diskMAGazine (Mar 1992) : BOP-Review.txt

This is a review of Birds of Prey, a new flight simulator from Argonaut
Software and marketed by Electronic Arts.  BOP does a lot of things very
well, and a few things not so well.  BOP is available from:

     Electronic Arts
     Langley Business Centre
     11/49 Station Rd, Langley
     Berks, SL3 8YN
     England
     (0753) 49442 

Birds of Prey is HD installable and will run under AmigaDos 1.3 or 2.04 on
any CPU.  It requires a minimum of one megabyte of ram.  It has manual
lookup copy protection, but it is fast and relatively unobtrusive.  An
MS-DOS version is in the works and is scheduled for early '92.  Prices
vary, but are generally in the $35 to $50 range.


Initial Impressions
-------------------

My first impression of BOP was not favorable.  Luckily, this changed later
on.  First of all, BOP comes on two disks.  One is chiefly consumed with
holding the introductory animation, which is quite nice.  After installing
BOP on my hard disk, it would not run.  A little bit of fiddling
determined that BOP did not like a program I run upon startup which copies
the system stack to high speed 32 bit ram instead of slower 16 bit ram.
No other software which I have yet encountered, either commercial of
public domain, has had a problem with this.  After commenting out that
line from my startup-sequence, BOP invoked properly.

The next problem was the manual based copy protection.  The game will ask
you for statistics on various aircraft, and the manual is careful to warn
you to type these in exactly, using the same decimals, spaces, etc.  So I
typed in "3245 kg" without realizing that you are not supposed to type in
the UNITS, only the number.  This caused me no end of grief, since the
game would not let me past this point.  Eventually I thought to try it
without the units, and it worked. 

The Game
--------

BOP lets you fly 40 different types of aircraft on various missions.
These range from the best modern high-tech fighters in the world, such as
the F-16, F-15, and Mig 29, to older combat aircraft, such as the F-104
Starfighter, to cargo planes and tankers (C-130, KC-10), reconnesance
aircraft (SR-71, U-2), experimental aircraft (X-15), stealth aircraft
(F-117, B-2), and bombers (B-52, B-1, F-111).  This is but a small subset
of those available.  You can fly NATO (both American and European) or
Warsaw Pact aircraft, based on land or carrier, fixed or variable wing,
and many other types (I haven't even mentioned most of the Soviet
aircraft).  Exploring the different aircraft is lots of fun.  Absent are
the ultra-new fighters (F-22 and F-23), and older piston engine planes
(P-51 Mustang, B-17, etc).  There are a few prop planes, but this is
primarily a jet simulator.

There are currently 12 missions available to fly.  When you pick a
mission, BOP will rule out some aircraft right away (for example, you
can't use an F-15 from a carrier, or fly troop drop missions in an F-4).
Other than that, it lets you pick from a fairly large list of applicable
aircraft, and makes no attempt to influence your choice.  It is possible
to pick an aircraft only marginally suited for the job at hand.  For
example, I once tried to fly fighter escort for a B-1 bomber in a F-5
Tiger II.  The F-5 is a fairly lightweight plane, slow unless under full
afterburner, and it had troubles keeping up with the B-1.  Part of the fun
of the game is selecting the right aircraft for the job - you need to pick
one which is capable of using the type of weapons you need.

Once you pick the mission and aircraft type, you can pick the armament to
carry.  This is one of the most well done aspects of the game.  A view of
each aircraft is displayed along with the exact hardpoint configuration of
that plane.  (A hardpoint is a location on the aircraft to which bombs,
missiles, fuel tanks, and other useful gadgets can be attached).  You see
a list of possible weapons which this plane can use.  This list differs
for each aircraft type.  Sometimes, a particular weapon will only work
with one type of aircraft.  (The Pheonix missile, for example, can only be
attached to an F-14A Tomcat).  You can attach a weapon to a hardpoint by
dragging its icon over the hardpoint and clicking the mouse button.  You
can remove things from hardpoints and reconfigure the aircraft just as
easily.  This lets you pick what you think is the optimal set of weapons
to take on each mission based on the type of mission, distance, expected
threat, and weight of the armament.  The only potential problem with this
aspect of the game is that a flight simulator novice might be intimidated
by the range of choices available, since there is no default or
recommended configuration.  You could even fly unarmed if you so wished.
If the aircraft you want to fly cannot lift the weapons you want, you can
reduce the internal fuel supply and meet up with a tanker once airborn.

