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Test Drive III: The Passion (DOS)

Unsafe At Any Clock Speed

The Good
Upon its 1990 debut, Test Drive III was unique in many ways. As one among several early 3D driving titles, it included what users had come to expect from the genre: a flat-shaded polygonal environment that could be navigated in any direction. But Test Drive III also offered a living, breathing world full of life, and a sense of immersion unattainable in most of its contemporaries.

The game was beautiful. Its environment was full of colorful hills, fields, trees, lakes, barns, and wildlife. Butterflies would sometimes splatter on your windshield, but the pixelated mess could be removed with the windshield wipers - a nice touch. Squirrels and chickens scampered across the roadway in various places, and both could be squashed under the wheels of your car. Even an occasional cow loitered at the roadside, but hitting one was not a good idea!

But TD3 was about more than just terrorizing the local fauna. Plenty of creative touches fleshed-out the world environment, including working traffic lights, thunderstorms, snowstorms, and a variety of non-player vehicles including trains and airplanes. You would occasionally find yourself stopped at a railroad crossing waiting for a train to pass, or using your wipers to clear raindrops accumulating on your windshield. Exploration was encouraged, as the world was sprinkled with shortcuts and hidden treasures. Intersections and forks offered multiple routes to the finish line, and the player always knew he was heading in the right direction when the text on the road signs was visible. Sound effects were adequate, and there were three in-game radio stations to choose from, offering rock, classical, and country MIDI music.

The cars cockpits were also highly detailed, with working headlights and windshield wipers, a compass and radar detector, and a rear-view mirror. Engines could blow if over-revved, and the steering would be knocked out of alignment by rough driving. Outside, the 3D vehicle models were nicely built, complete with trim pieces and functioning brake lights. A good selection of driveable cars included the Lamborghini Diablo, a Chevy CERV III, and a Pininfarina Mythos, with an Acura NSX and Dodge Stealth R/T Turbo available in an expansion pack.

The Bad
The absolute shame about Test Drive III is that it presented the player with such a wonderful set of features, and then completely ruined the racing experience with what might be the worst control scheme of any driving game ever released.

To begin with, the steering seemed to offer only two turn rates: frustratingly gradual, and unmanageably fast. Following a curve was nearly impossible as you would constantly veer left and right of the racing line. Even simply changing lanes was a test of the player's patience, requiring several taps of the keyboard just to break the car's exaggerated tendency to continue in a straight line. In fact, the entire game quickly devolved into a white-knuckled, button-mashing effort to simply stay on the road, which typically ended with an unplanned trip across a field and into the nearest tree. Control was even impossible with a joystick, which behaved more like a glorified keyboard.

These control problems were exacerbated by the game's second major flaw, its CPU-dependent timing. The programmers apparently neglected to tie the simulation engine to the realtime system clock, so the game essentially ran as fast as your computer. A 33MHz 386 was about ideal for running the game at a normal, playable speed. A 486 would run the game too quickly, making driving even more difficult than it already was, and with a Pentium processor, minutes would whiz by like seconds on the clock at the upper left of the screen.

The oblivious AI drivers presented another source of constant frustration. Police cars were either extremely aggressive or insanely stupid, because they would indiscriminately ram you during pursuit. But the biggest in-game threat was presented by the bitmapped trees, which refused to scale beyond a certain size as you approached, making it difficult or impossible to tell how close they were. The hapless player would often find his hood wrapped around a pine tree that appeared to be forty feet in front of him.

These problems were ultimately fatal to gameplay, and after hours of losing races, the frustrated player would throw in the towel and simply tour the 3D environment at a manageable 35mph.

The Bottom Line
Test Drive III had the potential to be a standard-bearer, offering a glimpse into the future of 3D gaming. It seamlessly combined a lot of unique and innovative elements into one package, and included charming touches that have not been replicated even twenty years later. But an impossible control scheme and frustrating technical quirks made the game more fun to watch than to play.

By SiliconClassics on November 14, 2009

Chuck Yeager's Air Combat (DOS)

A classic in every sense of the word.

The Good
Chuck Yeager's Air Combat managed to squeeze an awful lot onto a few 5 1/4" floppy disks. It offered six flyable fighter planes, one from each side of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. It made excellent use of a 256 color palette, with beautifully drawn cockpits and menus. It also made good use of audio, offering MIDI music and digitized sound through the relatively new 8-bit sound boards of the day. As the main menu loaded, Chuck Yeager's voice would greet you, and he provided pithy commentary at the close of each mission. For those who remember PC gaming back in 1991, this was all quite impressive.

