Flying Lessons


I spent most of Friday playing an aerial combat game that’s currently pre-beta, and chatting to some of the people behind it. It was a pleasant enough day, but a few of the things the Project Lead said caused me to shake my wizened noggin in a ‘Will they ever learn?’ manner. Now, I’m not one of those simmers that believes every flight game has to be as brutally realistic as Falcon 4.0 or DCS: Black Shark, but I do feel certain elements of aviation-based entertainment are non-negotiable. After the cut, my list of Eight Things Every Air Combat Game Should Sport. 

  • 1. Cockpit views

Viewed from a chase cam all warbirds look small, floaty and faintly ridiculous. For 24-carat immersion you cant beat a plexiglass dome and a panel of twitching gauges and flickering warning lights. If the pit features wear and tear, crumpled pin-ups and those four fleshy appendages that usually protrude from a pilot’s torso, all the better.


  •  2. Landings and take-offs

A flight game without landings and take-offs is like a race sim without a starting grid and chequered flag, or a fox without a waistcoat and pocket-watch. They don’t have to figure in every sortie but sprinkled through a campaign, they add tension, provide closure, and help prevent dogfight fatigue. Some of my most cherished genre memories come from nursing flak-ravaged, smoke-trailing craft back to base. Far too few lite flight titles facilitate such experiences and of those that do, scandalously few greet dogged returners with scurrying emergency vehicles or freshly-laid carpets of foam.


  • 3. Interesting AI

Bizarrely, the lighter the flight game, the more important it is to have interesting AI. If you’re going to be downing twenty bandits in a single sortie rather than a more plausible one, or none, it’s vital all twenty don’t execute half-hearted left turns or head straight for the deck when bounced. How hard it can be to create a selection of AI ‘characters’ – cocky, nervous, wily. etc. – and apply them randomly to computer-controlled planes ? Too hard, apparently.

  • 4. Parachutes

Bailing out of a stricken crate not knowing whether your silk canopy is going to a) deploy quickly enough to to save you or b) deploy at all, is priceless. All flight games should put you in that position now and again. A sky full of enemy chutes also presents wonderful opportunities for ‘This is for Johnnie, you Luftwaffe swine!’ Geneva Convention flouting.


  • 5. Kill tallies

What’s the point of shooting down/up stuff, if, during subsequent sorties, you can’t see those kills represented in symbolic form on the side of your fuselage?

  • 6. Dirigibles

Blindingly obvious this one. Air combat games are far better when they let you pour lead and rockets into gargantuan bags of super-flammable gas.


  • 7. Bridges

Indisputable fact: There is no finer way for an Ace to perish than ploughing into a river while flying inverted under a bridge.

  • 8. Irascible COs

After successfully flying inverted under a bridge it should be mandatory for players to face a cutscene in which a CO (moustachioed, and with a face like thunder) snarls something along the lines of “If you pull a stunt like that again you’ll be flying transports and target tugs for the rest of the war.”



  1. elle says:

    So you really like Ace Combat, eh?

  2. DeliriumWartner says:

    Flight games are definitely not my bag, but I’d face the bizarre controls and sickening acrobatics if a game fulfilled every requirement on this list. All flight games should, by law, have a checklist on the back, showing which of these are included.

  3. Thiefsie says:

    I tried so hard to get into IL2 single player, but incessantly skipping half the transport stages of missions only to dogfight until I ran out of ammo without shooting one bird down, over and over really wore me out. Multiplayer was fantastic though. (The dogfight servers anyway). Yay for crimson skies

  4. Jonas says:

    So… what games have all that without being intimidatingly hard core? I am an embarrassingly mainstream gamer with too short an attention span to memorize more than 10 key binds, but I’d quite like to play a combat flight game that features takeoffs and landings, parashoot bail-outs, and other such great details but where I can still shoot down 20 enemies per mission.

    Strikes me I never did get Crimson Skies 2 a chance. Surely it must be available for cheap somewhere by now… off I go to rummage through bargain bins!

  5. Jonas says:

    Huh, Crimson Skies never got a sequel? That’s shocking, I was entirely certain that I had read about the release of Crimson Skies 2. I guess I only read about the rumours of its development.

    Also I can’t believe I typed “parashoot”. I have to stop commenting at 2 am.

  6. sebmojo says:

    There was an Xbox sequel to the PC original, which was good in a different but not quite as magnitudinous manner.

  7. Bhazor says:

    Any mention of Crimson Skies gets me reinstalling the damn thing playing non-stop for 2 weeks and then reaching “The WALL!!!” which I spend another two weeks trying to get past before giving up, accidentally deleting my profile and then losing my disc somewhere gravelly.

