Reviewed: June 10, 2004
Released: November 18, 2003
Flight simulations can be traced back to the origins of PC gaming. I can still remember the monochrome (green screen) IBM monitor attached to the IBM XT computer running the original Microsoft Flight Simulator at the university computer store. That was when it was all wireframe graphics and the city of Chicago included four purple rectangles rising from the sparse grid of the terrain.
A lot has changed in 22 years, and while flight simulators used to dominate the PC gaming market, their appeal seems to have waned in the wake of newer and potentially more exciting genres like FPS, RTS, and other contemporary action titles.
For fans of the genre, Lock On: Modern Air Combat will be an instant addition to your PC library, but those weaned on a diet of arcade shooters and space combat sims might find the added level of realism a bit overwhelming.
The game literally begs to be played with a joystick, one with lots of buttons, and if you’ve got it, a complete HOTAS system. (Look it up…) And don’t plan on jumping into that first mission without several hours of training and command memorization. This is the real deal.
Lock On features:
You can fly the fast F-15C "Eagle", the A-10A "Thunderbolt II", the Su-27 "Flanker B", the Su-33 "Flanker D", the MiG-29S "Fulcrum", the MiG-29A "Fulcrum" (both Russian and German versions), the Su-25 "Frogfoot" and the Su-39 "Frogfoot". These aircraft encompass an array of both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat aircraft for both US and Russian forces and will allow players a broad-range of combat missions.
I had to break my joystick out of storage to tackle this review; proof that flight sims are indeed few and far between. After a lengthy trip through the tutorial flight school I was reasonably comfortable slipping into a game with a sophistication unlike anything I had played since the old F-16 Falcon game.
There are multiple modes to suit the taste of nearly any pilot. You can jump right into Instant Action or use the sophisticated mission designer to create your own detailed sorties. Eventually you’ll need to tackle the campaign mode and here you will be met with some of the best AI enemies in flight-sim history. Regrettably, the fully dynamic campaign originally promised by the designers had to be abandoned for a more linear alternative, but the gameplay doesn’t suffer in the slightest.
You can tweak some difficulty settings, but these generally help you by altering flight dynamics or giving you unlimited fuel and ammo. The enemy pretty much remains tough as nails throughout, and only skilled pilots will ever hope to finish all four campaigns. To make things even more challenging, you will fly an assortment of planes and they all handle and perform quite differently. Just about the time you get comfortable in that F-15 Strike Eagle they are going to have to climb into the cockpit of an A-10 Tank Killer, which is a whole new animal.
Again, if you are a veteran of the genre then you will already have a good understanding of the concepts like radar, altitude, airspeed, stalls, and countermeasures. Not only do you need the skills of a real-life pilot, you also need the knowledge. Anyone who actually finishes this game and does well at it could likely fly one of these planes if it ever came down to it.
But before you run off and enlist we should talk about the story, or rather lack thereof. The campaign is tied together with some mission briefings that are pretty much “all business”. There are no elaborate cutscenes, character development, or even any friendly banter among pilots during the missions. It’s very cut and dry and could turn off gamers who aren’t used to this style of presentation.
The mission editor is highly functional and allows you to create nearly any possible scenario. The only problem is that if you are playing something you designed you will already have an unfair insight into what is about to happen. You’re probably better off getting together with a bunch of other gamers and swapping missions designs.
While the editor is documented nicely in the manual there is a surprising lack of information about the game itself. There is a larger PDF version of the manual on the CD but unless you print it out you really can’t reference it during gameplay, and where is my command reference sheet or keyboard overlay. Considering each key on the keyboard is used, often for two or three different things it would have been nice to have a “map”. At least I was able to map most of the important commands to the stick and throttle buttons.
A word of warning to those who actually believe the system stats on the box (the ones I’ve listed with this review). Don’t even think about playing this game on the “required” system and prepare to sacrifice a lot of quality and detail on the “recommended” settings. The computer required to play this game hasn’t been invented yet or is in the basement of the Pentagon, but my 3200+ with 1gb of RAM and a FX5900 video card with 256mb managed to crank out reasonable framerates at 1280x1024, and even then I had to tweak and re-tweak the various graphics options countless times to find a happy medium.
Lock On looks amazing, yes even better than Flight Simulator 2004, although not nearly as expansive in world coverage and scenic landmarks. The terrain looks like photo-recon imagery from an orbiting spy satellite and Lock On has the best clouds of any game to date. Unlike most flight games that either look great at low or high altitudes, Lock On works at both levels. Up high you get all the subtle details and down low you can see individual trees and buildings.
Then you have wonderful smoke, fire, location-specific damage modeling, explosions, animated control surfaces (for those of you still playing outside the plane), and the most sophisticated and authentic cockpit models available to non-military personnel – the Russian planes even have Russian labels on the instruments. One of the most unique visual effects is the glistening reflection of sunlight on the canopy, and the thermal distortion of the afterburner is flawless.
The menus and setup screens used between the missions are all very nicely designed with easy-to-read text and plenty of switches, buttons, and indicator lights to give the menus a cockpit theme.
Lock On is a relatively silent experience. The opening load screens and menus have some nice military music and a lot of radio chatter, but once you get into the tutorial it all gets eerily quiet. Nothing is spoken or narrated so you have to read and watch the scripted tutorials and mouse indicator. It would have been so much nicer to have the tutorials spoken.
During the game you only hear a smattering of radio chatter, the occasional verbal warnings from your plane’s computer, beeps and warning buzzers, and the quiet variable hiss of your engines as you throttle from idle to afterburner.
Lock On is one of those games that you can play forever. You are free to pick your planes so you can tackle the missions from a variety of unique perspectives. The instant action, and the mission builder add infinitely to the life of the title and a healthy mod community has already sprung up. Plus the fact that this game is so far ahead of its time technically means that you will probably want to try it again each time you upgrade your computer.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat is a stunning achievement in realism, and the only way to get a more authentic experience in one of these cockpits is to enlist and go to flight school for a few years, and even then you likely wouldn’t get to fly in a fraction of these planes.
Eagle Dynamics blends amazing photo-realistic graphics, insanely detailed models, and fully functional cockpits with some of the most challenging enemy AI and complex mission designs you can currently play. Hopefully this will jumpstart the flight-sim genre and we will see more great air-combat action, but for now, Lock On rules the skies.