Report from E3
Some Impressions of
Combat Flight Simulator 3

"Battle for Europe"

By Maurice Pratt
Senior Managing Editor
AVSIM Online

Thursday, May 23, 2002

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Darryl Saunders and Tucker Hatfield demonstrating CFS3 to Avsim's Maury Pratt

AVSIM Online attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) being held at the Los Angeles Convention Center in California this week to take our first look at CFS3—though only about a third of its development is completed, what we saw looked remarkably like a finished product. My host was none other than Tucker Hatfield, Microsoft's Program Manager for Simulations Products in the Entertainment Business Unit. Microsoft's Product Manager Darryl Saunders joined in to be sure we covered as much as possible during our hour together.

Though the CFS3 demonstration site was in a sea of seemingly endless PC Games and X-Box software titles, I didn't have too much trouble finding them—I couldn't miss the Spitfire mock-up above their display area! And to set the right mood, the demonstrations were set up on several PCs inside a simulated bomber interior.

CFS3 "The Battle for Europe" replaces the original CFS. Placed in Europe from 1943 to the end of World War II, the emphasis is on low-to-the-ground air combat; players can choose to fly for the U.S. Army Air Corps, Britain's Royal Air Force, or for the German Luftwaffe. As previously reported (see Avsim's Interview with Tucker Hatfield), a new graphics engine underlies CFS3 adding new realism to high-speed, low-altitude strafing runs and bombing missions. And there's much that's new for cooperative multi-playing.

This product is so feature rich that I can only provide a glimpse here. Mainly we discussed "what's different" as the Flight Simulator/Combat Flight Simulator franchise evolves—you can draw your own conclusions about the implications for future versions of Flight Simulator! To that point I asked Tucker and Darryl about the extent of technology transfer between the general aviation and combat simulator teams. The answer is that while both teams operate independently, conceptual improvements implemented in each version are likely to find their way into the other during its next update cycle. I asked, for example, "Do you exploit the nVidia GeForce-based graphics card's T&L features?" With a smile Tucker showed me subtle reflectivity effects influenced not only by the sun's position but by proximity to the ground scenery as well. "But what if you don't have as capable a 3D card?" I asked. "Then you'll see pretty fair results, but they'll be generated in software."

The Aircraft

Similarly to the original CFS, CFS3 offers classic fighter aircraft such as the U.S. P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang, the British Hurricane and Spitfire, and German Messerschmit Bf-109 and the Focke Wulf 190 fighters. New additions with CFS3 are the British Typhoon Mk1B and Tempest Mk5 fighter/bombers, the B-25 Mitchell and B-26 Marauder medium bombers, the German JU88 bomber; and the original Luftwaffe jets, the Me 262 and the Gotha 229, and also the U.S. P-80 Shooting Star. Another included, rarely-seen interceptor is the U.S. P-55. Eighteen different planes in all, and now all the AI planes are flyable as well.

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P-55
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P-80 Shooting Star
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Me-262

There's more detail than ever in the external views, with stunning reflectivity that varies with the surface being reflected. For example, worn and weathered areas contrast clearly with "new metal" areas. The greatest change, though, is that now all cockpits and their panels are displayed only in virtual view. Nevertheless, the gauges are amazingly sharp and readable, even when the view size is decreased. You won't miss the conventional 2-D panel!

By the way, it's easy to change zoom factors and to manipulate the view position to set up action screenshots, so the foreground plane doesn't seem to fill the screen at the expense of what else is in the view. I also saw a feature that takes successive screenshots; you can capture fascinating images of aircraft and ground target damage sequences. (We'll be working with Darryl's team to get some to show you.)

Speaking of damage effects, these are more highly refined—it's no longer a question of either taking a minor hit or exploding instead. You not only see progressive damage (whether it's one of your squadron's planes or an enemy aircraft), but the plane's subsystems are affected by the kind of damage inflicted. Rather than "damage areas," the simulator now models damage to specific aircraft subsystems, altering the plane's performance accordingly. Of course, damaged surfaces and exposed structural details add to the realism of it all.

