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Different battlefields require different types of air support. During World War II, the opposing powers had large air forces. Strategic bombing campaigns raged over Europe, while the Pacific War saw fierce battles between carrier fleets. Pilots also performed close air support duties, but the massive aircraft versus aircraft struggles for air superiority took most of the headlines. With fewer superpowers operating sizable aviation assets, contemporary air combat focuses on precision strikes and infantry support. The contrast between two action games in this month’s “Airware” illustrates this fundamental transformation of air power demands.

Heroes of the Pacific

Ubisoft’s Heroes of the Pacific ($30, Requires Microsoft Windows 2000/XP, 1.4 Ghz processor, 256MB RAM, 1.5GB hard drive space, CD-ROM drive, 64MB video card, also available on Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation 2 consoles, doesn’t try to be a serious simulation, focusing instead on furious dogfighting action. It features missions loosely based on WWII air battles between the United States and Japan.

Like most action games,Heroes of the Pacific places an emphasis on graphics and relaxed realism. The planes in the game indeed sport very nice artwork. They are modeled after their real-life counterparts and feature some variation in performance characteristics, but clearly the game physics and flight model are designed for the novice.

This does not mean the game is easy. The designers have made sure that it is easy to keep a plane in the air, but combat scenarios can involve dozens of aircraft in the sky at the same time, making for a realistic-looking Pacific fur ball and a challenging afternoon for the player. Missions in Heroes of the Pacific also feature some diversity to keep things interesting, so players engage in airstrike, antishipping and close air support roles. Still, the dogfight is king in this game—sometimes to a fault, as a few of the missions seem brutally long.

Battlefield 2

Battlefield 2 from Electronic Arts ($50, Requires Microsoft Windows XP, 1.7Ghz processor, 512MB RAM, 2.3GB hard drive space, CD-ROM drive, Internet connection recommended, is the sequel to the multiplayer game Battlefield 1942. The first game proved to be a seminal work in the multiplayer gaming arena, selling well and continuing to draw players to compete online for years after its 2002 debut. It supported as many as 64 players in virtual land, air and sea combat loosely based on WWII battlefields such as El Alamein, Wake Island, Midway and Stalingrad. Each player in the game controlled a single soldier, but could also jump into and drive jeeps, tanks, ships and aircraft.

The sequel advances the timeline to fictional modern combat between three factions inspired by the United States, China and Middle East. It loses much of the historical luster that made Battlefield 1942 intriguing to history enthusiasts but brings a tremendous upgrade in several other areas.

The graphics are highly detailed, and missions take place on large expanses such as cities, mountains and marshy plains. Cities complete with multiple-story warehouses and apartments, combined with lighting effects that cast convincing shadows, make for an impressive sight. The special effects such as muzzle flash and aircraft contrails add even more flavor. There is a price for this visual splendor, however, and Battlefield 2 is an extremely demanding system. I simply cannot recommend it to players who are not running a solidly equipped PC that exceeds the listed minimum requirements.

Those able to run the game are treated to an online experience that can move at a blistering pace. As it did in the original game, the sequel awards each player points for defeating an enemy soldier and for taking and holding terrain. An improvement to this scoring system comes with the introduction of support points, which are earned for logistical and combat support duties such as repairing vehicles, helping injured teammates or delivering supplies. Although this more varied point system can be corrupted by some players, it definitely encourages more teamwork.

The commander role is another valuable addition to the game. A player taking the commander’s position has access to advanced aviation technology like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and orbital satellites. Using these powerful reconnaissance tools, the commander can spot opposing forces and coordinate troops or order an artillery strike. While the game’s depiction of such technology may not be completely accurate, the core concepts are real and exist in such forms as the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator series of UAVs, used by the U.S. Air Force.

Battlefield 2’s focus on action and fast reflexes can make it an unfriendly game for novices, but it also illustrates the power of combined land, air and sea forces better than most military-themed action games. Ironically, one of the criticisms of the game is also about one of its more realistic elements.

Many players feel the air power is too strong and creates an imbalance in the game. A capable pilot can dominate a fight, as infantry have few anti-aircraft resources and some of the available ones work poorly. Battlefield 2: Special Forces ($30, requires an installed copy of Battlefield 2) is the first expansion pack for the game, and it adds even more ammunition for pilots by bringing the Boeing AH-64 Apache and the Mil Mi-24 Hind to the mix.

Dogfights between aircraft in Battlefield 2 do happen on occasion, but pilots spend most of their time making life miserable for ground forces. Just as the crowded skies of Heroes of the Pacific echo the large aerial engagements of WWII, Battlefield 2’s sky warriors reflect the application of air power in contemporary warfare.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.