13-Aug-2001 Without a thought for his own safety, PC Zone's very own fearless flyer Paul Presley taxis to the runway of review, activates the engine and prepares to engage the full throttle of criticism.
After reading all the blurb about how 'real' Flight Unlimited II is and how it's amazingly detailed and accurate and how you can use it to learn to fly for real, I guess the basic question has to be: why would anyone want to buy a flight sim that doesn't have guns? I mean, just how much enjoyment is there to be had from patiently flying along predefined commercial routes? From carefully ensuring you don't deviate from established aviation protocol in the slightest? From steadfastly taxiing around busy airports, waiting for clearance so that you can take a short hop from one part of San Francisco Bay to, er, a slightly different part of San Francisco Bay? How many times can you say, 'Sod it, I'm going for it' and fly under the Golden Gate Bridge before it becomes just a part of your routine daily existence, like shopping for milk and masturbating to Baywatch? (Waaaay too much information - Ed)
Come in number 7, your time's up
Let's be excruciatingly honest about things here. This is a truly anal game - but then that's true of all 'real-life' flight sims. There's nothing sexy or cool about flying a Cessna from one airport to another - it's not like strapping on a pair of Ray-Bans, jumping into the latest in killer jets and screaming off to give this month's Harry Hun substitute a good bombing before flying home, buzzing the tower and getting off with the base's sexy psychiatrist. The real world is dull - deathly so. That's why we play games to get away from it. The only way to derive pleasure from this sort of thing is by being the kind of person for whom 'routine' and 'procedure' gets you hot and keeps you simmering.
Which, rather annoyingly, doesn't really explain why I like Flight Unlimited II (Actually I think it might - Ed). I have to confess that after an admittedly shaky start which had me questioning everything from why games like this even exist to what my role in this dark and lonely universe is (you get a lot of time to think during trips from Rio Vista to Palo Alto), I found myself getting into the whole routine of it. I actually rather enjoyed the concept of manually tuning in my radio to different frequencies to pick up different airfield broadcasts. I warmed to the idea of just taking the old bird up for a quick spin, so to speak.
The gameplay options help to vary things. Missions, as it were, include all sorts of interesting situations. Everything it seems is on offer, from picking up a pair of escaped prisoners from Alcatraz under cover of night to dropping a load of frozen turkeys over a football stadium to surviving in all sorts of adverse weather conditions and engine failures.
I don't want to kid anyone here. Flight Unlimited II is hardly the most technically proficient flight sim ever made - at least cosmetically. I'm sure the flight dynamics are accurate to the fifteenth decimal point (more so, probably) - it's the visual dynamics I'm referring to. Remember Interactive Magic's iF-22? How their use of photo-realistic graphics meant that when flying above 5000ft everything looked superb, but flying at anything lower meant the scenery looked like your gran had knitted it? It's a similar story here. Things aren't actually that bad at low heights, at least not with a 3Dfx card (which I would highly recommend), but it doesn't really compare to the visual excellence of something like F-22 Advanced Defence Fighter.
And I can't help but feel that the landscape looks a bit empty. There are the occasional 'points of interest' to explore, but other than a few skyscrapers, large city areas are represented by flat texture maps, so there's no real feeling of flying over anywhere really populated. It just doesn't feel real, and consequently damages the real-life atmosphere that a sim of this nature desperately needs to create. This didn't matter too much in the aerobatics-oriented Flight Unlimited, where you're only interested in a bit of up-diddly-upping and down-diddly-downing, but with the sequel, it's a killer.
Eidos' response to this would probably be something like: 'It isn't physically possible to simulate every building in an entire city on today's machines. You'd have frame rates of one per week!' My answer to this is that if something's worth doing, it's worth doing properly. Most of the other available flight sims manage it, so why not Flight Unlimited II? Whatever the reasons may be, the fact remains that what we're left with doesn't feel right and suffers as a result.
Technical hang-ups aside, the bottom line is that Flight Unlimited II does retain a certain appeal. It's a specialist simulation, make no mistake about it, but it's one that has a fair amount of addictive appeal to it. It isn't nearly as deep or varied as Microsoft's Flight Simulator '98 and the lack of any kind of expansion into other cities or multi-player options is rather annoying. But that said, there's still an underlying playability that makes it all seem worthwhile.
I can see Flight Unlimited II's limitations. Despite frequent urges to just turn it on and have a quick buzz around, almost every flight tends to degenerate quickly into seeing how much I can piss off the air traffic controllers, how many bridges I can fly under, how many hangars I can fly through and how quickly I can turn my plane into a mangled pile of steaming metal, the likes of which haven't been seen since the last Paris airshow. Rather amusingly, I once managed to get my speed up to the 600 knots mark, at which point the sheer force of the air pressure ripped my wings clean off and out of the sky I fell.
But the urge remains. I'd like to have been able to take Flight Unlimited II more seriously, but once again we're in the world of Unfriendly To Novices. The in-game lessons attempt to cover all the aspects of civil aviation, but don't really explain things in sufficient step-by-step detail to leave you feeling really comfortable - some sort of flying instructor sitting alongside you guiding you through each stage would have been a nice idea. Given time though, I reckon I could master everything. At least I can get the thing up in the air, which is good, and once there I've got a fair idea of what to do to keep it there.
So Flight Unlimited II is worthwhile. Maybe not if you've already got Microsoft's title, and definitely not if you're deep into the world of guns and bombs, strafing and barrel rolls. But as a time-waster, a novelty item or an office toy, it does the job and it does it well.