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Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator 3 offers a very rich gaming experience and has all the bells and whistles traditionally featured in a cutting-edge flight combat sim. It has beautifully modeled airplanes, killer A.I., and an array of gaming choices that give practically unlimited replay value. It also boasts several unique features. One of these is the emphasis on tactical air support instead of combat between airplanes (don't worry, you get plenty of dogfighting, too). The other is the campaign game, which introduces a strong strategy element: your decisions and combat performance affect not only the course, but also the outcome of the war.
All these features make CFS 3 a complex game, and if you're a newcomer to flight combat sims you do face a steep but fun learning curve (just reading and assimilating the contents of the game manual alone can require up to two hours). This book is meant to unravel the game's complexities so you can enjoy the game to its fullest. Now, the first requirement toward enjoying a game is making it run well on your computer. This chapter takes a look at how it's done.
Preparing for Installation
The moment you pick up the game box, you should check the minimum system requirements. They may be printed on the box, or on a label glued onto the box sheath, and it's mandatory reading.
If you're unsure whether your system meets all the requirements, it's easy to check. Right-click on the My Computer icon on your desktop and select System Information, then click through the tabs to find out everything you want to know and more. There's a button called Benchmark at the bottom of the System Information panel, and it's both fun and useful. It shows you the relative performance of your system and lets you monitor any changes that occur.
Now, you may have the fastest system on the planet, but it may be so cluttered and overloaded it doesn't run well. Here are a couple of things you must do before installing CFS 3, and a couple more things you should do:
1. Check how much free space you've got on your hard drive (the Drive tab on the System Information panel), remembering that you should keep 20% of your hard drive free at all times. Otherwise, applications that require big swap files won't run well.
2. If you've got around 2GB or more available for installing new software, do consider the Full Install option in CFS 3. Although this takes up over 1.7GB, putting all the game files on the hard drive will remarkably improve game performance.
3. Defragment the hard drive prior to installation. If you don't know what that means or how to do it, you should immediately read up on Disk Defragmenter in Windows Help.
4. Install the game and restart your computer before playing it for the first time.
5. Check the connections of any peripherals you have. The anguished cry, "My joystick won't work with this game!" is often caused by the fact that the joystick isn't plugged in. Calibrate the joystick and any other peripherals if you haven't done so recently.
Resist the temptation to play the game the moment it's installed. Read the CFS 3 Readme first (not reading the Readme docs attached to all applications is a major factor in anger management problems, cardiac complications, social unrest, etc.). Once you do start the game, begin by familiarizing yourself with its interface. You'll instantly see that although CFS 3 offers an amazing number of options (Quick Combat alone features enough choices to keep you busy for a very long time), the heart of the game lies in its campaigns.
There's just one more thing that needs to be done before you start playing in earnest, and that's to review the configuration of game commands (in the main game menu, click Options, then Control Options). You may want to customize these commands to your liking, and the choices you make there will be dependent on what game peripherals you have. If you're a newcomer to flights sims, read the section that follows; if you're a veteran, skip it and go straight to Configuring Commands.
As mentioned earlier, you do need a joystick or a flight yoke to fully appreciate the sim. Having additional controllers (rudder pedals, throttle controller) will enjoy the game even more. If you don't yet own any of these and are about to spend some of your hard-earned money, please keep the following points in mind:
* Joysticks differ widely in quality, while flight yokes are generally high quality. Joysticks are generally considered to be more fun than flight yokes (that's why there are so many models of joysticks available), and they take up less desk space.
* You can't go wrong if you purchase the game's official joystick, the Microsoft Sidewinder 2. It's somewhat pricey, but it features a twisting handle for rudder control; this theoretically makes rudder pedals unnecessary. However, it may cause problems when you're applying alternating or opposite rudder (plane banked one way, rudder flipped the other way) in the heat of combat (see Figure 1.1).
* Quality has its price. Generally the more money you pay, the better the joystick. Just keep in mind that all joysticks wear out with enough use, and have to be replaced.