    Thank you.
    Thank you so much.

  8. Wisq says:

    Egh, Ace Combat. Going from Falcon 4.0 to Ace Combat is like going from driving in a demolition derby to playing bumper cars at the fair. Sure, it’s still mildly fun for plane enthusiasts, and it’s cool to know what all the planes are and what all the (fantasy) weapons are modelled after. But after that, everything just becomes a bit stale. I don’t think the two even count as being in the same genre, since it’s flight simulation versus … what? Aerial combat action?

    Granted, the Ace Combat stuff is still fun for a bit, but in the end, it just doesn’t cut it. Plus they have that annoying tendency to misclassify the characteristics of each plane, and to throw in their own super-planes at the end, such that it becomes silly to use any real ones.

    What I loved about Falcon was the ability to play a real career with optional permadeath. Resetting your stats every time you got an MIA/KIA outcome is a big incentive to fly like a real pilot and not take stupid risks. There’s no such ability in most other games, since it’s “win or retry” all the way.

    I just wish there were more jet-based realistically-modelled games. LOMAC is verboten due to Starforce, and most others are about propeller planes.

    Heck, I’d love to even see a turn-based or low-speed real-time strategy game that used planes to realistic effect. So many games just abstract them too heavily to be fun. Something akin to a graphically- and gameplay-enhanced version of the Falcon 4.0 campaign.

  9. KP says:

    this reminds me how sad it made me that Crimson Skies crashes and burns on my WinXP :(

  10. Mister Yuck says:

    I hate lists of what things should and shouldn’t be. You know some developer is just going to come out with a game that violates every one of these rules and still is a lot of fun, right?

    Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge (the Xbox one) already comes close.

  11. C says:

    Wings of Glory, awesome. That was a great casual WW1 game, and a better use of the engine then Strike Commander.

  12. Andrew says:

    So… what games have all that without being intimidatingly hard core?

    IL-2 has a lot of it and is only intimidatingly hardcore if you set it as such. It’s very tweakable to remove all the realism until you feel comfortable in enabling it.

    Good article, Tim.

  13. Walsh says:

    DCS Black Shark is amazing, I love it. I bought the Rooskie version.

  14. RichP says:

    Battlefield 1942 and Desert Combat have the best air combat of any game I’ve played (admittedly I’m not much of a flight sim buff).

    One of my favorite online FPS niches — next to offense engy in TF2 — is torpedo bombing in BF1942’s Midway map. Find the enemy battleship or carrier and torpedo it to death. Line up, drop the torpedo, and gently bank away for another run.

  15. nichevo says:

    Perhaps another item on this list?

    9. Playable gunner positions.

    Pilot and gunner makes quite a co-op team. Turn off magical map symbols and your gunner can double up as a navigator. Nothing says teamwork like your gunner head-shotting that Luftwaffe dog on your tail, or your pilot getting you home safely despite numerous holes and damaged controls.

    If you own IL2 you owe it to yourself to fly a TB bomber with all (four?) gunner slots occupied by players. Just keep reminding them to be careful when shooting past the tail…

  16. Aftershock says:


    Best. Movie. Ever.

  17. TeeJay says:

    I’m a bit ashamed to admit my shallowness means that the only piloting I’ve done in the last few years is during other games eg GTA:VC, Far Cry, UT2004, Rogue Trooper (this applies to driving as well tbh). Probably the only way I would get drawn back into flying is if it was a major part of a kick-ass FPS (rather than a small add-on). It’s not that I dont like it on principle, its just that I always have several unplayed games lying around and the copy of IL-2 *keeps* getting re-filed under ‘must get round to one day’…

  18. Tolga K. says:

    I agree with your list, but I must add some attributes that I have not seen in recent years. Flight games are like horror games; without atmosphere, they are nothing. It means nothing when you can do ridiculous maneuvers without punishment. There is no immersion when the environment has jagged edges and poor textures and no fixes to the problem.

    Before you 8-bit purists harass me about this, know that I rarely put visuals over good gameplay. However, flight simulators and games usually benefit from a graphics upgrade. While recent arcade games have got this down, the simulators have lagged.

    Also, I enjoy seeing wings rip off and drag past me instead of disappear into a cloud of pixels. If a game takes place in such a featureless place as the sky, it should at least amp up the aesthetics on the few things that you do encounter.

    The physics of flying need to be there as well. If proper flight dynamics exist (in games that call themselves sims), the simulation will be even more believable and more scary. You’ll find yourself more panicked if you put yourself into a flat-spin than with an enemy behind you in a dogfight.

