Insert Microsoft joke here
Though you probably didn't realize it, sometime in mid-1997 five different software houses simultaneously experienced matching massively multiplayer epiphanies. The basic idea went something like this: if online flight sims weren't so damn hard to fly, if they weren't plagued with awkward command line interfaces, if they didn't cost an arm and a leg, well, then, by george, they might just have been as popular as everyone had initially hoped. What each developer couldn't have known, of course, was that his four competitors were all too ready to blast him out of the online skies. Perhaps because of that competition, we flight simmers were treated to some unusually long (and free!) beta tests. Boy was it great!
If I wasn't on iMagic's Fighter Ops flying a Spitfire XIV then you could probably find me in the new A6M2 Zero featured in Kesmai's Air Warrior III; if I wasn't in either of those two places, then you can bet I was on the EIDOS website salivating over Confirmed Kill screen shots while my multi-tasking monster was repeatedly trying to access the overcrowded Flying Circus from SimGuild. No doubt you careful readers have already noticed the past tense and nostalgic tone here. Yes -- sad but true - most of the free betas came to an end last week.
After several days of searching the Game Revolution office for something to interest me, you can imagine my delight when our UPS guy delivered a shiny new CD bearing the inscription Fighter Ace. Fighter Ace, if you haven't heard, is the relatively un-hyped online flight sim just released from Microsoft - the first "premium" (read: not free) game available on the Internet Gaming Zone. Like most online flight sims, you don't buy Fighter Ace in a store, you download the front end software and then pay a daily ($2.00) or monthly ($20.00) fee for playing time. Unlike all the others, Fighter Ace inanely requires you to install and use the Microsoft Internet Explorer (apparently "technical problems" with Netscape render it incompatible with The Zone... yeah right). This annoyance, in fact, is the very reason I never tried Fighter Ace before when it was available in free beta. Call me anal, but I like to keep a clean hard drive and the Internet Explorer has a tendency to not willingly leave your system, even when you ask it to nicely.
Brave game reviewer that I am, I reluctantly installed an old copy I had laying around and, of course, that just wasn't good enough; it seems The Zone is incapable of sending you those stunning web pages without the very latest in Microsoft technology. After a painful visit to www.microsoft.com and a not-so-quick download of the newest version of IE, my situation became more than just slightly annoying. It so happens that my brand-spanking new copy of IE didn't want to work with The Zone either. To make a three-day-weekend-long-story short, I was forced to completely reinstall Windows 95 and then install the Internet Explorer (yet a third time!) just to get Fighter Ace to work.
I'm sure you can imagine my fear after I had finally logged onto The Zone and cautiously positioned my mouse cursor over the "Fighter Ace" option. The next click, I thought, was sure to set my computer on fire. Guess what? It didn't. In fact, Fighter Ace itself worked flawlessly. (Internet Explorer? Well that buggy mess is another story.) I was delighted to find that after that inordinately huge hassle, the actual game loaded quickly and was both easy to install, configure, learn and play. Even Microsoft's hateful policy of "no manuals, cause nobody reads them," did little to detract from my enjoyment of this action-packed flight sim. That very first time online I jumped into the cockpit of a good-old Spitfire IX and before I could even begin to search for online help, a series of simple one-line messages told me how to start my engine, taxi and take off. In no time at all I had scored five kills and had an entire Soviet squadron on my six convinced that I was some hot-shot ace who needed to be taught a lesson.
Fighter Ace works much like Warbirds 2.0 and Air Warrior III: first you choose a country, then you choose a plane, and, finally, you shoot everybody in sight. (Everybody but your comrades, of course.) Like Warbirds and Air Warrior, you can also select an arena to play in based both on the realism of the flight model and the skill level of the pilots. The resemblance pretty much stops there. Unlike these flight sim classics, air field selection is automatic, capturing airfields is not part of the game, and bases are so close together it's hard to gain enough altitude to utilize energy tactics. Worse, with limited cockpit views and so many planes concentrated in a small area, it's near impossible to evade death even with self-admitted packs of newbies hunting you. Also unlike Warbirds and Air Warrior, the damage model is totally unrealistic, the AA much too accurate, and plane selection is relatively limited (four planes per country, for a total of sixteen). Fighter Ace also lacks the polish of the old-timers: neat features like parachutes, bombers, switchable gunnery positions and real-time voice communication are notably absent.
On the positive side, no other online flight sim can match the constant, fast and furious action of Fighter Ace and since so few people fly in the realistic arenas, the crowding and close proximity of the airfields is not really a problem there. Flight models in the realism arenas are much better than one would expect in this arcade-sim hybrid (landing, though, is much too easy) and Fighter Ace has a great replay feature which allows you to record your online dogfights and watch them from any pilot's perspective. Unlike most flight sims, the keyboard rudders are actually useful and all command keys are remappable. The planes themselves are simply beautiful and the ground structures are not shabby either, the terrain is ugly at ground level and decent at 2,000 feet. Graphic and terrain detail is customizable so you're likely to get good performance even on low-end machines but, as with any online game, you'll need a good ISP and clean connection to minimize lag.
Though Warbirds and Air Warrior pilots will find no reason to switch to Fighter Ace, Microsoft's new sim is currently the easiest way to get started in the online skies. New pilots will no doubt appreciate the fast action and elegant command interface. The fact that you're guaranteed to be in the middle of a furball within 20 seconds makes Fighter Ace a great place to practice your skills. Plans for a Fighter Ace update are already in the works and if the attitude of the helpful customer support is any indication, this new online sim is definitely one to watch.