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Luftwaffe JU88 light bomber

The medium bombers provide a new and welcome mission element: tactical bombing. The gunner's position(s) are manned by AI "crew;" though you can fly that aircraft by AI and man the guns yourself. And what a racket they make! In multi-player mode partners can handle the guns and bombardier positions while you fly the aircraft. With this kind of variety now possible in CFS, we'll probably see 3rd-party ventures adding heavy bombers and as well as other interesting planes from that era such as Britain's Canberra light attack bomber.

Responding to feedback from previous CFS versions, you'll now find a library of "nose art" with which to tailor the planes you fly, to create a squadron identity for your and your wingman's planes. By the way, you'll need to distribute any custom squadron icons you create to your buddies so they can install the same textures on their systems.

Scenery

As you would expect, it just keeps getting better and better. As with FS2002, scenery objects are based on land class information. The big news is that texture resolution has been improved from CFS2's 1Km (other than the more detailed Guam and Hawaii) to CFS3's 120 meters throughout. That's all of the UK and Europe, extending to France and Germany's southern borders. The team obtained especially good satellite imagery of the Ruhr valley—low-level attacks there will be just awesome! The team exploited autogeneration technology very effectively, especially in the realistic depiction of trees, hedgerows, and even detailed depiction of fields of grass as they rush beneath you. The clouds are completely new, and I have to say "set the bar" for the next Flight Simulator version to match.

Missions and Campaigns

The campaign layout is completely different in CFS3. Nothing's repetitive. Each mission's outcome will always be different in successive flights; the defense's responses will be different depending on the attacking force structure as well as outcomes of previous attacks. Your personal capabilities improve with experience.

We didn't check out CFS3's multi-player capabilities (much of this is still in development), but clearly this aspect is a major focus. Tucker's already highlighted the strong cooperative player features implemented in the Campaigns (Again, see Interview with Tucker Hatfield for details). We talked about AI performance and especially wingman performance. While similar to CFS2 in this regard, Tucker assured me that AI performance is more precise, particularly with realism with wingman aircraft while flying in single-player mode; they're said to respond more effectively to the squadron leader's commands. In addition to comms between planes, there's now a "squadron buddy list" for shared communications. The number of message types has been increased too (though while you'll hear attack warnings from your squadron's planes, and targeting information from ground controllers, you're still on your own to maintain situational awareness and to navigate to home base).

Customization facilities

The CFS3 team's gone all-out to make everything customizable—as Tucker said, "We lowered the bar so it's easier to get into." CFS3 was designed with customization in mind—it's more accessable to a wider range of people. For example, the aircraft's air and mdl files are quite similar to those in Flight Simulator and CFS2; you can import a new plane's mdl file into Gmax and export it to CFS3. Gauges are defined in an XML-like language, which very much simplifies defining gauge functions, calibration, and appearance. Incidentally, you can easily select and design your own choice of a few gauges you want in the view forward (instead of showing the cockpit itself).

In a welcome departure from previous practice, the Aircraft SDK is delivered "in the box;" it's an inherent part of the CFS3 product. As for the Mission Builder, XML's the name of the game; anyone reasonably familiar with html coding can define missions, add objects and more using user-readable data files. (A mission building toolkit will be available after CFS3's initial release.)

Looking ahead

There's an AVI that introduces CFS3's themes and mission elements; this is a "must see" we'll get for you shortly. What's next? "We've lined up a symphony orchestra to create the ambiance we want." And the rest? "Refinement, refinement, and more refinement. We're not setting the system requirements until this process is further along; as we realize that stating 'minimum system requirements' doesn't cut it – who wants to fly a combat sim with features turned off?" We couldn't agree more!

 


For ongoing information about CFS3 visit the Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator 3 News website.

 

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