Pick a plane... any plane

Birds of Prey logo Gamer Gold

ELECTRONIC ARTS * £34.99 * 1 meg * joystick/mouse/keyboard * Out now

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-bombing little villages in South East Asia.

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-borne, fixed-wing plane the Russians have got.

If you got for a land-based pilot, your choice is far greater. There's a Tupolev Bear bomber, a Hercules, and you can even fly a 747. The more obscure aircraft include the F-20, the SR-71. Blackbird reconnaissance plane, and the Su-25 Frogfoot (Russia's equivalent of the A-10 tank buster). There's enough variety of missions and aircraft to give BOP the best long-term interest appeal of any flight game I've ever seen.

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-filled swimming pool, in fact.

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-eating household pet, there's the Squadron Leader and Wing Commander modes.

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-generated bad guys will lap up this game like a starving cat at a bowl of catnip-flavoured cream.


Birds of Prey logo

Why buy one sim when you can buy 40 for the same price? Electronic Arts have produced a game which gives you the entire NATO airforce to play with, and the pick of the Warsaw Pact as well. But is it 40 times as good as the best of the rest?

What would happen if they started a war and nobody came? Well, with Birds of Prey you could do it all yourself. Because this game incorporates a large modern air war scenario with 40 types of aircraft taking part. And you can fly them all. So if you're a fan of modern military flying machines, you might just be in heaven.

When you've loaded the game and set up your savable pilot, you're presented with 12 major mission types. It's assumed that a major war has started between forces using Western technology and those with Russian kit. You can play either side in this conflict and choose the mission type you want (air interception, for example) and then you simply select an aircraft for your mission.

There's a fair old choice, but the computer won't let you use something ill-suited to the job. Try using a Hercules to intercept some MiG 25s and your Amiga will laugh at you. It's better go for an F16, F15, Tornado. Anything of that ilk. Next you've got to arm it.

Tumult in the clouds
Choosing your weapons is both detailed and easy. Point and click on the most destructive and you get to see the map. The playing area is a series of islands with the odd mountain and river chucked in. Bases, SAM sites and tactical buildings litter the war zone, and there are even carriers floating offshore.

Choose a base and the mission can begin. You always start off in a hangar, and once the door opens, you taxi out to the runway. If you're in a hurry (for an interception) you can hit full power . This lets you hit the runway while doing about 150 knots. Once you are in the air, you can select various radar modes to give you air-to-air capability, navigation or bomb-aiming (once more, this depend on your mission).

The cockpit display takes up about two-thirds of the screen, with a familiar HUD on the top. This really contains all the info that you need (speed, height and so on), but to the right of the display is a large bank of dials which give you much the same information. This display remains the same whichever aircraft you're flying.

Hitting the W key removes the cockpit altogether, leaving you with full screen graphics and an enlarged HUD. It's possible to conduct most of an operation in this mode, and it looks so much better, especially when viewing the plane in outside mode.

When you view your own aircraft, it's simply superimposed in front of you. The HUD 9and cockpit display) remain, but the plane appears in front. If you try a side view the controls still remain in view. This makes for some spectacular views, especially in full screen display mode, but it's impossible to fly the plane accurately whilst watching it.

The not-so-few
The key to Birds Of Prey is its massive flexibility. There are hundreds of mission/aircraft combinations, and although you only ever see one cockpit display, you can certainly make out the difference between the planes. The selection offered is so wide that one mission might see you flying a Harrier from the deck of HMS Invincible, and the next ferrying in 500 troops in a Boeing 747-400.

The flight characteristics of the planes differ so much that it's fun to swap between them during the game. You can also try out aircraft in missions that they weren't designed for (within reason. You can't put your SR71 Blackbird down on the deck of a carrier).

As you play the campaign, your actions affect what the enemy are up to. If you manage to A10 his airfields, he'll withdraw to the edge of the map. Send a Stealth reconnaissance flight over to get a Polaroid of him licking his wounds, then send in a Hercules full of troops to finish him off. Any stragglers can be massively bombed by a nice B52 mission. And you can fly all of these.

It's certainly taking flight sims into areas they've never seen before. Luckily the actual flying details have been kept fairly simple. To navigate to your target you simply follow an arrow at the top of the HUD. Your radar will pick up any enemy activity in plenty of time, and it's up to you to take the appropriate action. What you should do depends on the plane you're piloting, of course.


There is so much in Birds Of Prey that the flight sim-fan could disappear for weeks.

Can you leave the landing light on, mummy?
Storing the details of the 40 aircraft has taken such a large amount of memory that ground detail is noticeable less impressive than in MiG-29 Superfulcrum or F15 II. There are bases, fields, coastlines, hills and targets. These are all acceptable, though. (There's a particularly pretty snow-capped peak!)

The air-to-air views are good, but such is the nature of modern air warfare that you don't often get the chance to see the enemy. First it's a dot on a radar screen; then a dot in the sky and then it's a target. Hopefully by then, with any luck, it's dead meat. Trying to get close in to have a look sometimes yields excellent views of the opposition, but you'll have to dodge salvos of missiles to do it. It's in this environment that planes like the F16 or Tomcat come into their own.

