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Combat flight simulators are video games (similar to flight simulator software) used to simulate military aircraft and their operations. These video games are distinct from dedicated flight simulators used for military flight training which are far more complex and consist of realistic physical recreations of the actual aircraft cockpit.
The earliest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator (1982) had crude graphics, simple flight models – and a combat option, with "dog fighting" in a World War I Sopwith Camel. This feature was removed in the simulator after v4.0, though the Camel itself remained as one of the standard aircraft for some time. Shortly after Microsoft Flight Simulator was released for the 8-bit computer, Microsoft released "Jet". This simulator used simple filled wire frame graphics and a small generic battle space to allow players to fight MiGs in an F-18 or F-16. The five or six frames per second refresh rate was barely acceptable, but was the only thing available in the 8-bit market at the time.
The early 2000s saw several rival publishers such as NovaLogic with titles like the Comanche Series that simulated helicopter combat and later Jane's WWII Fighters which had small features that the Microsoft titles lacked, such as more detailed visible damage.
A breakthrough occurred when Namco launched Air Combat, for PlayStation 1, which would go on as the Ace Combat series. The series would continue with sequels for PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable and Xbox 360.
Although mass interest has waned in recent years the genre is still popular today with many titles specialising in certain types of aircraft or historical periods or wars with Microsoft remaining one of the market leaders. Microsoft currently has three combat flight simulators: Combat Flight Simulator WWII Europe Series, Combat Flight Simulator 2 WWII Pacific Theatre and Combat Flight Simulator 3: Battle for Europe. Ubisoft is now the leading publisher in the genre with the acclaimed IL-2 Sturmovik series,which some claim to be far more realistic than other games in the genre, the first of which was first released in 2001. The IL2 series has been routinely updated and is currently available as a "complete" series with the release of IL2 1946 on DVD- a media that extends the life of the franchise. This latest version incorporates all previously released versions. Ubisoft did not offer owners of the previous versions an upgrade option. These users, in order to take advantage of online play, had to re-purchase the series on the DVD as the DVD version is not compatible online with previous versions.
Combat flight simulators are usually classified according to their historical period, type of aircraft, level of detail (survey is less detailed than a study type) and single- versus multi-player.
There are simulators for most modern periods and wars, including the following:
- World War I
- World War II
- Fighter Ace,
- Aces High,
- Aces of the Pacific (1992) – Dynamix Sierra,
- Aces Over Europe (1993) – Sierra,
- 1942:Pacific Air War (1994) by Microprose,
- European Air War by Microprose,
- B-17 Flying Fortress (computer game) by Microprose/Hasbro,
- B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty 8th
- IL-2 Sturmovik (2001) by 1C Maddox Games,
- IL-2 Sturmovik 1946 (2007) by 1C Maddox Games,
- Combat Flight Simulator WWII Europe Series,
- Combat Flight Simulator 2,
- Combat Flight Simulator 3: Battle for Europe by Microsoft Games Studio
- Battle of Britain II: Wings of Victory (2005) by A2A Simulations (formerly known as Shockwave Productions, Inc.)
- Korean War – MiG Alley (1999) by Rowan
- Vietnam War – Flight of the Intruder (1991) by Spectrum-Holobyte.
Simulators of current moderns wars are usually classified not by the period of war, but rather as a separate category of "modern jet simulators".
Many of the historical combat simulators are classified as "survey simulators", because they include a variety (or survey) of aircraft from the period in question, typically from all nations participating in the conflict. Early simulators often suffered from flight models and instrument panels that differed little between aircraft, but more recent examples have excelled in this regard, forcing the virtual pilot to learn the carefully modelled strengths and weaknesses of the various types (e.g. the different fighting and flying styles of a Spitfire versus a Messerschmitt 109 in IL-2 Sturmovik or a Mitsubishi Zero versus a US Navy F4F Wildcat in Combat Flight Simulator 2). There have been modern jet survey simulators as well (US Navy Fighters by Jane's/Electronic Arts 1994, USAF by Jane's 1999) typically with simplified and generic modelling of radar, navigation, and weapons.