The 52 prepackaged missions, which are based on actual historical engagements, are plentiful and varied. Though there is no real campaign mode, each war offers over a dozen discrete missions with diverse objectives: escorting friendlies, intercepting bombers, attacking airbases, combat air patrol, and so on. The player can also design his own rudimentary engagements, pitting any flyable plane against up to five of any other. Trying to take down a few F-4 Phantoms in an FW-190 is more than challenging!

In the air, Chuck Yeager's Air Combat offered a believable and nuanced flying experience. Planes climbed and turned at a realistic rate, speed and altitude significantly affected maneuverability, and combat damage was nicely implemented. Flying too fast could destroy your plane, while flying too slow would cause a stall (accompanied by a remarkably flatulent sound effect). Excessive G-forces caused blackouts and redouts. Pop-up windows offered useful information, like a graphical view of the flight envelope and helpful hints by Chuck Yeager. And enemy A.I. was competent, offering a challenge regardless of any performance advantages of your fighter.

Graphically, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat was by no means innovative, but it was reasonably attractive. Both the 2D menu illustrations and 3D game environments were colorful and nicely detailed. Gameplay graphics, though composed almost entirely of boxy flat-shaded polygons, offered nice touches like semi-transparent clouds and smoke, bitmapped explosions, and a wide variety of camera angles. Terrain was punctuated with hills, fields, buildings, and rivers. Missions could be recorded and saved for playback on a VCR-style replay system. And everything was coded efficiently enough to be playable on a modest 286 with 640KB of memory.

The game box contained a very nice spiral-bound manual that provided step-by-step introduction on the principles of flight, some historical background for the various conflicts and theatres, and full-color schematic illustrations of the flyable airplanes. As a bonus, the box also included a companion VHS tape called “Air Combat” which featured Chuck Yeager relating his experiences as a fighter pilot. The game's informational content alone justified its price tag.

But perhaps the best thing about Chuck Yeager's Air Combat is that in 2009, nearly twenty years after its release, it is still heaps of fun to play. In an era of high-resolution textured graphics and ultra-realistic flight models, its diagrammatic simplicity, cheeky presentation, and engaging gameplay offer a unique and memorable experience that will probably never be duplicated.

The Bad
A common grievance leveled against the PC version of Chuck Yeager's Air Combat is the omission of multiplayer capability, which for some reason was only offered in the Macintosh version. With such engaging gameplay, it's a shame the sim didn't give friends a chance to blow each other out of the sky, though in its defense, networking was hardly a standard feature on personal computers in the early 1990’s. The game also lacks a mission builder, limiting its replayability since a devoted player could probably master all of the pre-packaged missions in just a few days.

Though air combat is set in three different geographical locations, no effort was made to graphically differentiate the game environments. Whether you're flying over Western Europe, Korea, or Vietnam, you're always staring at the same flat green landscape dotted with occasional hills and fields. There are no large bodies of water, the weather is always sunny, and the time of day never changes.

Realism fans might decry the generous quantities of cannon ammunition supplied with each plane, the lack of rudder controls, or the fact that planes seem to move in slow-motion (apparently because they were scaled-up by the game engine to increase visibility). There are also no enemy SAM or AAA sites to contend with - though they do appear on the ground, they are completely inactive. The cockpits, while attractive, don't provide very informative gauges, which are little more than black circles with red needles, thus forcing the player to resort to using an unrealistic full-screen HUD to see his actual airspeed and altitude.

The Bottom Line
As an air combat simulator, Chuck Yeager's Air Combat achieved a rare feat: it offered a compelling mix of realism, accessibility, and fun. For many proto-enthusiasts of the genre, myself included, it was a great introduction to what would become a lifelong hobby, and nearly twenty years after its introduction, it stands apart as one of the most memorable and enjoyable combat sims ever made.

By SiliconClassics on October 6, 2009

Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger (DOS)

By SiliconClassics on October 3, 2009

Air Duel: 80 Years of Dogfighting (DOS)

By SiliconClassics on September 6, 2009

Air Duel: 80 Years of Dogfighting (Atari ST)

By SiliconClassics on September 6, 2009

Flight Unlimited (DOS)

Ground-breaking and gorgeous, though not without its limitations.