Flying the planes in Birds Of Prey requires a fair bit of practice. In the centre of the HUD is a lozenge-shape which indicates the position of the imaginary control column. It's a bit unnecessary because when your joystick is centred, you'd expect the plane's joystick to be centred as well.
It's been like that for centuries in flight-sims, and the added realism that a lozenge gives isn't realy worth it. Until you get used to it, the plane (which ever one you're flying_ wallows around, fish-tailing its way towards the highly amused enemy. The key is only to use small movements of the joystick.

Apart from this, the flying is straightforward, if you don't fuss with the controls, the planes go in the direction you point them. You can select weapons by cycling through your payload, with the fire-utton on the joystick operating missiles and the gun (whichever one you have selected).

It's also very easy easy to get yourself into a spin too. If you leave what the experts call the flight envelope' by for example stalling at a low or high speed, your aircraft will tumble ground-wards at a frightening speed. You have to do this a few times to get the hang of recovery, but if you're quick you can click the mouse to pause the game and give you option menus. Select 'Easy Flight' and you'll bounce of the ground harmlessly.

Fight and flight
Birds Of Prey is a sim for the enthusiast. There's a large and comprehensive manual supplied, but if you already know the difference between the B1, the B2 and the B52 it would make things much easier.

Although the cockpit display doesn't change, certain procedures depend on the type of mission you're on and the type of plane you're in. Fighters (F15, F16, Tornado and so on) simply require that you switch on your radar and hunt for the enemy. You don't have to worry about ground targets (unless they're firing surface-to-air missiles at you) and you just need to concentrate on the other fighters as the range between you closes.

Before each mission it's possible to specify wingmen. You can have up to three other planes (the same type as yours) who follow you into combat. If you don't open fire, they will, and on Easy level your formation will be firing ripples of AMRAAMS and Sidewinders in the enemy direction. It's a bit disappointing if you don't get a kill and they do, but at least you'll have survived and, as leader, you will get the credit for it in the comprehensive debrief afterwards.

You don't see these wingmen (which is a pity) but they're programmed to follow you wherever you go. So if you run for home they'll accompany you.

Bombing in the B1 or B52 requires you to line up so that you fly over the target at the height required by your payload. Then you switch to the bomb-aiming sight and watch the target drift through the cross-hairs. It's tough but very satisfying when you get it right.

When attacking at ground level (in the A10, F15E or B2 Stealth bomber) you fire guided air-to-surface missiles such as the Paveway and Maverick. The target acquisition is similar to that of the fighters, but it's only concerned with things on the ground. If you get close enough with the A10 you can open up with its mighty 30mm Gatling gun. This makes quite a mess if you aim it right.

Nor law nor duty bade me fight
There is so much in Birds Of Prey that the flight-sim fan could disappear for weeks. The campaign scenario works well, the background detail is very strong and the variety of planes is, of course impressive in the extreme.

Graphics are strong, especially the planes themselves, and the levels are set so that both beginners and hardened pilots can have fun.
Letting it down is the frame rate. The graphics aren't smooth enough and there is an annoying jerkiness. It might be understandable, but it isn't forgivable. The lozenge control system would work so much better if the update rate has better. As it is, they combine to be irritating at the moments when you need to be clear-headed and quick.

It's this factor which stops Birds Of Prey getting a Format Gold. In every other respect it deserves one. Being able to fly 40 aircraft in a combat sim is no mean feat, and the war-game plot is strong enough to carry it off. But the fly-ability is the weakest point. Only a third of a screen is dedicated to outside views and the rest of the screen being filled with unnecessary dials isn't too hot.

Oh, and a head-to-head link with another player's Amiga, flying whatever plane he chooses would have been excellent. Still, Birds Of Prey is a massive attempt to produce the flight-sim. It nearly gets there, but the flying isn't quite slick enough.


AIR INTERCEPTION
If you're using carriers, the Harrier, Tomcat, Phantom or Hornet can be used.
AIR SUPREMACY
In the fight for the skies, the Eagle is king. But the Russian MiG 29 comes pretty close.
LONG RANGE BOMBING
The plane that reshaped Vietnam, the B52, makes a guest appearance in this role.
BOMBER ESCORT
Why not go for the F16? It's nippy, powerful and has a nice selection of delicious ready-to-fire weaponry.
CLOSE SUPPORT/GROUND ATTACK
The A10 more than proved itself in the Gulf Conflict, so why not take a Warthog for a spin?
BOMBER/SEA PATROL
Maritime ops require a carrier aircraft. The F14 will do, but the F18 fly-by-wire multi-role is even better.
RECONNAISSANCE
Still the meanest-looking jet around, the SR71 flies over your neighbour's greenhouse at Mach 3.
TROOP DROP
The Hercules is perfect for this, being rugged, slow and big. It's also pretty manoeuvrable, too.
SUPPLY DROP
Not the choice of the current military, but why not take a Boeing 747-400 over enemy territory?
STEALTH BOMBING
Only one choice here - the B2. Used in the Gulf, they'll never even know it's out there.
STEALTH RECCE
The F117 is the prime candidate here, looking like it's been designed by a hyperactive child.
TEST PILOT
Fed up with war? Get away from it all with a Bell X15. It'll outclimb the SR 71, nearly into low orbit.