    To comment on your parachute section, ejection from the aircraft should be in first person. Too many games switch to 3rd person when you decide to depart an aircraft in flight. I think it would make the situation a lot more tense if you could see the ground coming at you only out of your peripheral vision as you climb out of the cockpit.

    Tension, not action, is what makes flying games entertaining. I’m a pilot, and I can tell you the seemingly dumbest things that can happen in a plane can get your heart racing. It would be nice if games make those situations just as fearful; and that means implementing a whole lot of features that enhance, but don’t make a difference in, ground-based games.

  19. Jeremy says:

    Man, after Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat, I never got back into flight sims.

  20. pepper says:

    I love flying games, but may i add that most parachutes that are used for bailing out of planes are made so they cant fail when pulled open ^_^. Normal AFF and static-line chutes can happily fail though. And Tolga, leaving the airplane, especially those old ones isnt too exciting, you basicly opened the (aircraft) canopy, look down, put your hand on the right place tp open, rolled forward, and pulled open. In reality you wouldnt see a lot since this would happened very fast. I think most people would get sick with disorientation very fast.

  21. Ravenger says:

    I used to love flying in BF1942. I was in a clan, and generally flew the bombers because I loved dive-bombing tanks. I was a so-so dogfighter, but still managed do shoot down most of the enemies I came across.

    For an arcade flight model it sure captured the essence of combat flying.

    The BF2 planes were nowhere near as fun. Too fast, and the bombing was way too difficult. The choppers were more fun, especially with a decent gunner on board.

  22. pepper says:

    I loved the planes in BF2, the trick was to establish a high base altitude and return to that after a run, then scout the map for enemy activity(you can see tanks on the map, and points that are changing). If you find something make a vertical dive, and if your good then you can stay above AA range, heck, they dont even hear you flying past.

  23. kert says:

    Anyone remember F-19 ? They didnt have dirigibles, or if they did i never got up to that altitude.

  24. tossrStu says:

    F19 Stealth Fighter? That was great — the Thief of flight sims. Didn’t spot any blimps in the skies over Libya though.

  25. Mike C says:

    Ah, Crimson Skies. We will never see your like again…

  26. Rich Tysoe says:

    F-19 was great, but on the realism scale it’s more in common with Ace Combat than modern Jet sims.

    My favourite F-19 memory is of getting assigned a very long photo-recon mission under “cold war” rules- the points racked up just for staying alive and undetected – the target was all the way in the north-east of the map, the loadout was the camera and 3 fuel tanks – no missiles. I made it to the target, flying most of the way there tornado-style under 500 feet. Got my shot, got the secondary target, got all the way home to gutersloh, eagerly anticipating the Congressional Medal that the mission would surely have earned me. lined the plane up on ILS, eased it down, went to an external cam to savour the moment of touchdown after 2 hours of tense flying…

    And smeared the F-19 across the runway.

  27. Love Albatross says:

    TFX was my favourite flight sim ever. Perfect mix or arcade and realism. Night sorties in a stealth bomber were awesome.

    Plus, if you got bored a good way to end the game was flying close to the ground upside down and hitting eject to make the pilot splatter all over the scenery.

    • Orvidos says:

      This is a bit late on the reply (a couple weeks, in fact) but I used to do that with NovaLogic’s MiG-29. When I got frustrated with a mission, since I was much younger and much more incapable of making sound decisions (’cause I am now, hah!) I’d load up a mission, take off, invert immediately after getting off the ground. . .

      . . .And Ctrl+E.


  28. eyemessiah says:

    F15-Strike Eagle FTW

    Action game of the year indeed.

    It had Lenslok copyprotection which makes modern DRM look like a half-hearted joke!

    Also I’m surprised to realise it was designed by Sid Meier.

  29. dozer1986 says:

    TolgaK, everything you mentioned is in Il-2 Sturmovik, except the first-person baleout, and some of the cockpits are relatively ugly. But look at the best – the Tempest V cockpit: link to

  30. dozer1986 says:

    And at the other end of the war to the Tempest – the J8A cockpit (Gloster Gladiator export variant for Finland): link to

  31. Radiant says:

    Giant golden rings to fly through.
    Especially just after the mission you lost your best friend in.

  32. Radiant says:


  33. essell says:

    “How hard it can be to create a selection of AI ‘characters’ – cocky, nervous, wily. etc. – and apply them randomly to computer-controlled planes?”

