Amiga Power1st January 1992
Published in Amiga Power #9
The Argonaut team finally get their collection of 40 (very detailed indeed) planes off the ground with the most-delayed piece of software in history (probably).
Birds Of Prey
The sheer quantity of flight sims I've reviewed in the last few months makes me wonder whether no-one else in the Amiga Power office actually likes them. Not at all, I'm assured, they love them. It's simply because they're such a warmhearted, thoughtful bunch and reckoned I might like a change from doing wargames. That's fine by me - I'm never happier than when exploring the heavens with a joystick between my knees - but I've got this nagging feeling that I'm slowly being labelled a flight sim buff, the sort of person who spends rainy Sunday afternoons standing on the roofs of airport terminals taking down aeroplane registration numbers. It's not true! I just sort of like flight sims. A bit. Anyway...
Argonaut, the people behind Birds Of Prey, are no strangers to huge, 3D epics. In fact they've built their reputation on them. But this is their first flight sim, and they've been working on it for absolutely ages. So how does it differ from the other 3,166 flight sims I've looked at this month alone? And is it any good?
Reaching New Heights Of Flight
Birds Of Prey's main distinguishing feature is the number of different planes it simulates. It's really rather a large number, the sort of number that's hard to visualise in terms of tangible objects, like pineapples. You can probably visualise five pineapples okay, and just about get your mind around ten. Or perhaps fifteen. But try to imagine 40 pineapples laid out on the table in front of you. It just can't be done, can it? But that's the unfeasibly large number of distinct types of aircraft Birds Of Prey lets you choose your 'mount' from. There are 27 Western aircraft and 13 Soviet ones, and they range from nippy fighter planes to hulking transport aircraft, with all sorts of weird and extremely wonderful types in between. You'll have hours of fun just reading their technical specifications. (Or possibly not.)
And the other one (distinguishing feature, that is) is detail. Argonaut have thrown caution to the wind and abandoned rapid screen updates (more on that later) in favour of packing as much detail as they can into the graphics. I won't present you with a list right away, but it's worth bearing in mind that undercarriage doesn't just disappear when you press 'U', it actually retracts, with a suitable whirring sound. And after you've loaded up your plane with missiles and bombs you can actually see them hanging off the wings. And cockpits have pilots sitting in them. Hangar doors open and close. Radar dishes rotate. Runway lights come on at night. And stars come out too. It's beautiful, it really is. (But more on that later as well.)
Feeling The Need For Speed
Birds Of Prey's layout is pretty similar to any other flight sims. Having set up a pilot, and decided which side he's on, you then go through a series of screens choosing a mission to fly, a base to fly it from, a plane to fly it in and an array of weaponry to accomplish it with. These sections are all strictly functional, and, apart from some attractive pics on the 'missions selection' screen, are unadorned with the pretty animated graphics normally associated with this sort of thing. The overall effect is reminiscent of Carrier Command - just the bare essentials, really. In many ways this is quite disappointing, but it does lead to the advantage however, that you don't have to sit through hours of disk accessing every time you crash and want to start a new mission. (In fact - and here's another remarkable Birds Of Prey statistic - the whole blooming game loads off just the one disk. There's absolutely no disk swapping to be done at all!)
The Carrier Command feel extends into the rest of the game too. Although the hardware you'll be using is clearly either Western or Soviet, the war you'll be using it in is a more abstract affair, fought in an imaginary world between Side A and Side B. This takes a bit of getting used to. I have to admit. But if you can manage to suspend your disbelief, playing the game is actually jolly good fun. The missions are as involving as any I've flown before, and far more varied than most (just take a look at some of the screenshots) - indeed, the only area really missing is dogfighting. Technically, you ought to be able to go chasing after MiGs, following them through all your favourite textbook dogfighting manoeuvres before downing them with a burst of cannon fire, but in practice I found that most kills tend to be made (as would happen in real life with many of these planes, most probably) at long range with missiles, and you never really get up close at all.
Then of course, there are the graphics, which are nothing short of superb. Each type of aircraft is reproduced in intricate detail, right down to things like proper cockpits (with pilots in) and round wheels. Control towers have windows (which I'm sure have people behind then if you look close enough, though I couldn't swear to it), and there are even trees dotted about the place with green leaves and brown trunks. Mind you, you have to be flying pretty (and dangerously!) low to see all this - most of the time it tends to go unnoticed, and Birds Of Prey looks just like any other flight sim.
Watching A Zoom With A View
The other major graphical innovation lies in the way objects are coloured. I'm not too hot on all these technical terms, but Birds Of Prey uses a technique which I believe is called 'light source shading'. What this means, in effect, is that surfaces are dark if they're turned away from the sun, and light if they're facing towards it. You don't really tend to notice this unless you're looking out for it, it has to be said, but it seems to give the graphics a subtly 'realistic' edge.
There are all the usual viewing angles as well, which can be zoomed in and out of and panned about, along with rather a nice line in views of all the other planes in your area, including enemy ones. Picking up a blip on your radar and then cutting to a close-up of a MiG, screaming in for the kill really does bring home the message that you're just about to die.
Sound is another thing that's worth a paragraph of its own. From the moment you start up your engines and kick in the reheat you know you're onto something - i.e. the sound effects are really good. As well as the splendid engine noise, which varies depending on whether you're flying a jet or propeller plane, there are numerous subsidiary effects. (I can feel another list coming on.) For starters there's the wonderful, gut-wrenching sound of a missile being unleashed. This contrasts with the gentle 'gliding' noise your plane makes if you run out of petrol in mid-air. And don't think sound is just limited to your own plane. Fly past another aircraft and you can hear its engines too, and the same goes for tanks. This may not be terribly true-to-life, but what the heck, eh? Other effects are stranger still: don't quote me on this, but I'm sure I can hear seagulls flying round my airbase. Finally, while machine guns sound decidedly limp, the resulting explosions more than make up for them (although the visual accompaniment is a bit weedy, it has to be said). But enough about sound - back to the graphics.