Birds of Prey logo Amiga Joker Hit

Bei Argonaut Software wollte man einfach nur, was man als Programmierer immer will - den ultimativen Flugsimulator entwickeln. Und in einer Hinsicht ist das schon mal garantiert gelungen: Hier warten nicht weniger als vierzig verschiedene Flieger!

Vierzig! Grob geschätzt, dürfte sich damit die Zahl aller jemals simulierten Flugzeuge auf einen Schlag verdoppelt haben. Es gibt zwar leider nur ein Einheitscockpit für alle, aber in ihrem Flugverhalten unterscheiden sich die Vögelchen (Birds of Prey = Raubvögel) deutlich voneinander. Und das ist doch letztlich das Entscheidende, oder?

Das Angebot an Fliegern ist natürlich viel zu groß, um hier alle im einzelnen aufzuzählen, aber vom Senkrechtstarter über diverse Bomber bis zu den verschiedensten F-Jägern ist wirklich fast alles dabei, was überhaupt Flügel hat.

Eine Ausnahme bilden lediglich die alten Kisten aus der Zeit vor 1945 sowie die A-6 Intruder, die ebenfalls im Hangar bleiben mußte. Wir hingegen dürfen jetzt raus auf die Startbahn, aber erst, nachdem wir ein paar klitzekleine Entscheidungen bezüglich Schwierigkeitsgrad, Tag/Nacht, Nato oder Warschauer Pakt und der gewünschten Landschaft (Gras/Wüste/Schnee) getroffen haben. Anschließend muß man sich nur noch einem von zwölf Missionstypen (Bombardierungen, Begleitschutz, Nachtschub, Abfangen, Testpilot, etc.) aussuchen, den dazu passenden Flieger samt Heimatsbasis wählen, und schon kann's losgehen.

In der Luft liegt der Schwerpunkt eindeutig beim fliegerischen Können, sprich, es wird nicht ständig bloß geballert. Ja, sogar ein paar richtig friedliche Missionen sind mit dabei. Dafür ist die Raubvogeldressur atemberaubend wirklichkeitsgetreu und mit allem ausgestattet, was gut und teuer ist. So gibt's einen Autopiloten, diverse Außen- und Feindansichten, unzählige Waffen, man kann in der Luft auftanken, von einem Flugzeugträger aus starten, und sehr realistisch mit dem Fallschirm abspringen.

Das Cockpit (mit Textfenster und multi-funktionsdisplays) ist hervorragend gemacht, es läßt sich für bessere Sicht (NTSC-Streifen!) aber auch abschalten, so daß nur das Head Up Display zu sehen ist - ganz Mutige können selbst darauf verzichten. Nach der Landung kommt hier übrigens nicht die gewohnte Ordensverleihung, sondern lediglich ein trockener Text, der haarklein auflistet, was man alles erlebt und (nicht) geschafft hat.

Demgegenüber steht eine gar nicht trockene Grafik während des Flugs, die selbst auf der höchsten Detailstufe noch ein vernünftiges Tempo vorlegt. Die Steuerung klappt sowohl mit dem Joystick als auch per Maus tadellos; etwas enttäuschend hingegen der Sound: nur Effekte, die zudem stark an den Oldy "Interceptor" erinnern. In punkto Präsentation hat Birds of Prey das gesteckte Ziel also knapp verfehlt, ansonsten hätten wir wohl tatsächlich einen neuen König der Lüfte krönen dürfen.

So ist bei den vier Jahren Entwicklungszeit halt "nur" ein exzellentes Spiel herausgekommen... (mm)



Birds of Prey logo

The Argonaut team finally get their collection of 40 (very detailed indeed) planes off the ground with the most-delayed piece of software in history (probably).

The sheer quantity of flight sims I've reviewed in the last few months makes me wonder whether no one else in the AMIGA POWER office actually likes them. Not at all, I'm assured, they love them. It's simply because they're such a warmhearted, thoughtful bunch, and reckoned I might like a change from doing wargames. That's fine by me - I'm never happier than when exploring the heavens with a joystick between my knees - but I've got this nagging feeling that I'm slowly being labelled a flight sim buff, the sort of person who spends Sunday afternoons standing on the roofs of airport terminals taking down aeroplane registration numbers. It's not true! I just sort of like flight sims. A bit. Anyway...

Argonaut, the people behind Birds Of Prey, are no strangers to huge, 3D epics, in fact they've built their reputation on them. But this is their first flight sim, and they've been working on it for absolutely ages. So how does it differ from the other 3,166 flight sims I've looked at this month? And is it any good?

REACHING NEW HEIGHTS OF FLIGHT
Birds of Prey's main distinguishing feature is the number of different planes it simulates. It's really rather a large number, the sort of number that's hard to visualise in terms of tangible objects, like pineapples okay, and just about get your mind around ten. Or perhaps fifteen. But try to imagine 40 pineapples laid out on the table in front of you. It just can't be done, can it? But that's the unfeasibly large number of distinct types of aircraft Birds Of Prey lets you choose your 'mount' from.

