Sabre Ace is the first of a line of "ace" simulations from Eagle Interactive and Virgin Interactive based on the Korean Conflict. Eagle Interactive is headed by Dave Kinney, founder of "Fightertown" combat flight simulation center in Southern California. I was a member in a squadron at Fightertown, and flew there at least twice a month. My good experiences with Fightertown, coupled with the fact that original Korean War has not been seriously portrayed by any previous simulation, fueled great expectations for Sabre Ace.
Unfortunately these expectations were not met. Don't get me wrong there are several nice things about Sabre Ace, but knowing what Eagle Interactive can do, "Sabre Ace" didn't come close to the realism I expected, with that said.....lets get on with the review.
Disappointment one came with opening the box and seeing the very small and uninformative manual. A scant 46 pages are dedicated to preference, control, and campaign familiarization with only 2 pages for air combat instruction, about the same for flight instruction...zero for air to ground. Some of this is covered in the training missions with a pilot instructor, similar to the training in Jane's Longbow Series, but not as complete. Neither the training missions nor the manual cover dogfighting techniques, aerial combat maneuvering, or the physics of flight. For a simulation that is supposed to cater to novice pilots, they left out an unbelievable amount of basic information.
On the plus side, I was able to install Sabre Ace without any problems. The sim requires 67MB on the hard drive, plus space for DirectX 5 if you don't already have it installed. There were no choices for smaller or larger installation options. Once installed, you can adjust graphics settings to suit your machine with an impressive range of 3D settings in addition to the the normal detail levels. Kudos to Eagle Interactive for this - it allows those with video cards with partial 3D support (Matrox Millennium and Mystique, ATI, Diamond 2000 and 3000 series, to name a few) to tailor Sabre Ace's 3D graphics for their cards instead of forcing them with the typical choice of all or nothing for 3D graphics. Another thumbs-up for the "manual rudders on" selection. This allows those without rudders to disregard using the keyboard or programming their joysticks for digital rudder control, which I have found to be jerky and imprecise. Unfortunately, the poor flight model of Sabre Ace probably nullifies any benefit of this feature.
Graphics are, for the most part, outstanding, the aircraft, cities, and most of the terrain graphics are crisp, smooth, and very detailed. If you are close enough, you can see an enemy pilot free fall as he bails out of a prop aircraft. Cockpits are well detailed and all gauges and instruments are easy to read. Clouds and their effects under the layer are done well also.
Alas, along with the above mentioned high marks, there are many deficiencies in the graphics. The tracers are ugly and not very believable - the F-51 tracers look like triangles, and other tracers look like small squares. Explosions use the same static graphic over and over again. Terrain graphics at low altitudes or when viewed from a top down aspect (in a dive, or an external view) show no detail and look like a smudged water color painting. 3D terrain objects (bridges, buildings, runways, etc) are not rendered until you are within a certain range of them, then the change from its 2D counterpart is slow, usually causing the object to disappear for a critical second or two until the 3D object is drawn. Many people have experienced texture tearing and seaming (gaps and/or lines showing where two texture graphics in the terrain meet). I had experienced this myself at first, but updated drivers for my Diamond Viper 330 seem to have cleared this up.
The view system is probably the biggest problem within Sabre Ace. All views from the cockpit are fixed, and are based around three positions - look up- standard cockpit-and rear views. Each of these three positions has a forward (or in rear views, back), left, and right views, ie. Look up and right, look left, look back and left. The padlock in Sabre Ace will automatically switch between these fixed views to attempt to keep your target in view. This system isn't bad per se, but there are large blind areas between views, and in a dogfight, you spend much of the time with the enemy aircraft in these blind areas. The largest blind spot is between the forward view and forward look up view, which is used most when dogfighting with the padlock, and usually when you need to see where the bad guy is, and what he is doing. With a fixed view system, overlapping views are necessary for complete coverage, and is what this sim needs badly.
Gameplay options start with three choices - Stand Alone, Multiplayer, and an instant action option called "Fly Now." Fly Now dumps you directly into a combat situation complete with wingmen and unlimited enemies at the novice level. Multiplayer allows you to go head to head via direct connect, modem, or network. TCP/IP is supported for network play, though Eagle/Virgin include a disclaimer that it was not designed with Internet play in mind. Network play can support up to eight people at one time, and all mutliplayer modes offer a wide variety of options for the battle. Stand Alone gives you access to aircraft information screens; custom flight setup - similar to quick mission setup in the USNF/ATF series of sims; training and career menus.
