Sid Meier’s F-15 Flight Eagle was one of my first wargames on the computer.
It wasn’t my first. I think that distinction goes to Chris Crawford’s Eastern Front. Both of these were for the Atari home computer. Both games were played with a joystick, as there was no such thing as a mouse on those early Atari home computer systems. Naturally, for a flight simulation, playing with a joystick actually made sense. Less so Eastern Front.
Two of the sets of missions in Flight Eagle were attacks on North Vietnam. At the time, I don’t think I considered the obvious problem with that. I can only assume that the thinking went, since Flight Eagle was a pretty primitive “simulator” as it was, the distinction between an F-15 and an F-4 was probably not all that great as far as the game went.
I remember the game giving me a very negative feeling about flight operations over North Vietnam. The two missions take place in the Spring of 1972 and have you face very deadly surface-to-air missiles, deployed to prevent you from completing them successfully. I remember rarely feeling good after a session against Haiphong or Hanoi. That feeling is at least a part of the reason I haven’t really done much gaming since with respect to the air war in Vietnam.
Another reason is probably that there just aren’t that many choices. I can think of a couple of Vietnam-themed games, either flight sims or tactical air games, but as it goes with the Vietnam War and other genres, this is just not the most popular era for computer gaming.
All that said, there is one option that we’ve talked about before. The continuing modifications of the IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946 package and, in particular, its “Jet Age” mod, gives us some material for Vietnam as well as Korea.
Since I last flew some jets, this package of modifications has undergone (yet again) some major upgrades. The Community Universal Patch (CUP) of a few years back has been turned into Battlefield Airborne Tactical (BAT). The focus is apparently to simplify the processes for installing, using, and adding to this monster pack of upgrades for IL-2.
For me, who just wants to get to flying around in a plane, the depth of it all starts to overwhelm. The configurability of IL-2 is just astounding. Even with a turnkey system like BAT, there is a seemingly endless combination of options available to the player. It is truly the case that working with BAT is a much simpler process than where I was, running with CUP. Even still, upgrading the system has been a multi-week process of establishing a clean base install and then layering the mods and patches on top of it. It could have gone much faster, but I wanted to make sure I tested after each step so I could understand how any changes were being introduced.
To start flying, and to fit those missions chronologically with the other Vietnam scenarios I’m playing, I started with a campaign called Vietnam 1965. This scenario is built for the “Dark Blue World” comprehensive mod, as well as a series of other mods, and was active in the 2012-13 timeframe. As such, it is actually an older version than CUP (much less BAT). It is also (somewhat) incompatible with both versions.
The problem, as far as I can tell, is that the DBW campaign uses objects that are not supported by the current BAT. Either the naming conventions are a little off, or they are specialized models created just for the Vietnam scenarios (e.g. Viet Cong Infantry models). When trying to play the campaign, it starts out with me standing next to a smoking plane wreck.
Since the Campaign doesn’t work, what I did instead is to load each mission of the campaign individually, using the “Full Mission Builder” (now much better integrated with BAT without trying to use those additional mods that made it work with CUP). What I found was that as long as the player-controlled plane is supported, the scenarios do run even when the mission load is throwing errors. Many of them do have problems with the player-controlled plane, but not all.
The campaign obviously had a lot of work put into it. You can see in the above screenshot an example. The scenario builder created a U.S. remote base down to some very impressive detail. After dropping my ordnance, I flew back to the airbase near Saigon, a trip that showcases the Vietnam map. This, again, displays some impressive effort on the part of the map’s creators. I will say it would be nice if this campaign could be updated to use the 2018 state-of-the-art, but I imagine that also would be a lot of work.
Also in the above, you’ll probably notice that my chosen mission is to provide close air support leading a flight of Douglas A-1 Skyraiders. The bulk of this campaign pack’s missions are flying helicopters, but I’m not quite ready for that just yet. That is assuming, of course, that the helicopter models are compatible between the versions, which I am pretty sure they are not. But having found and loaded a mission that is supported, the flying goes pretty seamlessly with all the upgrades. Most of the missing models are ground units, which I consider icing on the cake anyway. My plane and appropriate armaments are there, as are my targets. I find the Skyraider is a lot easier to fly than what I remember of the Me-109s. I don’t know if that is an accurate reflection of their characteristics, or a difference in focus when it comes to the IL-2 models.
I will mention a couple of other issues I had, just because I spent so much time chasing my own tail with them. First of all, the “record” function doesn’t seem to work properly if there are issues with the mission file. Or rather, I should say the video-capture’s saving function. Everything seems like it is recording, but then when it is time to save, an error message says it can’t do it. The funny thing is that it worked for me two or three times, and I don’t know why. Success doesn’t seem related to which file I’ve loaded or which CUP/BAT version I’m running. I’ve both succeeded and failed in nearly all permutations I’ve tried.
I did manage to record one bombing run using the CUP version and used it to grab the screenshot posted above. In doing so, I found another compatibility problem post upgrade. Grabbing screenshots also doesn’t seem to work as it once did, though I put in quite a bit of effort with it. Finally I found an on-line suggestion to run the program inside Steam, and then use the Steam screen capture function to record the graphic. That actually worked very well, it just took me forever to get to that point.
Back to that screenshot. Note the display of speed, altitude, and heading down the lower left. I’ve come to count on that being there and never learned to deal with the instrument panel. After upgrading to BAT, that display is gone. Try as I might, I can’t figure out what made it gone. Finally, I just decided to try to learn to land using my own eyes and the actual instrument panel. Sometimes, when I am trying to land my plane, I make it down.
The BAT release has one set of missions, centered around the Tet Offensive, that are created to be compatible. I also notice that the BAT documentation makes much of a Vietnam campaign which begins with the Gulf of Tonkin. As far as I can tell, that new campaign is not yet available.
I’ll continue on with this, but the take-away is that the mod community is providing a lot of good stuff for those of us who’d like to fly the not-so-friendly skies of Vietnam.