There are 27 Western aircraft and 13 Soviet ones, and they range from nippy fighter planes to hulking transport aircraft, with all sorts of weird and extremely wonderful types in between. You'll have hours of fun just reading their specifications. (Or possibly not).

And the other one (distinguishing feature, that is) is detail. Argonaut have thrown caution to the wind and abandoned rapid screen updates (more on that later) in favour of packaging as much detail as they can into the graphics. I won't present you with a list right away, but it's worth bearing in mind that undercarriage doesn't just disappear when you press 'U', it actually retracts, with a suitable whirring sound.

And after you've loaded up your plane with missiles and bombs you can actually see them hanging off the wings. And cockpits have pilots sitting in them. Hangar doors open and close. Radar dishes rotate. Runway lights come on at night. And stars come out too. It's beautiful, it really is. (But more on that later as well).

FEELING THE NEED FOR SPEED
Birds of Prey's layout is pretty similar to any other flight sim's. Having set up a pilot and decided which side he's on, you then go through a series of screens choosing a mission to fly, a base to fly it from, a plane to fly it in and an array of weaponry to accomplish it with.

These sections are all strictly functional, and, apart from some attractive pics on the 'missions selection' screen, are unadorned with the pretty animated graphics normally associated with this sort of thing. The overall effect is reminiscent of Carrier Command - just the bare essentials, really. In many ways this is quite disappointing, but it does lead to the advantage, however, that you don't have to sit through hours of disk accessing every time you crash and want to start a new mission (in fact - and here's another remarkable Birds of Prey statistic - the whole blooming game loads off just the one disk. There's absolutely no disk swapping to be done at all!)

The Carrier Command feel extends into the rest of the game, too. Although the hardware you'll be using is clearly either Western of Soviet, the war you'll be using it in is a more abstract affair, fought in an imaginary world between Side A and Side B.

This takes a bit of getting used to, I have to admit. But if you can manage to suspend your disbelief, playing the game is actually jolly good fun. The missions are as involving as any I've flown before, and far more varied than most (just take a look at some of the screen shots) - indeed, the only area really missing is dogfighting. Technically you ought to be able to go chasing after MiGs, following them through all your favourite textbook dogfighting manoeuvres before downing them with a burst of cannon fire, but in practice I found that most kills tend to be made (as would happen in real life with many of these planes, most probably) at long range with missiles, and you never really get up close at all.

Then of course, there are the graphics, which are nothing short of superb. Each type of aircraft is reproduced in intricate detail, right down to things like proper cockpits (with pilots in) and round wheels. Control towers have windows (which I'm sure have people behind them if you look close enough, though I couldn't swear to it), and there are even trees dotted about the place with green leaves and brown trunks. Mind you, you have to be flying pretty (and dangerously!) low to see all this - most of the time it tends to go unnoticed, and BOP looks just like any other flight sim.

WATCHING A ZOOM WITH A VIEW
The other major graphical innovation lies in the way objects are coloured. I'm not too hot on all these technical terms, but BOP uses a technique which I believe is called 'light source shading'. What this means, in effect, is that surfaces are dark, if they're turned away from the sun, and light if they're facing towards it.
You don't really tend to notice this unless you're looking out for it, it has to be said, but it seems to give the graphics a subtly 'realistic' edge.

There are all the usual viewing angles as well, which an be zoomed in and out of and panned about, along with rather a nice line in views of all the other planes in your area, including tenemy ones. Picking up a ship on your radar and then cutting to a close-up of a MiG screaming in for the kill really does bring home the message that you're just about to die.

Sound is another thing that's worth a paragraph of its own. From the moment you start up your engines and kick in the reheat you know you're onto something - i.e. the sound effects are really good. As well as the splendid engine noise, which varies depending on whether you're flying a jet or propeller plane, there are numerous subsidiary effects (I can feel another list coming on).

For starters there's the wonderful, gut-wrenching sound of a missile being unleashed. This contrasts with the gentle 'gliding' noise your plane makes if you run out of petrol in mid-air. And don't think sound is just limited to your own plane. Fly past another aircraft and you can hear its engines too, and the same goes for tanks.

This may not be terribly true-to-life, but what the heck, eh? Other effects are stranger still: don't quote me on this, but I'm sure I can hear seagulls flying round my airbase. Finally, while machine guns sound decidedly limp, the resulting explosions more than make up for them (although the visual accompaniment is a bit weedy, it has to be said). But enough about sound - back to the graphics.

Ah yes, the graphics. Um, there's a bit of a problem.
There's only one snag with all this extravagance, and you've probably guessed it already. Remember I mentioned screen updates? Well, there aren't very many. Maybe one or two per second when things get really hectic, and about four at the most on an internal view with the detail level set right down at minimum. This means that things are noticeably jerky, quite seriously so in fact, and that's a problem which has consigned many previous flight sims to otherwise undeserved oblivion.


The overall effect is reminiscent of Carrier Command

POISED FOR A RUNWAY SUCCESS
Argonaut are trying to claim that frame rate is some sort of pointless macho thing, and detail is a lot more important, but I'm afraid I really can't agree. The controls are sluggish enough as it is (joystick or keyboard control s a complete no-no, and even the mouse tends to be a bit erratic), so the last thing you need in the heat of the battle is to have to wait for up to half a second to gauge the response to your actions, only to find you've gone a bit too far in one direction, then correcting only to find (another eon later) that you've overcompensated, and your plane is wobbling hopelessly all over they sky.

