Lock On: Modern Air Combat

Developer Eagle Dynamics
Publisher Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Release Date Summer 2003

Denny Atkin

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This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150

Memo to Strategic Simulations, Inc.: Flight simulations are dead. You obviously haven’t heard, because Lock On: Modern Air Combat is a sure sign that you’re not only continuing to produce sims, but even advancing them to take full advantage of 21st-century PCs. Also, you’re apparently under the mistaken impression that “survey sims”—simulations that let you fly a variety of aircraft—are supposed to have the same level of detail, accuracy, and flight modeling as single-aircraft simulations. If you continue to produce this game, you’re going to upset the status quo and give fans of modern jet combat simulations hope that excitement may still lie in their future.

Lock On: Modern Air Combat is in development by Eagle Dynamics, the creators of the Su-27 Flanker series. In many respects this is a sequel, and were it not for the sheer variety of flyable planes, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to call it “Flanker 3.0.” While the interface and basic feel will be familiar to Flanker fans, everything from the graphics engine to the AI has seen significant rework, making this a sim that stands alone in its own right.
The most welcome change is the addition of flyable American jets to the mix—the F-15 Eagle fighter and the A-10 Warthog ground-attack jet. This not only allows a different combat experience, but also makes for much more interesting multiplayer action, since you can finally take Western jets up against their Russian counterparts. To complement the A-10 on the Russian side, Lock On includes the Su-25 Frogfoot, a similarly heavily armed but slow attack jet. Rounding out the list of flyable planes are the familiar Su-27 and Su-33 Flankers, as well as the MiG-29 Fulcrum.
The level of detail in each plane is unprecedented. At first glance you’d assume the instrument panels were high-res bitmaps, at least until you hit the view hat and see that they’re actually stunningly rendered fully 3D virtual cockpits. And these aren’t simplified renditions-systems, as the F-15’s APG-63 radar and the A-10’s Maverick TVM display will be rendered in full detail. (There’s an “easy” radar for those who just want to hop in and start shooting.) Tutorial missions and detailed PDF “Dash-1” systems manuals for each plane will help you earn your pilot’s wings.
Flight modeling feels authentic, with significant handling differences between aircraft. Although I have only a few minutes of stick time in a two-seat F-15D, the single seat F-15C’s handling matches my experiences, and the view from the virtual cockpit is dead-on accurate. (Alas, SSI would need to include a lead weight to drop on your chest during turns to truly recreate the F-15 experience.) AI pilots are much smarter here than in the Flanker games. They split as they enter the fight, use terrain masking to evade contact, and effectively deploy chaff and flares to spoof your missiles.
Lock On’s graphic engine is stunning. Sim pilots who dismiss “eye candy” will have to rethink their stance when they see this game. The terrain and atmosphere effects are amazingly immersive—morning fog, sun rays peeking through the clouds, and realistic haze truly make you feel you’re flying the unfriendly skies. Aircraft look amazing, and small details like the F-15’s air intakes adjusting at high angles of attack can make you feel like your PC has somehow tuned in the Discovery Wings channel.
Unfortunately, the dynamic campaign initially planned was lost when a key programmer left the team. Instead, Lock On will ship with scripted campaign missions. The addition of random elements—such as unit placement, time of day, and weapons loadout—will mean that the scripted missions won’t play the same way twice. The campaign will feature persistent damage—take out a factory on one mission and it will remain destroyed on the next. The loss of the dynamic campaign is disappointing, but not a game killer. There will be a sophisticated mission editor, and the Flanker community has been very prolific in its mission creation, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect to see hundreds of quality downloadable missions. The sim will include both co-op and head-to-head multiplayer missions—up to 32 players can participate in multiplayer action.
The beta indicates that the sim is on track for its planned summer release. The biggest tasks left for completion are the addition of special effects and the campaign. Fighter pilots and tank busters are likely to find this sim worth the wait.

This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150