* Ask the store staff if you can test your chosen joystick on one of the demo computers. Something as silly as a sticky button can cause plenty of grief when you start playing, and no two joysticks are exactly the same. Testing your choice may save you a trip back to the store.
* If you're awash in cash and want to buy extra game peripherals, consider getting rudder pedals before anything else. At first glance, a throttle controller may seem to offer more with all those programmable switches. However, many sim pilots end up not using their rudder simply because they can't be bothered with sticky, imprecise keyboard keys. If you don't use the rudder while playing CFS 3, you're in for plenty of unnecessary pain.
* CFS 3 requires using the keyboard even if you own a full suite of game controllers. Consider your desk space when buying extra stuff. You cannot fly a plane well by holding the joystick in your lap-in any case, you need a free hand to manage other game controls.
Choose Options from the main game menu and select Control Options to open the appropriate panel. It has two side tabs, and defaults to Assignments. You'll see a rather daunting list of commands-but don't be daunted! The pull-down menu near the top of the panel is set by default to All Commands; you can restrict the listed command options to a specific set (Display Commands, Weapons Commands, etc.). The second pull-down menu from the top offers you the option of saving a new command configuration under a new file name. It's best to create a new configuration file before you make any changes.
You'll find the configuration process easy if you remember that basically there are only two types of commands. There are time-sensitive, urgent commands, and then there are the not-so-urgent ones. Urgent commands should be one-press commands: they involve a single button/switch/keyboard key. Not-so-urgent commands can involve a combination of keys.
Here are some suggestions as to which commands should be given urgent status, set by set as featured in the game:
1. Combat Commands: All but Open/Close Bomb Bay Doors are very time-sensitive. You do not need any bomber-specific commands (Cycle Gunner Seats, Gun Elevate, etc.) if you're flying a fighter.
2. Control Surface Commands: All of these are urgent. Many of these will be automatically configured to your game controllers. If you are forced to configure rudder commands to your keyboard, make sure you choose a convenient set of three side-by-side keys that you can confidently operate without looking at the keyboard. For instance, the comma, period, and forward-slash keys (, . /) are a good set to use for this. Assign the key in the center to Center Ailerons and Rudder, and the appropriate outside keys to Rudder Left and Rudder Right.
3. Display commands: This command set contains a few seldom used options, but important, single-press commands include everything related to the Tactical Display, the Aircraft Labels, and the Heads Up Display toggle (see Figure 1.2). The Enemy Indicator toggle is of importance only for very new pilots; if you do use it, it's definitely a one-press command. Same goes for Padlock View.
4. Engine Commands: One-press commands should include everything related to operating the throttle. Seriously consider programming Throttle (100%) and Throttle (Idle) onto your joystick buttons-cutting the throttle quickly will save you time and again! Full Rich Mixture and Propeller (minimum pitch) are urgent one-press commands if you play the game at 100% difficulty, which involves manual adjustment of mixture settings. You'll need to switch very quickly to the combat combination of rich mixture and fine pitch when surprised by the enemy! You can reassign other less important commands to key combinations. For example, Engine Autostart in particular hogs a convenient single key (E) by default, and it's only used when starting a new mission from an airfield runway.
5. General Aircraft Commands: One-press commands need to include Brakes, Lower and Retract Flaps Incrementally, and Spoilers/Dive Brakes (if flying an aircraft equipped with these).
6. Simulator Commands: You should be able to pause the game instantly, that's for sure. Shutting down Sound can improve frame rate in busy combat situations.
7. View Commands: These are important-Virtual Cockpit toggle and Eyepoint (reset) particularly-so preferably these two should be assigned to convenient joystick buttons.
8. Weapons Commands: All of these are very important. Hitting the target from a fast-moving airplane involves split-second timing; this holds true for guns, rockets, and bombs. The only candidate for a multi-key command is Refill Selected Weapon.
