We take a look at the early access state of Combat Air Patrol 2: Battle of Hormuz as Sim155 keep plugging away on this intriguing simulator that features one of the author’s favorite platforms: the AV-8B Harrier II.
Available now as a Steam Early Access title (what is Steam Early Access? – HERE) for $29.99, early adopters have been exploring CAP2 since early June with admittedly mixed reviews. Since early access opened, the developer has released seven updates that have been fixing bugs, making improvements, and crossing off items on the long list of features that are needed to call CAP2 a complete sim/game. Given the title’s early access status, it isn’t our job to be super critical of things that are not and should not be expected to work at this early point. One does have to gauge the rate of improvement and judge that against the end goal and hopefully this article might give at least a little bit of perspective on that.
What is CAP2?
The easiest way to describe the goal of CAP2 is to simply let you read the Steam description authored by the developers themselves:
Feel the power of flying the AV8B Harrier II. A flight and naval combat simulator with mission planner and fully dynamic open ended campaigns. CAP2 uses a custom built engine that delivers a totally unique, immersive and realistic experience. Your battle-space is over 250,000km2 of beautiful and geographically accurate terrain around the Straits of Hormuz.
After initial flight and tactical training you will be pitched into an immersive scenario against aggressive ground, sea and air based enemies. Use the fully articulated cockpit, your skills as a pilot and your tactical awareness to engage in dogfights, carry out ground attacks and command your fleet to ultimately ensure the safety of your comrades and the final capitulation of the enemy.
Strategic decisions such as commanding your fleet on the tactical map and your performance in the air will affect the final outcome: Go ‘gung ho’ with a full out assault and the outcome will be in the balance or plan ahead and the end result will be your ultimate victory!
Well, that’s certainly a high bar to set! Let’s see where we are in relation to those goals.
After installing and launching, you’d be wise to spend a bit of time within the various setup options menus. The usual suspects are included in the graphics options, although they aren’t quite as varied or multi-tiered as some other simulators. And in reality, things like view distance, types of shadows, or terrain quality aren’t really necessary because CAP2 screams on both my old GTX760 and my new GTX1080. I suspect it is a combination of a nice graphics engine as well as less than taxing textures and models that result in such high performance.
The controller and keyboard setup capabilities are quite good offering a simple and intuitive method to map your controllers to whatever assignments you wish. Many of the commands do not have default settings, so be sure to visit these pages to set frequently used items. A nice feature is that you can remap controls while in a mission, allowing for quick assignments and testing. As a testament to the developer’s response to community requests, the controller settings have been evolving as each new update of the game is pushed out the door. My particular setup includes a TM Warthog, worn out CH Pro Pedals, and TrackIR. I found the best mapping configuration for me was to set the throttle to my inboard thrust lever and the nozzle angle to my outboard lever simply because the inboard lever has most of the HOTAS controls under your thumb. I don’t know if I’ve settled on this as my final configuration though and I continue to tweak the assignments as I get more experience with the sim. TrackIR is supported and works well with the sim.
With a notepad in front of me, I first fired up CAP2 a couple of months ago and jotted down my first impressions. First of all, the lighting, shadows, and overall look of the sim is very good. The cockpit textures look good, although you can see some low poly objects, but the overall feel of being in a cockpit is great. I’d certainly be interested to check out CAP2 in Virtual Reality. Framerates are just insane (FRAPS was saying my GTX1080 was averaging 400FPS). Looking around the cockpit, some stuff is clickable (MFDs), and some stuff looks like it is being developed to be clickable (the up-front controller). You can navigate around the cockpit and zoom in on sections of the panel by clicking your mouse – thus, you can zoom in on the MFDs, standby instruments, fuel panel, HUD, and other areas. There does not appear to be any functionality for things like engine start switches, avionics, inverters, autopilot, weapons panels, etc. I’m not sure if that is really the intent of the sim though – much like we find in Strike Fighters. Nozzle angle and water quantity indicators are conveniently located just below the right side of the HUD. Fuel consumption seems to track with throttle settings and (this will sound really odd) I really like the way the fuel counter authentically rolls and snaps to each subsequent number as fuel is burned off. It is a little detail, but one that is really cool.
