Genre: Flight Sim
Developer: Eagle Dynamics
Release Date: December 5, 2003
Buy 'LOCK ON: Modern Air Combat': PC
Flight Simulators can easily be broken down into two categories: study and survey sims. A study sim takes one specific airplane, such as MicroProse did with Falcon 4.0, and creates a simulation that is very granular in detail, to the point where it looks and feels just like the real thing. A survey sim, like the Microsoft Flight Simulator series, takes several airplanes and creates models that are mostly accurate, but time and budget forces them to create more of a general overview. Lock On: Modern Air Combat (LOMAC) is the rare breed that is both types. It has eight models of flyable aircraft, but reproduces each one to a level of detail that will make you think you are playing a study sim.
The variety of aircraft will please just about any fan of modern air combat. For the Americans, you can fly the A-10 "Warthog", a plane that has yet to be included in any serious sim and one aficionados have been waiting a long time to fly, and the F-15C intercept fighter. The Russians have the Mig-29, Su-27 and Su-33 (the carrier version of the Su series), and the SU-25 ground assault plane. Each of these planes is authentically modeled, forcing you to learn a new airplane each time you fly one for the fist time; the skills you learn in the F-16 won't transfer over to the SU-25. This adds to the realism, as well as extending the life of the game as you learn the new aircraft.
Flight sims, especially ones modeled after complex fighter jets, are very difficult to learn how to control, even on the easy settings. LOMAC is an attempt to take this complex world and present it in a way that's more newbie friendly, without creating an arcade style game. It almost succeeds at this task and the only area that prevents this from happening is embarrassingly poor documentation, especially if you were one of the first 30,000 North American customers whose box was missing the cheat sheet that told the keyboard commands. Fortunately, this was just an oversight and Ubisoft shipped the keycards out free of charge, as well as providing a PDF on their web site. The remaining printed documentation is just a small flyer that tells you how to launch a mission, play multiplayer on the internet and use the mission builder. The more important manual that actually tells you how to fly the plane is a 130 page PDF file on the CD. Granted you can print it out and write notes on it, but it's hard to know it exists. There is also a third party manual that you buy from lomac-manual.com for about $50 after shipping; it's sad that many consumers are finding themselves forced to shell out the extra cash just to get good documentation.
While the lack of a printed manual makes it tough to learn how to fly, the game helps lessen the learning curve with excellent in-game training missions. These missions walk you through how to use the flight systems on the different planes (take good notes). In addition to being instructive, you can fly the missions with the learning tools turned off, so they also make great target ranges. The training missions range from a general overview of flight dynamics that's applicable to all the aircraft to a series of advanced training missions that teach you the specifics of each plane's flight controls. This is a complex game, so be prepared for a pretty hefty learning curve, especially when learning the carrier-based operations.
The campaigns and battles are fought over a 100,000 square mile area around the Black Sea. To give you an sense of how large that area is, Great Britain is only about 97,000 square miles. In the original design spec for LOMAC the designers wanted to have a dynamic campaign, where your results in one mission would influence a later mission. Unfortunately, this plan was scrapped, and the game suffers from this decision, as the resulting missions and campaigns are heavily scripted and are much uninspired. While you are given a set of mission goals, there is no real story that connects them; they are all just scripted sorties. There are some elements that carry over between some missions though, as a bridge you blow up in one mission remains destroyed throughout the campaign, but that's the extent of the continuing story. There are friendly planes flown by the AI, and in some missions you'll be providing air support for the ground assault planes. Unfortunately, it seems in some missions the team effort is taken too far since you may get a partial success when you finish a mission if the AI planes did not complete their goals. Once you get through the pre-built campaigns, check out the fan-sites for player created missions, or try your hand at creating one. The included editor is fairly intuitive and it's one of the few areas the printed manual does a fair job at explaining.
