UPDATE: I built a custom controller for Strike Fighters – more info here.
During the 80s and 90s, Bill Gunston wrote a bunch of really cool books on military hardware. These were gung-ho, geek friendly books that focused on the numbers (number of missiles, rate of climb, etc), and completely left out all the bad stuff about war. Together with some really good art, they presented a Tom Clancy view of war, long before Tom Clancy started writing. And of course, being British, Gunston gave everything a nicely off-center view – British was always best, and non-American subjects often got center stage in his books.
Combat flight sims have always had the opposite slant – most major developers were American, and with a few notable exceptions (DI’s Tornado and Spectrum Holobyte’s MiG 29) the same list of flyable planes came by over and over again – F14s. F15s, F16s, etc, etc, etc. No chance to fly Hunters, Jaguars, Su-9s, MiG23s or any of the other major players in the Cold War. What a lot of us wanted was the “Bill Gunston flight sim”. The closest we came was Fighters Anthology (a re-release of the excellent U.S. Navy Fighters, published under the Jane’s label), which was a really good game with a good range of planes to fly, but was sadly a little outdated by the time it hit the streets.
Enter TK – Tsuyoshi Kawahito. A 1990’s Flight Sim superstar developer behind some of the best titles of the last great wave of flight simulation – European Air War , Jane’s F-15, Longbow and Longbow 2. After Microprose went bust and Jane’s lost interest in PC gaming, TK disappeared for a couple of years. In 2002, he suddenly emerged with the PC game development equivalent of a garage band, Thirdwire Productions. His first release, Strike Fighters: Project 1, made it obviously apparent that TK had not lost his knack. But unlike the old days where content was dictated by the publisher, this time TK was making a flightsim geek’s game – set in the late 60’s and featuring all those great underdog aircraft such as the A-4 and F-100. TK released new games based on improvements on the engines, all with niche settings (Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli wars).
The greatest of all was Wings over Europe (WoE), set in the late 70’s / early 80’s in central Europe. If the phrase “Fulda Gap” means anything to you, then this was a game you need to play. The aircraft featured were some of the canon (A-10, F-15), but also some for the connoisseur – The Hunter F.Mk 6, Harrier Gr. Mk 1, F-105, Luftwaffe F-4Fs, and others (if you have heard rumors that Wings over Europe doesn’t run on Vista/Windows 7, I don’t think they’re true – I have been running it under both for years).
Now what really makes Wings over Europe a flight sim geek’s game is the open architecture. Everything is configurable in this game. You can add aircraft, tanks, weapons, terrains, modify the UI, you name it. All the tools and docs are released by TK, and there is a huge fan community creating really good stuff – head over to Combat Ace for the best centralized forums/file library. Hiding in that huge library is a true gem – Operation Desert Storm, a total conversion mod. Wings over Europe with the Operation Desert Storm mod is the finest combat flight sim experience you can have on a PC. It is Bill Gunston, the flight sim.
The ODS team take over a whole install of WoE. You have access to a huge number of flyable planes from all the nations that took part in the war (including Canada, Italy, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia), era appropriate weapons, and a detailed map of Iraq and neighboring countries (including aircraft carriers in the Gulf). You can also fly a huge number of campaigns for all the major combatants on the coalition side (including RAF Jaguar squadrons, Italian Air Force Tornado squadrons, US Navy A-6E squadrons, and even the USAF F-117A squadron).
The replay value on this mod is very high. You have about 20 variations on the campaign if you include all the different aircraft and nationalities. For instance, if you choose an attack squadron from the US Navy, you will mostly get carrier based missions. Choose an RAF Jaguar squadron and you get a lot of CAS and SEAD missions; but with an RAF Tornado squadron, you probably fly from a different base and get mostly strike and interdiction missions.
The aircraft themselves fly quite differently, so there is a lot of variation. Although the basic controls of the aircraft are the same, the virtual cockpits are fairly different, so if you turn the overlay off, you need a bit of familiarization time with each one before you can stay in the air for longer than 15 minutes. The flight models are also quite different. So flying missions in the F-117 you need to think ahead for threats, whereas if you are in an F-15E, you have a lot more acceleration and maneuverability to get you out of trouble.
Choosing the aircraft or squadron also dictates to some extent the types of missions you get (as is the norm in this sort of game). ODS gives you the full gamut. CAP, SEAD, CAS, strike, interdiction, fighter sweep, war at sea, and even reconnaissance (which is almost never included in this sort of game). There are also some nice set-piece missions. For instance, the battle of Khafji is nicely done, with columns of tanks firing against each other, SAMs hiding among the resort town buildings, and a veritable wall of AAA over the area. And because so many units were involved in that battle, you have the opportunity to fly that battle in a variety of aircraft (USMC Harriers, USAF A-10s, etc).
In terms of difficulty, the game is quite well balanced. Air combat is not too hard, provided you can get off the first shot (heaven help you if you are in an F-14 versus a MiG-29 and you don’t manage to get the first shot off…). There is a good variety in skills of the enemy pilots, but getting caught in a one-0versus-many fight is always a bad idea. The air defenses are hard – due to their sheer numbers (especially AAA) getting in to some targets can be an interesting problem.
The missile speeds are modeled accurately, so the amount of time between someone calling a SAM launch, you seeing the missile, realize that it is guiding on you, and then hopefully pulling an effective evasive maneuver is just a few seconds. And of course, getting your weapons on target is always a challenege. Some of the more modern aircraft (Tornado, F-15E, Jaguar) have advanced ground attack avionics on the HUD, but the older ones (like the A-4 and F-111) require old fashioned dive bombing with the correct bomb sight mil setting.
If you download ODS and just stick to flying the usual suspects (F/A-18, F-15, F-16, etc), then you are missing most of what makes this mod magical. Take a shot at flying with the Free Kuwaiti air force, and see what it’s like to take on the best 1980s Soviet air defenses with essentially a 1960’s aircraft. Try a single mission with an S-3 Viking, bombing Iraqui patrol boats with almost no bombing equipment. Go up with an Iraqi Mirage F.1 strike package and try to punch through the impenetrable CAP screens put up by the coalition. There are many, many different things to do in this mod.
Do I have anything bad to say about this mod? Let’s see – it’s free, it collects some of the best mods for WoE into a single pack, it’s set in a truly interesting period in air combat history, and it gives us the Bill Gunston sim we’ve all been waiting for for years. So no, nothing bad to say. Just go get it:
- Wings over Europe October 2008 Patch (pre-requisite for install)
- Operation Desert Storm, part 1 of 3
- Operation Desert Storm part 2 of 3
- Operation Desert Storm part 3 of 3
- Operation Desert Storm Patch 1