The first thing I did (of course) was to try a rolling takeoff with around 50° of nozzle – but I failed to put the flaps in the SVTOL mode and I promptly plunged off the deck into the water. The second attempt was much better. The feeling of nursing a heavy Harrier into the air is very well represented. Indeed, the thrust vectoring and power requirements feel very good based on nothing more than my opinion as a wannabe Harrier pilot. The flight and thrust model feels fairly complex and is a much, much better experience than the Harrier I’ve flown in Strike Fighters 2, which is unforgiving of even the slightest bobble when doing a vertical landing. The CAP2 Harrier requires planning with regards to getting the thrust up and keeping the sink rate within reason or you risk developing a sink rate that you cannot arrest. Water injection is included, and gives a distinct exhaust pattern in both the takeoff and landing modes, but I can’t say I noticed much change in performance when using water injection. It is a cool visual effect though. I tried testing my theory by setting the throttle to just under hover power, then hitting the water injection, and it had no effect that I could tell. The engine instrumentation page of the MFD does not actually function, so I couldn’t check whether the water injection changes the operating temperature of the engine. These things are probably outside of the scope of the product though. Nozzle control is precise and responsive – but you’d better be sure you are at a light enough weight to sustain vertical flight if that is your intention. The aircraft will not hover with maximum fuel and a full weapons load, so you will have to follow the realistic procedure of doing a rolling short-takeoff. Heavy takeoffs are a blast and it is a lot of fun.
Returning to the ship is an exciting affair that has you managing speed, flaps, nozzle position and trying to balance all of that while maneuvering for the deck. In longer missions, fuel will likely be an enemy as well, so getting good at coming aboard will be critical. By my math – 60 seconds of full thrust hovering consumes 300 lbs. of fuel per minute! So if you return to the boat with 1,000 lbs. of fuel onboard, be prepared to get your Harrier on the deck in under three minutes once you transition to the high power setting! Overall, the flight model has a very dynamic feel to it – including high speed, non-vectored flight. Rolling and speed decay under high G seems really good. Accurate to book values? I don’t know. I don’t care. It feels good and feels right.
The extreme edges of the flight envelope such as stalls and spins are a not modeled to much detail. A clean stall will result in some burble and turbulence as you dip below 150 knots or so and there is no break toward a wing, the plane just mushes ahead as the vertical speed sinks rapidly up to 15,000 fpm down. Recovery is as simple as adding full power and pitching a bit. It can take up to ten seconds to fully arrest a full sink rate, so it is easy to smack the ground if you don’t initiate a recovery early enough. Maximum speed in the clean configuration, near sea-level, at full fuel and no weapons comes in at 560 knots (Mach .85), which seems reasonable. At maximum speed, you can roll into an 80-90° bank turn, haul full aft on the stick and you will bleed speed off for around 15 seconds until you sit around 260 knots. With maximum throttle, the Harrier will maintain that speed and won’t decay much beyond that in a level turn with maximum aft elevator. Again, not a big problem, but the rivet counters will object. It would be nice to see the speed decay further and for accelerated stalls to be modeled to penalize overly aggressive maneuvering. Pitch and roll trim can be mapped to your controller and work very well. Autopilot modes work well and include pitch/roll hold, altitude hold, and heading/altitude hold.
