The Future…is Now!
On November 21, 2003, one of the most anticipated combat flight simulations of the past ten years was finally released to North America. By the time this article goes to press, European simmers will also have their hands on Lock On: Modern Air Combat, the latest title in the line of detailed simulation experiences from the Russian development houses marshaled under the banner of the French concern known as Ubisoft. And all will know the truth: This is a worthy successor to its ancestors.
Lock On is known to the simming faithful as LOMAC; the prevalence of acronyms in world militaria probably shouldn’t render that a great surprise. Its beginning inauspicious, its buildup great, and the anticipation incredible, this title would seem to be destined for failure almost before the first line of code was crunched. But the Russian development house of Eagle Dynamics would be equal to the task, if any house were. Follow me as I set my soft, white paws on the path of History, at least as I remember it. If I get it wrong, well, memory is wont to play tricks on one. But here’s how the Cat saw it.
An Honorable Ancestry
LOMAC is descended from an honorable ancestor: Su-27 Flanker version 1.0. Its mythical parent’s genes are clear here, as the player pages through this release today. In the mid-1990s, that worthy title burst onto a hard-core simming market owned in almost all respects by MicroProse’s benchmark Falcon 3.0, and quickly established Eagle as a development force to be reckoned with and catapulted publisher Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) out of its wargaming niche into the combat flight hall of fame. Boasting impressive flight physics and polygon graphics, Flanker served as the entree’ for many of today’s hardcore simmers into this most enjoyable hobby, self included. This was patched into version 1.5, and the Commander’s Edition of Flanker 1.5 was my first complex flight simulation. I have been hooked on the series ever since.
Flanker 2.0, after several delays, succeeded to the title just as SSI’s fortunes began to fall. Bugs plagued the Son of Flanker, though it was an artistic triumph. Its flight modeling was impressive, its artificial intelligence as deadly as its predecessor, and its graphics were so state-of-the-art that it brought all contemporary computers to their silicon-based knees in very short order. Only the most dedicated of technicians and tacticians mastered evasion techniques for the Super Missiles of Instant Death, those awesome engines of destruction that even the dreaded “Archer Inbound!” warning in MicroProse’s contemporary legend, Falcon 4.0, could not match for sheer Godlike, frustrating, mission-ending power. The stuttering problems that harried Flanker 1.5 fliers on high-end machines were back, with a vengeance, and though gorgeous the 3d parts of the terrain suffered from pop-up problems that made air-to-ground action virtually impossible. Worse, the Su-33’s air-to-ground radar resembled a television camera more than radar, and what made matters worse still was that the N-001 radar had no ground-map mode in real life! Simmers loved the game but felt isolated-the world didn’t talk to them. We were now expecting an interactive world around us, with wingies we could order around and complex strike packages, thanks to the vision of Gilman Louie and Leon Rosenshein in Falcon 4.0, and of Digital Image Design’s Martin Kenwright in Total Air War. Even now, over six years after its release, Falcon 4.0 is still the One to Watch in so many respects. Flanker 2.0’s lack of comms and radio traffic was leaving simmers cold. Though an excellent title, this was not flight sim Nirvana.
Right about this time, developer Oleg Maddox began his rise into the pantheon of sim-development gods. His IL-2 Sturmovik morphed as we watched, and as simmers everywhere made suggestions, from a limited simulation of one variant of the World War II IL-2 ground-attack aircraft into an incredibly complex and realistic simulation of 1940s air combat in the East. Where before IL-2, simmers were glad to get one aircraft, well-modeled, to fly and fight in the virtual sky, Maddox’s expansive vision offered ten, then more, from multiple nations. He offered weather effects never seen in sims. And trees on the ground, trees that looked like trees and didn’t impact framerates badly. Artificial intelligence took a Great Leap Forward. The bar had been raised, to the next rung over the one that Falcon 4.0’s persistent world and Total Air War’s full-time dynamic air campaign had sent simmers to in 1998. Maddox had upped the ante and Flanker was looking archaic in comparison. What to do?
SSI rose to the challenge, and commissioned Flanker 2.5, which was later patched into version 2.51. Bringing for the first time a high-fidelity MiG-29 to combat simming, this was a huge, and totally free, upgrade to the Flanker product. Flanker 2.5’s portrayal of Top-Gun-like air-to-air combat was hands-down the best ever, in all of simulated combat aviation. Its debut came on the heels of two announcements that would change Flanker, its community, its scope, and flight simming as we then knew it.
First, simming great Carl Norman stepped to the forefront as the public face of the Flanker team. Like Maddox, his vision included more. More action. More aircraft. More goodies. More AI. More realism. That vision spawned Su-25 Frogfoot, which was intended as the follow-on to the Flanker series. Norman originally envisioned a Flanker for air-to-mud. But the new twinkle in the ex-Marine’s eye would be short-lived in that mode-it wasn’t big enough. The combat sim world, and Norman, wanted more. And in the ashes of another great simming house, he would find it.