Microsoft's Flight Simulator series has been a mainstay of computer gaming for many years, but it was barely two years ago that Microsoft first released a simulation of military planes. And while Combat Flight Simulator was a solid first effort, it didn't manage to dominate the genre in the same way the Flight Simulator series had reigned over civilian flight sims. Combat Flight Simulator 2 is Microsoft's attempt to improve on its predecessor while simultaneously shifting the venue from the skies of Europe to the vast, blue Pacific. It's been several years since the last high-quality WWII Pacific-theater sim, so the combination of an improved Combat Flight Simulator and the travails of carrier takeoffs and landings proves successful in Combat Flight Simulator 2.
Combat Flight Simulator 2 is an improvement over its predecessor in almost every respect, and it particularly shows that the development team was committed to improving the aspects of the original game that were lacking. The most notable of these is the graphics. Both the aircraft and the terrain models have been significantly upgraded, and the result is a very good-looking simulation. Considering the limited variety of terrain in the Pacific - sand, jungle, and water - the terrain graphics ran the risk of being monotonous. But Combat Flight Simulator 2 does an excellent job of making these three recurring types of terrain look realistic and attractive. The overall effect does much to make you actually feel as if you're in the Pacific theater - you'll occasionally spot an island in the middle of the huge expanse of ocean, which conveys the feeling of tremendous space and distance. The good weather effects further enhance the scenery, and the game even supports transform-and-lighting effects with compatible video cards, which improve the graphics even further.
The aircraft models are particularly good in Combat Flight Simulator 2, and they stand in stark contrast to the shiny planes of the original, which looked like flying toys. The aircraft in the sequel look much more like real combat planes, thanks to a combination of detail and improved textures. Furthermore, while the intact aircraft models are impressive enough, the damaged ones are even more so. Unlike in its predecessor, damage in Combat Flight Simulator 2 is accurately reflected in the aircraft models, to the extent that you can even see a plane's infrastructure exposed when you shoot off pieces of the plane such as the tail or a wing. This visible damage corresponds well to changes in the flight models, and effects like smoke not only represent physical damage but also convey the different levels of aircraft damage. That is, if you see streaming black smoke coming from your enemy, you can write him off. But sputtering or intermittent smoke means he's still dangerous. Similarly, if you see black smoke coming from your own plane, get home or get out.
The improvement in the graphics goes beyond the terrain and the aircraft models. The cockpits are tremendously improved since the previous installment, and this is one area where the deficiencies of the original Combat Flight Simulator have been fully addressed. The 3D cockpits in the original game were a real weak point, so much that they were almost useless. However, the cockpits in Combat Flight Simulator 2 are superb in 2D, and the 3D cockpits are also much better than before. The only area in which the graphics fall a bit short is in the campaign screens: The 1940s-comic-book look, while not ugly, is a bit plain and doesn't do enough to create a feeling of participation or immersion. Fortunately, the game seems more authentic when you're actually flying, where the radio chatter is just persistent enough to add to the atmosphere without being distracting.
The flight modeling in Combat Flight Simulator 2 is very good, and at the highest difficulty settings, it will satisfy most experienced pilots. While not as unforgiving, and presumably not as realistic, as the flight model found in some of the more hard-core online-only sims, Combat Flight Simulator 2 does an excellent job of accentuating the differences between aircraft. Factors like the Wildcat's diving advantage and the Zero's superior turn radius and climbing capability are modeled well. These aircraft also depart controlled flight more readily than their counterparts in the first game, which makes skillful flying a tricky business. At lower difficulty settings, Combat Flight Simulator 2 flies a lot like Microsoft's hybrid action-simulation, Crimson Skies, which will allow inexperienced players to get used to air combat without the frustration of constantly going into uncontrolled spins. The manual for Combat Flight Simulator 2 runs almost 300 pages and includes everything from game information to WWII Pacific-theater history, descriptions of fighter combat tactics, and interviews with both Japanese and American aces and provides a great resource for those just getting into computer flight simulations.