Once you select your weapons and read the mission description posted to
the screen, you have committed to fly the mission.  You start out sitting
in the aircraft in the hanger or carrier.  You start up the engines, taxi
out on the runway, and stop.  Proper takeoff procedure is to apply wheel
brakes, set flaps to 15 to 20%, throttle up to 100% power, and release the
wheel brakes to begin the takeoff roll.  This procedure is necessary with
some aircraft, because even though you have increased the throttle control
to 100%, the engines may take a while to ramp up to that power level.  It
doesn't matter for powerful fighters, but if the aircraft has a long
takeoff roll or is heavily laden, it is important.  This is an example of
the sort of small thing that adds realism to the game, which is often
missing in other flight simulators.

After you air airborn, you can put the gear up and relax for a bit before
you get into enemy territory.  This is where the autopilot comes in handy.
In BOP, distances and times all match real life.  This means, for example,
that if your target is 600 km away, you might have a 45 to 65 minute
flight to even get close.  (That is 45 to 64 minutes of _real_ time as
well as game time). It might also be necessary to refuel en route - more
on this later.  In any case, since this time is spent just cruising along
happily, the autopilot can be used to "compress" time.  The autopilot is
well done.  You can select a waypoint and tell it a cruising altitude.
You are then treated to a nice outside view of your aircraft flying past,
and a few seconds of real time later, you have arrived.  The autopilot
will disengage en route if any threat is detected.  Also, you probably
don't want to arrive actually AT the waypoint, if that is what you are
trying to attack.  Rather, you can tell the autopilot to disengage at any
distance from the target (such as 60 km, to give you time to get your
bearings, arm weapons, get into the right HUD mode, etc., before the
attack).  Once you arrive, the autopilot dumps you off in straight and
level flight at your indicated location and altitude.

The method of attacking the target differs greatly depending on the target
and weapon types.  At the easiest, it involves simply selecting a target
and launching a fire-and-forget weapon.  At the most difficult, it
involves using "dumb" weapons, aiming modes on the HUD (Heads Up Display),
etc.  The HUD has roughly 5 or 6 modes available for various things,
including navigation, various types of weapon assistance, landing, ground
attack, etc.  Various types of radar are also available for specific
tasks.  Some aircraft are also equipped with internal cameras (SR-71, U-2)
or internal bomb loads (B-52, F-111, etc).  After flying a ground attack
mission in an F-15, you might make a 80000 ft pass in an SR-71 to
photograph the damage.

Many times, your aircraft will not have enough internal fuel to fly the
entire mission.  If you run out of fuel, you can schedule a rendezvous with
a tanker aircraft.  Doing this is something of an art.  You have to time
it so that the tanker gets to your indicated waypoint just as you do.  You
don't want it circling there for a long time, since it is a sitting duck
for enemy fighters.  You also don't want to wait around for it if you are
running out of fuel.  Once it arrives, you get behind it, match speed,
altitude, and heading, and engage the refueling auto pilot.  In theory, it
might be possible to pilot the plane in close enough manually, but this
would be very difficult, so usually you just get close and let the
autopilot take over.  You can then watch the refueling from inside or
outside of your plane.  Refueling is also useful for lightweight aircraft
with low take-off weights.  You can't put very many weapons on an F-5
before it is too heavy to take off.  To get around this, you can reduce
the internal fuel supply to leave more weight available for weapons.
Then, once airborn, you can refuel.  Some long duration missions in the
game may require refueling multiple times.

BOP is a mission style game with certain campaign elements as well.  For
example, blowing up an enemy factory will reduce their ability to create
new aircraft to send up after you.  The enemy eventually fixes things that
you destroy.  Pilots accumulate experience and can be saved to disk
between missions.  Also, your missions are not the only thing going on.
As you fly, other missions in other types of aircraft are flown out of the
same base, some attacking enemy positions, some trying to defend you if
you get in too much trouble.  (Once, while flying an A-10 on a ground
attack mission, I encountered two Mig-21s.  I had no air to air weapons,
so I thought I was history.  However, my home base scrambled two F-4s
which attacked and killed the Migs before they got close enough to kill
me.  Actually, one F-4 was killed in the engagement, which reduced the air
power on the friendly side).  Occasionally, while flying escort for a
bomber, an air engagement will take place 100 or so km away.  If there are
no immediate threats to the aircraft you are escorting, and you have fuel
to burn, you can go help out your side in the engagement, and then return.


