The Pacific theater of operations in WWII was dominated by aircraft, from the opening air strikes at Pearl Harbor to the closing nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pacific Fighters uses the acclaimed IL-2 Sturmovik engine to simulate this epic conflict, but unfortunately it turns out to be the biggest letdown of the series.
There are more than 60 flyable planes in this package, although most of those are variants of about 20 different airframes. There are a few dozen nonflyable aircraft you'll encounter in missions as well, and because of the setting, most of these planes are instantly recognizable to students of WWII. Finally, you can slip into the cockpits of F4U Corsairs, F6F Hellcats, and F4 Wildcats, along with planes that were included in previous versions of the sim, like P-38s, P-40s, P-39s, and P-51s. A-20 and B-25 bombers, along with SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, round out the American stable of flyable aircraft, meaning it isn't possible to fly torpedo bombers like the TBF/TBM Avenger or TBD Devastator. Other Allied planes you'll be able to fly include British variants of the Corsair, the twin-engine Beaufighter, the Hurricane, the Seafire, and the Spitfire.
On the Japanese side, great fighters like the A6M Zero-Sen (Zeke), Ki-43 Hayabusa (Oscar), Ki-61 Hien (Tony), and Ki-84 Hayate (Frank) are included, but other famous fighters like the Ki-27 Type 97 (Nate), twin-engine Ki-45 Toryu (Nick), and N1K1 Shiden (George) are not flyable. The only other flyable Japanese plane is the D3A1 Type 99 (Val) dive-bomber, so there's no way to fly torpedo bombers like the B5N Type 97 (Kate) or B6N Tenzan (Jill), or other dive-bombers like the D4Y2 Suisei (Judy), and the most famous Japanese bomber, the G4M Type 1 (Betty), won't be available either. The developers have promised that several additional flyable planes will be introduced in a patch, as the cockpits were finished when the game shipped and wouldn't fit on the two CDs included in this package. The add-on was not available in time for review, and a third CD should have been included if those assets were truly ready when the game went gold.
Newcomers to the series can install the game in stand-alone mode, but it also works as an add-on for those with both IL-2: Forgotten Battles and the Aces Expansion Pack installed. The latter option is the best, as it lets players mix and match planes from all theaters. Players also should know that opting for the stand-alone installation only lets them play in online multiplayer mode with other people who are also using the stand-alone installation option (they can't play online with those who installed this as an add-on).
No Pacific air war game would be complete without aircraft carriers, and Pacific Fighters shines in this regard. Several types of carriers from the period are re-created in exquisite detail, and players participating in naval campaigns soon discover that taking off and landing on these behemoths is frequently more difficult than taking on the enemy. Crowded decks during takeoffs leave absolutely no margin for error, especially considering how quickly planes must get up to speed to have any chance of getting airborne before running out of deck.
Taking off is a breeze compared to landing, which requires accomplishing several piloting feats that contradict one another. For example, using full flaps keeps your descent angle steep enough that you can easily keep the carrier deck in sight during the landing approach, but that steep angle increases the chance that the plane will bounce during the landing, eliminating any hope of the tailhook catching one of the arresting wires strung across the deck. The alternative is to come in with less flaps at a shallower angle, but that requires maintaining a faster speed, which seriously cuts down on reaction times. It also increases the likelihood that you'll end up making a two-point landing on the front wheels, which is a no-no because the tailhook will be too far off the deck to catch a wire. Bad weather makes landing even dicier, as the carrier pitches and rolls in the high seas. However, it's even worse if the carrier is stationary, because your relative landing speed is much higher than usual.
Some of the planes have such dingy canopies that landing in virtual cockpit mode is nearly impossible (although it's possible to raise the virtual seat for a better view), but for those willing to switch to no-cockpit mode, the designers have integrated a crutch that immensely helps during carrier landings. A small icon appears in the middle of the heads-up display that tells players exactly where their plane will end up if it stays on its current path at its current speed. Just line up the icon with the wire you want to catch, adjust the pitch and throttle to keep it in place, and landings become much less difficult. You still need to keep a close eye on your speed and descent rate to avoid bouncing or overshooting the target at the last second, but it's a great aid.
The IL-2 series is known for its terrific flight models, and although the majority of the planes included in this package are a blast to fly and exhibit most of their historic strengths and weaknesses, there are some serious problems. Most of the new planes are practically impossible to stall when they are flown at full throttle, even if the stick is jerked all the way back or to the sides. Quick movements like that were enough to induce stalls in previous entries in this series, and players had to really work the stick to turn or loop efficiently without stalling in the process. All of the American naval fighters included in this package can loop indefinitely and turn indefinitely with full stick deflection throughout the entire maneuver. Some of the Japanese planes like the Val and Oscar also exhibit this behavior, as do the heavier American bombers like the A-20 and B-25. Some of these planes, early Corsairs in particular, were notorious for their tricky handling, but in this sim it is possible to yank the stick in any direction until it stops, and you can maintain impossibly long turns and loops without bleeding off a lot of speed, all without worrying about stalling. This may be intentional, or it may be the by-product of having to tweak many of these planes to have terrific low-speed behavior for carrier landings, but it just doesn't feel like the IL-2 of the past.