True, you do gradually get used to it, and after a day or so you can almost believe you've learned to live with the problem. But you've only got to load up Falcon, Interceptor or Thunderhawk to snap you out of it, and make you realise just how much of a difference slick graphics make.

But I'm not going to condemn Birds Of Prey just because it's got jerky graphics. It's simply got too much else going for it. For a start, it's brilliant fun to play - your first couple of weeks of ownership will probably be spent simply trying out all the different sorts of plane, while flying missions will keep you going for goodness knows how long. And even when you think you know the manual off by heart (and considering the size of the bleeding thing, that little task should keep you occupied for a year or two), you'll still keep discovering new pull-down menus and options, and, well, all sorts really (it's that complicated).

So there we are, then. Although they haven't quite pulled it off (unless you're lucky enough to own an Amiga 3000 or something), Birds of Prey is a truly marvelous game - a real progression for the flight simulation genre - and I can firmly recommend it to anyone who likes this sort of thing.


BIRDS OF PREY - THE TOP FIVE MISSIONS
The choice of missions is big and deep and wide and tall in Birds Of Prey., so any pilot worth his salt (or, indeed, not worth his salt) will soon feel perfectly at home shooting the hell out of things.
From the 12 types of missions available to pilots in Birds of Prey (and the myriad variations beyond that on each type), I've picked ny favourite favourites. It was tricky though - there are an awful to chose from.
AIR SUPERIORITY
Everyone's fave - shooting down enemy fighters - but which plane will you choose to do the job in? I tend to go for the F-14, not just because I fancy myself a bit of a Tom Cruise, but also because it carries the corking Phoenix missile, which can destroy a target a mindboggling 124 miles away (without you even having to be able to see it). It also makes for some impressive carrier launch sequences, although the subsequent landings are nowhere near as easy as Tom makes them look.
STEALTH BOMBING
The plane everyone's talking about at the moment is the Lockheed F-117 Stealth Fighter (although it's really more of a bomber). Here's where you can put through its paces, sneaking up on the unsuspecting enemy and dropping your payload on their heads before they've had a chance to do anything about it. Should the F-117 prove too lightweight, the B-2 Stealth Bomber is a bit more hefty, but no less stealthy. It's a bit wobbly to fly, though being very flat and wide.
RECONNAISSANCE
Not the most inspiring of choices, you might think, but I've included this one because it gives you the chance to go for a spin in an SR-71 Blackbird, possibly the wickedest plane ever built. (It's just so... black). Flying at three times the speed of sound, and ridiculously high, you've got to hope you can outrun the enemy for long enough to take a few snapshots of their most secret installations. Other contenders for the job include the flimsy TR-1, and the crap Bear, neither of which are half as much fun.
SUPPLY DROP
Again, it doesn't sound terribly exciting, but you get to see the brilliant effect of your Hercules/Antanov's cargo bay opening - from inside the plane! Marvelous stuff. Having done that you've got to fly unfeasibly low over the drop area so that your payload can be delivered safely, remembering to close the door again before heading for home. Your plane is a bit on the vulnerable side though (to say the least) so it's best to take a couple of friendly wingmen to back you up.
TEST PILOTING
If you haven't been impressed so far, wait 'til you've had a crack at this. The X-15 is the world's fastest, highest flying aircraft, and here's where you can have a go at test flying it. First, though, you've got to fly its B-52's 'mothership' (that's what you can see in this pic) to a suitable altitude before pressing the left Shift key to launch the X-15 and kick in its rocket engine. If you take it high enough into the atmosphere you eventually reach the darkness of outer space, and can see lots of stars. Brilliant.
40 DIFFERENT PLANES - BUT THEY ALL LOOK JUST THE SAME INSIDE
The one thing flight sims all have in common is an incredibly complicated instrument panel...
And Birds of Prey is no exception, so here's the obligatory diagram - it's the same for all the planes. Bear in mind, though, that most of the information it gives is also available on the head-up display, so you can dispose of the instruments altogether if you want, giving you a much better field of vision. (It doesn't make the planes move ay faster though).
Birds of Prey: Control Panel
  1. Head-Up Display - essential info appears here, saving you from rooting around in the instrument panel. It has various modes, such as bomb aiming and navigation.
  2. Throttle - you know what this does, don't you?
  3. Warning Lights - Keep you informed of any missiles that may be tracking you.
  4. Confirmation Display - messages appear here when you select certain functions, just to let you know (erm) that you have.
  5. Damage Display - Multi-function Display - if you can find the right key, this can be switched to display radar, navigational information, weapons status or a map of the area you're flying over.
  6. Dials and Things - here's where you find all sorts of miscellaneous performance figures, artificial horizons, speeds, heights, angles and other terrifying facts and figures.
ONE IN THE EYE FOR THE COMPETITION...
MicroProse: BOP has the F-15E covered, as well as the F-19 (well, the F-117) making both F-15 II and somewhat redundant.
Spectrum Holobyte: The F-16's in there too, so you can throw away your copy of Falcon.
Domark: and your copy of MiG-29. The top Soviet fighter plane is fully represented.
Ocean: F-29 Retaliator? Bye bye. You need look no further than BOP for the Grumman X-29 (its real name).
Dynamix: A-10 (or whatever it's called) looks a little sick in the face of BOP's perfectly good rendering.
Electronic Arts: Oops. EA's own Interceptor ducks out too, as the F-18 is right here as well.
TOP THREE 'LEAST SUITABLE PLANES FOR THE JOB'
Stealth Bombing in the Antonov AN-124 Russian:
As the world's largest aircraft, and a troop-transporter par excellence, the Antonov is completely unsuitable as a stealth bomber. Its large radar signature and slow speed make it a cinch for the enemy to locate, and its complete lack of weaponry leads to problems when it comes attacking the target. (In the unlikely event that you get anything that far).
Supply Dropping in the North American X-15A:
More of a rocket with wings than an aeroplane, the X-15 can fly at nearly seven times the speed of sound, and climb to the limits of the Earth's atmosphere. Unfortunately its poor low-speed handling and limited take-off weight make it entirely inappropriate for supply drops, what supplies it can carry tending to get dashed against the ground with such force as to render them completely useless.
Air Interception in the Lockheed C-139H-30 Hercules:
While excelling in its intended role as a transport aircraft and sometime gun platform, the ungainly Hercules just doesn't cut it as dog-fighter, the main problem being its lack of speed, agility and air-to-air missiles. Your best bet is to go in low and slow, keeping your head down, only opening the rear cargo door at the last minute to let rip with everything you've got.

