European box art
|Designer(s)||Steve Blankenship |
|Platform(s)||Windows, Mac OS|
|Release||December 12, 1998|
|Genre(s)||Combat flight simulator|
|Mode(s)||Single player, multiplayer|
Falcon 4.0 is a combat flight simulator video game developed by MicroProse and published by Hasbro Interactive in 1998. The game is based around a realistic simulation of the Block 50/52 F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter in a full-scale modern war set in the Korean Peninsula. Falcon 4.0's dynamic campaign engine runs autonomously.
The game is the ultimate development in the Falcon series from Spectrum HoloByte that began in 1984. HoloByte had acquired MicroProse in 1993, and started using that name for all of its titles in 1996. After MicroProse was purchased by Hasbro, official development ended. In 2000, a source code leak allowed continued development of the game by members of the gaming community, including bug fixes and new campaigns. Many of these additions were collected by Lead Pursuit, which arranged an official license of the original code base from the owner Atari; these were published as Falcon 4.0: Allied Force in 2005. Spanning well over a decade, the Falcon 4.0 series is one of the longest running game series using the same code base in PC history. Falcon 4.0 is a rare example of a user community taking over a game, enhancing it, maintaining code configuration, and having it re-released as a commercial product several years after its original publication.
The game's story begins in the early 1990s with North Korean forces invading South Korea. The United States deploys extensive support to the South, including military aircraft, armored forces, and naval vessels. The rest of the game plays out in response to the player's actions, potentially involving China and Russia. Japan has an airbase, but plays no role in the conflict itself. Because of the game's story content, which involves war in the Korean Peninsula, it was banned in South Korea until 2003.
Falcon 4.0's gameplay parallels actual fighter pilot combat operations. First, over 30 training scenarios acquaint the player with F-16 maneuvering, avionics operation, and various USAF protocols. After training, the player may start the primary gameplay mode in the campaign, which simulates participation in a modern war. Alternatively s/he may engage in dogfight mode which provides an individual air engagement without any continuous context, or create what are effectively miniature campaigns, known as "Tactical Engagements".
The results of the player's performance while using Falcon 4.0 are used to generate a 'logbook'. This contains details such as: flight hours, air-to-air and air-to-ground kills, decorations, a name and photo, and the current rank of the player. Good performance (such as eliminating large numbers of enemy ground units, or surviving a difficult engagement) during a mission may lead to the award of a decoration or promotion; conversely, poor performance (destroying friendly targets or ejecting from the aircraft for no good reason) can lead to demotion or court-martial.
Campaign gameplay has two primary stages, briefings and missions. The briefing section is used to handle the planning of flights and packages (a number a flights grouped together for mutual support in obtaining a military objective), assignment of steerpoints for determining the route of a given flight, and the weapons loadout used by the aircraft. It is also possible to issue instructions to each ground unit manually, overriding the AI's handling of the war. As is the situation for real life pilots, it is of the utmost importance that the player examines closely all of the data presented here to perform well during the mission, in order to best formulate a plan of action when actually flying the jet. Failing to note the location and abilities of enemy SAM sites or CAP aircraft and account for methods of defeating these will almost certainly result in a short flight.
The mission section of the simulator encompasses the actual mechanics of flying the aircraft, radar and weapons operation, threat evaluation, radio communications and navigation. Everything is done in such a manner as to model the aircraft in use as closely as possible, while on the highest realism settings.
The initial release of the software came with three pre-set scenarios for the player to use in campaign mode. 'Tiger Spirit' depicted a war where ROK and Allied forces had repelled the initial DPRK assault and moved onto the offensive. 'Rolling Fire' depicted a closely matched situation where DPRK forces had overrun the DMZ and made small gains, while 'Iron Fortress' simulated a scenario where the North had overwhelmed the South and pushed it back to its last line of defense.
Unlike its static counterpart, a dynamic campaign has no set game path. Missions and the rest of the game world develop as the game progresses, affected in part by the player's behavior. Dynamic campaigns can present a more random and diverse game experience, but are more difficult for programmers to implement. The AI controlling the activity of the Falcon 4.0 campaign engine can be influenced by a wide range of configurable settings, all of which can be adjusted to meet changing objectives as the scenario progresses.
A Tactical Engagement (or TE) is a small scale, hand-built, 'one-shot' mission with a pre-defined objective. The same engine handles the activities of AI controlled units. One of the advantages of building this style of mission is that it allows experienced pilots to practice attacks on high value, well defended targets, which are often eliminated from campaigns early on as the planning AI assigns packages to eliminate them in order to maximise the effect on enemy combat readiness.
The Instant Action mode of operation places the user in a F-16 currently in flight, armed with an infinite number of missiles. Progressively more capable waves of enemy aircraft then move in and engage the player's aircraft. Many different options are available to customise this mode, including disabling SAM and AAA defenses, setting unlimited fuel, and the difficulty of the first wave of inbound hostiles.
Falcon 4.0 originally featured 3D graphics with multitexturing support. It was one of the very first programs on the market which was designed multi-threaded to take advantage of dual-core x86 processors. The game used one thread for graphics and primary simulation and the other for the campaign engine.
