TFX logo AGA Amiga Computing Platinum Award

It's the flight sim Amiga owners have been waiting for, but is the excitement justified? Gareth Lofthouse locks on target.

INTRODUCTION

The good old flight sim. A genre almost as old as home computing itself, this type of game always attracted a hardcore fan base. There were, and still are, people who relish the opportunity to immerse themselves in completely authentic flying experiences - people to whom accuracy is more important than appearance.

An equally large number of game players, however, found the whole genre deadly full. Ground details were bland and unconvincing. There was no sensation of motion, and so-called dogfights often boiled down to electronic combat with specks on the horizon.

Then TFX came along to make the skeptics sit up and thing again. Developed originally for the PC, it featured convincing ground terrain, fluffy 3D clouds, satisfying explosions and gorgeous, state-of-the-art airborne technology. In short, here was a sim that looked exciting.

Now, Digital Image Design have unveiled TFX for the Amiga. Possibly the most demanding piece of software your machine has ever had to cope with, we test fly the state-of-the-art sim to see if the conversion was worth the wait.

PLAYABILITY

TFX stands for Tactical Fighter Experiment, a fact which should remind prospective buyers that this is not just a flashy visual feast, but rather a very serious simulation.

There are three hi-tech planes to choose from: The Eurofighter 2000, the Lockheed F-22 or the F-117 Stealth Fighter. Each one handles differently and possesses different armament capacities.

Several varying modes allow for different levels of action and involvement. To start with, the arcade mode is a bit of no-nonsense fun that sets the player off right in the middle of the action. The plain object here is to compete for kills against the clock and work your way up the hi-score board.

In preparation for more serious challenges, ten training missions must be successfully completed. This should give players a good introduction to mastering the navigation and weapon systems.

Once players prove themselves to be up to the job, they can take on the role of pilot flying for the United Nations in a large variety of missions. Alternatively, they may wish to test their skills against all the different flying conditions in the simulator mode.

Combat is realistic yet exciting. You'll find it very difficult, for example, to bring anything down with a chain gun, but tracking MiGs with the right missile isn't too tough.

The copy we had did still have some bugs, most of which were minor. One of the worst was the Chinook helicopters - the models had been imported incorrectly, leaving them distorted in design. DID are aware of these flaws so hopefully they will be swiftly corrected.

TFX is highly configurable, so it's possible to mess with various options during flight. For example, players can alter how strictly the laws of physics are applied to their aircraft.

Similarly, adjustments can be made to the level of G-force effects the pilot will suffer. Set it to maximum and some players will find it too restrictive - any manoeuvre seems to have the pilot blacking out and breathing heavily.


 

SOUPED-UP SIM

Having read how demanding TFX is as a piece of software, you may be wondering what the minimum amount of kit is to get it running properly.
The bottom line is that it can be played on a basic A1200 - just about - but you will have to turn down the detail to its minimum setting, which means missing out on some of the finer touches. Having said that, it still looks better than the opposition in most respects.

If you've got an accelerator things start to get more impressive, and the more fast RAM available the better. There's also an FPU version, so if you're lucky enough to have an accelerator fitted with a maths co-processor you should be set up for a pretty stunning experience.

Whatever your machine's specifications are, however, one thing must be stressed if you want to enjoy playing the game: It needs an analogue joystick. While there is an option to use a digital joystick or keyboard, this seriously undermines the smoothness of control, especially when flying the planes at high speed. For whatever reason, the digital controllers can't keep up with the graphics.


 

GRAPHICS

Forget the empty, flat landscapes and the basic block-like shapes used by some fligh sims to represent enemy units, TFX was designed to inspire and awe, and the words 'if looks could kill' have never seemed so apt.

From the moment the player starts the engines up, there are significant differences between the look of this game and the standard sim fare. The skies in TFX have space and depth, and once airborne, the player has a panoramic view of patchwork fields or detailed cities beneath them. It is a far cry from the blue sky, yellow desert simplicity of some flying game.

Missions can take place in a range of conditions including day, night and dawn flights, and players may encounter cloud cover or even storm weather accompanied by sheet lightning.

The visual realism gives each mission a different flavour. Night-time bombing doesn't just mean flying with a blacked-out screen - the sky in TFX has a faint, gradiated luminescence, while on the ground, cities are represented by convincing clusters of light.

Cross over enemy gun installation and the air is filled by streams of rising light as tracer bullets track onto your aircraft. At times it can be breathtakingly atmospheric.

Stormy conditions are gloomy and grey, with the most convincing clouds seen in any game I've played yet. As you pass into them the view outside the window gradually mists before becoming completely obscured.

