TIM ROBINSON previews Combat Air Patrol 2, a new AV-8B Harrier PC flight simulation now in development. Can it capture the iconic Jump Jet's magic?

CAP2 puts you in the cockpit of the AV-8B Harrier II. (Sim155)

New PC flight sims are few and far between these days - especially ones that centre on modern jet combat. Today, there is only DCS World in continued commercial development, with the other choices being Falcon BMS (a heavily modded Falcon from 1998) and the Strike Fighters 2 series which now is focused on smart phone and mobile devices. So it is a breath of fresh air to see a new combat flight simulator, based on the AV-8B Harrier be released into Early Access earlier this year on the PC digital download service Steam. The sim, Combat Air Patrol 2 (CAP2), is being developed by a small UK developer, Sim155, who previously created the original Combat Air Patrol flight sim for the Amiga, back in 1993 and which centred on the 1991 Gulf War.

CAP2 places you in the cockpit (and eventually in the Combat Information Centre) of a US Task Force) of a US Marine AV-8B Harrier in a hypothetical US-Iran conflict in the Straits of Hormuz, tasked with flying air-to-air and air-to-ground missions to protect freedom of navigation in these waters. The player flies from a US Navy LPD in the Persian Gulf. Flying the radar-equipped AV-8B version (still in service and active in fighting ISIS) the player has access to a range of weapons including AIM-9s, AMRAAMs, Mavericks, Harpoon and dumb bombs.

Sim155's developer, Ed Scio, was responsible for 1993's Combat Air Patrol released on Amiga and PC-DOS. 

The flightsim, in the developers words is not meant to be a DCS-level study sim, but more akin to the classic Il-2 Sturmovik 1946, where plausible flight models and dynamic campaigns allowed virtual pilots to focus on the flying and fighting, rather than on buttons and checklists.

What is early access?

A radio command menu has now been added to CAP2 to control wingmen and for other functions. (Sim155) 

For those unfamiliar with 'Early Access'(EA) on Steam, this is an increasingly popular route for PC games to take, where early (alpha/beta) unfinished versions are offered for sale. Allowing players to buy the early version (which are then progressively patched using Steam's automatic updating service) allows small developers to get funding for ongoing development (especially useful for niche titles such as flight simulation). It also gives early buyers the opportunity to provide feedback, suggestions and influence development. Again for flight simulation, where authenticity, if not 100% realism, is aimed for, engaging the community in this way can only be a good thing as CAP2 evolves.

Graphics


The cockpit is not fully interactive like FSX or DCS - but does have some clickable hotspots. 

While the game is not drop-dead gorgeous, it does look good - and the dark art style in particular brings to mind classic sims like TFX or EF2000, updated for today's PCs. It might be argued, however, that the Persian Gulf should be a lot brighter at midday and darker at night, but the visual dawn and dusk are especially stunning. The 3D cockpit of the Harrier is also a work of art and looks suitably well-used (a nice touch is a personal photo stuck on a side panel). Flying this using a virtual reality headset, especially low-level and for vertical landings, would definitely be highly immersive.

Externally the aircraft looks impressive too, if a little boring, as there are no squadron markings or individual numbers. Ships and other aircraft too look basic and could use some work. Indeed a new carrier model with deck tugs and cranes is coming in a update very soon. Currently the cities and towns are also underwhelming, with 3D boxes reminiscent of 1990s sims, rather than streets and proper buildings. However, these too seem to be early access placeholders, pending high quality models.

The upside of this lower terrain/world detail (only a 5Gb download) - flying low-level in the mountains and valleys is very fluid and smooth and makes for some exciting fun. It must be hoped that as the developer does flesh out the world, with higher resolution scenery, buildings and objects etc, that these do not impact too heavily on framerates.


Mastering the Harrier



"Sorry" "That, sir is a trademark Harry Tasker take-off, right there".