Modern jet combat aircraft and helicopters have a variety of complex electronic and weapon systems that are specific to a particular aircraft. This has led to a genre called the "study sim", which focuses on modelling an aircraft's systems as accurately as possible, often requiring thick manuals that rival the real manuals in detail. Jane's specialized in such sims in the 1990s with titles such as Jane's Longbow, Jane's F-15 and Jane's F/A-18).
Falcon 4.0 is perhaps the ultimate example of this genre. This detailed simulation of the USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon was released by Spectrum Holobyte (later marketed by Microprose) in 1998. It was claimed that most of the techniques and tactics used in the real jet worked in the simulator. Official development stopped after a few updates, but the F4 fan/development community continues to develop new versions and add-ons (still active in 2005, when a new commercial version was also introduced under the name "Falcon 4.0: Allied Force").
The “Digital Combat Simulator" started with its first release "DCS: Black Shark” in 2008 a series of simulations, which can only be compared with Falcon 4.0 (and may excel the older simulation). The PC game simulates the Russian Kamov Ka-50 attack helicopter and was developed by "Eagle Dynamics" in cooperation with helicopter-manufacturer Kamov (the Kamov-logo can be found in the main-screen). The simulation features a complete and detailed cockpit of the Ka-50. All relevant switches are accurately modelled and functional. Over 500 key-commands are mapped, but the fully interactive cockpit allows virtually every switch and radio-button to be clicked and changed. This level of high fidelity is down to Eagle Dynamics securing military contracts for simulators. They negotiate the clause in their contract that they will be allowed to release a retail level simulation with top secret features of the aircraft in question removed.
Besides the traditional input-devices such as joystick, throttle and pedals, DCS has a built-in support for TrackIR with 6 DOF, creating (in conjunction with the interactive 3D-cockpit) a very realistic experience.
Due to the increased flexibility of the DCS system, additional fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter add-ons will be released as (independent) "modules" one by one, each module providing another realistic vehicle. The next module will contain the A-10C.
This type includes all simulators of modern jet aircraft. These simulators can usually also be classified by their historical context or level of details (study versus survey). There have been many modern jet sims, some of them listed above under Survey Sims (USNF, USAF) and Study Sims (F-15, F/A-18, Falcon 4.0). Some have concentrated on future fighters (e.g., F-22 Total Air War by Digital Image Design in 1998), while others have simulated well-known existing fighters (several AV-8 Harrier II sims, F-14 Fleet Defender by Microprose, F22 lightning 3 and many others). A recent example is Lock On: Modern Air Combat, which attempts to bridge the study/survey gap with quite detailed models of several US and Russian aircraft. The free combat flight simulator Gl-117 features fictional aircraft that are similar to modern jet aircraft
Most simulators listed can only be played by a single player, although most titles from the late 1990s on include some sort of multi-player/network capability. With single player combat simulators, everything other than the player's own aircraft is controlled by the program's "AI" (artificial intelligence). Although modern video games create fairly intelligent and independent behaviour for adversaries ("bandits") or allies ("friendlies"), advanced players find even the best to be too predictable. Multi-player games allow players to oppose one or many human players for a much more realistic and challenging experience. Some simulators exist only or primarily in internet multiplayer versions (e.g., Air Warrior, the massively multiplayer Fighter Ace, Aces High, World War II Online, and others).
Missions, campaigns, mission builders
However realistic their flight, weapon, and system models may be, combat flight sims remain video games and as such, many players seek replay value. Simulators enhance the replay value by not only offering a variety of single missions, but also randomly generated quick missions or longer campaigns consisting of several smaller mission or objectives. Many simulators also include "mission builders" which allow the player to create missions.
Most campaigns are "dynamic flowing", which means they change according to the results of each successive mission, e.g. if the player destroys a "target of opportunity" which turns out to be a truck carrying an enemy leader then the campaign starts to take a different path.
Controls and other hardware
As real-time applications with a lot of things going on, combat flight simulators are among the most computer and graphics demanding applications at any given time, and true sim fans are constantly upgrading their hardware, including the most advanced graphics cards. These sims have also given rise to a variety of hardware add-ons such as "HOTAS" (hands on throttle and stick") controllers that allow full control of most functions without touching the keyboard. Voice control and head-tracking view control systems are also available for home flight sim enthusiasts.