The core of Sabre Ace is the Training and Career menus. Choosing either menu will first ask you to choose sides - USSR or USA. Training is assisted by a cocky pilot instructor who will guide you in the basics of controlling aircraft, basic flight maneuvers, take off and landing, and air to ground attacks. In the training missions, you have a basic course in a prop aircraft, and an advanced course in a jet aircraft. As I stated at the start of this review, the training missions cover only the basics and do not get into tactics or concepts of air to air or air to ground combat.
The Career menu allows you to fight in the Korean Conflict as a USAF pilot or a USSR pilot assisting the North Koreans. You start in a prop aircraft at a low rank, and progress in rank and responsibility, and obtain new aircraft as the war progresses. Once you chosen sides and your pilot, you are brought to your air base. The air base has five areas of interest - Operations, Barracks, Briefing, Flightline, and Training. Operations allows you to read mail between missions - things such as promotions and awards will be announced here. Barracks allows you to view your uniform and awards you've earned. Training will bring you to the training missions, and aircraft types are dependent upon the squadron you are assigned to. Flightline allows you to view your aircraft, and any nose art and kill markings added to it. Briefing will give you a text description of your mission, mission maps, recon photos of ground targets, and aircraft information. Missions are well designed, and include combat air patrols, air superiority, and ground attacks against bridges, oil facilities, chemical plants, and other key targets. The campaign missions are the strength of the sim, however the campaign structure is linear not dynamic, so you will always have the same progression of missions each time you start.
Once you are ready to start, a quick click on the "Go Fly" button puts you on the runway. Depending on your rank and mission, you will be flying either as a wingman or as a wing or flight leader. Eagle Interactive added a nice feature called "formation augmentation" that assists in keeping your aircraft in the appropriate slot while flying formation as a wingman. Also included is a "Zap" feature that allows you to warp to the next mission critical waypoint, usually the initial point for a ground attack, the start of a combat air patrol, or on approach for landing. Zap will not work if you are damaged or if there is an enemy close by.
Unfortunately, as good and fun as the career missions are, they are hampered by a very basic and (in my opinion) poor flight model. The flight model does not give a feeling of flight - aircraft "feel" as if they are floating in the air and turning is more like sitting in a car than simulating a performance aircraft. High G turns fail to bleed large amounts of speed, and you can keep the stick pulled all the way back in a turn and keep a constant speed and turn rate indefinitely. There is no buffeting to warn of impending stalls, no spins, no maximum velocity limits for any of the aircraft. Even keeping the throttles over 100% will not damage the engines as stated in the manual. Now granted I'm not a pilot, and I couldn't tell you how a real F-86 or Yak-9 handles, but from my experience with other simulations, this flight model just doesn't come close to realism.
So with heavy heart I find it hard to recommend Sabre Ace. If you can handle a non-realistic simulation, and if you really liked Chuck Yeager's Air Combat, then you might like Sabre Ace. The best thing I can recommend is try it before buying. The combat simulation community has longed for a good Korean War era simulation, but Sabre Ace doesn't deliver the complete package. Sabre Ace's career missions are fun and historically accurate, but there are just too many flaws which hamper this sim. With the experience and knowledge within Eagle Interactive, I find these flaws hard to comprehend. As far as a good Korean simulation is concerned, we'll have to look forward to Mig Alley or significant patching of Sabre Ace. As far as Eagle Interactive is concerned, lets hope they can address these issues in their next sim - Phantom Ace.
My Ratings for Sabre Ace
Overall: Guns, Guns, Guns
Graphics: Fox 2
Sounds: Fox 2
Flight Model: EJECT
AI: Fox 1
Interface: Fox 2
Documentation: Guns, Guns, Guns
Fox 3 = Outstanding. The top 10 percent. Must have sim.
Fox 2 = Excellent. Highly recommended.
Fox 1 = Average. Recommended, with reservations.
Guns, Guns, Guns = Below average. May be recommended after patches/updates.
EJECT = Trash. Only recommended for my ex-wife.