Birds of Prey logo CU Amiga Superstar

Flight sim fans, as a rule, like detail. Lots and lots of it. The more background information the title has the better - so long as the gameplay remains intact, of course. So, for a game which does more than just thumb through Jane's Book of Fighting Planes, why not play the RAF spotters manual - Birds of Prey?

This year has seen the release of some excellent flight sims, most notably F-15 II and SuperFulcrum. But Electronic Arts are hell-bent on out-doing even these two gems with a title that would receive a listing for 'most heavily-researched software' in the Guiness Book of Games Record, if one were ever to be published.

Birds of Prey is without a doubt the most ambitious flight sim ever. It features dozens of planes, ranging from the hi-tech B-2 Stealth Bomber to the lumbering Boeing 747 and Hercules transport craft. And here's ust a few more: F-117A, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, F-14 Tomcat, A-10 Tank Killer, Panavia Tornado, MiG-29 and the T-27...

The game is based around an East-West conflict, although the setting is fictional. A lone pilot, it's difficult to affect the outcome of the conflict, but as you do your bit, enemy resources diminish and friendly forces start to get the upper hand. The whole thing is played in real-time, so if you quite base to go on a mission it could be blitzed by the time you return.

Graphics are used to show the status of both sides, although those remain pretty static until the fourth mission.

Initially, Birds of Prey is hard. The more maneuverable fighters are extremely fighters are extremely tough to control: they tend to slide all over the place. And I found myself wrestling with the controls of a sluggish B52 bomber while I learned what all the keys did. Although the joysticks and keyboard are catered for, this is undoubtedly a 'head game' for those who like mouse controls. It took me several attempts just to get an aircraft off the tarmac, and more than a few stalls before straight and level flight was accomplished. Perseverance is definitely called for, but once the basics are mastered the whole game opens up.

To eliminate boring stretches on long range missions, a novel autopilot feature has been incorporated. Select your target, cruising-height, and how close to the target you want to be when the controls are returned. An external shot shows your plane flying off into the distance, and a couple of seconds later you're at your destination, providing nothing intercepted you en route, that is.

The presentation is extremely slick. When the game loads all you're required to do is enter your name, difficulty level, what time of day you want to fly at, and what kind of terrain you'd like to strut your stuff over. From there on, select what type of mission you prefer to fly and what plane you feel comfortable handling.

The aircraft select screens are very detailed, showing a rotating 3D version of the plane, a description of its capabilities, as well as a full technical break-down and what weapons it can carry. The mission orders and arming screen follows, and then the player enters the cockpit. The whole process is very simple and easy to follow, and you can go back to any of the previous screens if you think you've made a mistake.

The attention to detail is extremely impressive. Each mission starts in a hangar, whether you're flying from an airbase or carrier. When the graphics are in high-detail mode, the weapons on the plane are visible, and ground based objects are visually very impressive. I particularly like the way bombs go off with a large crash and a flash of light. The handling characteristics of the different types of plane is as you would expect. Trying to do any stunts in a 747 usually results in structural damage, while the fighters are amazingly manoeuvrable. Most incredibly the game comes on just one disk, and uses a minimal amount of loading. I thought you could only get compression like that with a steam roller.

There's also a huge variety of weapons, although some can only be loaded on to certain planes. There are general purpose bombs, loads of different guided and unguided missiles, cluster bombs and air-to-air missiles. Most aircraft are capable of carrying at least a cannon, whereas the B-52 can carry 100 unguided bombs in its hold.

Plenty of ear-battering digitised sound effects have been used for engines noises, missile roars and explosions. All these make a change from the normal cop-out white noise effects of other flight-sims.