How does it stack up?
---------------------

I've tried to pick out key areas of the simulation and grade BOP on each
one.  Also, I have compared it to several other well known simulators just
to get a feel for the relative merits of the game.

  Simulation Detail:

     BOP is one of the more detailed simulators you are likely to find.
     Aircraft performance is extremely realistic, and there are marked
     differences between different aircraft.  There are a few unrealistic
     areas - I feel that gun combat is far too easy, for example, and a
     few aircraft types seem to perform "too well" in some cases.  Overall
     though, the simulation is very good.  The authors have done an
     excellent job of researching flight parameters for each aircraft,
     down to details such as fuel load and consumption rate, speed versus
     altitude information, precise weapons ability, etc.  Missiles have
     realistic flight times, something sorely missing from early (1.0)
     versions of Falcon and Strike Eagle II.  Landing sink rates are
     realistic - you will damage your aircraft if you land very hard.
     This may be frustrating to new pilots, but the game has an "easy
     landing" mode in which the plane can take much more abuse.  There are
     a wealth of control options available - every key on the keyboard
     except "caps lock" is mapped to some function, and a few things are
     only available through menus.

     Grade: A-   (Falcon = B, F/A-18 = D, F-15 Strike Eagle II = D+,
                  F-19 Stealth = C)


  Graphic and Ground Detail:

     BOP is probably about average here.  There is some ground detail when
     you get close to it (trees, a few buildings here and there, sam and
     radar sites), most of which goes away when you get above 2000 feet.
     The sky reflects the time of day (dark at night, etc) and altitude.
     The terrain database is nothing spectacular and doesn't even reflect
     any real-world location.  There are no clouds or shadows (although
     there is day and night).  The terrain is large enough for realistic
     mission times (several hours of real time without autopilot).

     Grade: C   (Falcon = B, F/A-18 = D+, F-15 Strike Eagle II = A-,
                F-19 Stealth = A-)


  Aircraft Images:

     BOP uses filled polygon images of other aircraft.  They look about as
     good as you can expect them to look.  You can even see the weapons
     you have mounted on your plane - when you launch one, you can see it
     detach, ignite, and fly away from the outside view.  Enemy fighter
     aircraft look OK, the few times you can get close to them.  You can
     also get close to aircraft on your own side, such as tankers,
     wingmen, etc.  Aircraft appear at realistic sizes - ie, you don't get
     a good look at them until you are less than 1 or 2 km away.  (At 5
     km, in real life, a small fighter will be just a small dot if it is
     visible at all.  Some simulators show a much enlarged image, which
     has always looked odd to me).

     Grade: A-   (Falcon = B, F/A-18 = C, F-15 Strike Eagle II = B-,
                  F-19 Stealth = ??)


  Bugs:

     BOP has a few bugs.  Several times it has crashed (the game, not the
     plane).  Also, there are a few other less critical problems - if you
     damage an aircraft's gear upon landing, sometimes the next aircraft
     you fly will start out with no wheel brakes.  If a missile is
     launched at you but you break the lock with flares or chaff, unless
     you TURN after that, it will hit you anyway.  This is important to
     remember...  (But isn't really all that bad, since you get a good
     look at the missile as it whizzes by).

     Grade: C   (Falcon = B+, F/A-18 = A, F-15 Strike Eagle II = A,
                  F-19 Stealth = A)


  Sound Effects:

     BOP has extremely well done sound effects.  Played through a good
     amplifier and set of speakers, the jet engine noise sounds as if you
     are really there.  The whine of the turbines ramping up is there, the
     particularly satisfying base rumble of the afterburners, the noise of
     the undercarriage being retracted, and even seagulls near the coast
     as you fly over at low altitude (rumor has it that if you can get
     close to one of these gulls, you can see it flap its wing).  If an
     enemy missile passes near your plane, not only do you see it go by
     realistically, but you hear it as well.  You can also hear other
     aircraft that you are close to.  It seems as if certain aircraft have
     different sound characteristics - other than the obvious prop vs jet
     noise, the F-117 steath makes a slightly different noise than the
     F-15, etc.  If you shut off your engines in mid flight, you hear the
     air whistling by.  Bombs dropped will produce a nice explosion after
     they hit.  Not only are all the right sounds there (as they are in
     F/A-18), but they are all well done, clean digital samples.  The game
     really deserves to be played through a good amp and set of speakers.

