The Korean War (1950-3) scenario provides a complex and involving combat flight simulator experience – relatively slow jet aircraft meet in combat with only guns as weapons. Which means there's no fire-and-forget missiles or rocket-like 'zoom and boom' tactics. Instead, close combat 'dogfighting' is enforced with gun lead/deflection shooting, rapid aircraft stalls and spins, and the danger of fiery wreckage being sucked into your jet intake.
The leading air-to-air combatants – the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre – were both potent fighting machines for their time, but quite different to one another in some areas:
- handling balance
- superb roll rate
- radar-ranging gunsight
- faster dive
- weaker machine gun armament
- hydraulic control boost (on later variants)
- better at lower altitudes
- higher thrust-to-weight ratio
- lower wing loading
- poorer build quality (often affecting flight)
- hard-hitting cannon
- mis-matched cannon calibre, low rate of fire
- roll issues
- better at high altitudes
Each aircraft has a good chance of winning a duel with the other – depending largely on pilot skill and choosing the fight to favour the aircraft. Air combat with no sure outcome is best left to the words of Chuck Yeager: “The pilot with the most experience is going to whip your ass, no matter what you [are] flying – it's that simple.” (Yeager had just beaten a Lieutenant Colonel in two dogfights interchanging Sabre and captured MiG-15.)
MiG Alley by Rowan Software is an old game. 1999 and DirectX 6: the graphics are very dated. But graphics are just one part of a game. Flight simulators such as Sturmovik have beautiful graphics, features, and attention-to-detail. Nevertheless, no matter how much I like the Sturmovik series (AEP, PF c. 2005), the artificial intelligence, and hence dogfighting intensity, does not come close to MiG Alley. MiG Alley was well planned, developed for combat realism and teamwork, and programmed with a very talented team.
From the original game documentation:
“Many aerodynamic and inertial effects such as aeroelasticity, wing sweepback, dynamic coupling, compressibility are modelled. Real life aerodynamic data has been used to correctly couple all six degrees of freedom.”
Adversaries and AI
'Ace' and 'Hero' level opponents in MiG Alley are deadly adversaries. Split-S, Yo-Yo, and other air combat manoeuvres will be needed to stand any chance of getting on your opponent's tail – you can't just turn with them.
The rest is better said by the author of an article on MiG Alley dogfighting (once hosted on frugalsworld.com):
“It seems simple enough: turn until you are on your opponent's tail, then blast away with guns until he goes down in flames. Yet when you lock horns with a MiG or Sabre in MiG Alley, and you crank the difficulty level up to ace or hero, dogfighting can become an exercise in frustration as your opponent repeatedly eats your lunch. Certainly, the planes and their weapons systems in the early 50s were pretty simple affairs. A low thrust jet engine, swept wings and a pack of large caliber guns, supported by a simple but adequate gunsight. But those same, simple components also made the dogfighting a complex affair. It can take a long time to get on an opponent's tail, and staying there long enough to put enough lead into him is a challenge. Fly-by-wire and digital flight controls weren't even a dream in some engineer's mind, so if you ham-fisted the controls, your jet would happily spin into the dirt. You pull for all you're worth and point at the bandit, only to watch him zoom to an altitude you can't reach, then swoop down on you like a hawk on a field mouse. As violent as high-G dogfighting may be, it is a patient man's game. If you want to become a successful dogfighter, you have to learn that it's all about energy.”
And by the development team members:
“When the AI aircraft is on complex mode, the aircraft is actually being flown. By this I mean that the AI moves the aircraft's throttle, stick and rudder: it has the same interface to the flight model as the player. In these situations it is possible for the stick to be pulled too just much and a spin/start could be initiated. A different part of the AI recognises this and overrides. In this way, in complex mode, the AI pilot flies on the edge. The higher the skill of the AI pilot the closer he will try to get to the edge. When on simple mode, the AI aircraft is moved more directly and so spins etc are unlikely.” (Rod Hyde)
“Morale controls the tendency for the aircraft to take certain risks. A high morale, but low skill pilot will tend to attempt difficult manoeuvres and then screw up. Obviously a low moral Veteran may well be capable of brilliant manoeuvres, but be too timid to attempt them. Fear the happy hero pilot!” (Jim Taylor)
From the original game documentation:
Q: The AI 'Ace' pilot seems to be an easier opponent than the 'Regular' skill pilot?
