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14

The Flare Path: Sequel This, Please

We need a new Flight Commander

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Today’s column is aimed squarely at Brian/Briony, a hypothetical FP reader who also happens to be…

  • An avid computer wargamer
  • A big Falcon 4.0/DCS fan
  • The owner of an unusually well-thumbed copy of Mike Spick’s ‘The Ace Factor’
  • An unemployed developer searching for project ideas
  • Extremely impressionable

If my calculations are correct, Brian/Briony won’t be able to read my paean to the tragically unsequeled Flight Commander 2, without reaching for a code hammer.

Flight Commander 2 is a game that needs a sequel like I need a Rolls-Royce Armoured Car and a talking pet fox. Twenty-three years young this year, Charles ‘Combat Mission’ Moylan’s brilliant design still hastens heart rates and evaporates evenings more effectively than any other winged wargame I know. It’s the visuals, audio and GUI that could do with thoughtful revamping.

If I was remaking or homaging FC2 today I’d barely touch the fundamentals. The hex-snubbing gridded board, the uncomplicated turn structures, and the relatively slim order selection are part and parcel of the game’s lively pace and unusual approachability, and need no alteration.

I certainly wouldn’t tamper with the adorable move-flight-stick-to-direct-units movement system. It might seem trivial, but ordering a warbird to turn, dive, climb, roll, Split-S or Immelmann by dragging a small GUI flight stick to an appropriate position rather than clicking on a map square, adds a deliciously tactile element to the tangled dogfight choreography. For a fleeting moment you’re actually in the cockpit of that tiny Flanker, Jaguar, or Super Sabre – a flustered pilot wondering if a High-G manoeuvre (with attendant stall risks) will shake that SAM or wrong-foot that MiG.

Reproducing FC2’s impressive scope would also be a high priority. The Avalon Hill-published old timer is as comfortable simulating Desert Storm as Rolling Thunder. Players can flit from MiG Alley to Bomb Alley in an instant, and furball over the Fulda Gap, Suez Canal, Balkans, and Kashmir in the space of an afternoon. The aircraft selection is vast (And flexible. History mashing is possible) and would be larger still if Big Time Software had got round to modelling helos and post-war prop planes.

Of course, without the game’s deep combat and movement maths, all this choice would be meaningless. To understand why an FC2 Starfighter flies and fights very differently from an FC2 Harrier, you need to browse in the unit library section (In FC3, plane stats would be closer to hand). In addition to the obvious stuff – top speeds, maximum ceilings, firepower – Moylan utilizes variables like thrust-to-weight ratios, wing loading, cockpit visibility, and radar capabilities in his aggro algebra.

He also acknowledges the importance of the aviator and his training. Every pilot’s actions are influenced by two skill stats, a ‘preferred style’ trait (aggressive, defensive, normal), a stamina rating, and a national modifier. While the result of all these factors isn’t DCS-calibre flight modelling or Wings Over Flanders Fields-colourful AI, we do end up with essentially plausible engagements that sprinkle surprises as energetically as panic-stricken jets sprinkle chaff.

By rights, Achtung Spitfire and Over the Reich, the two WW2 aerial titles that Moylan coded immediately before commencing work on the magnificent Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, should sit higher in my personal wargaming pantheon than FC2 (Given a choice between an RC Hawker Typhoon and an RC Eurofighter Typhoon, I’d take the Camm-designed machine every time). The reason they don’t is simple.

Missiles.

Predatory Sidewinders, Sparrows and SAMs are the cats in FC2’s pigeon loft. They short-circuit the lengthy pursuits and tiresome turning fights that can develop in AS and OtR. After downing an enemy with a close-range cannon burst or landing a bomb on a mission-critical target ringed by AA defences, the game’s most satisfying experience is spoofing or sidestepping a heatseeker or SARH missile.

Pleasingly, the same evasion tricks that work, most of the time, in real life and high-fidelity sims, work most of the time in game. On those happy occasions when death darts hurtle past your jets without harming them, you can be confident your choice of manoeuvre, together with factors like ECM equipment, pilot skill, and ground clutter, played a significant part in the escape. It wasn’t just a lucky dice roll.

In the sequel I play sometimes within the confines of my skull, 3D aircraft move about above Wargame-quality landscapes. There are tactically significant hills and clouds (FC2 has neither). Sun position can’t be ignored. Real locations aren’t hinted at with vaguely apt tile-sets (desert, jungle, sea…) they are actively recreated with appropriate elevation mesh, road networks, rivers, and coastlines. The terrain is geogylphed here and there by toggleable weapon range rings. Near the screen edge sits a mini-map that isn’t hopeless, together with a data panel that enables easy comparisons of friendly and enemy aircraft capabilities.

The mental beta code doesn’t include a campaign mode at the moment. A new slightly fleshier version of FC2’s linear-mission-sequence-with-finite-pilot-pool approach would be perfectly acceptable, but it’s not hard to picture something more ambitious. Something in which sortie results cast shadows and shaped future tasks, perhaps. Then again I like the fact that you can rename your fliers in the 1994 title, and I enjoy being regularly confronted by that classic squadron leader’s dilemma – ‘Pilot X is indispensable but exhausted. Should I let him fly today?’. Developing this man-management side, adding intra-squadron relationships and Crusader Kings-style personality traits, might be the way to go in the sequel, however numerous and hectoring the ‘We need an F4.0-like dynamic campaign!’ forum posts.

But what does it matter what I think. ‘Flight Commander 3’ is your pigeon, Brian/Briony. You’re the splendid soul who’s going to remind gamers the world over that there’s more to PC wargaming than Shermans and shakos, and that there are alternatives to baffling, heavyweight flight sims when it comes to realistic Jet Age dogfighting.

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This way to the foxer

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Tim Stone

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