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The Flare Path: Bird Sim Blueprint

Every simmer needs a hobby

For the last 35 years the makers of serious flight fare have been studiously ignoring the true masters of flight. Thousands of amazing aerodyne types have gone unsimmed. Countless dramatic combat scenarios have been cold-shouldered. Today's Flare Path is a call for this madness to cease. Below the break I sketch out a sim focused on flesh-and-blood falcons, hawks and eagles rather than the clumsy, confusing man-made imitations that have dominated simulated skies for the past three decades.

The bird sim prototype I've been beta-testing in my head for the last few months draws inspiration from both television nature documentaries and first-hand brushes with the avian marvels that share our planet. While I've been lucky enough to encounter all of the stars of On the Wing (weak working title) in the wild, it's recent televisual tours de force such as Life in the Air that helped me finalise the list of flyables and fine-tune my maps.

With a little help from Life in the Air let me introduce the first of OTW's feathered assassins.

The sparrowhawk is the sim's close air support specialist, its IL-2 Sturmovik, its Douglas Skyraider, its Hawker Harrier. Completely at home in Bramley End, a bucolic British environment comprising woods, fields, and village gardens, it uses breathtaking manoeuvrability and blistering pace to surprise prey like finches, tits and sparrows. An automatic slo-mo mode that kicks-in close to obstacles should mean early outings with this demanding, under-the-radar predator aren't too discouraging. However, as your flying prowess increases, the game will notice and pick up the pace accordingly. In a month or two you should be threading thorny thickets and lichened five-bar gates in real-time, and executing perfect turns and wing tucks almost without thinking.

Talons-crossed, OTW will come with two air superiority fighters. Haunting both the European city and Californian coastal map, the first, Falco peregrinus, is a hook-beaked bullet capable of dive speeds of up to 240mph. In its early stages the peregrine falcon's plunging attack may bring to mind sorties in Stukas, Skuas and SBDs. In the latter phase of an interception, prior sim experience could actually prove unhelpful, seasoned dogfighters battling the urge to veer away from the looming pigeons on their screens.

Funds permitting, OTW will simulate the extraordinary anti-pelican tactics employed by nest-protecting peregrines on the US West Coast. Using techniques not dissimilar to those used by Allied pilots on V-1 flying bombs in WW2, peregrines have learnt how to destabilise these threats in flight by jerking their heads to one side. A successful attack sends the hapless pelican spinning towards the ground.

The other ATA specialist in the game is the Eurasian hobby, a bird so dazzlingly fast and aerobatic it feeds its young mainly by snatching swallows, swifts and martins on the wing. The dragonflies and damselflies that dart about in the vicinity of Carter's Pond (beside the track to Manor Farm) are also at risk from this electrifying combination of Me 163 Komet and Gloster Gladiator.

There's something of the PZL. P7 or the Polikarpov I-15 about the stubby, moon-faced barn owl, but, in terms of role and operation, the fourth OTW flyable actually has more in common with a Bf 110 G-4 or Beaufighter VIF. Like a radar-equipped nightfighter it doesn't need to see prey to locate it. Picture the scene. Darkness has descended on Half Acre Field (turn left at the Turfcutter's Arms, then right at the old pillbox) and you're perched on a fence post listening to the furtive symphony of a summer night in the countryside. As you turn your dish-shaped head left and right individual sounds grow more strident or faint. Tiny adjustments allow you to filter suggestive scrabblings and gnawings from the background hubbub. Lifting off and flying silently in the direction of one particularly tempting sound, you home in on a careless noise-maker. A slight turn to the SE. Too much! That's better. He can't be more than ten metres away now. At range 5m you're beginning your descent when you find your flight path obstructed by an unexpected loop of dog-rose. The resulting manoeuvre is just noisy enough to spook the shrew in the grass ahead. By the time your scimitar-sharp talons arrive, the lucky rodent is six inches away, making for the safety of his hole.

Every contemporary flight sim needs a helicopter. OTW's is the rusty, windmocking kestrel. Keeping this handsome little falcon stationary in the teeth of a howling gale will take a lot of concentration and practise. The steadier your hover, the more you'll be able to zoom the first-'person' camera (vital during hunting) and the clearer the network of urine trails below will become (kestrels are sensitive to ultraviolet light allowing them to detect vole runs from height).

I can't pretend potential North American sales weren't a factor in my choice of ASW flyable. An accomplished fish poacher, the iconic bald eagle is sure to feature prominently in US advertising and box art. Haliaeetus leucocephalus is also included in the first instalment of OTW for personal reasons. Thanks to the daily flying activities of a nearby conservation charity/tourist attraction, I've had some unforgettable and decidedly surreal encounters with these magnificent predators during recent years. Here in the South of England when a large raptor appears overhead you automatically assume you're in the presence of a common buzzard. Seeing a bald eagle quartering local skies for the first time, was like rounding a corner and meeting Puck of Pook's Hill.

In early On the Wing mental prototypes, there were flyable gannets, albatrosses, swallows, and hummingbirds. You could plunge into the midst of swirling fish shoals, use dynamic soaring to cross hundreds of miles of open ocean with barely a wing beat. You could formation fly with swans and cranes, and migrate from Africa to England in real-time, braving falcons, storms and exhaustion en-route. Because even imaginary flight sims need a dash of practicality, these ambitious plans have been shelved for the time-being. Expansion packs and sequels will eventually push the sim into new areas, adding extra environments, taxonomic orders, and play modes. For the initial release, I think my design team is going to have its work cut out simply fabricating high-quality flight models.

If OTW is to succeed it's vital the game captures the essence of avian aeronautics. A two-minute flit across a field or along a cliff face must be fun, interesting, and above-all plausible. The devs might not have complicated avionics to reproduce, but as their flyables have wings that can be flapped, reshaped, and twisted in flight, FM fashioning is sure to be labour-intensive and difficult. To my knowledge, very few game makers have grappled with organic aerofoils before. Volo Airsport's long gestation and numerous physics tweaks hint at the the formidable difficulties ahead.

Priorities for v1.00 are A) FMs, B) prey AI, and C) ambience. Don't expect an elaborate campaign or slew of multiplayer modes. The closest thing to a long game might well be a persistent health stat. Spend too long aloft without catching anything and your health deteriorates. Hunt skilfully and economically and your health improves; eventually the 'You've mated!' message appears and, a short time later, you notice a clutch of needy offspring health stats nestling under your own.

'Real' Internet-sourced weather, or randomly generated stuff, should add texture to campaign play. A desperate kestrel or barn owl braving the rain promises to be one of OTW's saddest sights.

Simulating creatures at the very top of their respective food pyramids ensures eye-catching screenshots and may help persuade punters from the macho world of conventional combat sims to cross over. One side effect though, is a combat flight sim without obvious bandit or flak equivalents. Does this jeopardy gap matter? Based on the hours I've spent with the On the Wing beta build over the last few weeks, no, it really doesn't. As you'll discover if you test-fly my imaginary work-in-progress (just close your eyes and think falcony thoughts) a sim that captures the motive poetry of natural masterpieces like the peregrine and the sparrowhawk doesn't need peril to prosper.

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About the Author

Tim Stone