The graphics are very utilitarian, as with most flight sims. There are some nice touches, though. If the missile view is switched on, every time you launch a rocket or bomb the screen follows it to its target. The drawback with this is that in the meantime you can't see what's happening to your plane. The control panel can be switched off, which frees up processing space and gives you a better view of the surrounding area.

Birds Of Prey takes flight simulators about as far as they can go on the A500. You'll certainly not be be stuck for choice with this sim. A game you must not miss.


BACKGROUND

Much of the information used in Birds Of Prey came from reference specifications on the different aircraft. A basic flight model was written which would accept different variables and alter the speed, manoeuvrability and fuel consumption of the planes.
Programming a different routine for each plane would have lead to a game which would be hard pressed to fit on to a CD. This system allows different aircraft to be selected with a minimum of loading time, and their performance is moderately true to their real-life counterparts.

MAN ON A MISSION

If you don't fancy shooting or bombing things, you can take a non-violent role such as dropping supplies and paratroopers, flying reconnaissance or test-flying the latest piece of military hardware.
The gung-ho can fly short and long range interception missions, combat air patrol, go up against ground targets, bomb the living hell out of something, escort bombers or go on support missions. Some missions only allow you to select specific planes, such as the Stealth Fighter recon mission or flights from aircraft carriers, but most of the time your choice of craft isn't limited.
For a different perspective you can fly for the other side. The missions are roughly the same, only this time you fly Soviet hardware against NATO targets.
Some missions are far more interesting than others. The idea of dropping people on a target rather than high explosives is a concept that didn't appeal to me. On the other hand, taking a Fairchild A10 out and cluster-bombing tank columns was right up my street, as was the obligatory Top Gun barrel roll in an F14 just after taking off from a carrier.

SPEED FREAKS The problem with Birds Of Prey, as with most flight sims, is speed. However good the A500 is, it isn't the fastest computer on Earth, and things do slow down when the screen gets busy. To combat this, a pull-down menu lets you select exactly what you think is necessary in the game. Oceans can be taken out, aeroplane graphics can be downgraded and roads, hills and trees can be left out. The result is a respectively fast game with very little graphics or a sluggish but nice-looking game.

This is the most comprehensive system of its type on any flight sim. On most games you can only select between low, medium and high detail. Domark's SuperFulcrum used a novel system where you could actually choose the number of colours and lines on the screen as well as the detail levels.

JEZ SAN AND THE ARGONAUTS

The team behind Birds Of Prey is Argonaut Software. Headed by industry veteran Jez San, they've ben responsible for games such as Starglider 2, Afterburner and Days Of Thunder. BOP was originally scheduled for a 1990 release under the name of Hawk, but other projects, team changes and 'acts of God' all contributed to an extraordinarily hefty delay.
Coder Chris Humphries has been with the game from square one, starting work on it way back in the summer of '89. Innumberable other programmers have chipped in on various stages, adding names such as Peter Warnes, Giles Goddard, Ian Crowther and Herman Serrano to an extremely long list of credits. It's unlikely that we'll ever see a sequel.


Birds of Prey logo Zero Hero

"Oh no, 40 different aeroplanes and I've got to squeeze them all into a two-page review," whined Duncan MacDonald as he was handed Birds Of Prey from Electronic Arts. His intro obviously had to be short, so he decided to... (Snip. Call that a helping hand. Ed.)

You all know what warbased flight sims entail. You have to take part in ground attack missions, air-to-air combat missions or reconnaissance missions. And then you have to land. Birds Of Prey has a couple of added 'knobs', such as "Test Pilot" (fly a plane up into the stratosphere) and "Troop And Supply Drops", but apart from that it's much as you'd expect. A war-based flight sim. No further explanations are necessary, so we can get onto the planes...

THE MAP

Oh, before we get to the planes, you should know the map - an important part of any wargame. In Birds Of Prey the map is big, it's impressive and it's rather 'tough'. Not only do you study it during your briefing session, you can also summon it up while you're in the air. (You can scrolli it around, set new waypoints, zoom-in, zoom-out and shake it all about before getting back to the action.) Now we can finally get onto the planes.

THE PLANES

The unique selling point of Birds Of Prey is the amount of aircraft at your disposal - 40 of them. The same cockpit instrument panel is used for each, but the handling characteristics and payload capabilities are different (to say the least). So what's on offer?

In the blue corner: British Aerospace Hawk, Saab Gripen, Rockwell B1-B, Tornado Northrop B2 Stealth Bomber, Northrop Tigershark, Northrop F-5E, North American X-15A (an experimental aircraft), F-18 Hornet, DC-10, F-15 Eagle, Phantom, Lockheed F-117, Lockheed TR-1A, A-10 Tankbuster, Dassault Breguet Rafale A, Mirage F1-E, Boeing 747, B-52 Stratofortress, British Aerospace Harrier.

In the red corner: Antonov Condor, Yakovlev Forger, Tupolev Bear, Sukhoi Flanker, Sukhoi Frogfoot, Sukhoi Fencer, Sukhoi Flagon, MiG-29 Fulcrum, MiG 27 Flogger, MiG25 Foxbat, MiG 23 Flogger A, MiG 21 Fishbed.

