder
Now Microsoft have shown us what we were missing. In a brilliant but flawed sequel to their original Combat Flight Simulator, Microsoft have given us a good sim that, like "Falcon 4", has the capacity to become a great one. For the price of a good dinner for two you get over a hundred hours of intense enjoyment in a box, with the promise of many more to come thanks to the attentions of the hordes of modellers, designers and mission builders that support the Microsoft flight simulators as a hobby (see CFS2 Online for some examples).
The game contains seven different flyable fighters - the F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, F4U Corsair and P-38 Lightning for the Americans, and the A6M2 and A6M5 Zeros and the N1K2 George for the Japanese. Although some of these aircraft are equipped with rockets and bombs, the clear emphasis of the game is on fighter combat. All the single missions in the game involve shooting down other aircraft, and so do most of the campaign missions. None of the flyable aircraft carry torpedoes, and bombing without bombsights is at best a nod in the direction of ground attack...
What it does it does very well though. Flight models are good, enhanced by several post-release fixes. Aircraft are accurately modelled and have very noticeably individual flight models; you will not be able to out-turn a Zero or Oscar, and you will not be able to outrun a Corsair. This means that pilots will have to adapt their flying to their aircraft and that of the enemy. It is possible to down four Zeros in a Corsair, but only if you keep to the historically accurate tactics used by the pilots of the day. Try any fancy aerobatics and the much nimbler Zeros will be all over you.
The aircraft in the game are simply beautiful, and the first time you see your plane it will take your breath away. As you start the engine it coughs smoke and the propeller gradually fades into a blur, although it's a blur that clearly changes with your throttle setting. As you add power you will start to move, your landing gear compressing as the wheels bounce over the coral surface of the island runway. With US aircraft inbound you open your canopy in case you have to bail out, then retract flaps and gear to gain speed and height. As you spot the bandits you switch to the outstanding padlock view (with working instruments) that quickly lets you bring your guns to bear.
In another realistic touch, your guns and cannon will fire independently, allowing you to conserve vital cannon shells until you can guarantee a hit. From the methanol/water emergency power injection to the stunning flak bursts that will knock you into the water, this game breathes realism. That isn't to say that it is inaccessible for beginners, and Microsoft clearly hope to use the image of sexy aircraft over the beautiful islands of the Pacific to draw more people into flight simulators. There are a number of optional features specifically aimed at beginners, from a simple "radar" to a cone that points in the direction of the nearest bandit for those confused by padlock views.
Expandability Is King
Combat Flight Sim 2 was clearly built to expand beyond the shipped product; Microsoft are well aware that the support of the flight sim community has increased the value of their previous products several times over. Already there are a dozen new planes and scenery add-ons that allow you to dogfight over Crete or the Alps, or to land on a modern carrier.
More importantly, they allow you to fly the torpedo bombers and dive bombers that were the true heart of the air war in the Pacific. The ability to dive-bomb a Japanese carrier or to sink cargo ships hiding in the lee of small islands adds a lot to the game. Add-on scenery and aircraft clearly vary a great deal in quality and functionality though, and while that Catalina may look great, it still won't land in water!
As well as aircraft and missions, the recent issue of the software developers kit has allowed talented designers to add even more to the game. Ship wakes have been lengthened, fires improved, flak and gun effects updated. Flight models are constantly tweaked as designers argue about the amount of lift a Wildcat with two bombs and full flaps should have. Even the novice-friendly cartoon style game interface can be replaced. All of this makes a good game very special indeed.
Not Quite Perfect
In addition to the planes "missing" from the shipped version of Combat Flight Sim 2 and the need to download updated flight models to get the most from the game, there are a few other minor issues that prevent it from achieving the highest marks though.
Wingman commands, though present, are few and inefficient. You cannot use the padlock view on friendly aircraft or ships, just the enemy, and targeting them requires flicking through all the planes in the sky to get to the one you want - there is no way to simply select the one right in front of your nose. Finally the yellow targeting box has thus far resisted the best efforts of the community clamouring for its removal.
Multiplayer is also a source of great disappointment for hardcore gamers. In fact there is only one mode, the free-for-all dogfight, with the caveat that pilots can naturally team up based on their choice to fly US or Japanese aircraft. This works well enough, especially as the link to the MSN Gaming Zone comes pre-installed, but while new players may be satisfied with it, experienced pilots will search in vain for more satisfying cooperative missions.
Microsoft have learnt a great deal from the poorly received "Combat Flight Simulator", and its sequel is a polished dogfighter that is on the cusp of achieving excellence through the many add-ons it has already received. It manages to incorporate a good deal of realism in a mass market framework, and deserves to do very well.
One of the game's greatest strengths though is quite simply the Pacific Theatre setting - there is next to no competition here, and the game does a lot to teach you how it feels to turn in for that critical run at the enemy carrier...