VIFFing (Vectoring In Forward Flight) can be done – but I was largely unimpressed by the speed decay offered by rotating the nozzles at full power. I found it took 45 seconds to decelerate from cruise to 250 knots in level flight using just vectored thrust versus just chopping the throttle and deploying the speedbrakes which took about half as much time (20 seconds). The most effective combination was vectored thrust and speedbrake (which one would expect) resulting in a deceleration from cruise to 250 knots in a mere 12 seconds. That was in level flight, so throw in a high-G turn to further decay speed while deploying the speedbrake and vectored thrust and you can go from cruise to sub-200 knots in just six seconds! Taking it a step further, you can go from cruise speed (560 knots) to a hover (zero speed) by VIFFing (with 100% throttle), speedbrake, pulling G in just 14 seconds after pulling through about 270 degrees of heading. An impressive quick stop by any measure.
The ship objects, terrain, airports, other aircraft, and city objects are good, if not overwhelmingly detailed. They might do the job well enough if compelling enough gameplay comes along, which is still to be implemented. The goal, according to the developer’s own pitch, is to create an immersive, realistic, and accurate experience over the Straits of Hormuz. That is a pretty tall order. The terrains that exist right now are very pretty when combined with the ambient lighting and haze. As a matter of fact – the lighting and haze are some of the best I’ve seen in any sim. The water textures are beautiful and the feeling of speed over the terrain is well translated, probably owing to the extremely high framerates. The city areas are fairly generic at this point, which will need to be changed if we are talking about a dynamic campaign with a wide array of targets. Training is flown over Hawaiian landscape, while the campaign is flown over the Middle East/Straits of Hormuz terrain.
Keeping in mind that this is an early access module, there are some elements that have already been implemented to varying degrees of completion. The three major possibilities are Quick Start, Training, and Campaign. As the name implies, Flight Training comprises the various skills you’ll need to master the Harrier, separated into Flight and Weapons categories. In the Flight category: Takeoff, Basic Maneuvering, Wingman, Landing, and Dogfighting. In the Weapons category: AA Missiles, AA Guns, Harpoon, Rockets, Guns, Maverick, Bomb, and HARM. Each mission has a very short briefing that gives the objective, notes, and completion criteria. Unfortunately, the training briefs only minimally instruct you on how to accomplish the task you’ve chosen. From the briefing, you move on to the Preflight screen where you can change mission parameters including: weapon load, fuel load, H2O load, weather, wind, turbulence, time of day, and difficulty of flight modeling. A map can be selected where you can review your mission path and make changes (more on that later). Once in the mission, your Mission Objectives appear in the upper right corner of the screen as you accomplish the goals of the mission. I was not able to toggle that display on and off at will though to determine what tasks remain. You should be able to call it up at any time to see what you have left to do. The training missions are fairly easy, but some of them do appear to be works in progress. For instance, the ACM one versus your wingman will often end up with him flying into the ground. Most of the missions can be completed and you will be given a Mission Complete dialog box although you can continue to fly if you wish.
The combat itself is pretty tame for the training scenarios – with targets being relatively passive with the exception of some of the dogfighting with AI. The static ship attacks are still a bit of a work in progress, they tend to explode of their own accord, perhaps victims of their own fire. Smoke and explosions are well done, although the geysers of water might be a bit Hollywoodized in some situations. Targeting is sort of on the Strike Fighters level, with simple keypresses to cycle through targets, again appropriately in-line with the target audience of this sim. The radar page range can be changed from A2A to A2G, but modeling is fairly simple with green and red icons for friendly and enemy targets respectively. HUD symbology is very good from the standpoint of being very crisp and super fluid. The HUD ladder and targeting symbols look great and it is collimated so it disappears realistically if you move your head off-axis. HUD mode, G, AOA, speed, altitude, waypoint distance, vertical speed, and flight path marker all work very good and are fluid as can be. The LCOS type gunsight seems wrong, but I could be wrong. It is somewhat fixed whereas I thought it should drift around as you maneuver to show where your bullets will be. There also does not appear to be range to target on the HUD at this time (which may explain why the gunsight is not calculating anything?) but range and velocity (but not closure or aspect) is displayed on the radar display.