Key to any Harrier flight simulation, is of course, capturing its unique VTOL capabilities, which most other flight sims have been unable to do, resulting in an experience that is far too stable or a fudged helicopter flight model. However, while CAP2 certainly is a work in progress in many areas, the core of vertical flight feels extremely authentic - in the maximum realism mode.


Weight and payload play a big part in the Harrier's VTOL (and STO) and means that real-life trade-offs are needed – particularly given the hot part of the world in which the sim is set. Taking off from the LPD with a combat load is a matter of full (0deg) nozzle deflection for a rolling take-off, before swiveling the nozzles to 45/50deg just as the aircraft meets the edge of the deck. But, dump weapons and reduce the fuel and it is possible to perform 'John Farley'-style take-offs, where a vertical hover transitions to almost the Harrier standing on its tail – an impressive sight. Although CAP2 is not a study sim, it is probably the first flightsim to model the Harrier's Pegasus water injection - which boosts the engine power on take-of and landing by cooling the turbine blades. There are only 90secs worth of water, so use it sparingly!

If take-off requires a bit more thought than average, landing back on the LPD (on the most realistic setting) will test your (virtual) flying skills to a whole new level as you attempt to co-ordinate, power, nozzle position, drift and line up on the correct approach. Here the Harrier has real weight and inertia and it is thus a tough challenge to slow, come to a hover alongside the (slowly moving) ship and then translate horizontally sideways to move over the flight deck before setting down. In CAP2 this is easier said than done, and many landings will end up with your virtual pilot taking the Martin-Baker route into the drink. An easier (but unrealistic procedure) is to slowly approach the rear of the ship as a conventional carrier landing, while descending and just slow down to a walk when crossing the stern. 

For those interested in mastering the Harrier, CAP2 already provides a lot of fun already in its credible flight model. A session attempting to to get back on the carrier will leave you sweating buckets and 1) in awe of real Harrier pilots' skills and 2) more impressed that this has now been made easy with the F-35B's fly-by-wire wizardry.

Two easier flight realism settings are available - but when a flight model is this much fun, why would you select easy mode?

Missions

Before taking off - a number of parameters can be adjusted in the mission options screen. 

CAP2 comes with a set of training missions - both covering flight and utilising the range of weapons as well as Instant Action missions. In the preflight, the loadout, fuel, time of day and other options can be adjusted. While there are in-game hints as to the objectives and key steps, documentation on some of these training ones is currently missing. Where is the target? What am I supposed to be doing? Pending a full manual and/or tutorial in the finished game, at the moment some of this is trial and error or learnt by watching other players youtube videos or checking the forum. Even when the objective of these missions is more obvious (shoot down enemy aircraft), the enemy AI at the moment is non-existent - don‘t expect to get into any wild dogfights yet.

The dynamic campaign

The campaign screen gives a taste of the potential.

Outside the static training missions (set on Hawaii), perhaps one of the more anticipated features of CAP2 and one in which simulation fans have been crying out for, is a fully dynamic campaign where managing assets and striking critical targets allows players to influence the course of battle. The big draw here is, unlike campaigns that link pre-scripted missions, a fully dynamic campaign gives almost infinite replayability to a combat flight sim. The gold standard here, of course in Falcon, still being played almost 20 years after it was released thanks to its phenomenal campaign engine, which places you in an F-16 in the middle of a huge war.

CAP's dynamic campaign may not have the scale of Falcons air war, but the bare bones of it can already be glimpsed in the Mission Planner and the Campaign screens. In the mission planner, ships can be given navigation orders, players can select targets (airbases, SAMs, ports), assign the number of aircraft, and then create strike routes. However, if they player just wants to fly, the default option is that the computer will run the war and create plausible missions in an ongoing campaign (which can be paused, or sped up).

Assessing the dynamic campaign at this stage is difficult given so many things are still missing, yet to be added or broken and instructions and documentation are missing. It remains therefore to be seen how the different components will mesh together and whether there will be those ripple effects (take out an airbase on mission 1, face fewer MiGs on mission 2) that makes for a a truly replayable campaign.   