    Presumably you’re asking this because, as a journalist, you have no idea how hard it is to actually implement several “AI characters” for a combat flight sim. Is it not a bit of an arrogant and ignorant thing to then assume that it’s an easy task?

  34. MrDeVil_909 says:

    I haven’t played a ‘flight sim’ since F-19 myself, and iirc it hits most of the points in the article. What is available for PC that comes closest? Bear in mind that I’m older and my reaction times and willingness to practice keep serious sims out of contention.

  35. Tim Stone says:


    I’m not saying it’s necessarily easy, but the fact sim AI hasn’t moved on in the slightest (with the possible exception of BDG’s sterling work on BoB2) in the last ten years is a pretty poor show is it not?

    My wargames are much smarter now – much more credible – so why aren’t my sims?

  36. Plopsworth says:

    +1 for the dirigibles. Especially in Crimson Skies where you get to see them, several football fields long, exchanging broadsides as you pass between them.

    Proper damage modelling, with both visual and physical effects:
    Cannon-shells should punch plate size holes in your wing surfaces, a lucky burst of machine-gun fire should stictch rows of those cobweb/starburst holes in the canopy/instrument panel. I want to hear a change in pitch if the engine/radiator has caught a few bullets (some rattling, higher/lower pitch, sputtering). I want to be able to belly-flop and land even if my hydraulics for the landing gear are spent.

    In one case in IL-2, flying a Finnish Brewster campaign-pilot (with my photoshop-skinned face no less!) in deep in Eastern Karelia, having lost my pursuers and pouncing on a pair of IL-16’s taking off, I spotted the perfect reward: an supply-train bound for a station. Staying low, in order to lessen the window for ground-based 20mm fire posted around the town and railway station, I came up perpendicularly to the train and fired my guns in a long rudder-aided burst across the length of the train. A few wagons bloomed into smoke and fire, and as I was directly over the train, a munitions wagon or a fuel container decided to detonate spectacularly some 10-15 meters below me. I heard a loud SMACK, the screen tinted pink, the engine started sputtering, I gently nursed my bird higher. Half my left aileron was gone, half the rudder was shredded, I was trailing fuel, oil, or some essential liquid, my pilot was hit, my landing gear was mostly gone, large holes were punched in every horizontal surface. I somehow managed that tense flight back over the border some 60km to eastern Finland and back to my airfield to pull of a gliding/stalling belly-flop landing with my propeller idling. Lovely sortie. One kill, a few planes disabled on the enemy airfield, quite a few ground-kills, back home for dinner. Alive.

  37. Ginger Yellow says:

    F19 Stealth Fighter was the only flight sim I was ever any good at. I could just about handle Falcon on the Atari ST, but I never mastered it.

  38. Kieron Gillen says:

    Even the first Wing Commander did different personalities for your Wingmates, man. Randomly assigning different personalities is clearly a negligible task.

    I think the bigger question would be why they’d want all fighters to have the same AI, as it’s only tweaking a few variables in AI you can create ones with different personalities. The traditional game theory shows that gamers like enemies who are predictable and exploitable – that’s why most shooters have a common AI for a common type of enemies. We want to know that if you try and spook a covenant elite, they’ll do a certain thing – if it depends on what Elite you’re dealing with, you’ll be frustrated. If it’s not predictable, you can’t make tactics. You’re working on guesswork.

    So, people making flight sims may hold on that logic – you want a predictable enemy for that reason. The question being, is what’s true for a traditional shooting game also true for a flight sim?


  39. Dinger says:

    Thumbs up. But takeoffs and landings need a decent flight model to be interesting. If you don’t have ground effect and decent stall characteristics, you might as well just end it in mid-air.
    If you don’t have Zeppelins and Bridges, you might as well be driving a car.

    For me, the other must-have is an “after-pub” aircraft. Experts agree that, after a session, one should wait one or two hours before retiring for the evening. While most of the recommended activities are quite evident, they are not always practical or (shudder) “advisable given the means available.” This is where a flgiht sim and an after-pub aircraft come in handy. I have fond memories of the Warbirds B-25H serving exactly this role. Decent acceleration and handling characteristics (for a bomber), 4000 lbs. of bunker-shattering HE, 8 rockets for terrorizing taxiways, 12 .50-caliber machine guns, mostly forward facing, to vaporize the idiots who try to mix it up on the deck, and a 75mm cackle-inducing howitzer in the nose that was great for …uh… “Runway Interdiction.”

  40. Heliocentric says:

    I don’t want predictable enemies so i’m forced to play multiplayer, which is fine if limiting the format of the challenge. Has anyone got crimson skies working on nvidia cards without software mode?

