Lock On: Modern Air Combat Review
By Michael Richter |
Where have all the flight sims gone? It seems like every time we turn around we're treated to yet another copycat real-time strategy game or a generic shooter. I suppose that it's easier to develop such titles than it is to create an entirely accurate physics and avionics system. It may also be that so-called "mainstream" gamers (who make up a larger and larger percentage of the market each year) are, on the whole, less tolerant of the hardcore sim than those of us who are smart enough to build our own computers.
Thankfully, Ubisoft and Eagle Dynamics give the community more credit than some other developers have. The creators of the Flanker series have managed to create a sim that combines the breadth of Jane's USAF with the intense accuracy of Falcon and that's a rare accomplishment in the genre. The game has stepped away from the purely dynamic mission generation that was initially promised, but the alternatives as presented in the final version are still quite compelling.
The conflict at the heart of Lock On takes place above and around the Black Sea. Based on precise satellite data, the maps here are fantastically detailed and offer a reasonable variety of geography. The fictional conflict allows players to take to the skies in eight separate planes. You can fly fast and low in the A-10s and SU-25s, leap off the deck in your SU-33, or try your ass in the office of the sleek F-15 or SU-27. There are also three separate versions of the MiG 29 to play with.
A range of play options are available right at the start, from the instant action missions to the massively comprehensive mission editor. When you get in the air, you'll find that the challenge level is quite high. (You can scale the difficulty by enabling unlimited ammo, fuel and limiting crashes.) Even with the aids on, you'll find that the enemy offers a serious challenge having a good understanding of energy management and radar profiles.
As you might guess by now, this is not an arcade style simulation and you'll need to have a serious understanding of how the systems of each aircraft perform in real life if you're to have any hope of using them correctly in the game. And there's a broad range of systems to understand here -- from the A-10's close-in ground attack weapons to the long-distance dedications of the MiGs. The flight models in Lock On also reveal a tremendous difference in performance based on the plane you choose. The A-10, certainly a plane that sim-heads have a great affection for, feels much more straightforward than the MiGs for instance.
Thankfully there are a number of tutorials you can take on to learn the ins and outs of the aircraft. Each plane has its own tutorial section that covers the specific abilities of that plane. In this sense, Lock On really rewards the time you invest in it more so than a lot of other sims. You'll also need to pay attention to the different cockpit layouts for each of the planes. Those of you who are familiar with Russian acronyms will have an easier time reading the Russian labels on the displays. In keeping with the sterile presentation of the rest of the game shell, there are no voice overs in the cockpit and you'll be forced to read each tutorial tip as it appears on the screen.
And there's a lot to learn here. The radar model alone is quite comprehensive and will take some getting used to on the part of new pilots. (There is a dumbed-down version of the radar that simplifies many of the issues found in the real-world equivalents.) Things like doppler effects and terrain masking are modeled in the game so you'll need to act smartly as well as quickly to take advantage of every feature of this system. The upside to all this realism is that you'll feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment once you figure out what the hell you're doing. But it does take a while even for sim fans to wrap their brain around all the different planes here, particularly when moving from the ground-oriented planes to the air-to-air ones.
There's a fairly cold approach to the between-mission briefings during the campaign. While there's a general shape to the story, there's not much action tying the missions together. I wasn't necessarily expecting a lot of cutscenes or Crimson Skies-style banter but the only thing you can do in between missions is stare at an incredibly complex plan for the coming action.