Not Just Another Pretty Face
by Lawrence T. Russell
Make no mistake about it- NovaLogic's latest flight sim, F-22 Lightning II, is
a thing of beauty. Since its release in September '96, reviewers and fans
across the country have raved about its exquisite texture-mapped terrain and
polygon-based objects. But there's much more to this simulation than meets the
eye and focusing on how good it looks just runs the risk of missing how well
it plays. In this world of light-sourced, Gauroud-shaded wonders, F-22
Lightning II is not just another pretty face.
These days it's not enough to look down from your cockpit and marvel at the
pretty sights. Terrain has to be functional, it has to have a purpose;
otherwise whatаs the point? Good fighter pilots will use terrain to enhance
their combat abilities. (Thereаs nothing like flying up a narrow canyon to
avoid enemy radar or ducking over a ridgeline to evade a SAM.) If all the
terrain features do is look good, the game designer has left out an important
part of air combat.
I can remember back to a time when some early simulations featured air-to-air
missiles with an amazing ability to track your aircraft even after you had
ducked behind a ridge or mountain. To make matters worse, some of these
missiles had the power to fly "through" intervening terrain to get at you. I
can picture the boys over at the Pentagon salivating at the thought of getting
their hands on missiles like these. (I used to call them "meat-seekers.¬)
Well, this kind of thing just doesn't cut it anymore. Not only is it an
example of lazy programming, it makes for bad simulation. What's the point in
having nice looking mountains and valleys if they're not really there? What
good is flying Nap of the Earth (NOE) if the enemy can blast you with a
missile just as easily as they could if you were flying at 20,000 ft? I mean,
when I'm flying up MiG Alley or down Thud Ridge I expect the terrain to
actually be there. I don't expect the enemy to shoot a missile up my "six"
after I've gone to the trouble of putting a mountain in-between us.
Nothing takes the sim out of simulation like seeing a missile bore through a
mountain side. In fact, if I'm playing a flight sim and see this happen, I
break out the shrink-wrap machine and fly the box right back to the store.
Like most flight sim pilots, I make it a point to include terrain analysis as
part of my flight plan. Rarely, if ever, do I follow pre-set waypoints. I
check for the location of prominent features and decide how best to integrate
them into my ingress/egress routing. After all, it's my butt up there. I want
to do things my way. Now, if I find that I've gone to all that trouble for
Unlike many flight sims still on the market today, the landscapes in F-22
Lightning II are not just good-looking facades. They represent "real"
obstacles to your line of sight (LOS) and radar. This simulation does not let
the enemy pilots "cheat" by giving them X-ray vision or non-LOS radars. It
also doesn't give them "meat-seeking" missiles. In other words... it's a real
simulation. The computer AI is such that it takes the surrounding terrain into
account enabling you to use "real" combat tactics, using "real" terrain
F-22 Lightning II air campaigns take place over four different terrain
"worlds": a humid jungle terrain, an arid desert, a hilly island, and a frozen
Siberian mountain range. Besides presenting you with stunning visuals, each
terrain "world" has its own way of affecting the tactics that you and the
enemy will employ. The desert "world" for example consists of table top mesa
formations, flat-topped rises with steep sides. The Siberian "world" consists
of high altitude mountains with sharp snow-capped peaks, about as far from a
desert environment as one can get.
Now, if we were passengers in a standard Boeing 737, our biggest concern would
be pointing our cameras out the window and taking good tourist snaps. But
since we're simulating combat missions, I'd like to spend the remainder of
this article performing a brief terrain analysis on each of the terrain
worlds. For the moment, we're not interested in how things look but rather how
the terrain can be incorporated into our mission planning.
Campaign One: Gambling on the Mekong uses the jungle terrain world. It's
unbearably hot and humid. Lousy weather to fly around in, but ideal for
growing lush vegetation. This world features wide, slow moving, muddy rivers
surrounded by rolling hills that are covered with a triple canopy of green.
Typically, the hills in this world are gently sloped and easy to hug.
By staying close to the ground you increase your chances of disappearing in
the "ground clutter." Some enemy aircraft, particularly the Su-27, are
equipped with "look down- shoot down" radars but even these aircraft have
difficulty tracking when you stay down low. In other words, you are better off
trying to get "lost" in the jungle. This remains true even if you are detected
visually by an opponent carrying ёheaters.¬ Infra-red missile performance is
likewise degraded when you stay down low.
The hills are widely spaced, the effect of which is to create nice deep
valleys. These valleys are just large enough for engagements using
heat-seeking missiles but too small for practical use of AMRAAMs. Curiously,
the valleys in this world tend to isolate air battles like football games
being played inside a stadium. Since your F-22 is better off fighting in the
horizontal plane, you may choose to valley-hop and dogfight in places only
where it's most advantageous.
Campaign Two: Siberian Turncoats takes place over... you guessed it...