9. Wingmen Commands: All of these are onepress commands. Any delay in issuing orders to your wingmen may have painful consequences. When assigning commands to buttons and keyboard keys, make sure to group related commands together in a logical manner. For example, the six trim commands should ideally be grouped together in neighboring pairs of keys. Group keyboard view commands in a layout corresponding with view direction. Do not be afraid to meddle with the default settings. You can restore them at any time with the Default button at the bottom of the Control Options panel. Take the time to set up things so you are comfortable, because once the action starts you'll often execute a new command every second-flipping views, communicating with your wingmen, operating weapons, flight controls, throttle. Combat flying is a very intense experience, and you definitely don't want to fumble with the keyboard when the heat is on (see Figure 1.3).
Once all the command assignments on the Assignments tab are complete, you should check out the Sensitivities tab on the Control Options panel. It lets you adjust the sensitivity of your joystick/flight yoke with a slider regulating sensitivity, and another that adjusts the null zone (the "dead" zone around a centered joystick where slight joystick movement doesn't have any effect). Do not increase joystick sensitivity simply because you feel your plane isn't turning around nimbly enough. It will get you nothing except plenty of unexpected stalls, spins, and crashes.
Optimizing Game Performance
CFS 3 is a state-of-the-art combat simulation. Unfortunately, this also means it runs best on state-of-the-art equipment. It is perfectly enjoyable on a system that barely clears the minimum system requirements, but only if that system is in good shape. Begin by making your computer run faster; then make the game run faster on your computer.
Making Your Computer Run Better
If you have a special diagnostic program such as Norton Utilities, put it to use. If you don't, Windows comes equipped with all the tools you need. Here are some things you can do to ensure your computer runs as fast as it possibly can:
* If your box has a network card and you're not playing multiplayer, make sure the card's disabled. Open the Device Manager in the System folder to disable it, and later enable it again (you must reboot your machine after making these changes).
* Run ScanDisk and Disk Defragmenter once a week.
* Run Disk CleanUp once every month.
* Run msconfig (Start menu: select Run, type "msconfig") every couple of months. You'll see what you've got running every time you boot up. Chances are you have plenty of things loading that you don't really need. Disable startup items you don't need, but be careful! If you haven't done it before, have someone knowledgeable by your side; otherwise, keep your Windows CD handy and make changes one by one and try them out by rebooting after each change. If you run into problems, rebooting from the Windows CD will let you reverse any unfortunate changes you made.
So, you've done all you can to your box, and you're still not satisfied with the game's performance? Well, there's more you can do.
Making the Game Run Better
CFS 3 is rich in graphic detail and astounding sound effects. As much as these contribute to the gaming experience, toning things down will significantly improve game performance.
You'll be given the option to customize video settings upon the conclusion of the game installation. It will be hard to make the right choices there and then, because you won't know what effect they'll have in practice. Don't worry! You can tweak things through the Display Options panel while running the game, which enables you to instantly evaluate the effect of the changes you make.
The Display Options panel has two tabs: Hardware and Image Quality. Hardware lets you choose between 16-bit and 32-bit color-naturally, 16-bit color puts lesser demands on your machine. This tab also gives you the option of setting the screen resolution.
Resolution in Detail
To begin with, keep in mind that a higher resolution with lower level of detail tends to look better than a lower resolution with a higher level of detail. Start by deciding which resolution you'd like to play at. The lowest choice available (800x600) doesn't look great, and going just a single step up (to 1024x768) makes quite a difference. All in all, the very next resolution (1152x864) offers the best between beauty and performance (see Figure 1.4). There are better, higher resolution options, but the first two jumps (between 800x600 and 1024x768, and subsequently to 1152x864) are particularly striking.
Excerpted from Combat Flight Simulator 3 by Michael Rymaszewski Excerpted by permission.
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Chapter 1: Preparing to Play.
Chapter 2: Flying
Chapter 3: Combat Flying.
Chapter 4: Fighting and Winning.
Chapter 5: Friends and Foes.
Chapter 6: Single Missions.
Chapter 7: The Campaign Game.