Explosions, special effects and fancy camera views are offered as a satisfying reward for honing those flying skills. Physical danger is represented by more than a flashing warning light in the cockpit, as AA guns pump the skies full of clouds of shrapnel.

It may not be politically correct, but the kill is what a game like this is ultimately about. It's rewarding, therefore, that explosions are impressive and that it's easy to view any victim going down. Players can launch missiles and watch them streak off leaving a trail behind, then they can change to the missile's view to watch it close in on the enemy.

When it comes to different view sin general, TFX is better equipped than any rival as far as impressing your mates is concerned. One mode allows you to look in any direction from the cockpit (as opposed to the usual left, right and behind view), but the best is the fly-by shot which brings your fighter swooping impressively towards the camera.

Cockpit detail is high, with all necessary indicators being visible from the normal cockpit view. There are three screens on which a huge range of information displays can be selected, so the purists should feel well catered for.

The important thing to realise, unfortunately, is that TFX can only be seen in its full glory if played on a fast, powerful machine, because basic A1200 users will find the screen update too slow with the game detail turned up high.

Most players will probably be able to play TFX with medium detail. This means going without a few frills, such as emblems on a fighter's tailwing, but on the whole TFX still looks impressive.

93%

 

FLASHBACK

For a long time, Microprose were the developers the sim fanatics put their faith in. One of the first game makers to introduce combat missions into the genre, their product's playability was always strong, even when the graphics were rather dull.

Featuring a stealth bomber as one of its planes, TFX bears comparison with Microprose's F117-A. Accuracy levels seem to be pretty much the same, but when it comes to the graphics department the Microprose game is old, and it looks it.

The closest rival technically to TFX has got to be Tornado. Featuring some stunning graphics, unprecedented accuracy and involving campaigns, it remains a very impressive game.

TFX surpasses its predecessor in most respects, however, simply because it combines even more detailed graphics while making improvements on the running speed. In short, DID have produced the best Amiga sim ever.


 

Try before you buy

As has been mentioned elsewhere in the review, minor bugs cropped up here and there, but generally they were no great cause for concern.

More worrying is the fact that our copy of TFX did not seem stable running on a basic A1200, thanks to regular crashing in the middle of the game. DID are aware of the problems and have made assurances that any problems will be resolved before the product hits the streets. The cautious among you, however, may like to see it up and running before you splash any cash.


 

SOUND

Let's start with the bad point - the music. Imagine you've just bought the ultimate flight simulator boasting an unprecedented level of realism and excitement, and you're looking with anticipation at the introductory screens in preparation for the experience of Tactical Fighter Experiment.

In come the martial drum sounds sim games use to get you keyed up for the mission. So far so good, but as you prepare to arm your fighter with the latest deadly hardware, things on the music front start to go ludicrously wrong. Enter the noodling tinny noise of a theme played on a 1983 Casio.

Not that this matters one iota, but it made me laugh. Otherwise, the game's audio is proficiently handled, with plenty of varied effects to flesh out the atmosphere for the game.

A number of voices pipe up with information for the pilot during the game, including the girl with the home counties accent at take-off ("engines on!") and the redneck yank who, when you shoot a plane down, tastefully jeers "toasted bogey!"

Bay doors, the brakes and landing gears all make a satisfying hydraulic groan when activated - small touches maybe, but ones which make the game that bit more convincing.

84%

 

OPINION90%

TFX was originally designed with the fastest, mega-buck PCs in mind, so there were understandable doubts as to whether a conversion was worthwhile for the much cheaper, and in some respects less powerful A1200. So now that's finally here, what's the verdict?

DID have pushed the Amiga to the limit in an attempt to bring us the best flight sim ever. They have undoubtedly done an excellent job, but whether or not TFX is for you will depend on a number of factors.

Firstly, the basic A1200 cannot show the game off at anywhere near its best - a point worth considering if you're only interested in those gorgeous graphics. Even so, with minimum detail it still looks good and the real sim fan will find plenty of depth and accuracy in the actual gameplay to occupy many an early morning.

The more powerful your Amiga is, however, the more impressive TFX becomes, and at its best it really can be quite stunning. With a suitably accelerated machine, this game has the visual flair and excitement to attract fans usually put off by the Sim-designers' fetish for complexity.

It's a shame that only the select few will be able to play the game in its best form, but DID can't be blamed for pushing the Amiga's capabilities to the limit. An outstanding sim in its own rights, there's a lot to recommend it to owners of lower-powered machines.

Problems aside, this game beats its closest rival both in detail and in speed. TFX is the best sim on the Amiga of all time, and that's a fact unlikely to change in a long, long time.