When the mission starts and you are sitting in the cockpit of your chosen aircraft, it's almost impossible not to get immersed. All the cockpit models are authentically modeled down to the rivet and as you start your pre-flight checklists you can feel the aircraft coming to life around you. Once you push the throttle to full and head down the runway, you'll hear your wingman announce, "Two Rolling", and shortly you'll both be in the air. Once you've become airborne and take a look around you'll notice that the developers put graphics quality at a high priority. When you fly over a town in LOMAC almost the entire town is accurately modeled and this is the first flight sim where I've had to dodge high-tension wires. Usually, low altidude graphics show the weaknesses in flight sims' graphics engines, but since a decent amount of the missions are against ground targets, the graphics had to be well done. All this beauty comes at a serious hardware cost, however. Unless you have a machine that is considered excessive by today's standards, you will have to tone down the graphics settings to avoid the game becoming a slide show. When I first launched the game I cranked up all the graphics settings and had a hard time getting off the ground with the frame-rate lag; I was frequently crashing as the computer tried to interpret both my commands and the feedback from the game. Toning them down to a more modest "medium" setting provides an acceptable compromise between quality and playability. The game still looked fantastic even at medium and the frame rates became quite smooth. There are some reports of people with older, non-pixel shader compatible cards having issues running the game, so to guarantee you'll be able to run the game, upgrading to a decent card is a must (and not a bad idea given that most of the games coming out these days will want good cards). It also looks like a tremendous amount of the terrain is pre-loaded since the load times for the missions are very lengthy.
Where the game really shines is in the multiplayer component. While flying against and with the computer is fun, competing against real people the best challenge. Ubisoft supplies matchmaking software similar to GameSpy, but most of the community uses a third-party program called Hyperlobby. You can set your session up as a dogfight, where people can come and go as they choose, or as a co-op mission where you and team-mates act together to complete a goal. Squadrons, the flight-sim equivalent to a Clan, are starting to embrace LOMAC and joining one adds a lot of enjoyment to the game, as well as being a great source for flying tips. The mission editor does allow you to create multiplayer missions, so squadrons are using this feature to create training missions just for learning how to fly together better. Most of the squads use TeamSpeak, the third party voice chat program, to communicate so if you are interested in joining one, getting a headset and downloading the free client is advised. The multiplayer portion is also very stable, and I encountered no issues I could directly attribute to the game.
When LOMAC shipped, it clearly was a game that was released too early, with numerous bugs as well as stability issues. The developers have pledged to support the game and fix the issues, backing up this claim by releasing a large patch earlier this year. This patch fixed many of the stability issues, but introduced its own share of bugs, which is inevitable given how complex the game is. The F-15 radar isn't working properly with this patch, and the developers have promised to fix it in the next patch.
While LOMAC is an attempt to bring the flight sims to fans outside the genre, due to the complexity of the game people who aren't willing to invest some heavy hours in learning the game will probably get discouraged and stop playing. The same goes for people who expect to be able to take a game out of the box and have it run without some tweaking. This game will require time to get the controls configured properly since it's almost a guarantee you'll have to remap some of the joystick commands to get it to work properly, as well as adjust the sensitivity of the joystick in-game. If you have an advanced joystick, like the Saitek X-45, you'll find you'll have to do the most adjusting, since the zoom commands don't work properly right now. Again, reading through the Ubisoft official forums is a good source of knowledge, since it's pretty much guaranteed you won't be the first one to have a problem. You'll also need to spend some time finding an acceptable balance between graphics quality and playability since the graphics-heavy nature of the game will tax the majority of the computers out there. It's time well spent, as once you get past these hurdles you'll find a game that is very immersive and addictive. Even still, needing a few patches to finish the game, this is easily the best flight sim out on the market right now, from both realism and graphics quality. The number of flyable aircraft and the attention to detail in modeling them just can't be beat. With the mission editor, and the excellent online component, you'll have plenty to keep you busy. If you're a fan of the genre, you really can't do any better than this.