Third Wire Simulations, 2007
Video game review
Wings Over Israel/Vietnam
Diversity of aircraft. Unusual subject matter rarely explored by other simulations. Nice balance between realism and fun.
Graphics are a little dated. Possible compatibility issues. Lacks polish
Limited multiplayer options.

Astronomical scopeAstronomical scope:

Nobody was thinking small when they designed this game. The attention to detail or the vast range of possibilities afforded when you're playing it will cause you at least once to step back and utter a Keanu-inspired "whoa". Somebody shot for the moon here, and more importantly they hit it.
One of the best games in its classOne of the best games in its class:

If you're looking for the acme of the genre, you need look no further. Even if the game isn't perfect, it's still the pinnacle of the style it represents. This is the Raymond Chandler of crime stories, the John Williams of musical composers, the Shakespeare of plays, the Collie.SU of reviewing websites.

In some way, this game is unique, and in this case it's a positive trait. It may be that the game is a real-time strategy game set in Viet Nam, or perhaps a first-person shooter based on the Roman Empire, or an absolutely detailed simulation of the shuttle orbiter. Whatever the case, something about this game is different from others in the genre.

Some parts of this game are ridiculously awesome, while others are just ridiculous. This note is for games that lack consistency--typically for games that are otherwise extremely good, but have weak points that mar the overall presentation. It might still be worth playing, but the range between the high points and the low ones is vast.
Conspicuously absent multiplayerConspicuously absent multiplayer:

Not every game needs multiplayer (look at Galactic Civilizations) but this is one that probably should've done much better than it has in this regard. Either this is a game where multiplayer is completely absent, or one in which it should have been much better--either way, this mark signifies a case where the multiplayer failings substantially detract from the game.

If you have never heard of Third Wire, this is not entirely surprising--they self-publish and as a result their games don't tend to show up on many store shelves; for the most part, they're digitally distributed. On the other hand this is nice because, say, you could go buy it now. Haha.

Anyway, the intriguing thing about Third Wire is their ("his," really, as I understand it) unflinching willingness to take on arenas and subjects that other companies tend to stay away from (although it should be noted that their initial products, Strike Fighters and Wings Over Europe, were more conventional if "what if" fare). 1C drew praise (and occasional criticism, admittedly) for their decision to focus on the Eastern Front in Il-2 Sturmovik; Third Wire ups the ante by presenting simulations of air combat in Viet Nam and the Israeli Air Force.

These have both been addressed to one degree or another before--in Jane's superlative IAF, for instance, and in Flight of the Intruder. For the most part, however, the simulation world--which does not exactly shun the unconventional (Lock On: Modern Air Combat, A-10, Hind)--has ignored these, which is intriguing because they are both interesting theatres that offer a lot of unique possibilities.

In Wings Over Vietnam, Third Wire takes the uniqueness a step further by making a primary focus of the game aircraft that, while tremendously influential, rarely have games made about them--Jane's USAF, for instance, had a Viet Nam campaign, but it focused on the F-4 and the F-105. The campaign lets players pilot aircraft like the ungainly but peerless A-6 Intruder, the even more ungainly A-7 Corsair II, and the F-100--including a Super Sabre painted in Colorado Cougar colours, same as the static display at Buckley Air Force Base.

So that is Third Wire's raison d'Ítre. Now, how do the games (plural, though if you buy them you can integrate them into one supergame, evidently) stack up? Surprisingly well, to be honest, for such a small operation. For one, they pick an excellent balance between the unflinching realism of something like Falcon 4 and the arcade shoot-em-up atmosphere of JetFighter. The games do not have a terribly difficult learning curve and abstract away much of the minutiae of air combat--although you still need to know the difference between RWS and TWS and how to read an RWR.

Success in air combat comes from understanding how air combat works, so you'll need to know how to manoeuvre and how to make the most of your missiles (especially since both are set in a pre-AMRAAM era and Wings Over Israel, in particular, sees the player contending with the earliest days of AAMs). So it's not an arcade game like Crimson Skies, and is certainly not easy--but the difficulty is relatively surmountable and deals much more with the vagaries of actually flying than it does the obsessive need to simulate everything that plagues Falcon or Lock On.

Difficulty levels can be set, although without much nuance, and with the obvious exception of things like limitless gun ammunition I don't notice much of a difference. The AI is competent enough, although not spectacular (granted, this can reasonably be said of the real-life opponents of the USAF and IAF), and much of the challenge comes from other humans. Or would, if multiplayer were not so ridiculously limited. There are no cooperative missions, for instance, and even adversarial multiplayer is done with comparative lack of finesse. In many genres, this is frustrating--but in a flight sim, the lack of in particular cooperative gameplay borders on the unforgiveable.

The biggest problem of the series is, actually, this general lack of polish, reflected most glaringly in the multiplayer omissions. To a degree, that's to be expected--this is a small operation, after all. On the other hand, the games don't feel nearly as "finished" as, say, X-Plane, and certainly nowhere near the level of even Lock On or Il-2. In terms of gameplay, this doesn't generally matter, but it occasionally shows through and does have a way of reminding one that we're not playing in the big leagues.

The graphics, also, are passable but nothing spectacular. The planes themselves look nice, and from a distance explosions look decent enough, but close-up things come to pieces. The terrain is dull and fairly uninspired, and overall the graphical presentation is perhaps a little less pretty than Il-2, which came out first in 2001. Things have improved with time (WoI is a little nicer than WoV) but they're still nothing to write home about.

The campaigns, also, are semi-dynamic but not altogether compelling--they're not dynamic enough to make you feel like you ever are making a difference, but they're also not static enough to have come with a storyline or decent writing. It's an uncomfortable middle ground and, while they're not terrible, they do amount to little more than a series of instant-action missions strung together. It's a far cry from Mig Alley or Il-2 running DCGEN.

There are these and other niggling details, then, but for the most part the sim is eminently recommendable. The game itself is quite nice, and it's also relatively open, resulting in a burgeoning modding community that, to its credit, brings along with the Raptors and Eurofighters even more obscure aircraft than the original games--like the F9F, for instance, or the F11F, or the A3D. These modifications are generally quite good and, if the subjects are your thing, do well in extending the scope of the game. It's also easy enough to do that it's quite possible you yourself might want to take it up.

It's not nitpickingly realistic like Lock On or Falcon, which is liable to turn some people off, and I think that's a shame. It's not like Battlestations Midway or Battlefield--air combat requires skill, and this fact alone makes the kills feel earned, rather than just like something you aim for as a high score. In a niche market, Third Wire produces games that capture the fun of dogfighting without the tedium, and if you want to play Real Soldier with all the brevity codes and the radar fiddly-bits and whatever, you can still do that too.

In fact I would go so far as to say that the Third Wire games are the best in their class--jet fighter simulations that let people focus on fighting in jets, not on flipping cockpit switches. In some sense, it's the spiritual successor to the Jane's games of the mid-90s, ATF, USNF, and their ilk. In any case, if you have even a passing interest in flight simulation or in modern(ish) aerial combat, they're cheap enough that it's almost silly not to pick up one, or the other, or both.

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