TFX logo AGA Amiga Format Gold

Graeme Sandiford flies through the air with the greatest of ease. With a little help from Ocean's new Tactical Fighter Experiment, of course.

Flight sim fans are often considered by their fellow games players as being a peculiar breed. They actually seem to enjoy wading through manuals that are thick enough to put an end to the life of most small rodents. Why, they even spend hours learning complicated keyboard commands. I mean, are computer games meant to be fun or what? To the average games player flight sims can often seem more like hard work than a recreational activity.

However, the face of the flight sim is changing and one of the most significant changes took place almost three years ago with the belated release of Epic. This game went a fair way to combining realism of flight sims with the simple control systems of an arcade game. Although considered a bit too easy, it did prove that such a system could be made workable.

The development team responsible for this hybrid, Digital Image Design, immediately set to work on refining this system and now - three years later - the result is TFS (Tactical Fighter Experiment).
The setting for the game is a time when the Earth is a hotbed of assorted conflicts - now. You play the part of a raw recruit who has joined the UN's Tactical Fighter Experiment as a pilot.

The game is organised into several methods of play, to give you the choice of what kind of game you want to play. If flying trough the air at Mach 1 blowing up enemy fighters with gay abandon is your thing, then you'll enjoy the Arcade playing mode. While playing in this mode it's impossible to crash, so all you need to worry about is avoiding getting blasted to kingdom-come by enemy fighters.

The next mode is the Simulator. As with the Arcade mode you don't have to worry about mission objectives and other frivolous considerations such as which buildings, and presumably occupants, can be blown to pieces.

However, you do get to choose the area of the globe that you wish to wreak havoc on, as well as the aircraft that you prefer to perform said havoc-wreaking. You are also given the freedom of choice over what weapons of mass destruction your plane will be carrying.


The icing on the cake to this system's realism are the planes and the way they handle.

Learn your lesson
While such good-natured jaunts of mindless destruction are accepted in the Arcade and Simulator modes, it would seem that the UN frown upon sending out raw recruits on tours of duty. So before you can go on to the Tour of Duty you have to successfully complete the Training mode.

Training comprises 10 missions of increasing difficulty, where you face a variety of scenarios from simple air-to-air combat right through to ground-based targets that are protected by air and ground cover. At the beginning of each mission you are given the opportunity to arm your aircraft as you see fit - choose wisely.

After graduating from flight school you get to blow up real stuff by enrolling in one of three squadrons. From here on things can become quite involved and decidedly tricky, especially if you don't pay close attention to your briefings.

This may sound all too easy, but completing your training is no piece of cake and the missions you might be sent on, once you've joined a squadron, can put you in some decidedly tricky situations and environments. For example, on longer missions you may have to refuel your plane and if there are no friendly airstrips nearby you'll have to re-fuel in the air. This isn't too bad with an F-22 and F-117A, but trying to re-fuel the Euro Fighter is an absolute pain. Landing an F-22 on an aircraft-carrier is another demanding, not to mention potentially embarrassing manoeuvre.

However, the difficulties of these tasks are a testament to the game's realism - there's none of your Top Guns-like flying upside down or at 100ft at a ridiculous speed with "no-hands" - not unless you want to die. It's also very scary when you've been hit and everything goes quiet because your engine has been blown up and you steadily lose altitude.

The realism doesn't end here though, the areas to which you are assigned are all real places and the maps actually look like the real thing. Although I feel that it's a bit insensitive to recreate battles over areas where people are still being killed in real life, such as former Yugoslavia and Somalia, the environments are quite a piece of work, with sprawling hillsides, excellent Gouraud shading, clouds and even mountain ranges, You even lose visibility if you are flying into the sun above cloud-level.

Sweet success
The icing on the cake to this system's realism are the planes and the way they handle. The three planes' capabilities are all faithfully re-produced and you can actually feel the difference between the way the Euro Fighter and the F-117A fly.

You can also choose how much control you want over the plane, from simple arcade controls (advised for these who have never flown a real plane) right through to the military-specified controls - for die-hard flight sim addicts only.

Technically speaking, I had only one gripe about the game. When you are tracking an enemy aircraft it remains a tiny one-pixel smear and then suddenly explodes to the size and shape of a plane and is then gone before you know it - even if you are flying at a relatively slow speed. It would also have been nice to have more control over the configuration of the control methods, such as which button fires a weapon and which accelerates a plane.

There is one thing that may make some people have second thoughts about buying this game. Although it is possible to play TFX from floppy drives and an unexpanded Amiga, you would get much more out of the game if you had an accelerated machine (with an 030 processor) and a hard drive. It's silky-smooth on the Amiga Format A4000 040!