  41. Bobsy says:

    Oh man. Crimson Skies desperately needs a new sequel. AIR PIRATES!

    But regarding #1, I have an issue with seeing digital limbs in the cockpit. I tend to think of my screen kinda like the the windscreen and my desk as the cockpit, so seeing another version of that on-screen can be a little unsettling. Whuddever.

    On #2, I was actually thinking about this this morning. I really hate having control yanked away from me for takeoffs and landings, most recently in Freelancer (which, considering docking manoevres are incredi-simple in that game makes things worse). I recently went back to Frontier and finally, after 15 years, learned to stick the landing. It’s easily the best feeling of achievement I’ve had froma game ever, to approach a planet from 10AUs away, drop smoothly into the atmosphere and plonk my 100-tonne deathship into a tiny airlock, all without the autopilot (to non-believers, yes it is possible).

    On the other hand, I remember as a kid being completely unable to do anything right in F-19 (where’s the button marked STEALTH MODE? Why wouldn’t I want ECM turned on all the time?). Landing on a runway or airstrip was way beyond my capabilities, so I would just land anywhere I wanted (completely flat terrain!) and drive my plane back to base. Aircraft carrier landing? Er… didn’t do those missions.

  42. SteevR says:

    While I do enjoy the occasional turn and burn flight game (notably X-Wing, Crimson Skies, and the Ace Combat series), I log most of my flight time in IL2 honing my aerial gunnery in single player. I’ve always loved sims… the two I remember most from my childhood are quite sim-lite, however; they are Dynamix’s remarkable Red Baron for the PC (for the incredibly deep and replayable dynamic campaign), and EA’s F-22 Interceptor for the Genesis/Megadrive (for bringing the flight sim experience to my Genesis before I had a computer of my own).

    Red Baron stands the test of time to this day (though for some it might seem slow-paced), but the EA game is as rubbish now as it was then. It was hobbled by poor controls, AI, flight modeling, mission design, and short interstitial text screens containing some of the most jingoist, pro-American military might rhetoric that side of Bush Jr’s administration.

  43. Radiant says:

    What I used to do in Stealth Fighter instead of landing was eject over the airfield.
    Every single mission; million pound plane be damned.
    Anyone remember B-17 Flying Fortress? Thanks to that game I used to think that was the be all and end all of ww2 planes till someone told me it was made out of wood.

  44. Bobsy says:

    Here’s an idea: flight sims by Valve.

  45. teo says:

    Most of these are hard to argue against but I think even stuff like Ace Combat has landings and cockpit views

    I’m more bothered by elitist simmers who shun at people calling sims games. It’s not like “sim” and “game” are mututally exclusive, but some people like to think that once a game reaches a certain realism threshold it becomes a sim

  46. AbyssUK says:

    Tornado had all these and more, a fully dynamic battlefield, custom mission maker, laser guided bombs! runway cluster bombs and 500lbs bomb throwing, brill game.

    Also AV8B was awesome, harrier jump jets vs a small island!

    Also valve should never make a flight simulator ever are you crazy!

  47. teo says:

    What would flight games be without landings?
    I remember one sortie I flew in Falcon 4: AF once, in the Balkain campaign. I flew an F-117 from the western tip of sicily, which is quite far from Serbia. I had to refuel once over the ocean between Italy and Serbia, which is quite tricky at night when you don’t have a radar. I got bombs on target with only a minor flak hit (just had to trim a bit) and headed home.

    At 30k ft I knew I had enough fuel to just make it back to my home plate, so I didn’t bother refueling. Once I got close to home though I realised that there was no way I was going to have enough fuel to fly an approach (planes use a looot more fuel down low) so I basically had to make an emergency approch with almost no engine power, which I surprisingly enough managed.

    I touched down with 170 lb or so of fuel, which is almost nothing. I could’ve stayed in the air for about another few minutes, and the flight was like 3 hours long

    Sometimes you get lucky :>

  48. Heliocentric says:

    Valve? A corridor flight sim? Whats the alternative to the gravity gun? A chinook. Reminds me of mercenaries you can carry a tank while its occupant keeps fighting in coop. I need a flight game where the ground matters too. The ww2 mmo did well in that regard, spot a convoy of enemies? strafe them, well done you just crippled an offensive manned by 10 people solo.

  49. aldo_14 says:

    I used to only land on Strike Commander with the engines turned off. Loved that game.

    It’s a good thing I’m not a real pilot.

  50. Tim Stone says:

    Corridor flight sim? Already been done:
    link to