Biplanes and Virtual Reality

From Tales of the Rampant Coyote


Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 1, 2018

I’ve been getting back into flight sims again… just dipping my toe in, I tell myself. VR support is a big deal for me, even though it is about as likely to make you motion sick as… well, as actual high-speed aerial maneuvers. Flight sims, once a staple of PC gaming, are now pretty niche, and tend to be strictly divided along the lines of extremely realistic & hardcore, or extremely video-gamey and unrealistic. There isn’t much middle ground anymore. By contrast, the most detailed and realistic of the flight sims in the 1990s would probably be in that middle ground today.

While VR isn’t quite there yet for competitive multiplayer play, it’s a game-changer, especially for dogfights. “Padlock mode” and TrackIR are poor substitutes to actually following an enemy plane with your eyes and maintaining that full situational awareness. Even with the modern jets of DCS, it’s a different experience to look down into your cockpit at your instruments with the feeling of being there.

However, the air combat era best served by VR was also the one with no VR support:  World War 1. The open cockpit, the tiny planes, low speeds, and close-in combats would be perfect for Virtual Reality. So when I finally discovered that the latest IL-2 series (which has supported VR for several months) was getting a World War I stand-alone expansion to the series, I jumped on it. Flying Circus is in Early Access stage (and thus reduced in price by $10). It’s a full-priced, stand-alone game using the Battle of Stalingrad game engine, but it is fully compatible with the other games in the series. All the games you own in the series tie in with each other to form one super-game, just like DCS. Funny, that. Currently, Flying Circus only has two aircraft… the Fokker DR.1, and the SPAD XIII, over an existing stand-in map. The final version will include ten World War I aircraft over France.

I had to try this out in VR!

I jumped into a couple of quick 1-on-1 missions – one flying the SPAD, one in the Fokker. The enemy aircraft was already in sight, a dot of a few pixels just above the horizon, with both of us heading toward each other. We closed the distance very quickly, and the dogfight was on! And I’ll break the suspense here… it was every bit as delicious as I hoped.

First off, the aircraft in World War I are very instrument-light. The Fokker has a little spinning wind-gauge out on the left wing that you have to look at to find your airspeed. It’s all leather, wood, wire, and canvas. The flight model feels accurate. The sounds probably help. You are in what amounts to little more than a powered glider, twisting around in the sky at speeds not tremendously faster than you’ll get on a modern freeway. The Fokker, in particular, feels like it floats more than it flies.

In a dogfight, you are often close enough to the enemy aircraft that you can watch their control surfaces move. In VR, you can freely move your head around to look over, under, and around a wing which would otherwise obstruct your view. That makes a HUGE difference. I’m sure you can do something like that with TrackIR, but in VR it worked naturally. I rarely get confused about my aircraft attitude in VR if the visibility is clear, unlike playing on a single monitor. One thing about flying in VR is that you do need to get used to craning your neck around. At least in a World War I simulation, the lack of peripheral vision is probably not too different from the real pilots wearing goggles. The VR headset weighs quite a bit more than the real goggles, though.

When I shot down the SPAD, it was pretty amazing. The top-right wing broke off, tearing off the cables, part of it collapsing into the wing below it as the plane began to drop. The lower wing shook, and then ripped off the fuselage and fluttered away like a piece of paper. It was all physics-based and behaved exactly as I’d expect. I leaned forward in my seat and rolled my plane a bit so I could continue getting a good look at it as the pieces fell. That’s always a fun thing to watch in a good flight sim, but it’s nicely different in these canvas-and-wood planes than the later airframes. In VR, the close proximity really enhances things.

The problem was that these little planes dance around the sky in such tight little underpowered circles that when I took my headset off twenty minutes later, I was pretty dizzy, and I stayed that way for about a half-hour afterward. Flight sims still do that to me, and although I’m a lot better than I used to be, and this World War I experience was a bit dizzier than most.

For what it’s worth: I failed to shoot down the Fokker when I flew the SPAD. I hit him several times, and I’m pretty sure the light vapor coming out of his plane was leaking fuel, but he was still airborne when I ran out of ammo. The AI didn’t know that, though, and after a final pass where he tried his best to shake me off his tail (well, a very loose back-half-region), I dropped my nose and took off in the opposite direction. Since the SPAD is a lot faster than the Fokker and he was probably losing fuel, I called it a tie after about thirty seconds and quit.

I look forward to the full release. More importantly, I know what I’ve been missing. Yeah, World War I dogfights in VR are as much fun as I imagined. They probably enjoy the biggest benefit from the technology. It ain’t perfect — but what is? Good times!

Filed Under: Flight Sims, Virtual RealityComments:

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Original URL: http://rampantgames.com/blog/?p=12036