TFX logo AGA

We don't know what it stands for either.

This month I visited Hell. And it wasn't how I was expecting it to be at all. I always imagined it would be a pub that only served expensive bottled lager. I'd sitting at a table with a group of cigarette-smokers who were having a perpetual conversation about old children's television programmes. And on the stereo would be the Commitments playing soul songs slightly too slowly for the rest of eternity.

But in fact, Hell turns out to be playing TFX on an A1200 with no extra memory and only one disk drive. Before the game starts it is necessary to perform six disk swaps, most of which seem merely to generate a series of completely pointless pictures on the screen:

Outside the USAF Fighter Weapons School
- grind, clunk grind - inside the USAF Fighter Weapons School
- grind, clunk swap - slightly further inside the USAF Fighter Weapons School
- grind, clunk grind - inside your office inside the USAF Fighter Weapons School
- grind, clunk swap, grind - your desk inside the USAF Fighter Weapons School
- grind, swap, grind, clunk - your commanding officer inside the USAF Fighter Weapons School
- grind, grind - a close up of your commanding officer inside the USAF Fighter Weapons School...

Altogether, even allowing for the broken disk drive on the AP A1200 which meant I had to perform each disk swap with the aid of a fork, from switch-on to take-off it takes 10 minutes to 'scramble' your Eurofighter 2000 - just one minute short of the record held by World Cup USA '94. In that time, in real life, your airbase would have been peppered with 1000lb runway denial weapons and your Eurofighter 2000 crushed by the remains of its own hardened shelter.


Fades gradually into the distance

SPARROW
But that's not the end of it. Once in the air you'll discover that the graphics seem terribly dull compared with the PC pictures Ocean have been printing in their TFX adverts for the last year or so. So you'll summon up the options menu, push up the detail level and select 'Return to game'. But - oh no. Grind, clunk, grind... Two disk swaps and 30 seconds later you're back in the game and, although the game now looks lovely, the screen is updating only about once a second, making it impossible to do anything.

So it's back to the options menu to switch everything off again and - aarghh - clunk, grind... two more disk swaps before dull, grey normality is restored.

And then, should you complete the first training mission (which, thanks to the sophistication of today's air-to-air missiles is simply a case of pressing Return and Space and waiting for the MiG-21 to blow up), there's another five minutes of grinding and clunking before mission two appears. It was all too much, so I scooped up the pile of floppy disks and installed them onto a mighty Amiga 4000.

And suddenly I was in Heaven. TFX on an Amiga 4000 is an excellent game. The screen still doesn't update as smoothly as on a top-end PC, but you can stick all the detail options onto maximum and it's still perfectly playable. The landscape now fades gradually into the distance. City lights twinkle on the ground beneath you. Your plane has a logo texture-mapped onto its tail, and convincing-looking weapons dangling beneath its wings.

Missiles whoosh away leaving a trail of smoke behind them. Your 'virtual cockpit' scrolls around usefully when you look to the left and right. Your radio crackles and messages denied to humble 1200-owners. Baddies explode devastatingly. Everything still looks decidedly grey, but it's now an authentic, atmospheric grey.

And with disk swapping and accessing eliminated by the combination of more memory and a hard drive, it's now possible to play and appreciate TFX properly. (The pointless pictures still irritate, though).

At its hear, TFX is a cold, ruthless simulation that makes few concessions to games players. After all, DID, who developed it, also design simulators for the world's airforces, and are a serious straight-talking group of people. You can play it in an 'arcade' mode if you want, where you blow baddies up to score - gasp - 'points', and you can adjust the realism setting to eliminate things like crashes.

But apart from that, TFX couldn't be further removed from the knockabout fun of something like Knights of the Sky. Your powerful jet engines send you plane just where you want it, and nail-biting aerial duels are more or less eliminated by missiles which shoot down planes so far away you can't even see them.


Wouldn't mark down a Ferrari

MAVERICK
But that doesn't mean it's not fun - modern weaponry brings pleasures of its own. Experienced players will be able to juggle the various views to show enemy fighters lurching around in the sky to avoid missiles, desperately scattering flares and chaff. Laser-guided bombs are also fun, as I explain elsewhere.

There's in-flight refueling to experience, and carrier landings, and HARM radar-seeking missiles. Everything's been included. The only slight let-down is that you're always on your own, fighting a lonely single-handed war, bereft of the company of the wingmen you get in Dawn Patrol or Flight Of The Intruder. But in a way that makes it all the more exciting when you see red dots closing from all sides on your radar.

And the great graphics mean that TFX is one of those flight sims in which you can have a good time by just flying around looking at things, zooming low over cities and cruising among the fluffy, white clouds.

