Take to the virtual skies for a realistic simulation of flight and combat in one of many modern U.S. and Russian fighter craft. Developed under the working title "Flanker: Attack," this combat flight sim from the producers of 1999's acclaimed Flanker 2.0: Combat Flight Simulator offers virtual pilots the chance to climb into the cockpit of the F-15C Eagle, the MiG-29k, the A-10 Warthog, the Su-27 Flanker, or one of several other real-life marvels of late 20th-century aviation.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat, has a lot to recommend it. It expands on the excellent Flanker 2.0 with six new flyable jets: the F-15C Eagle, the A-10 Thunderbolt II (a.k.a. "Warthog"), the Su-25 Frogfoot, and three flavors of MiG-29 Fulcrum. The Su-27 and Su-33 Flankers are back, of course, along with Flanker 2.0's convincing flight models, impressive scenery, and beautifully detailed aircraft.
The sim offers five standalone missions each for the A-10, F-15, Su-25, and Su-27; players who want to fly the other planes will need to make use of the sim's complex mission editor or wait for other gamers to make new missions available. Each of those four planes is also the centerpiece of a strictly linear six- or seven-mission campaign. For more casual gamers who just want a quick fix, Lock On has six instant-action missions you launch with one click from the main menu (one each for the A-10, F-15, Su-25, Su-27, Su-33, and MiG-29). There's also a "Quick Battle Planner" that lets you set up a whole slew of simple combat scenarios by selecting options from a menu.
That's a lot of ways to have fun with Lock On. Unfortunately, accessing them is not always fun, thanks to the none-too-friendly interface that will be familiar to all Flanker fans. Campaigns and single missions have to be selected and loaded from a Windows-style file menu, rather than from a more traditional game menu. Click on the "Encyclopedia" to get a little intel before a mission, and you'll find that closing it takes you to the main menu rather than back to your briefing, forcing you to reload the mission you were about to fly.
Once you're in the air, Lock On's surface appeal is undeniable. Cockpits are strikingly rendered, with loads of working instruments you can zoom in to view in extreme close-up without any loss of detail. You can watch allied and enemy planes, ships, and ground units carry out roles that go far beyond your own particular mission, and the scenery and weather effects are the best in any air combat sim so far.
As the game stands now, though, that beauty often feels skin deep, thanks to a bunch of bugs and questionable design decisions. Among of the most significant problems is the fact that it's very difficult to get an enemy aircraft to show up on radar -- and once you've got a lock, it's extremely tough to hit him. I've been directly behind a big, fat Russian AWACS plane at just a few miles' range and watched it somehow evade three radar-guided AIM-7 missiles and a heat-seeking Sidewinder as I closed in on it. Ubisoft says that counter-measures (radar jamming, chaff, and flares) are all over-done in the release version of Lock On and will be fixed in a patch. (The radar will also be made more effective.)
A lot of other flaws add frustration to the experience. If you go to track-while-scan mode in the F-15C, then back to range-while-search mode, you'll find you can no longer move the radar's scan area. The manual also mentions being able to adjust the radar's vertical scan height, but you can't actually do that in the game. The autopilot sometimes likes to fly your plane into the ground. Problems with the pilot log can leave your pilot listed as dead, even after landing safely at the end of a successful mission. After racking up several successful missions, a bunch of kills, and a medal or two, losing your pilot through no fault of your own can be maddening.
And this just begins to scratch the surface. Occasionally, your trim settings will be way off when you disengage the autopilot, and you'll have to reset them before you can control the plane; other times, you can't seem to reset them, and you have to fight the plane just to make it stay straight and level for the rest of the mission. When that happens, simply landing -- necessary to get a "success" rating in the single and campaign missions -- provides a bit of unwelcome excitement.
In addition to the included solo campaigns, ten readymade missions are split evenly between head-to-head and co-op action, and you can use the mission editor to create more. Connections are available through LAN or Internet. Of course, the multiplayer suffers from many of the same problems as the single-player component, plus some additional ones -- like the inability of a game's host to recover from crashing or being shot down, even when all other players have this option. Like the rest of the game, Lock On's online play is a potentially great time ruined by a lot of flaws.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat has all the makings of a truly great air combat sim, but it's hard to recommend while it's crippled by bugs.
People who downloaded Lock On: Modern Air Combat have also downloaded:
Jane's USAF, Wings over Europe: Cold War Gone Hot, Jane's F/A-18, Jane's Combat Simulations: Attack Squadron, Jane's Fighters Anthology, Wings over Vietnam, Jane's F-15, Flanker 2.5
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