The Good
When Flight Unlimited debuted in 1995, there was nothing else like it on the market. Never before had a commercially available flight sim offered such a compelling combination of beautiful fully-textured graphics and an innovative, realistic flight model. And not since Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer 2, released some five years earlier, had a sim focused primarily on aerobatic flying. Flight Unlimited instantly raised the bar within the flight sim genre, and its processor-hungry graphics were the excuse many gamers needed to finally upgrade to Pentium-class hardware.

As an audiovisual experience, Flight Unlimited was an absolute standout, especially in an era before 3D accelerators. It featured beautiful photorealistic terrain, fully-textured virtual cockpits, and high-fidelity audio, all of which summed up to a deeply immersive experience. A wide variety of viewing angles gave you a thorough look at your aircraft from both inside and out. Pushing the plane to its structural limits caused the airframe to groan and creak under the stress. The wind howled at high speeds and the sun threw lens flares across the screen. Even the main menu was a treat, eschewing the traditional 2D point-and-click interface for a three-dimensional FBO that could be explored much like a first-person shooter. To select your plane, you chose one of five 3D models on a table at one end of the room. To change airports, you strolled over to a globe, and to view the game credits you walked to an arcade machine. Occasionally, a dog would bark in the distance.

Once you were airborne, Flight Unlimited’s ground-breaking aerodynamics model immediately made its presence felt. The planes moved in a very convincing, nuanced manner thanks to real-time computational fluid dynamics, which simulated the airflow across each individual flying surface. Stalls, spins, and other envelope-breaking maneuvers could all be performed, and transitions between flight attitudes were smooth and natural. The gyroscopic effects of prop-torque would assert themselves as you throttled-up, while excessive g-loading and aerodynamic flutter could rip your plane apart. The atmosphere even featured thermals, pockets of rising air in which glider pilots circle to stay aloft, which provided an extra challenge when soaring the the Grob.

Flight Unlimited offered a good amount of “edu-tainment” value, as it included over 30 interactive lessons for a variety of aerobatic maneuvers, as well as basic factual information about each of the included planes. It also offered an excellent variety of configuration options to suit your hardware and skill level. A variety of resolutions (up to 640x480) and visual quality settings allowed owners of 486 systems to get in on the action, while realism options like indestructability made the sim accessible to neophytes. And it even supported virtual reality headsets, a bonus for the handful of people who actually owned one.

The Bad
Despite all the aforementioned pizzazz, "Flight Unlimited" is a bit of a misnomer, since the sim is actually quite limited in scope. Most civilian flight simulators place an emphasis on navigating through a realistic world environment, with features like dynamic user-configurable weather, comprehensive instrumentation, and geographically-accurate terrain that contains a bevy of navaids and airports. In Flight Unlimited, you’re stuck over a small, tiled patch of land with a single landing strip. There are no other planes in the sky, no buildings on the ground, and no instruments aside from the essential altimeter, variometer, airspeed indicator, load indicator, and throttle gauge. The cockpit doesn’t even feature a compass, since it really doesn’t matter which way you’re headed – there’s nowhere to go. The net effect was limited playability, and after experimenting with the various planes, locations, and aerobatic maneuvers for a few hours, there was little left to do.

Of course, Flight Unlimited’s narrow scope was a conscious design decision springing from a focus on innovation and aerobatics, and to fault the sim for it would be like dismissing a Formula-1 racecar for its lack of trunk space. If fiddling with radio frequencies during six-hour flights over farmland was your thing, Microsoft Flight Simulator was happy to oblige you. Looking Glass did eventually add the standard flight-sim staples to Flight Unlimited II and III, but they diluted the sim in the process, and neither sequel had the character or appeal of the original.

One final note: despite the computational wizardry behind Flight Unlimited’s fluid dynamics model, it was a bit rough around the edges. Ground handling was utterly horrid, which made takeoffs and landings a complete waste of time. And extreme maneuvers would occasionally produce unrealistic results like impossibly rapid spins that ripped the plane apart.

The Bottom Line
As an innovative, beautiful, and historically significant sim, Flight Unlimited definitely deserves a place on any collector’s shelf. It is by no means a substitute for more comprehensive civilian flight simulators, and it won’t offer any opportunities to down Messerschmitts over the English Channel, but it will provide several hours of unique entertainment and leave a smile on your face.

By SiliconClassics on August 29, 2009

JetFighter II: Advanced Tactical Fighter (DOS)

A fun and accessible sim with limitations.

The Good
Jetfighter II offers a lot of value - five flyable aircraft, the entire west coast of California, carrier ops and appealing graphics. It's easy to step into thanks to its relative simplicity. By 1990 standards, the 3D aircraft models are nice, and the user-controllable external camera means you'll definitely get a good look at them.

