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The Flare Path: Ferrets

Simulation and wargame blather

If it wasn't for a splendid organisation called Writers Bloc this column probably would have vanished years ago. Every week WB sends out thousands of specially tailored writing challenges in an attempt to keep its members ennui-free. This week my challenge was tripartite. I risk censure, and public humiliation in WB magazine, The Wordist, if today's Flare Path doesn't include...

A) Previews of two Early Access flight simulations.
B) The phrase “The ferrets danced until daybreak”.
C) A reference to a fictional organisation that motivates its members with specially tailored writing challenges.

Fluid flying is impossible in the global, gunless Aerofly FS 2. Thanks to a serious design gaffe - the provision of a pause key – I've yet to complete an uninterrupted flight. Somewhere between A and B I always seem to find myself stopping the clock for a FRAPS session. Just need to zoom out a little to bring that handsome peak into view, tilt the camera upwards a tad to accentuate sun glint, and pan left to exclude that horribly blurry ground texture... My screenshots folder is now bulging with potential Flare Path Jigsaw Club candidates.

AFS2's matinee idol looks stop abruptly at the edge of its high-res US Southwest scenery region (The rest of the world is rendered with satellite imagery of a far lower resolution draped over elevation mesh of a much coarser weave) and begin to fade at low altitude where the lack of 3D structures outside of airports and major cities leaves many places looking plaice-flat. Stay within California, Nevada and Arizona however, keep out of the weeds and avoid a couple of glitched locales, and the views from cockpits are seldom less than breathtaking.

Though not quite as fleet as the original Aerofly FS, the follow-up is still fast enough to make Microsoft Flight Simulator feel sluggish and needy. Overflying downtown San Francisco in the default FSX Learjet I'm lucky to see 40 frames a second. Doing the same thing in AFS2, my modest GPU delivers prettier vistas and a more striking bizjet at a sizzling 70 FPS.

Of course, the visual velocity doubtless owes something to all the stuff IPACS have sketched rather than spelled out. Weather simulation, for instance, is relatively crude. While wind, turbulence, clouds and thermals can be customised, precipitation isn't modelled and there's no support for Real Weather. Currently there's no ATC, no AI traffic, no airports outside of the main scenery area, and little modding potential. If you want to learn how to cold-start an aircraft, lean an engine, pilot a helo, or navigate using VORs, this sim won't help you.

The development roadmap suggest some of these shortcomings will be addressed in the future. What I'm most eager to see is better controller configuration facilities. Right now the feistier flyables in the 16-strong aircraft selection – machines like the Pitts Special and Extra 300 – are intolerably skittish with my stick, porpoising like crazy after elevator inputs and twirling like Catherine Wheels if I so much as think about executing a roll.

AFS2's price (£30) and HD footprint (31GB) feel slightly at odds with its breezy flight-sim-for-the-masses design ethos. Clearly a lot of work has gone into ensuring the sim is friendly, fast, and very easy on the eye. It will be interesting to see whether IPACS can enrich their creation, turning a the perfect teabreak flight simulation into something weightier and more directly comparable to genre greats like MSFS and X-Plane, without muddying the waters and congealing the framerates.

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To fully appreciate the brilliance of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier you must read about its clodhopping peers, the VAK 191B, the Mirage IIIV, and Yak-38. Time in the company of a persuasive Jump Jet sim like Combat Air Patrol 2 is also advisable.

Though the £23 Early Access build released on Monday and updated on Wednesday feels distinctly ramshackle in certain areas, the flight model on its own should be entertaining enough to stifle forum rants for a few weeks. Learning how to coax a fully-laden Harrier into the air won't take more than thirty minutes; what I've spent the majority of the last few days trying to master is the maddeningly dark art of returning one of CAP2's essentially plausible (if you ignore a few roll-rate and responsiveness issues) AV8Bs to its floating home after a flight.

Talk about tricky. After dozens of approaches and hours of delicate nozzle rotating I'm still as likely to land on waves as warship. The sim comes with three VTOL difficulty settings, but what it really needs is a proper tutorial and manual, and some additional camera views.

Until I can alight expertly, and Sim155 squash a save bug and supply decent documentation, I'm reluctant to venture into a campaign that, from a distance, looks incredibly promising. Set over Strait of Hormuz shipping lanes disrupted by fictional Iranian revolutionaries, the long game lets players manoeuvre a naval taskforce and handpick mission targets and routes. Enemy activity is completely unscripted. Dynamic campaigning, once a fairly standard combat sim component, is back! Perhaps in a week or two we'll have the pdfs, tooltips and robust savegames necessary to enjoy it.

Short game options are surprisingly thin on the ground. The lack of multiplayer I can live with, but I'm disappointed a dab of the Quick Dogfight button doesn't reveal 'choose adversaries/venue/time-of-day' invitations.

Wednesday's update eliminated the harsh vignetting that made cockpits and seascapes squid-ink black in the first public build (Many of the pics accompanying this piece were taken before the change). As a consequence I'm getting to know a VC that, while it lacks the functionality of, say, a DCS interior, has enough clickable buttons and working gauges and MFDs to place CAP2 closer to Falcon 4.0 than HAWX on the flight game complexity spectrum. Target acquisition seems straightforward – choose radar mode – ground or air - and then cycle through available prey. A FLIR pod is available for visual selection of ground targets for stand-off weapons, but thus far I've been unable to persuade it to obey my inputs.

Flitting between Aerofly FS 2 and CAP2, the Middle Eastern sim winds up looking decidedly dowdy. Something about the drab terrain textures, blocky towns, and austerity weapon effects puts me in mind of Eurofighter Typhoon (2001), one of the last flight sims brave enough to pitch pilots into an unscripted war. Sim155 have more important work to do at present than fussing with visuals. Perhaps a clever customer will work out a way to make desert-hemmed coasts look sandier and seas a little less Atlantic.

It took almost a decade to turn the Jump Jet prototype into a practical military aircraft. Hopefully CAP2's considerable potential will be realised a little faster. Until the manual appears and more of the bugs have been banished, I'm afraid I can only recommend virtual VTOLing to the brave, the tolerant and the waterproof.

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