So there you have it. Another quality flight sim along the lines of most other quality flight sims, but with an additional 39 planes for you to crash into the ground. It can't be bad,can it? (We don't know yet. Ed.)

Amiga reviewDunc: Back in the days before steam, Argonaut Software started work on a flight sim called Hawk. Hawk was going to be rather 'special' because it was going to have undulating terrain. Nobody believed that it would. Then, five hundred thousand years later (i.e. now), Hawk finally did come out - and it didn't have undulating terrain. It wasn't even called Hawk anymore, it was called Birds Of Prey. This is it.

Okay then, so let's start with the front end. It's brilliant. If games were rated purely on their option screens, Birds Of Prey would score a million. But they aren't. Eventually you get to the main game, and there are two things which instantly let it down - the frame update and the control difficulty.

Maybe I was being naive, but my guess was that as Argonaut had tried for so long to crack the undulating terrain problem, the least they would have produced in the process would have been tremendously fast polygon shifting routines. The last thing I was expecting was jerkiness, given a final landscape no more complicated than that of, say, Falcon. I was wrong. You have to turn ALL the detail off if you want anything resembling smoothness - and even then it's a bit wibbly.

Then we come to the second problem - the control difficulty. Talk about joystick over-sensitivity. You very soon find yourself forced onto the mouse (aaargh!) - and even then it's still a nightmare. Actually land in Birds Of Prey? Don't make me laugh. When you've finished a mission it's probably less risky to head straight into the side of a mountain or something. This is definitely no simulation for a beginner. Don't say you haven't been warned.

So that's the down side - jerkiness and over sensitive controls. But everything else is, well, brilliant. The sound, the environment, the war scenario, the map... oh, and all the different aircraft at your disposal (of course). Being able to fly more than one plane is sometimes a bit of a gimmick, but here it's different. With the wealth of different missions on offer you Need to master at least half of them. (More importantly, you genuinely want to - especially the two VTOLS.)

The atmosphere in Birds Of Prey is what wins you over in the end, though, even if the jerkiness and control probs do put you right off your stroke for the first couple of hours. The way I see it is that a game which glues itself to the ground in the playability stakes can still pull itself up by its bootstraps as long as you really, really want to become involved. And here you do.

Birds Of Prey may be as hard to get to grips with as climbing Mount Everest with an anvil sellotaped to your forehead, but strangely enough that's part of the fun. You may not agree - how can I possibly tell? These things are personal, after all. Is it a ZERO Hero or what? It's so close that I'm going to give it the benefit of the doubt. But don't forget, this ZERO Hero comes with reservations, so if you're a 'just the last paragraph reader', I suggest you change the habits of a lifetime and read the rest. Stop


THE 'DID WE DO IT RIGHT' QUIZ
Here are a few missions we attempted earlier. Unfortunately, silly clots that we are, we weren't too sure which plane was right for which job. So we guessed. But did we guess right? And if not, which plane should we have used instead? Answers on a postcard to: No, No, No, You'll Get Yourself Killed In That Compo, at the usual ZERO Address. (The winner will receive a small blu-tac model of Douglas Bader).
MISSION 1: AIR INTERCEPTION
In the hangar:
We've been scrambled and have to blast three enemy MiG-29s out of the sky. Whata piece of cake. We've plumped for this beauty. It's massive. It'll scare the shite out of them! Ha ha!
Much flying time later: Oh dear. They don't seem to be very scared at all.
MISSION 2: LONG-RANGE BOMBING
In the hangar:
Our bomb target is 200 miles away. It'd take ages to get there normally, but not in this X-15 Experimental Aircraft. Apparently it can handle 4,000 mph without flinching. We'll be back in time for Home And Away.
Much flying time later: Eh? There don't seem to be any bombs on board and we seem to be in orbit around Mars.
MISSION 3: TROOP DROP
In the hangar:
Aha! The Tornado should be really great for dropping troops. It's got moving wings, too. Brill. Look, we can swing our wings. It'll be a bit like on Going Live, with Trevor and Simon.
Much flying time later: Er, there only seems to be one 'troop' on board and he doesn't want to be dropped. (It's the navigator. Ed.)
MISSION 4: SEA PATROL
In the hangar:
They use Harriers for sea missions, don't they? Well, they did in the Falklands. They're probably easy to fly too - you can't crash if your jets are pointing towards the ground...
Much flying time later: Ahh... oh, we're going sideways. No we're not, we're going upside-down, er... (Splash!)
MISSION 5: TEST PILOT
In the hangar:
Fly an aircraft to the limit of its performance envelope and take it up to the stratosphere? OK. The A-10 Tank Killer looks the business for something like that. Catch the size of those engines.
Much flying time later: Oh dear. It doesn't want to go above 50,000 feet for some reason. (Must be broken.)
MISSION 6: STEALTH RECONNAISSANCE
In the hangar:
Photograph enemy installations without the enemy seeing you - that's the directive. Our reply is: "Just try and stop us." Boeing 747s are rather quiet, so that's what we're going in.
Much flying time later: What are all those flashes of light? Someone down there must be having a firework party. Oh, we seem to be right in the middle of it...