Flight, fight games soar to new heights

Planes: With several good simulator and arcade-style titles out for PC and console play, would-be pilots can let their imaginations take off.

December 25, 2003|By Kevin E. Washington | Kevin E. Washington,SUN STAFF

Revving up your engines to take to the air was once only the domain of those with the time and resources to learn how to fly. But the personal computer and, now, even the video game console can put you over some of the most beautiful terrain or in the most harrowing dogfights.

This year has been a good one for those of us who enjoy flight simulators and arcade-style games. Not only did Microsoft continue its excellent franchise (this time with history as its simulator's main theme), but we saw more titles for the consoles, for which there had been a dearth of flight games. And those who enjoy first-person shooting games could even combine that with their fancy for flying.

If you enjoy flight, but aren't sure what to buy, be mindful that there are two different types of games out there.

The first is the simulator, which tries to get you up in the air in the same way that a flight instructor in a real airplane would. Microsoft has received kudos for creating the most realistic civil aviation simulation on the market.

Of course, many wanna-be pilots think a civil aviation simulation is dull; they want to fight in the air.

Arcade-style flight games, on the other hand, involve flying and a lot of fighting while leaving out some of the more tedious details that make the flight simulations challenging - such as having to aim your plane to accurately deliver bombs in combat.

This is not to say that you won't be challenged in an arcade-style game, but the goal is having fun more than realism. In most of the flight games, you can toggle the view so that you are following your aircraft rather than looking out from the cockpit.

If you're buying a game for someone else, first find out just what they like best about flying - the cloud formations or the way bullets riddle a Nazi bomber.

No matter what type of flight game you play, you'll probably want to purchase a joystick to cut the frustration of precise maneuvers like, say, a carrier landing. While a few console players have mastered the controller well enough that they can fly using the left-thumb joystick, this is not one of my many talents.

A joystick with a heavy base and a throttle - either as a slider on the joystick base or on a separate base - will give you a more real feeling of flight control.

This year, I've found several solid gaming contenders for flying fun.

My favorite is the only honest simulation in this group, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 : A Century of Flight ($50 for the PC). The game has actually been featured around the country at science and air museums as part of a computer demonstration of the Wright brothers' Flyer, which celebrates its centennial this year.

In the simulated museum Flyer, you lay out on surfaces reminiscent of the original 1903 Wright Flyer and wiggle your hips to help steer.

The game itself delivers some interesting experiences if you aren't into aerial combat. (If you're a fan of more realistic war gaming from the cockpit, Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator 2 and CFS3, from years past, are excellent choices.)

You can take the Wright brothers' Flyer, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and other aircraft on historic flights. These aren't particularly great fun by themselves unless you're a civil aviation history buff, but there are new weather controls and flying some of these old crates through a weather pattern from one airport to the next can be a lot of fun.

If wartime action is a desired as part of your airtime, Battlefield 1942 ($30 online for the PC) by Electronic Arts may be a more entertaining option. Battlefield gives you control not only of a first-person shooting character, but of all of the vehicles in the game. About 35 vehicles - including battleships, submarines, bombers and tanks - can be commandeered to do battle.

If you want to jump immediately into the flight aspects of the game, go to the "instant action" mode and choose a battle that mostly involved aircraft.

A good, solid joystick is helpful in this game - not only for flying, but driving the other vehicles.

Battlefield 1942 also offers the option of online play, which has garnered rave reviews.

LucasArts has a bit of nostalgia going for it in Secret Weapons Over Normandy, an arcade-style flight game for the PC, PS2 and Xbox.

You play as James Chase, an American fighter pilot who has joined a squadron that takes on special missions over Europe and the Pacific. You can fly in the "campaign mode," learning about the special squadron, or the "instant action" mode that takes you right into combat. You can unlock upgrades to airplanes by flying specific missions. When all is said and done, you will have flown more than 20 aircraft if you go through a complete campaign.

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