DID’s F-22 Air Dominance Fighter certainly isn’t the first simulation of the Air Force’s next-generation F-22 Raptor. In fact, by the time F-22 ADF was released in the states in early February, NovaLogic and Mission Studios had both released follow-ups to their F-22 sims, and Interactive Magic had announced a sequel to its iF-22. But the DID sim proves what our grandparents always said: slow and steady wins the race.
While the other companies were caught up in a contest to be the first with the most -- or embroiled in the debate over NovaLogic’s attempt to secure exclusive rights to simulate the F-22 -- the talented folks at England’s Digital Image Design quietly polished their own Raptor sim, determined to create a game that would make us forget all the others.
The first way F-22 ADF does that is with the beauty and detail of its graphics. Running with a 3Dfx or Direct3D-compatible accelerator card, this is the most amazingly gorgeous sim on the market (with the possible exception of Longbow 2). Even without hardware acceleration, F-22 ADF is a visual wonder. As you take off, the detail of your home airfield is remarkable; climb to altitude, and you’ll pass through translucent cloud layers; pull some high-G turns, and you’ll see condensation trails forming along your wings -- not to mention the distant contrails of an enemy jet maneuvering for a shot at you. Lines of parachutes stretch out behind cargo planes as they drop supplies on allied troops, and back on the ground, the path of a truck convoy moving through the desert is marked by rising dust clouds. Every time you think you’ve seen everything F-22 ADF has to offer, there’s something more.
The view inside the F-22’s "glass cockpit" is very nice, too. Four large multi-function display screens (MFDs) and three smaller ones can be customized to give you just the information you want about nearby threats, radar targets, weapons systems, fuel and engine status, etc. -- and you can zoom in on any of them and operate it with a click of the mouse. The MFDs in F-22 ADF generally work the way they do in DID’s last sim, EF2000, but higher resolution graphics in the new game’s cockpit means they display more information more clearly.
The autopilot in F-22 ADF represents another improvement over EF2000, with seven different modes. In addition to the standard Waypoint mode that keeps you on your preplanned route, a Heading mode lets you stray from your flight plan while still under autopilot; Track mode maneuvers the jet to attack targets; Speed mode adjusts the throttle to keep your airspeed constant; Takeoff and Landing modes automate those mundane tasks; and a Refuel mode takes most of the risk out of in-flight refueling. The autopilot is made even more versatile by an in-flight waypoint editor that lets you move, delete, or adjust the altitude of any waypoint in your flight plan during the mission. This doesn’t just come in handy; it’s essential in missions where a predetermined waypoint turns out to be smack in the middle of SAM Central. This is a thinking man’s sim.
Are all of these features realistic? Probably not; at the very least, it’s unlikely that the Air Force would trust dogfighting and refueling to an automatic pilot. Then again, only a handful of people in the world really know what the F-22’s capabilities will be when the real jet goes operational. Obviously, many aspects of its systems are still secret, so a lot of speculation went into F-22 ADF. But DID’s version of the F-22 simply has a more convincing look and feel than the previous F-22 sims.
This is due in large part to the detail DID put into its simulated systems. The plane’s extremely stealthy design could be cancelled out by careless use of devices that emit energy and give it away, like radar, radio, and active jammers, so an emission control system (EMCON) is implemented that lets you manually or automatically adjust these elements as your tactical situation changes. At the stealthiest EMCON level, your radar is turned off, the AMRAAM radar-guided missile is disabled, you can’t use your radio to transmit -- even your secure In-Flight Data Link (IFDL) is set to receive-only. Your picture of the world around you is limited to what you can pick up with your Infrared Search and Track sensor and passive threat warning indicators; on the other hand, you’re as close to invisible as you can be -- and since some sources estimate that the F-22 Raptor is 1,000 times more stealthy than the F-15 Eagle, that’s pretty darn close.
As you approach visual range to an enemy target, the EMCON system gradually trades stealth for combat readiness; at the highest EMCON level, your radar is fully on, the AMRAAM is enabled, and you can send and receive messages via radio or IFDL.
Another amazing system is the shoot list; the F-22’s radar and computers can track multiple targets (as many as you have weapons to attack them with), prioritizing them by the threat they pose to you. Fire a weapon at the first target in the list, and the radar automatically cycles to the next target, then the next, etc. In practice, this means you can fire four AMRAAMs at a flight of four enemy jets in a matter of seconds, attacking them all before they’ve even spotted you on radar. Other F-22 sims have attempted to model the shoot-list function, but it’s not as versatile in the earlier games as it is in F-22 ADF, which lets you manually create a shoot list for yourself or your wingman and fire multiple weapons at a single target in salvo or ripple-fire modes.
DID admits to a couple of instances where realism has been sacrificed for gameplay. For example, the jet in F-22 ADF carries a wide array of air-to-ground weapons the real jet may never use, like Maverick and Harpoon missiles, LAU rockets, and laser-guided bombs. On the other hand, the real F-22 is capable of carrying external weapons under its wings, and it’s going to have to be versatile if it’s going to replace the F-15 Eagle. Besides, more weapons means more fun.
A more questionable decision puts the F-22’s thrust-vectoring nozzles under the manual control of the gamer rather than making them automatic, as in the real jet. Other F-22 simulations have made the use of the thrust nozzles transparent, presumably factoring them into the sim’s flight model by making it capable of tighter turns and higher angles of attack, but DID chose to have gamers invoke the thrust vectoring nozzles by holding down a key while maneuvering. The idea was to give us access to both normal and thrust-vectored flight models, but in practice it’s a bit of a hassle to reach for the keyboard in the middle of a fangs-out dogfight (and it’s tricky to program the command into many programmable joysticks or throttles).
Another drawback comes from the linear nature of F-22 ADF’s campaign mode. There are three tours of duty over the Red Sea, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia, but sim fans who came to love EF2000 2.0 for its ever-changing dynamic campaign will be disappointed. F-22 ADF’s campaigns consist of just ten scripted missions each, and every mission has to be completed perfectly before you can move on to the next. Fail, and you’ll have to keep repeating the mission until you get it right. That takes a lot of believability out of the experience, and it robs F-22 ADF of replay value, too; once you’ve flown all 30 missions, there’s nothing new to see. The good news is that DID has plans for an add-on called Total Air War that will upgrade F-22 ADF with a real-time dynamic campaign and a detailed mission planner.
Even with a few shortcomings, this is easily the best F-22 Raptor simulation on the market. It’s still early in the year as we go to press, but F-22 Air Dominance Fighter looks like a solid contender for the title of 1998’s best simulation.
-- Dan Bennett