The Modern Warfare followup to Ace's Call of Duty, F-15 Strike Eagle simulates supersonic fighter combat in the jet age, where missiles and long range radar rule the sky, where MiGs get fireballed faster than the pilot can be completely sure that someone is approaching, and missing by a mile is actually a rather close miss, and with it brings major design and gameplay upgrades. No longer is each scenario a simple dogfight over nondescript terrain that ends when one of the planes is shot down, but an operational sector of 200,000 square miles dotted with SAMs and airfields guarding mission objective targets. Machine guns, previously your only weapon, now take a backseat to a battery of guided SRMs, MRMs, airdropped bombs, and a defense array of flares, ECMs, and afterburners.
The flight model, too, is more sophisticated than its barebones, BASIC-coded predecessors, though not very comparable to Solo Flight, which simulated a conventional light plane rather than a combat jet. The manual goes into considerable detail about the aerodynamic forces that act on your F-15, explaining why it handles the way it does under different conditions, but it isn't necessary to fully comprehend it beyond understanding some general techniques. Use pitch to control altitude, throttle up before climbing or turning, throttle down and possibly use the airbrakes for steep dives, keep a very close eye on the altimeter if you're going in low, and don't ever get caught without enough fuel to return to base. There's no takeoff or landing, but you'll be grateful for that when flying a damaged, barely controllable piano back to a carrier with a squadron on your flaming tail.
This sophistication, though, comes at a terrible cost. Under the best circumstances, F-15 Strike Eagle runs at about four FPS! And the more fighters and missiles are in the air, the worse things get. The only Atari version I could find was a 1986 UK cassette release, and I don't know if the original US version ran any faster, but as it worked just fine on an emulated NTSC machine, I suspect not.
Coming from a modern perspective, it takes some getting used to, but F-15 is surprisingly playable despite the punishing strain it puts on the poor old 6502B. Hellcat-style ballistic gun dueling at visual range does seem unfeasible despite being supported by the engine, and several pages in the manual explaining how to perform jet-powered maneuvers, but your guided missiles are so effective that I hardly saw a point in using the 20mm cannon. SRM's are nearly fire-and-forget - launched just outside of visual directly at an enemy's cold nose they would hit most of the time. Launched at one incoming at a 60 degree angle, they'd still usually hit. They'd even hit enemies behind me more often than not, and misses would still force them into evasive maneuvers, buying me time to turn around and face them for a better shot. MRMs, used at the correct distance, never missed as far as I could tell.
F-15 Strike Eagle's campaign has seven scenarios of escalating complexity and four difficulty settings. I found the second-highest difficulty Pilot to be a bit easy - these interceptor-class MiGs and old SAM launchers are no match for the historically undefeated F-15 - but more fun than the highest Ace, where missile fire is nonstop, airfields scramble fighters instantly upon the previous one's destruction, and your countermeasures (or your ability to focus on the overcrowded radar) fail just often enough that getting hit seems unavoidable in a prolonged mission no matter how cautious you are. Unguided bomb runs, already the most challenging task in lower difficulties, are particularly punishing in Ace mode.
|An Ace-mode failbomb
It's bad enough that you have to split your attention between your target and the incoming ordinance on the radar screen, but the tanking framerate makes it insanely easy to misjudge your drop timing, and passing over an undamaged SAM means your hot exhaust side is now directly facing a seeker launcher at point blank range and primed to fire, or perhaps the missed target is an airfield which will instantly scramble a fighter right behind you and gun you down with unerring accuracy.
I recorded and uploaded a playthrough of the final and most challenging mission, Persian Gulf, played on Pilot difficulty.
Each mission's objective is the same - take out all of the primary targets, and this generally means whittling down the defenses surrounding them first. You only carry six airdropped cluster bombs, so apart from the very first scenario where defenses are sparse and there's only one objective, you'll need to return to base to repair, refuel, and rearm multiple times.
Every flight starts with a MiG-21 spawning right in front of you - easy prey for an SRM, though a potential nuisance if it happens to miss, and at such a close range it can.
The lower-left HUD quadrant shows a strategic map.
The black, vaguely missile-shaped icons are SAM sites, the white crossed lines are airfields, and the outlined squares are your primary targets. Each tile represents roughly 40x40 miles of terrain, and the SAM and airfields can detect and attack you from about 80 miles away, while your long range radar is effective up to 60 miles, and ground targets only show up at 20 miles, about the same as visual range. Clearing a path to the primary targets takes some careful planning and strategy.
The southernmost airfield, I figured, had to go first, or else every sortie would begin with it launching an interceptor in endless pursuit. I flew out to the east, turned around, and made a westward strafing run, successfully taking out it and its east-flanking SAM, but took a hit from the west-flanking one, forcing me to retreat to the carrier. With my second run, I took out the SAMs to its west.
|Returning to base, leaving the first target more exposed than initially.
On my third trip, I flew due north in an attempt to take out the last airfield defending the target, and as many targets further up north as possible. Countermeasures and high speed would keep me safe from the SAMs firing off to the west. I managed to get three, but missed a fourth target with my last bomb.
|Airfields like this tend to spawn jets, throwing off the framerate and causing inputs to drop.
Next, I destroyed the closest primary target, and a few defenses along the coast at angles of approach carefully calculated to minimize exposure to the surrounding defenses.
This repeated a few more cycles, and not every sortie went down exactly as planned, but I eventually completed my decimation of the Iranian SAM battery and took out the final target, returning to base victorious.
GAB Rating: Above average. F-15's very poor frame rate and resulting frustration prevents me from giving it a strong recommendation, but I had fun with it despite the performance issues. Offering some of the complexity and immersion of a flight simulator, some of the immediacy of an action/arcade game, and some of the depth of a strategy wargame, Strike Eagle doesn't quite master any of these trades, but blends them well and offers an experience unrealized by so many games that only focus on one.