When I was first asked about evaluating Combat Pilot, I was torn between excitement and anxiety. Online gaming, especially MMO’s, isn’t really my bag. Neither are highly choreographed combat missions. I have Falcon 4.0 and I wasn’t exactly Top Gun. (I was shot down more than I landed) Now, if you ask me to take a plane, especially a very large one, and fly it from point A to point B I can do that without an issue. That said, I’m always up for a good challenge. I decided to give it a go, and test my mettle.
After installing the game, along with the massive (1 hour download) patch, I signed in and decided on a career path. I chose that of a United States Air Force aviator, with an eye set firmly on flying the CP-U-2 out of Beale AFB, California. After some consideration, I chose to be a Command Pilot. What’s the difference between Command and Squadron pilots? Command pilots can promote above Major and are ‘trained’ Instrument pilots. Once the career track was completed, I selected my push-to-talk and weapon release buttons in the control menu.
First, you select the server you want to fly in. Once that’s done, you select the mission you want to fly. The game will then, based on mission builder, load your aircraft at the training airport, “cold and dark.” You then start your aircraft, complete the mission, taxi back to your line, and shut down. If you pass the mission within acceptable standards, you will get a message in game and after you leave the mission that says “Mission success.” If you fail, a similar fail message will show.
The first mission, called “FAM 1” was simply learning how to use the communication module, the knee board, taxiing the aircraft to the active runway and then bringing it back. Piece of cake. Once that practice mission was done, I took the check ride and passed. I should note that the check rides are identical to the practice missions. So if you can pass one, you should pass the other. At least, that’s the theory.
In order to pass this series of training, or “Familiarization” as it’s called, you must pass all check rides and have about 40 hours of in-game flight time. I don’t know about you, but I have a job, a family, and a social life. Flying 40 hours in trainers just so I can go shoot something in the next phase of training.. er.. familiarization.. is a little over the top, in my opinion.
Nevertheless, I continued on right up until basic formation flying. Now, even though I have been participating with flight simulators for about 20 years, I have never flown formation before. Even in Falcon 4.0, I just loaded up quick missions and got into the fight, same with IL2:Sturmovic. I was hoping that there would be some training, tips or pointers given in game that would help me learn this skill. I was disappointed. Perhaps I’m old school, but I think if you are going through training, there needs to be actual instruction. In the case here, there was none. You just have to figure it out on your own.
After three failed attempts, I got frustrated and stopped. Before take off, you are told the altitudes and speed your flight lead will take, and the kneeboard shows the route he will fly. He did neither of these. There was no constant speed or altitude and the flight plan on the kneeboard was only loosely followed. I understand it is a programmed feature, but it was programmed wrong. It simply does not match. I checked all of this several times. I did finally figure out how to formation fly in FSX and I have passed that mission, but it took the help of a fighter pilot friend teaching me what to do and hours of chasing AI airliners.
I have to admit, this is the point that I stopped. Life and frustration got in my way. I found myself using FSX to decompress and relieve stress from my work day. The thought of having to go back and fly that trainer in some arbitrary mission with no instruction was nothing short of maddening. Just seeing the icon on my desktop stressed me out. Worse yet, it seems my entire FSX install was affected by Combat Pilot. For example, when you press escape, it’s supposed to ask if you want to end your flight. Now, it brings up the Combat Pilot “Do you want to exit?”, as if you want to end the mission. Depending on what aircraft I am flying, it could also bring up an instrument. It appears “Escape” has the same function as Shift+7.
I can also no longer open doors on any aircraft. I get the “Main exit opening” tag, and then immediately get the “Main exit closing” message. Flight physics for all of my planes have changed, and not for the better. They all seem to go into an aerodynamic stall at a 45 degree bank, regardless of speed. I get wing buffet at angles of attack and speeds that I shouldn’t, and I have had a high rate of system crash since the install. In a nutshell, Combat Pilot completely takes over your entire FSX install.
However, I do want to give some credit where it is due. I communicated with the developers about a problem I found. Essentially, Combat Pilot had erased all of my key assignments. I would reset them, but as soon as I started Combat Pilot, it would set them all back to default and I would have to go and set them where I wanted them. To their credit, they created a patch and it fixed that particular issue.
That said, I think the fact that Combat Pilot takes over like it does is a flaw and a major drawback. I use the simulator for more than just combat. I participate with a virtual airline, fly on private servers with friends, and just have leisure flights when I want to relax. I shouldn’t have to deal with the effects of a combat add-on when I make a non-combat style flight. I shouldn’t have to deal with all of my planes being subject to the flight dynamics they want projected.
If you enjoy the DCS or Lock On series, participate with a virtual military organization, or just really love military style flying, you will probably like Combat Pilot. The problems I see are the time it takes just to get through your basic ‘familiarization’- forget shooting things or going on missions. Even when you do get through it, I can’t think of too much that Combat Pilot provides that you cannot find flying for a virtual military organization. Sure, you get custom scenery, special airplanes that will let you shoot missiles, drop bombs and fire guns. Yes, there is some realism from the time it takes to go through “Familiarization”, but so what? Most new combat planes in FSX let you do that anyway. Most virtual military organizations also have custom aircraft and scenery as well- and they’re free!
I have no doubt that as time goes by, the technical issues of Combat Pilot will be resolved, just like any other piece of new software. However, I don’t know that it matters. Despite my personal shortcomings with the game, I really did take a hard objective look at this project. Yes, the aircraft and scenery were great, but you can buy commercially available add-ons (from the people who helped make Combat Pilot- re: Iris Flight Simulations and A2A) that are better and also allow you to shoot and bomb. Yes, you’ll have a virtual unit to fly with, but there are hundreds of free options to get the same thing with a simple internet search. Yes, I believe they succeeded in making FSX a true combat capable environment.
Is It Worth The Money?
The basic package is $49.99. There are also aircraft specific packages for the A-10 Thunderbolt, AV-8B Harrier and F-14 Tomcat that give you those respective aircraft, a “founding member” medal, a certain amount of experience points and 90 days worth of membership, etc. that run $99.99. After that, membership is about $12.00/month, regardless of what package you start out with. However, there is a free demo that can be downloaded, so you can honestly “try it before you buy it.”
The main issues I have with combat pilot are: Familiarization instead of instruction. The length of time it takes to get out of said Familiarization. You can’t use the weapons outside of Combat Pilot. The fact that it completely takes over your install and the subscription fees. If these things were fixed, I could get behind this project. Right now, I think the flaws are too substantial. Might I suggest the subscription fees be the first thing to go?