Siberia. As we all know, Siberia is a cold, desolate mountain area. (It's
definitely not a place you want to take a date.) This terrain is characterized
by pointed, snow-covered peaks and long, narrow canyons with thousand-foot
cliffs. It's hard to fly NOE over this type of terrain. You tend to
concentrate on not running into things instead of your mission. After all,
itаs distracting to continually look out the cockpit glass to check your wing
Usually, the best way to traverse terrain like this is to fly down canyons
that happen to point in the general direction you wish to go. Unfortunately,
most of the canyons seem to be oriented east-west and your targets are usually
located north or south of your airbase. Even though itаs the best way to fly
if you want to avoid the enemy, thereаs a danger in making canyon runs. You
can get caught in a switchback or dead-end and have to pop out of the canyon
at an inopportune moment.
Still, if you don't actually fly inside a canyon, keeping one conveniently
nearby gives you the ability to evade enemy missiles. Again, missiles can't
track what they can't see. Ducking into a canyon causes missiles to lose their
"lock" on you. You only have to do this trick a couple of times before your
enemy is out of ammo.
Campaign Three: Iraqi Machinations seeks to recreate the conditions that our
boys faced in 1991. Once again the USAF takes to the air, only this time,
we're opposed by a reconstituted and modernized Iraqi air force. Luckily,
you're flying the Lightning II and not some aging F-15C Eagle or worse; some
F-16 "lawn dart." This campaign uses the "desert" world, thought by some to be
the most demanding terrain of all.
As already noted, the desert world is full of elevated mesa-like formations.
While some of these can get to be quite high, the majority of mountains in
this world are limited to the 7- 8000 ft. range. Their cliff-like sides and
sheared-off tops make distant missile combat difficult. Unlike the desert
floor which is ideal for medium range missile shots, the sharp edges to these
plateaus make it easy to break a missile lock. You only have to duck over the
"lip" of a plateau to put something solid between you and an incoming missile.
Avoid flying directly over the top of one of these plateaus. They are
sometimes very wide and should you happen to get bounced by enemy fighters,
you'll have nowhere to hide. What's worse, you'll inevitably be forced into a
vertical engagement on the enemy's terms. Always go around these bluffs if at
all possible (and in most cases it will be.)
One good thing about flying over desert is the ability to keep your speed high
while remaining very low. It's fun to ramp your jet up to super-sonic speeds
and go kick up some sand. Speed is life and from a tactical standpoint, flying
a low level target ingress at 600+ knots allows you to get in quickly, do your
business, and get out in a hurry. It also makes it practically impossible for
enemy surface-to-air missiles to engage you.
For some reason I haven't yet figured out, Campaign Four: Odessa Vacation
takes place over the island world. Last time I looked, the city of Odessa is
situated on the Black Sea and uh, I don't know of any major islands in the
vicinity. Even so, the island world is one of my favorites. It consists of a
broad stretch of ocean filled with several large islands with big jutting
mountains and rolling dry grass hills. The island coast lines are reminiscent
of the white cliffs of Dover or better yet, a trip down California's Pacific
Flying over ocean areas in this world is much like flying over desert. The
wide ocean expanse is flat with few obstructions. It's tailor made for
lighting the afterburner when you feel that "need for speed." At the end of a
hard day, I like to fly down the coast lines for a relaxing trip home. Every
now and then you'll uncover a waterfall or some other neat feature that you
wouldn't know was there if you had stuck to your waypoints.
The coastal cliff areas are much like the mesa features in the desert world.
Flying the "lip" gives you the immediate ability to duck incoming missiles. My
favorite trick is to fly just offshore, beneath the cliff line. It's much less
demanding than flying a canyon and therefore you can keep your speed higher.
Nothing freaks out opponents in a multi-player game like seeing your F-22 come
shooting up from behind a sea cliff at mach 1.5. This additional speed
represents energy that can be quickly converted into altitude should the need
If you look at the countryside from a distance, the green pastoral areas
appear to be table-top flat. Don't be fooled. On closer inspection, you'll
notice that the meadows in this world contain almost imperceptible rises and
draws. You won't see them until you get very close but they are there. If you
can get down low enough, you can put these small variations in elevation to
good use. While they are not significant enough to hide in, missiles have a
hard time negotiating this terrain. They are likely to slam into the ground if
forced to track low flying aircraft.
Campaign Five: Back to Africa is the double-secret bonus campaign. When the
game was originally released, you could only fly these five missions if you
had performed very well in the preceding thirty-one. The updated version of
F-22 Lightning II allows you to fly these missions right away.
The first three missions are flown over the same desert terrain as those in
the third campaign. The last two missions are flown over the island terrain
used in the fourth campaign. Let me just say that my earlier observations
apply equally well here. These missions are designed to be particularly
difficult so paying attention to terrain features is especially important.
Chances are that if you reached the bonus campaign, youаve already learned a
thing or two about air combat. In that time, youаve probably had one or two
occasions to use the terrain for something more than just decoration.
Congratulations. Hopefully, I've helped convince you that F-22 Lightning II is
more than just another pretty face. Unlike other flight simulations, the
terrain features you encounter have a practical use beyond their aesthetic
value. As a pilot, you'll be doing your career a big favor if you adjust your