Fleet Defender: The F-14 Tomcat simulation. (Entertainment Choice) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Scott A. May
Few combat simulations allow you to experience the challenge and satisfaction of a total team effort quite like MicroProse's Fleet Defender: The F-14 Tomcat Simulation does. Armed with cutting-edge graphics and advanced flight dynamics, it should catapult the veteran simulation publisher to the crest of success.
Fleet Defender stands out from similar products for several exciting reasons. To begin, it's the first full-scale simulation of carrier-based air combat. Few sensations can compare to the adrenaline rush of a carrier launch--unless it's the dead-on accuracy you need to catch the 3-wire and land your 30-ton Tomcat on a flattop flight deck less than 300 feet long.
Flying the two-seater F-14 means you must pull double duty, serving not only as pilot, but also as RIO (Radio Intercept Officer). You'll also have increased reliance on and detailed interaction with your wingman, the better half of your two-ship CAP (Combat Air Patrol). Indeed, one of Fleet Defender's greatest strengths is total integration--within your multi-CAP squadron as well as among a wide variety of mission support craft. You get the exhilarating feeling that you're part of something much bigger. Rather than being the main focus, as in other combat sims, you're an invaluable part of the overall scheme.
Simulation purists will be pleased with the realistic flight model. At the game's highest difficulty rating, the aircraft's response is unbelievably true to the modeled forces of lift, thrust, drag, and gravity. Other points of interest are the effects of air density and weather (such as humidity) on aircraft and weapons performance, since the vast majority of your flight time is spent over water.
Combat purists, on the other hand, are asked to accept certain liberties taken with aircraft models and historic time frames. Here's the rub: Although the simulation is modeled on the F-14B, this upgraded version of the aircraft was not in service at the time of the featured campaigns. To achieve maximum realism, the designers would've had to model the older F-14A, with noticeable performance degradation. It's a slight compromise that most true fans of the genre can accept.
Instead of wasting time (as other sims do) with opening animations, Fleet Defender shoots you right into action. You can choose to enter either of two full-theater campaigns, or you may select Training or Scramble. This last option--involving a single sortie generator for quick-and-dirty flights--characterizes the game's overall sense of urgency. Between the pulsepounding music and streamlined setup screens, there's definitely an air of frenetic energy that's passed directly to the cockpit.
Choose your mission-generating options: enemy type, skill, number, and formation; starting altitude and relative position; time of day; weather; and squadron (based on eight real-life Top Gun units). One of the mission generator's few limitations is the inability to face more than one enemy type from the more than 30 aircraft and helicopters available. A probable reason for this is to provide pilots as much fun and flexibility as possible without crossing the line into flights of fantasy.
Training occurs at the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. Although completely optional, it's recommended that all rookie pilots spend time in the Fleet Readiness Training program. Absolutely crucial is the wingman training, given the simulation's detailed interaction and the strategic importance of your wingman. While other games may use the wingman as mere cannon fodder to cover your six, most Fleet Defender scenarios will fail without effective teamwork.
Campaigns unfold in two large theaters of play: off Norway's North Cape and that perennial hot spot, the Mediterranean. Theaters are divided into three campaign scenarios, each containing multiple mission sets. They're based on both historical and fictionalized conflicts involving U.S., NATO, Israeli, and various Soviet-backed forces. Most intriguing and disturbing is the Mediterranean fantasy campaign, Carrier Duel. This frightening precursor to World War III pits an outgunned U.S. carrier force against an all-out Soviet assault just north of the Gulf of Sidra.
You begin each campaign with 20 Tomcats aboard the carrier. Every aircraft you lose during your tour has an immediate impact on future success. Lose too many planes, and in some scenarios, you won't be able to complete the campaign.
By nature, the F-14 is a support unit, so most missions require that you take a defensive stance, flying escort for specialized ordnance delivery or intercepting incoming enemy attacks on the fleet. Your main objective throughout is to protect your carrier at all costs. Successful missions earn points, medals, and promotions--advances which give you a higher grade of squad members and wingmen.
Fleet Defender boasts some of the most diverse and impressive military hardware of any recent combat simulation. You'll encounter over 30 enemy fighters, bombers, and helicopters. You must also contend with more than 30 types of air-to-air, air-to-surface, and surface-to-air missiles (both land and carrier based).
Fans of MicroProse's widely underrated F-15 Strike Eagle III will be pleased to find many of the same designers, programmers, and graphic artists on board this flight. Those who are familiar with the previous title's keyboard layout and setup will take off with minimal assistance. Others will appreciate the ability to run through the training missions with manual in hand, pausing the simulation to study instrument displays, toggle view modes, or test various key assignments.
The simulation comes with two manuals: gameplay instructions and campaign notes, both well written, nicely illustrated, and informative. The first covers initial game setup, hardware configurations, on-board controls, flight dynamics, cockpit displays, and basic avionics. The second explores basic and advanced combat maneuvers, details the simulation's campaign scenarios, and provides descriptive appendices on friendly and enemy aircraft, weaponry, and naval vessels. The five-page glossary is an invaluable reference for the simulation's amazing collection of acronyms and military slang. The only thing missing is a comprehensive index.
The graphics are phenomenal. Without doubt, these are the best MicroProse has yet produced. The same graphics technology used in Strike Eagle III is used, but with much greater success. Most remarkable are the new texture-mapped aircraft, a marvelous replacement for traditional flat-edged, shaded polygons. Enterprising pilots can conceivably customize the bitmapped graphics used to wrap the polygon models. Imagine creating your own squadron logo and having it appear on your aircraft! Other delights worth noting are fully functional multiscreen cockpit displays and sensational sky and water effects.
The sound is also unbelievable, particularly the stereo effect of missiles launching, the Doppler effect of passing aircraft, and the disconcerting change in pitch during a G-force redout. Your wingman contributes digitized speech.
Fleet Defender aims a little higher than most other combat flight simulators, not just in its scope, but in its entire approach. Perfectly structured for both novice and seasoned fighter pilots, this multilayered carrier-based simulation is bound to thrill a wide, receptive audience.