Update: Hornet 3
Note that this review was written in early 1999. I still believe this a very good game, especially if you have an old computer, but the general quality of graphics has advanced considerably with newer games which can take advantage of the powerful graphics hardware available now.
F/A-18 Hornet 3 is a significant enhancement over version 2, especially in the realism of the graphics which is improved with real "rolling" terrain instead of the flat terrain with occasional regular shaped hills and mountains. The fog effects on the distant hills and mountains gives an extra sense of distance and realism.
The weapons systems and avionics in version 3 are more true to the real aircraft and a real F/A-18 manual is provided to explain them. Its a real challenge learning how these operate and they are different enough from the systems in version 2 to make moving from version 2 to version 3 quite difficult.
Because the flight models, graphics, etc are more complex you really need a faster computer to get good frame rates when playing version 3. Version 2 runs fast on my 7200/120 but version 3 is often too slow in areas where the scenery is complex.
Introduction: Hornet 2
My favourite game now and for the last few months is the F/A-18 Hornet flight simulator from Strategic Simulations. It is the sort of game that takes a while to master but once you do it is full of interesting detail. Calling this program a game is a bit unfair, maybe it doesn't quite rate as a true "serious" simulation but its not far off. Just learning the 11 different radar modes and 8 different weapons system (some of which have several different weapons involved) is a major task, then you have to learn the tactics required to avoid SAMs (surface to air missiles), AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) and of course the dreaded enemy fighters with their air to air missiles.
Even learning the techniques required to take off and land on the carrier, navigate at night and other mundane matters is quite a challenge. For this purpose there are several training missions where you can practice these skills without the additional worry of hostile enemy aircraft. For relatively safe target practice for example I enjoy flying across to Pearl harbour and blasting a few incoming passenger jets (realistically modelled DC-10s) as they prepare to land at the international airport there.
To make life a bit easier I usually slightly decrease the skill levels of the enemy fighters. Once you get more confident you can increase them to the normal settings and even above if you are a real sucker for punishment.
F/A-18's graphics model has a good combination of detail and speed (usually more of one means less of the other). Even on a big screen with 1152x870 pixels the speed is good on my PowerMac 7200/120. It is amazing the frame rates being achieved with these simulations now. Even redrawing a million pixel screen like mine is very smooth 99% of the time. For an example of the graphic detail look below at the screen shot of the aircraft from the game. The currently attached weapons systems, aircraft markings and even the pilot are clearly modelled.
The detail level of the scenery varies from fairly plain to quite complex. There are large areas fairly devoid of any detail then places where the scenery becomes much more realistic. Since these missions happen in the Kuwait desert I guess this is to be expected.
When you begin a mission you are presented with a briefing which describes the mission you have been given. There are many variations from simply escaping from an enemy airfield to dropping a nuclear weapon on a wharf - the nuc goes up with a quite spectacular mushroom cloud! In the mission below I am attacking an oil refinery. I have set part of it on fire using the cannon and the remnants of a structure I hit with an iron bomb on a previous run can be seen in the background.
I think Hornet is the best game I have ever played, although the A-10 simulator looks very good too (but the A-10 is such a horrible aircraft!), and of course Marathon is a true classic as well. The little realistic touches like vapour trails off the wings, turbulence at low altitudes, radio messages from the tower (and other aircraft, mission control, etc), and many others make it a real flight experience, especially on a big monitor with a stereo connected for sound.
For a game to become a realistic experience requires fast smooth graphics and natural, accurate behavour of objects on the screen. You can tell when you are really involved in a game when you duck as debris from another aircraft fly towards you - I find myself doing this when I fly the F-18!