A: The 'Regular' pilot is reckless and trigger happy. He gives the impression of being a better pilot because he will foolishly attempt the more difficult moves.
Q: I see MiGs patrolling above me but they don't come down and attack me?
A: The MiGs have suffered a recent defeat and are reluctant to attack.
A: The MiGs are waiting for their intended targets to reach bingo fuel before they commit to an attack.
A: It may be a training mission from a squadron newly arrived in Korea.
Q: What does the complex AI option do in preferences?
A: When enabled all AI aircraft will use the complex flight model and so will be 'flying the stick'. This takes a lot of processor time and can impact on the frame rate on some systems. When this option is disabled, only the aircraft that the player is dogfighting with will use the complex flight model. Other aircraft nearby will use a cheaper, less complex version.
Combat is lead / wingman centric, as it would be in reality. Your wingman will (usually) warn you of encroaching enemy aircraft and try to stay with you (at least until he is shot down). There is a range of radio commands to communicate with your wingman and flight, with the most important response probably being 'six clear' (no enemy jet is presently on your tail). You can also warn other flight members of impending attack. The game provides set confrontation pieces (with most of the single-seat planes available to fly), missions, and as a USAF pilot, dynamic campaigns.
Game Installation on Windows XP
MiG Alley is a Windows 98 game. Nevertheless, it can be run on Windows XP with a few minor kludges detailed below. An unfortunate affliction of installation on XP is that the game seems to overload a memory buffer and usually crashes within ten separate mission runs.
There are a few copies of MiG Alley CD's available through Amazon (as of Nov 2010). The 'Explosiv' re-brand is good, since it provides a patch and XP installation hints:
- right click on setup.exe and select 'properties'
- click on the compatibility tab
- tick the checkbox 'run this program in compatibility mode'
- select 'Windows 98/ME'
- click on 'apply' / 'ok'
- run setup.exe
- run the 1.23 patch executable (D:\patch\MIG123.EXE on the CD) [will not run on Windows 64-bit versions]
- copy the /smacker/ directory from the CD folder to the MiG Alley installation directory on your hard drive
- open roots.dir (in a text editor) in the installation directory
- change lines 3 and 13 (numbered in the file, not your text editor) to point to your hard drive MiG Alley folder (instead of the CD folder)
- run the game executable.
During installation, I have found that USB joysticks should already be connected, else if connected after installation, they may not be recognised (the game was created when game ports were the usual joystick interfaces).
The F-80 Shooting Star is the big dogfighting surprise, despite its inferior speed and design compared to the MiG. The F-80 is not as twitchily manoeuvrable as the Sabre, but with its higher power-to-weight ratio and control stability, it's less stall-prone at lower altitudes. It can generally sustain a turn with the MiG, and in that turn is easier to pull more sustained gun lead than the Sabre. (Twitchiness has its advantages of course though. F-16s and Eurofighters etc took this to conclusion.) Nevertheless, from the game documentation, the F-80 probably suffers from: “The [flight] model can accurately simulate [the other] aircraft as well, but, compared to the Sabre and MiG, less effort has been made in fine tuning all the hundreds of parameters.”
In the 'Hotshot' instant mission, try landing on the airfield immediately below – there are North Korean soldiers running about and shouting. If you taxi your Sabre around carefully and fire your guns at the buildings, you can get the airfield listed as 'destroyed'.
In the single missions, select '4' instead of '1' on the flight drop-downs – 16 MiGs against 16 Sabres on 'Hero' skill is a frantic battle, and one which the MiGs will nearly always win.