It's fun to buzz around in JF2, especially in San Fransisco where you'll get a chance to weave through buildings and bridges. The atmospheric color effects are nicely done, and the sky actually darkens as you gain altitude. The sun and moon trade places as night falls and the sky turns a deep shade of purple.

You can dispatch enemy fighters with Phoenix, AMRAAM, and Sidewinder missiles, or switch to the cannon if you're in the mood for a challenge. The ground attack arsenal features Mk82 and Mk84 bombs, and there are kinetic energy missiles for variety. A weapon cam lets you see the carnage firsthand.

Carrier landings, which require you to deploy the arresting hook, are nicely modeled. The game provides an ILS to help line-up the approach, and if you're right on the money, you can switch to a tower view to catch the last exciting moments.

The Bad
The campaign missions are EXTREMELY repetitive. In fact, nine out of ten are almost identical: You depart from the carrier and fly east. As soon as you reach land, you'll release some chaff to evade the one and only SAM launch of the mission. Bomb a few ground targets, down a couple of MIGs, then head home. Winning the campaign means that you'll be doing this over and over again for hours. After a while, it starts to feel like work.

Aside from the repetitive campaign, JF2's biggest weakness is its plywood-facade world environment. Though expansive, the terrain is completely flat, with only an occasional field or building to break the monotony. More disconcerting is the almost complete lack of life: no enemy radar sites, no activity at the airports, and no ships on the water except your carrier. Compared with F-19 by MicroProse, which was released years prior, Jetfighter II's world is so quiet it's almost spooky.

Though the game features five planes, there are only two generic cockpits. While this does make it easier to switch between different aircraft, it detracts from the sim's overall realism. Since their performance characteristics are so similar, you might forget which plane you're flying until you switch to an external view.

Lastly, though decent for its time, the flight model feels mechanical. The planes maneuver in a very linear fashion, and it's almost impossible to stall above 200 knots, regardless of how you yank the stick. Sometimes it feels more like driving than flying, but again, it was good for its time.

The Bottom Line
Jetfighter II, like Chuck Yeager's Air Combat, was a very good sim for its day. Its instant flight mode lets you jump into any of the planes at various airports on the coast, with up to three bogeys to make things interesting. In addition, it offers a single mission mode and a campaign mode called "The Adventure," where you'll fight for control of the west coast.

In all, JF2 offers five aircraft - an F-14, F-16, F-18, F-23 and F-22. But since 90% of the Adventure missions are carrier-based, it's rare that you'll get a chance to fly the F-16 in the campaign. Falcon fans take note.

Graphics were good for its day, with a convincing gradient horizon and subtle light-source shading on the planes. Performance is great on 386 and 486 CPUs. The environment features some of the more notable San Fransisco landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the pyramidal Transamerica building.

However, the repetitive mission structure and nearly catatonic world environment mean that the game gets old fast. After you've buzzed around San Fransisco and blown up a few targets, there isn't much else to do. JF2 is a good beginner's sim, and probably appealing for collectors, but experienced fighter jockeys ought to look elsewhere.

By SiliconClassics on June 19, 2009

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 (Windows)

By SiliconClassics on January 18, 2009

Live for Speed (Windows)

By SiliconClassics on January 10, 2009

Viper Racing (Windows)

An overlooked gem that still sparkles after a decade.

The Good
Viper Racing's single greatest asset has to be its incredibly realistic physics engine. On par with Grand Prix Legends, another mid-90's hardcore racing sim, Viper Racing's physics were far superior to most driving sims of the era, and have only recently been surpassed by titles like Live for Speed and GT-R.

Factors like inertia, torque, aerodynamics, weight transfer, brake and tire wear, and a host of other forces are all accurately modeled in the game engine. Rev the engine and the car lurches a bit. Brake excessively and the discs glow red. Apply too much throttle in a turn and the rear wheels break free, sending you spinning into an outside corner. And if you hit a wall hard enough the suspension will bend, making it difficult to drive in a straight line. In fact, the entire vehicle deforms in a very believable way upon impact, making multi-car accidents fun to watch. Viper Racing was also one of the first PC racing titles to fully simulate a clutch, which can be mapped to a button or a pedal, or set to "Auto" for effortless paddle-shifting.