The game was originally designed and produced by Steve Blankenship and Gilman Louie and published under the MicroProse label. Though originally slated for a late 1996 release, the game ended up being rushed to market in order to make the 1998 Christmas selling season. Falcon 4.0's first release contained numerous bugs. The final official patch (version 1.08) fixed most of them. After completion of 1.08 patch, the original development team was laid off by Hasbro Interactive. Nevertheless, Falcon fans still sought further improvements of the game. Early modifications altered the game's multimedia and the executable by directly patching the compiled code.
Source code leak
On 9 April 2000 a developer of the game leaked the source code of a Falcon 4.0 version between 1.07 and 1.08 on an FTP site. Despite being available there for only a short period of time, this marked the beginning of the community driven development of Falcon 4.0.
With the source code available, a Falcon 4.0 player optimized the game further by re-programming part of the game. Its design was deliberately engineered so that additional aircraft and terrain data could be installed retroactively. Presumably, this was to allow the release of an add-on pack, much as with Falcon 3.0. The modding community that emerged after the original development team was sacked went on to use this engineered source code to add a great deal of extra content in the form of post installation patches.
Through its lifetime, Falcon 4.0 has received ongoing fixes from various groups of volunteers (community-made patches), which have enhanced the detail and complexity of the simulation over the years and mended numerous errors in the original release and its patches. There have been several groups which have modified different parts of Falcon 4.0. Some have created new "skins" or paint schemes for aircraft, while others have modified the data and code to be more realistic. Still others have worked to create new theaters  for Falcon 4.0. Benchmark Sims (BMS) being the premier team to take on the task of user modifications. However, game publisher Atari later issued a cease and desist order against all executable modifications, and thus many modifications were not hosted by websites. BMS and FreeFalcon continued to persist, however, FreeFalcon until 2013, BMS to the present day.
A company called Lead Pursuit which has been formed around many known names of the Falcon modding community has gained a license from Atari to continue Falcon 4.0 development. Lead Pursuit, Inc. has been updating the game with new patches, considerably enhancing the functionality of the simulation, particularly in the multiplayer aspect which now allows smooth close-up formation flying for players across the world. Falcon 4.0: Allied Force was released on 28 June 2005 and is largely a compilation, and unification, of existing community-made modifications of the original Falcon 4.0. In January 2013, the code from the FreeFalcon derivative was publicly leaked on GitHub, without the prior consent of the current license owner, Atari.
Digital distribution re-releases
In October 2015, Tommo's Retroism publishing label re-released the Falcon series (including Falcon 4.0 as a bonus) as digital distribution at GOG.com, titled as the Falcon Collection, after being commercially unavailable for some years and subject to high, often excessive prices on internet trading sites. In January 2016, Retroism released the Falcon Collection on Steam, with all four titles also available for purchase separately.
Reception and impact
In the United States, Falcon 4.0 sold 41,209 copies during 1998, after its release on December 12 of that year. These sales accounted for $1.85 million in revenue. By October 1999, its total sales in the region had risen to 116,776 copies, which drew revenues of $4.57 million. It sold 209,000 copies during 1999 alone.
Falcon 4.0 won Macworld's 1999 "Best Flight Simulation" award. The magazine's Christopher Breen wrote, "There simply isn't a more realistic combat sim on the Mac today." PC Gamer US likewise named Falcon 4.0 the best simulation of 1998. The game was a finalist for Computer Gaming World's "Best Simulation", GameSpot's "Simulation of the Year", IGN's "Best Simulation of the Year" and Computer Games Strategy Plus's "Simulation Game of the Year" awards, all of which ultimately went to European Air War. The editors of Computer Games Strategy Plus called Falcon 4.0 "extremely impressive", while those of Computer Gaming World described it as "a sim with unprecedented detail, which would have been a shoo-in had it not shipped loaded with bugs."
The Falcon 4.0 series is one of the longest running game series in PC history to have used the same code base. The history of Falcon 4.0 spans over two decades due to derivatives like Falcon 4.0: Allied Force, the BMS derivative from 2012, and other variants.
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BMS is basically a free standalone sequel, albeit one that – for legal reasons – won’t install unless it sees an original F4 disc in your CD drive. [...]Radars, targeting systems, HUDs, data link modelling… everything has been reworked by people that either have first-hand experience of fondling Falcons or have access to people that have first-hand experience of fondling Falcons. All this forensic fiddling means that wonderful original manual that’s been bowing your manual shelf for the past 13 years, is next to useless in BMS.
- Baker, Tracy (2 August 2005). "Falcon 4.0: Allied Force Review". gamespot.com. Retrieved 19 April 2014.
It took seven years, a number of false starts, and one of the most devoted fan communities in existence, but the release of Falcon 4.0: Allied Force shows that its potential has finally been realized.
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[C2E] In 2000 the source code of Falcon 4.0 leaked out and after that groups of volunteers were able to make fixes and enhancements that assured the longevity of this sim. Do you see the source code leak as a good or bad event? [Klemmick] "Absolutely a good event. In fact I wish I’d known who did it so I could thank them. I honestly think this should be standard procedure for companies that decide not to continue to support a code base."
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- Graphsim, the current producer and license holder.
- Benchmark Sims, Falcon 4.0 community derivative
- FFOSP GitHub FreeFalcon Open Source Project, a Falcon 4.0 restoration project under BSD 2-Clause License
- Escuadron111 First Spanish flight virtual Squadron
- The Falcon Epopee, the history of the Falcon 4 series (timeline of Falcon 4.0 evolution).