After almost five years of development and speculation, a finished version of Argonaut Software's Birds of Prey (BOP) finally landed on my desk today. Surprisingly enough, there were no owls hooting, horses eating each other, and all that stuff you normally expect when something long awaited comes to pass - so I just booted up.
BOP was coded by Jez San and his team, from whence came Starglider 2, one of the all-time Amiga classics. It offers a choice of squillions of different aircraft depending on whether you decide to be a "good" guy or a "bad" guy, it flies smoothly considering how many other planes the computer contorls at the same time, and it makes the tea when you get tired of carpet-
How does it play? Well, it's a bit like every flight game you ever wanted, but couldn't be bothered with because they're all just boring variations on the theme of "how can we make lots of money from cunning flight algorithms?" BOP is a great game, not a great simulation, so members of the Society for the Appreciation of Differential Calculus (S.A.D.) needn't buy it.
The action is set in a fictional landscape of land, sea, and islands, but all the aircraft are real. You can take off from a main airbase in a B-52, or ski-jump from HMS invincible in a Harrier, and if you get bored with "good" guy planes, it's easy to swap sides and fly in a MiG-29 or Backfire bomber.
After the manual protection is over (you have to answer a question on the technical details of an aircraft or missile) you jump to the pilot screen. Here you can load and save pilots, or create new ones, then it's time to get down to business.
First you select what sort of mission to fly. There are twelve to choose from, including the unusual options to drop parachutists or supplies, and test fly the X-15 or MiG29. Next comes the all-important choice of home base.
There are five of these for each side (Blue and Red - but it's hardly a coincidence they made the Soviets the Red team, is it?), two of which are aircraft carrier. Blue carriers are the Nimitz and Invincible, Red carriers are the Kiev and Minsk, but Russian carrier pilots are restricted to a choice of one aircraft, the Forger, as it's the only carrier-
If you got for a land-
All aircraft are represented accurately in 3D, and they all fly more or less differently. Realism hasn't been insisted on, and where two aircraft are fairly similar you can, for example, find it difficult to believe you're in an F-16 rather than the Mirage in which you flew the last mission.
In more extreme cases, though, the feel of a Hercules is vastly different to any of the jet fighters. A bit like flying a phone box through a syrup-
If you haven't tinkered with the scenario and difficulty settings at the pilot screen, you'll start the game on Pilot level (the second of four difficulty levels) in the Green Fields scenario. If you're a big fluffy domestic fowl, you can downgrade the opposition by choosing Rookie mode, or if you're of a child-
Which based you selected will have determined what side you're on, but once the first mission is over you can fly from any of your side's bases and in any of your side's aircraft types. What you must always remember, however, is that "your side" and "their side" are going at it hammer and tongs all the time.
Once in the air, you can select the full screen view and then swap views to any of the aircraft presently in your sector, including enemy aircraft. This gives you an excellent feeling of being in a larger conflict rather than of being one small plane out to save the world. It's also fun to sit comfortably in a B-1 bomber at 50,000 feet and keep tabs on your fighter escort as they battle it out with MiGs thousands of feet below you.
The other outside views are of your own aircraft. The usual views are implemented, eight angles and a satellite overview, but they add a lot to the atmosphere because every plane has an identical cockpit layout, and only by popping out for a quick look is it possible to spot the differences between planes. I particularly liked the view of my A-10 complete with oodles of bombs and things dripping from below the wings. Yum!
The rear view of a Hercules is fun when on a drop mission. This initially gives you a black screen because you're actually looking back into the cargo hold. Once the door is opened, however, you can see the parachutist drop out the back of the plane and open his canopy.
There's a certain amount of sadistic tension involved when you wait for the chute to fail to open, but it hasn't happened yet in any of my missions.
On the strategy side of things, you can call up an AWACS map of the entire battle area and zip around to spy on what everyone else is doing (hint - they're all trying to kill each other) and when in flight there's a radar map of your immediate surroundings which you can zoom in and out of.
This is great for figuring out where that pesky MiG-25 just went, and for working out which tanks are friendly. Shoot a friendly target of any kind, and you're labeled a traitor and forced to swap sides, so it pays to check (A-10 pilots please take note).
When you and your comrades have liquidated enough of the enemy's assets, you're treated to a victory screen and you can go on to another scenario. If you don't, you better start getting used to the humiliation of potato queues or revolting daytime TV depending on your original nationality.
With a steady advance through the ranks, so much going on around you, the numerous ways of playing the game, and the vast size of the playing area itself, Birds of Prey is easily the most addictive and playable flight game on the market. Realism buffs will be advised to go for Flight of the Intruder or ProFlight, but those of us born with the need to stuff Mavericks down the throats of computer-