But then, annoyingly, Amiga Shopper noticed that their A4000 was missing, heard the mighty throbbing of its processors coming from next door, and came and asked for it back. It was therefore a return to the horrors of A1200 TFX.

Except this time, Cam had finished playing Exile, so I was able to use th other AP A1200, the one with a broken hard disk but two external drives and loads of extra memory. The disk swapping wasn't nearly so all-pervading this time, thanks to the extra drives, and the bigger memory meant that all the sound effects worked properly.

And, while the graphics are still disappointing, and attacking ground targets can be a nightmare due to the way objects don't appear on the screen until you're really close to them, I decided that it is possible to play TFX on a 1200. You just can't revel in it quite the same way.

You wouldn't mark down a Ferrari for being out of the reach of most people, or for having too small a boot. And you wouldn't penalise games like Dynablaster or Super Skidmarks 2 for being boring to play on your own - they're simply not designed as one-player games. So I think, in an AP First, I'm going to give TFX on an A4000 mark as well as an A12000 one.

On a bare-bones 1200, TFX just about works, but you'd be must better off with F-19 Stealth Fighter or something. On a 4000, TFX is one of the Amiga's best flight sims, and would be a fine purchase. The chances are, though, assuming we lost 500/600 owners about halfway through the second paragraph, you've got something in between - an A1200 with a few extra bits and pieces plugged in. So imagine a sort of sliding scale between the mediocre 1200 mark and the enormous 4000 one, adding on 3 percent for each extra floppy drive, 5 percent for a hard drive, 5 percent for some extra memory, 10 percent for an accelerator and so on. And sort of devise your own mark.


CERTAIN DEATH
The sophistication of modern warfare makes failing to hit the target a thing of the past. Come with us as we launch a daring attack on a heavily-defended installation, and marvel at our bravery.

TFX
There's the place up ahead. They probably haven't spotted us yet, thanks to the stealth capabilities of our F-117A.

TFX
Flipping to the viewfinder of our laser guidance system, we begin to zoom in on the target.

TFX
There it is. We'll aim for that big building with all the people running around it waving their arms. Lock on, wait for the fight moment, and bombs away!

TFX
Flipping to weapons view allows us to ride the bombs to its target as it follows the laser beam from the guidance system.

TFX
We can even cut to the missile's built-in camera, a la Gulf War, to... Hang on. COmically, this is own base.

TFX
Phew. It missed.


HELLO SKY

TFX gives you three planes to fly, although it likes to decide for itself which one to give you for which missions.

EUROFIGHTER 2000
It might look rather like a 1970s Mirage, and have a dreadful name, but this is the future of air defence in Europe. It's being built by a consortium of German, British, Italian and Spanish companies (France having pulled out of the project), and is due to enter service in 1995. It flies at Mach 2, is packed with electronic bits and bobs, and is TFX's middle-best plane.

LOCKHEED F-22 SUPERSTAR
The best plane in the game is this one, which tends to be used for carrier-based operations. It's being developed for the US Air Force and Navy and, as well as being visually pleasing and able to fly at Mach 2.3, is stealth-capable. This means it can sneak up on enemy fighters and launch missiles from its internal weapons bays, obviating the need for guns. (Although the game provides some for entertainment purposes).

LOCKHEED F-117A
Referring to this aircraft as the Stealth Fighter is, of course, a mistake commonly made by the ignorant and ill-bred. For it is a gorund attack aircraft, using its curious shape and special black paint to slip undetected beneath enemy radar cover and loft in the weapons hidden in its belly. It's a sub-sonic aircraft, but that isn't a problem because you don't want to be going too fast when you attack ground targets anyway. It is also the only aircraft in the game that is already in service.

BEHOLD THE REAL TFX

We've filled these pages with pictures of TFX running on an A4000, because it looks nicer that way, and appearances are important to us. You can achieve almost the same effect on an A1200 by turning all the details up to maximum (only the texture mapping on the tail fin and instrument panel and the Gouraud shading are denied to you), but then the screen updates at approximately 1 frame per second, which is clearly useless. So here are some pictures of TFX running at the default setting on an A1200. Like all flight sims, it looks better when it's moving, but not a great deal.


AND NOW, TIME FOR 'THE GALLERY'

If you're going to spend months lovingly creating a 3D polygon-filled environment, sacrificing detail for the sake of shape and movement, and asking the player to suspend his disbelief and use his imagination to fill in the spaces, why then completely shatter your carefully-crafted atmosphere by filling the screen with crudely-drawn stills between missions. All flight sims do it, presumably because all flight sims do it.