For those who appreciate physics, Viper Racing is a wonderful sandbox, offering lots of freedom to experiment. The suspension, drivetrain, and aerodynamics are all adjustable, but the sim includes some non-standard features as well. Tapping the "W" key causes the car to pop a wheelie, and holding it down sends you tumbling through the air. A hack called "Horn Ball" shoots a two-ton bowling ball out the front of your car, knocking opponents around as though they were toys. You can even raise the suspension height to twenty inches and go off-roading over desert sands and grass hills. Forget about racing - hours of fun can be had simply experimenting in the game environment.

A physics engine is, of course, just one piece of a bigger picture that includes elements like level design, gameplay, and network play. The eight bundled tracks are all-original and well-conceived, offering a good mix of challenge and driveability, and even a few opportunities to go airborne. They can also be raced backwards for variety. Gameplay modes include time-trials, quick races, and a career mode that offers progressive car upgrades. Computer-controlled opponents are competent and aggressive, with three difficulty levels. Network play allows up to eight players to compete on a LAN. And a few additional vehicles are available for fun, including a powerful mid-engine exotic, a 4WD sports sedan, and even a hackneyed airplane that can soar far above the track.

Viper Racing also offers a wide array of camera views. The typical in-cockpit, third-person, and trackside views are supplemented by a top-down POV and even an in-car view that displays the front wishbone suspension, springs, and wheels, which are entertaining to observe while you negotiate turns and crest hills. A full VCR-style replay complete with basic telemetry graphs is available after every race.

Despite its age, Viper Racing benefits from a tightly-knit online fanbase which has produced dozens of add-on cars, tracks, and utilities, and also organizes racing championships. Though the only car to receive any attention in the original game was the Dodge Viper, the physics engine is versatile enough to simulate front and all-wheel drive vehicles, so the 3rd-party Celica and monster truck all operate in a believable way. Between the original package and all the add-ons that have been created over the years, Viper Racing offers dozens, perhaps hundreds, of hours of playability.

The Bad
Like many hardcore simulations, Viper racing is much deeper than it is wide. Vehicle and track variety is very limited, so casual racers will quickly grow bored. It's a shame that this sim didn't offer a wider variety of cars out of the box. Thankfully, the online community has filled the gap, and GT-spec versions of the Porsche 911, McLaren F1, Toyota Supra, Ferrari 360 Modena, and Lotus Esprit are available as add-ons, to name just a few.

Viper Racing would also have benefited from the inclusion of some real-life racetracks. Though the bundled circuits are fun and challenging, many hardcore sim drivers want to do hotlaps at Spa-Francorchamps or Monza. Once again, the online community has stepped-up and several real-world add-on tracks are available for download, along with a track-management utility.

For all its realism, Viper Racing does lack a few standard damage-related features. The engine can never be over-revved or destroyed, even if you smash into a wall at top speed. Wheels, body panels, and other parts remain firmly attached no matter how violently you wreck the car. Tires never blow and fuel never runs out. One wonders why such fundamental features weren't implemented in an otherwise realistic sim.

Several users have also complained about the omnipresent "reset" feature, which allows both human and AI drivers to immediately restore their wrecked vehicles to the road in pristine condition with a tap of the spacebar. It creates an incentive to cheat and detracts from overall realism, especially during serious races where drivers ought to stay out of the running once wrecked, and it cannot be disabled.

A few quirks aside, the chief complaint about Viper Racing is that there is not enough of it in the box, which suggests that the core of the sim is good enough to warrant further development. Thankfully, most of Viper Racing's major shortcomings have been addressed by the online community, so there are currently no reasons to avoid this title, assuming you can actually find a copy.

The Bottom Line
Viper Racing is a detailed simulation of the Dodge Viper that appeals principally to hardcore sim racers. Casual gamers who wish to drive a few quick races interspersed with fancy mo-capped cinematics and flashy graphics will surely be disappointed, but anyone willing to invest the time and energy to update and master the sim will find it a richly rewarding experience. A wheel and pedals are necessary to really appreciate the driving experience.

By SiliconClassics on December 27, 2008

Stunt Driver (DOS)

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Sports Car GT (Windows)

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Su-27 Flanker: Squadron Commander's Edition (Windows)

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Microsoft Flight Simulator for Windows 95 (Windows)

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Police Quest 3: The Kindred (DOS)

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Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (DOS)

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Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out! (DOS)

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Star Wars: TIE Fighter (DOS)

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Stunts (DOS)

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Star Trek: 25th Anniversary (DOS)

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SimCity 2000 (DOS)

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