F-22 Lightning 3 traditionally, jet fighter games have been the domain of super hardcore sim freaks. You know the ones — they have tattoos of F-16s on their butts and stealth piercings all over their pasty white bodies. But ultra-realistic flight simulators can be frightening to the average gamer. Hell, the manual to Falcon 4.0 looked like it was written by Tolstoy, and even War and Peace was a more friendly read. Well, NovaLogic has consistently proved that they have the skills to create flight sims that break the mold. Ones that are authentic enough to satisfy all but the most demanding realists while still offering up some fun to gamers who aren’t into learning every little nuance of a military jet. Ever since the days of Comanche I’ve been impressed with NoveLogic’s ability to bring the exciting world of aerial combat to the masses, sacrificing some of the difficulty of realistic flight to make games fun and engaging. And their latest endeavor, F-22 Lightning 3, is no exception, proving to be challenging enough for purists while offering up enough thrills to draw in the typical gamer who’s just looking for a diversion from the commonplace action shooter or realtime strategy title.
Like the name implies, F-22 Lightning 3 puts you in the cockpit of an F-22 multi-role fighter. You’re in command of one of the most advanced jets the USAF has to offer, taking the fight to the skies as well as taking out a few ground targets on the way.
Although thin compared to most flight sim manuals, the 38 page instruction booklet does an adequate job of explaining the control system without bogging you down with too much extraneous information and, by working your way through the training missions, you can pretty much learn everything you need to know about flying Lightning 3 without even having to crack open the book. Who the hell cares how flight dynamics work and the ‘moves’ of the pros? That’s what the library is for. I want to fly around and blow the crap outta everything, dammit! And that’s exactly what Lightning 3 delivers. This game is all about looking good and playing well. I was really impressed at how well Lightning 3 flew as well as the visual end of things. I also found the game to be incredibly stable and experienced no noticeable bugs in the program. If you are wondering about possible future fixes, though, NovaLogic even includes a handy updater in the program so you don’t have to go searching around for the latest patches.
The flight model is perfectly customizable to your play style with varying degrees of realism. If you don’t want to deal with the more difficult aspects of flight (most notably landing on your own), then you can just use the automatic options and let the computer take over for you. And, in case you’re worried that you’ll get you beat up and made fun at your next flight sim enthusiast meeting, you can simply do everything yourself.
Armaments for your F-22 includes everything you would expect to find in any modern flight sim — air-to-air missiles (sidewinders and AARAMs), air-to-ground missiles (HARMs), a few bombs and the ever-satisfying 20MM cannon — but the design team has added tactical nukes to your compliment of weapons as well, giving you the ability to take out small cities with just one push of a button. Now that’s a deadly payload!
F-22 Lightning 3 includes a long campaign mode with approximately forty missions taking place over six arenas. The missions are quick and exciting, with most requiring you to take out a mix of ground and air objectives. You have pre-determined locations downloaded into your plane’s computer, so all you have to do is switch NAV points, engage the autopilot, and you’re off to your next objective. There’s also a number of quick missions (4 training missions or 18 combat sorties) where you can hone your skills before jumping into the full campaign.
As satisfying as the single player campaign is, armchair pilots are going to want to try their hand against some real competition, and Lightning 3 supports some robust multiplay options, including deathmatch, R.A.W. (bomb the other team’s base into oblivion) and co-op missions. These multiplayer scenarios really make you feel like you’re involved in a massive air war. The multiplayer service, NovaWorld, is seamlessly built into the game engine, so you don’t have to exit out of the game and log into some secondary service over the Internet. I found NovaWorld to be quite impressive and low on latency problems. Although I can’t evaluate how NovaWorld performs at full capacity (the most pilots I’ve ever seen in one Lightning 3 arena is 35), I can tell you that I was pleased with the performance of the games that I did play. There’s no lack of action either as NovaWorld supports up to 128 simultaneous players in each arena, so things can get hairy quite fast.
If all of these play options still aren’t enough for you, NovaLogic has included a mission editor with Lightning 3 — a variation that the developers used to create the missions in the game. It’s a bit daunting to get the hang of in the beginning and the only editing documentation is on the CD itself, but this is a nice addition for you aspiring mission builders out there.
Visually it’s hard to beat Lightning 3. The two previous franchises looked friggin’ brilliant for their time, and Lightning 3 continues to keep up the graphical acuity we’ve come to expect from NovaLogic’s sims. All of the planes in the game look beautiful and the landscapes are to die for. Not much of the terrain sharpness is lost when you dive close to the deck and the variation in scenery gives you a real sense of flying missions in different parts of the world. In addition to terrain variety, the art team did a great job with the environmental effects. With impressive rain storms, snow flurries and lightning strikes you’ll rarely get bored of looking out the window, even after you’ve completed all of your objectives. The only place where Lightning 3 is lacking graphically is in the ground objects, which are mostly low polygon models which lose their detail when you get too close. But, if all goes well, most of the ground objects you see won’t be around for too much longer after you blast them with a nuke … or two.
If there’s one drawback to the game it’s the auditory experience. Sound effects are adequate but sparse and, while the voice-overs are clear and well recorded, they do get a bit repetitive after a while. However, the soundtrack is almost torturous. The recurring and constantly rising bass line quickly drove me to the verge of insanity and, after the first five minutes, it was no more in-flight music for NancyBoy. For the multiplay experience, Lightning 3 does utilizes NovaLogic’s proprietary voice-over-net feature which allows pilots to talk to one another while playing without sacrificing much in the way of bandwidth. There’s even a free headset with a mic attached included in the Lightning 3 box. This is a great idea which allows you to communicate with your squadron while focusing your attention on the tasks at hand rather than searching for the correct keys to issue orders, but nobody was using the voice-over-net feature on NovaWorld when I was playing. Hopefully this will change as more people buy the game and are involved in multiplay. Hell, even if you don’t use the voice-over-net feature you can still use the headset mic for your “Judy the Time-Life operator” costume this Halloween.