This is an excellent flight simulator, a complex combat strategy game and an impressive shoot-'em-up, all rolled into one. The strength of this impressive and well thought out package is that it's enjoyable to play on all these levels and accommodates itself to the inept novice as well as the experienced simulator flyer.
At the learner's level, you can get your flying skills tuned up by using the practice mode, or if you want to get straight into aerial combat, opt for combat practice mode which gets you straight into a dog fight.
As you are flying a Harrier Jump Jet, there are not one but three methods of taking off - there's the conventional runway take-off, a short version for quick escapes and, of course, the vertical take off. Similarly, you have three types of landing techniques. All these are relatively simple to master (unlike a lot of flight simulators) and sensibly the challenge of the game is placed on your ability to pull off manoeuvres in the air rather than making the routine elements such as take off and landing unnecessarily difficult.
As you would expect, the game is best played using a joystick but you'll also be making full use of the keyboard which is chock full of single key commands for weapons systems, flight controls and radar systems. The cockpit display is packed with instruments but it's all essential and nothing has been included just for "effect". A nice touch is the tinted windscreen which houses a digital compass and height indicator, speed and vertical speed monitors, a pitch indicator and an all-in-one gunsight and roll indicator. Below them there are indicators for brakes, gear and flaps as well as warning and damage monitors. Along the bottom of the display are guages for fuel and thrust (which doubles for a message screen, air attack radar and what is known as the FOFTRAC map (Friend Or Foe Tracking Radar). The FOFTRAC map shows the landscape in the sector you are flying through as well as your own position and the location of enemy forces. Unfortunately it's often difficult to tell just what is going on in the sector as the symbols are very small and the registering of your own position at times seems erratic.
Once you have acquainted yourself with the aircraft and its capabilities you can then attempt a mission. There are three levels of skill to choose from: Pilot, Commander and Ace. The upper levels act as a sort of handicap, calling upon you to use greater flying skill and more accurate marksmanship to succeed.
The mission is to destroy the enemy's headquarters 250 miles away and the action takes place over a massive 512 sector map which contains over 3,000 mountains, 3,500 surface to air missile sites and over a thousand tanks. First, you must fly a reconaissance mission over the area you wish your ground forces to overrun, then establish a base before the ground troops can move up. Then it's onto the next sector. If this all sounds a bit strategical, it is, but there's plenty of opportunities to blast hell out of enemy planes and tanks. The mission will certainly take a lot of time and effort to complete and is ideal for those who like to become totally absorbed in a battlefield simulation.
An informative and comprehensive 28-page manual comes with the game and at the back are illustrations of defence and attack manoeuvres with evocative names such as The Scissors, The Split S and The Immelman. These are meant to resemble closely actual tactics used by Harrier pilots. In addition there is also a sheet which gives an illustrated guide to the cockpit and the keyboard keys. On the reverse side is the grid of the combat area which can be used for mapping.
Strike Force Harrier has been designed to be as authentic as possible and will probably exceed your expectations of a package of this kind.