     Grade: A+   (Falcon = C+, F/A-18 = B, F-15 Strike Eagle II = C-,
                  F-19 Stealth = F)


  Flight Models:

     BOP models aircraft flight dynamics very well.  Aircraft have
     momentum in rolls, the higher they are the harder they are to
     control, and performance varies with weight and speed.  Ie, an F-16
     cruising at 400 knots may be able to pull up or turn quickly, but on
     full afterburner at 900+ knots, it will be much less agile.  BOP is
     about the only simulator I've seen which models this very well.  The
     F-16 in Falcon always seemed much too manoeverable at high velocities.
     Turning is realistic - bank a tanker or cargo plane, and it will turn
     slowly.  Bank a high performance fighter, and it will keep going more
     or less straight until you pull back on the stick.  Bank it just a
     little, and it needs synchronized rudder use to turn well.

     BOP is also the only simulator I've seen which models "sideslip".
     Most simulators model "angle of attack", which is the vertical angle
     between where your nose is pointed, and where your aircraft is
     headed.  BOP not only does this, but also models sideslip, which is
     roughly the same thing for another axis.  For example, if you are
     flying straight and level and kick the rudders hard to one side, your
     aircraft nose may yaw to one side, but you won't really be _going_
     that way.  This can be a little disconcerting since the nose will
     tend to drift back to its old heading.  

     Some other simulators model flaps as a binary "up or down" flag - BOP
     models the actual angle of flaps.  It does similar things for wing
     angle in swing wing aircraft, and this has a very noticeable effect on
     flight handling.  BOP also measures the exhaust valve angles for
     vertical takeoff aircraft such as the AV-8B Harrier.

     About the only thing I've noticed wrong with the flight model is that
     some aircraft seem to be able to fly at high speed under too low
     throttle settings.  The F-15, for example, can fly at a few hundred
     knots at only 25% throttle.  I don't know if the real plane does
     this, but I doubt it, even for a powerful aircraft such as the 15.
     Other aircraft are not that way though - the F-4 has a rough time
     breaking 600 knots at 3000 ft even under full afterburner (it does
     better higher up).  Overall though, BOP is probably the most detailed
     flight dynamic model you are likely to find in a PC sim, coming in at
     slightly better than the revered Falcon.  (If you are used to
     automatic rudder control, you are in for a surprise).

     Grade: A  (Falcon = B+ (A- ?), F/A-18 = D, F-15 Strike Eagle II = D+,
                  F-19 Stealth = C+)


  Flight Control:

     BOP is best played with an analog joystick.  Some of the aircraft are
     difficult (or near impossible) to play with a digital joystick or
     keyboard.  The mouse seems to have too much travel to be useful for
     much.  So BOP gets mixed marks here - high for supporting analog
     joysticks directly, and low for poor digital joystick support
     (although this is probably at least partially due to the realistic
     flight dynamics).  It is worth buying an analog joystick to play the
     game, if you don't have one already.

     Grade: B-    (Falcon = B, F/A-18 = B+, F-15 Strike Eagle II = C,
                  F-19 Stealth = C)

  Speed

     BOP runs very fast on a 68030 or 68040 based Amiga.  It is probably
     over 20 FPS, and maybe closer to 30.  On a 68000, it doesn't fare
     quite as well, being just barely playable.  (Maybe 4 fps?)  However,
     the game provides a method to scale graphic detail to make for faster
     animation on slow machines.  I wish their most detailed mode was a
     little more detailed though.

     Grade: B-    (Falcon = B-, F/A-18 = A, F-15 Strike Eagle II = C,
                  F-19 Stealth = C)


  "Fun Factor":

     All this is fine and good, but is BOP fun?  Yes, its a blast.
     (Excuse the pun).  In spite of its shortcomings, you can loose hours
     in this game.

     Grade: A    (Falcon = A-, F/A-18 = B, F-15 Strike Eagle II = C,
                  F-19 Stealth = C-)  (highly subjective!)


  "Look and Feel":

     BOP could use some improvement here.  One particularly bothersome
     thing is that when you look out the back or sides of the aircraft,
     your view changes, but you still see the front cockpit instrument
     panel!  This is one of the most bothersome things about the game.
     Also, if you switch to an outside view without first getting a full
     screen view, the you will see the outside view and the cockpit at
     same time.  This is also strange, especially at first before you get
     used to it.  These are two of the biggest flaws in BOP.  Also, AWACS
     data is available from the cockpit of any aircraft, something
     probably not true in real life.  BOP also does not model the
     different radar capability of various planes - an F-4 doesn't have
     the same powerful radar as an F-14A in real life, but in the game, it
     does.  Aircraft also share a common instrument layout, which is
     either a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view.  (It
     would be a real hassle to have to become familiar with 40 different
     instrument layouts).