Ah yes, the graphics. Um, there's a bit of a problem.
There's only one snag with all this extravagance, and you've probably guessed it already. Remember I mentioned screen updates? Well, there aren't very many. Maybe one or two per second when things get really hectic, and about four at the most on an internal view with the detail level set right down at minimum. This means that things are noticeably jerky, quite seriously so in fact, and that's a problem which has consigned many previous flight sims to otherwise undeserved oblivion.
Poised For A Runway Success
Argonaut are trying to claim that frame rate is some sort of pointless macho thing, and detail is a lot more important, but I'm afraid I really can't agree. The controls are sluggish enough as it is (joystick or keyboard control is a complete no-no, and even the mouse tends to be a bit erratic), so the last thing you need in the heat of the battle is to have to wait for up to half a second to gauge the response to your actions, only to find you've gone a bit too far in one direction, then correcting only to find (another eon later) that you've overcompensated, and your plane is wobbling hopelessly all over the sky. True, you do gradually get used to it, and after a day or so you can almost believe you've learned to live with the problem. But you've only got to load up Falcon, Interceptor or Thunderhawk to snap you out of it, and make you realise just how much of a difference slick graphics make.
But I'm not going to condemn Birds Of Prey just because it's got jerky graphics. It's simply got too much else going for it. For a start, it's brilliant fun to play - your first couple of weeks of ownership will probably be spent simply trying out all the different sorts of plane, while flying missions will keep you going for goodness knows how long. And even when you think you know the manual off by heart (and considering the size of the bleeding thing, that little task should keep you occupied for a year or two), you'll still keep discovering new pull-down menus and options, and, well, all sorts really. (It's that complicated.)
So there we are, then. Although they haven't quite pulled it off (unless you're lucky enough to own an Amiga 3000 or something), Birds Of Prey is a truly marvellous game - a real progression for the flight simulation genre - and I can firmly recommend it to anyone who likes this sort of thing.
Birds Of Prey: The Top Five Missions
The choice of missions is big and deep and wide and tall in Birds Of Prey, so any pilot worth his salt (or, indeed, not worth his salt) will soon feel perfectly at home shooting the hell out of things.
From the twelve types of mission available to pilots in Birds Of Prey (and the myriad variations beyond that on each type), I've picked my five favourite favourites. It was tricky though - there are an awful lot to choose from...
1. Air Superiority Everyone's fave - shooting down enemy fighters - but which plane will you choose to do the job in? I tend to go for the F-15, not just because I fancy myself a bit of a Tom Cruise, but also because it carries the corking Phoenix missile, which can destroy a target a mindboggling 124 miles away (without you even having to be able to see it). It also makes for some impressive carrier launch sequences, although the subsequent landings are nowhere near as easy as Tom makes them look.
2. Stealth Bombing The plane everyone's talking about at the moment is the Lockheed F-117 Stealth Fighter (although it's really more of a bomber). Here's where you can put it through its paces, sneaking up on the unsuspecting enemy and dropping your payload on their heads before they've had a chance to do anything about it. Should the F-117 prove too lightweight, the B-2 Stealth Bomber is a bit more hefty, but no less stealthy. It's a bit wobbly to fly, though, being very flat and wide.
3. Reconnaissance Not the most inspiring of choices, you might think, but I've included this one because it gives you the chance to go for a spin in an SR-71 Blackbird, possibly the wickedest plane ever built. (It's just so... black.) Flying at three times the speed of sound, and ridiculously high, you've got to hope you can outrun the enemy for long enough to take a few snapshots of their most secret installations. Other contenders for the job include the flimsy TR-1 and the crap Bear, neither of which are half as much fun.
4. Supply Drop Again, it doesn't sound terribly exciting, but you get to see the brilliant effect of your Hercules/Antanov's cargo bay opening - from inside the plane!
Marvellous stuff. Having done that, you've got to fly unfeasibly low over the drop area so that your payload can be delivered safely, remembering to close the door again before heading for home. Your plane is a bit on the vulnerable side though (to say the least) so it's best to take a couple of friendly wingmen along to back you up.
5. Test Piloting If you haven't been impressed so far, wait 'til you've had a crack at this. The X-15 is the world's fastest, highest flying aircraft, and here's where you can have a go at test flying it. First, though, you've got to fly its B-52 'mothership' to a suitable altitude before pressing the left Shift key to launch the X-15 and kick in its rocket engine. If you take it high enough into the atmosphere you eventually reach the darkness of outer space, and can see lots of stars. Brilliant.
The Bottom Line
Uppers: Phenomenally comprehensive, with a wider choice of aircraft than every other flight sim ever put together. Loads of variety mission-wise. Splendidly detailed and realistic graphics, with the sound to match.
Downers: Unfortunately, the screen update is painfully, excruciatingly jerky, and there's not a lot you can do about it (except grit your teeth and try to pretend it doesn't matter). And the controls are as unconvincing as ever.
Certainly the most complex flight sim to date, and quite possibly the most enjoyable to play - it's virtually guaranteed to hold your attention for months. But, at the risk of labouring the point, those darn jerky graphics will ruin it for many.