However, so far the functionality and planning tools needed for a very immersive campaign seems to be coming together .


Future development

Being able to quickly host MP co-op sessions and have friends fly as wingmen in a dynamic campaign would be many flight simmer's dream.   

As mentioned above, the sim is still evolving. Since it was released on early access, nozzle functionality has been improved in line with the real Harrier, wingman commands are now in as well as VR support for headsets such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. As well as the dynamic campaign to be fleshed out, other things in the pipeline include air-to-air refuelling and fleet-vs-fleet multiplayer – along with the option to 'walk' from the briefing room to the flight deck and board your aircraft. The inclusion of a functioning targeting pod also suggests that laser guided and perhaps even GPS munitions are waiting in the wings too.

Campaign co-op or the ability for friends to join your missions, is also on the cards.This multiplayer mode has been one of the most requested missing features in recent PC flight simulations, as in the original Il-2, it was an easy way in which friends (and strangers) could quickly and simply fly together against the AI.

A development road-map blog published by Sim155 included a number of other improvements, such as graphics rendering, 3D cockpit tweaks, shadows and vegetation, satellite imagery as well as new map areas, including Yuma and even the iconic Welsh 'Mach Loop'. 

Long-term, the developer has also hinted the possibility of other flyable aircraft being added – perhaps a RAF/FAA GR9s & HMS Illustrious might be easy to add for UK Harrier fans? Additionally the 'sim-lite' aspect of CAP2 and its focus on USMC aviation could mean that a F-35B might be easily slotted into the current campaign one day. The developer also is open to third part or community 'modding‘ - a recent update, for example, provided the photoshop files for skinners to create their own Harrier paint schemes - another way in which the original Il-2 became such a huge hit.


Summary

Fox Three! CAP2 has chosen to focus on a level of fidelity similar to the old EF2000, Jane's ATF/USNF and Il-2 sims.

For those flight simmers old enough to remember the glory days of TFX, EF2000, Total Air War and US Navy Fighters in the 1990s, CAP2 brings a similar feel to the combat sim genre, when the limitations of systems modelling took second place to creating immersion through a plausible dynamic campaign, squadron management and the ability to 'earn' promotions and medals.

But as noted above, CAP2 is very much a work-in-progress, with large parts of the sim either a skeleton or placeholders awaiting content. However, the core of CAP2 appears to be there – an extremely accurate Harrier FM (mastering landings is a huge challenge) and tools for a fully dynamic campaign. Though a small developer, Sim155, is extremely active in adding regular updates (Virtual reality support was the last one) ,as well as listening to its customers (custom nozzle stop was added after feedback from one player).

Make no mistake, though while CAP2 is not a study-sim, it certainly is not an arcade flying game. Harrier fans and those simmers who are prepared to be patient and help its development will definitely get their money's worth from opting into this beta. Others may want to wait until the game is more fleshed out with better AI enemies, a working campaign or multiplayer, before diving in.

For those flight simmers that find DCS too complex or sterile, prefer single player with dynamic campaign or want to fly co-op missions with buddies, CAP2 has huge potential going forward and deserves backing by the wider flight sim community for attempting to bring back some of those features that created such deep immersion in those classic PC flight sims. Well worth keeping an eye on.



Combat Air Patrol 2

Early Access £22.99 via Steam

Sim 155

MINIMUM:
OS: 32/64 bit Windows 7
Processor: Core i3
Memory: 2 GB RAM
Graphics: Nvidia GTX750/AMD R7 250/AMD A10 APU
DirectX: Version 11
Storage: 5 GB available space
Sound Card: 2 channel audio

RECOMMENDED:
OS: 32/64 bit Windows 10
Processor: Core i7
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Graphics: Nvidia GTX970/AMD Radeon R9 280
DirectX: Version 11
Storage: 5 GB available space
Sound Card: 5.1 channel audio


30 August 2016