     Grade: C-   (Falcon = A-, F/A-18 = C-, F-15 Strike Eagle II = C+,
                  F-19 Stealth = C+)


  Difficulty:

     The game has some challenging aspects, including the mastering of the
     myriad of controls available.  On easy skill levels, there are only a
     few older enemy fighters, and your long range radar guided missiles
     almost always hit the enemy.  On high skill levels, you can run into
     6 Mig 29s, your long range missiles rarely hit anything, and the
     "all-aspect" capability of your air to air missiles is much
     diminished.  (Ie, they work a whole lot better if you are pointed at
     the enemy plane's tail when you launch them).

     Even on the most difficult level, though, combat is "masterable".  It
     is definately no push-over, but there are more difficult games to
     master.  It is too easy to get missiles off your tail, and you have
     too many flare and chaff rounds.  Guns are also frightfully easy to
     use compared to some other games, and they are too deadly once they
     hit.  Bailing out always seems to work.  Enemy aircraft tend to
     confine themselves to your altitude a bit too much (although they are
     thankfully not just the "tight-turn-to-the-right" type).  Landing, on
     the other hand, can be challenging, especially if you don't use the
     landing auto-pilot to get lined up properly.  Your sink rate must be
     fairly low (< 10 ft/sec) to avoid damage to the aircraft.  Also,
     unlike in other simulators, it is possible to loose all control of an
     undamaged aircraft in an unrecoverable manner even at high altitude.
     (For example, a flatspin in BOP is nearly always fatal.  I've never
     seen another simulator do a good job modeling flatspins.  In all the
     others, you can recover from almost anything if you have 20,000 ft of
     altitude to play with and an undamaged aircraft.  In BOP, you can
     get so out of control that you will not recover no matter what).
     Overall, BOP combat is probably a bit too easy for hard-core flight
     sim fans.  Even so, it is well worth obtaining just due to the
     "fun-factor" of the game.  Ranked from 1 to 10, with 10 being the
     most difficult:

     Grade: 6  (Falcon = 7, F/A-18 = 4, F-15 Strike Eagle II = 4,
                  F-19 Stealth = ?, Armour-Geddon = 8)


  Documentation

     The game comes with a roughly 1/2" thick, 186 pg manual.  It has a
     great amount of detail on various aircraft characteristics.  It also
     has a few tutorials and tips on various mission types.  What is
     _there_ is well done, but some details are left out as well.  (Ie,
     how exactly does the pilot skill level affect the mission difficulty?
     Does flying low help avoid detection by enemy radar?)  It is not bad,
     but could be better.

     Grade: B-  (Falcon = A-, F/A-18 = D-, F-15 Strike Eagle II = C+,
                  F-19 Stealth = B-)


  Aircraft Damage Assessment

     Different simulators model aircraft damage in many different ways.
     Most make some attempt to keep track of various subsystems of the
     aircraft which have been damaged.  BOP does an adequate job here, but
     not outstanding.  It will indicate if your wings are damaged, landing
     gear damaged, etc.  However, most damage taken in battle is either
     fatal or harmless - there doesn't seem to be much in the middle.

     Grade: C  (Falcon = A-, F/A-18 = D-, F-15 Strike Eagle II = ?,
                  F-19 Stealth = ?)


  Overall:

     BOP stacks up very well against other simulators, in spite of the
     flaws mentioned above.  I have played many flight simulators, and few
     have managed to entertain me as well as this one.  The sheer variety
     of aircraft types alone almost make it worth the price.  It would be
     nice if EA came out with a BOP II - I would like to see:

        * bugs fixes
        * add modem play option
        * playing back combat sequences from any angle or point of view
        * more aircraft types (older WW-II planes)
        * more innovative missions (perhaps a mission editor)
        * a map editor, and real-world map locations
        * more difficult gun combat
        * better aircraft damage assessment
        * accurate reflection of various aircraft avionics  (Ie, I doubt
          the F-104 even *has* a HUD in real life, but you get one in the
          game).
   
     Even now, though, BOP is a fine game.  If you are a flight simulator
     fan, you can't go wrong with this one.  Perhaps if enough people
     write to EA with suggestions, they will come out with a BOP II.  With
     a bit of refinement and some enhancements, BOP could easily become
     the definitive combat flight simulator.


        Steve Koren
        koren@hpfcly.fc.hp.com
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