It is oddly satisfying to fly in formation with the F-4 target drones – again, the feeling of fluid flight is very, very good in this sim. Damage modeling is fairly limited. If you shoot airplanes, they start to smoke, then eventually go down trailing smoke. As well, collisions with targets are very forgiving – I’ve bumped a few targets on purpose and came away unscathed. Missile constraints and dynamics appear to be somewhat basic, but they look good and do the job. Missile launches and flight, with their corresponding flame, missile trail, seeking, and explosion, are quite good. The iconic growl of the Sidewinder missile lock is missing – a short tone does sound when you change targets and a diamond fills the target box on the HUD, but there aren’t any real constraints displayed for either the Sidewinder or AMRAAM, so it is not really possible to tell if you are at min range, max range, or any range.
Air to ground weapons include bombs, rockets, Mavericks, and Harpoons. CCIP symbology is crisp and fluid. Advanced settings such as ripple quantity and interval are not modeled – it is definitely a “put the thing on the thing” and pull the trigger type of sim (again, in-line with the target audience). It’s hard to know how the ballistics are owing to the lack of a missile/bomb camera. In dropping bombs on the city at random, I was not able to observe structures being destroyed or craters being formed, but ships can definitely be sunk. Designating for Harpoons, Mavericks, and HARMS seems to be similar – just cycle through targets and launch, but there are some FLIR and WPN MFD settings that I haven’t quite gotten a handle on. The selectors on the bezel of the MFD (LSKs if you will) allow for changes such as WHOT/BHOT and SLAVE and MANUAL, but I haven’t really figured out if they do anything related to targeting. I tried mapping one of my HOTAS axes to the TGP, but wasn’t able to control it. There could be a lot of user error here though. In the Steam user forum, the developer has indicated that work continues on implementing laser guided bombs, self-lasing, and buddy lasing.
The developer has been making constant updates, and improvements are readily visible with each successive version. Recently, radio comms where you can control formations and communicate other things to your flight have been added. I haven’t been able to fully explore wingman AI in battle since the campaign still has some work left to do. There is a refueling HUD mode with an accompanying deployment of the probe and a recent update in mid-August by the developer indicated they were working on a new carrier and in-flight refueling – so that should be cool! Recent improvements with regards to ATC and wingman control include:
- Formation control
- Target assignment (A-A & A-G)
- Report State
- Mission abort
- Return to base
- Recover/land on carrier
- Emcon (Emissions Control)
- Lights state
You also have RT to the carrier/fleet such as:
- Request takeoff
- Request land
- Request position check
- FAC assign fire mission to fleet
The campaign is in its early phases of development and is advertised as a dynamic campaign that includes strategic elements such as positioning your fleet and managing the airspace around the 250,000 square km Straits of Hormuz. Operation “Ocean Protector” has you defending the Straits in an attempt to keep the sealanes open from an Iranian extremist group (the ERF). Threats (according to the brief) are ERF controlled Iranian jets, fast attack boats, destroyers, submarines, mines, land based missiles, and artillery. You will attempt to protect the merchant vessels and make decisions on both your fleet position and whether the Straits remain open or closed. The mission planner looks fairly robust, but isn’t really functional at this time, nor is the campaign for that matter. The developer also indicates that multiplayer is planned.
So what we have is a pretty nice looking Early Access sim with a lot of nice features and a good bit of work to complete to truly make it a game. The Harrier flight model feels great and the graphics are good enough for this simmer. The missions and campaigns have a lot of work to go, and then there are all the friendly, enemy, and civilian assets that have to occupy the theater to make a dynamic campaign feel dynamic. The pace of updates and communication that Sim155 has exhibited are encouraging (a VR update was pushed on August 18). My wish list for the sim is long, but doesn’t involve crazy amounts of systems detail or rivet counting. I think we all are hoping for a Strike Fighters type sim, with multiplayer, a good dynamic campaign, and the possibility of expansion with new theaters and platforms. At $29.99 in Early Access, I’d consider CAP2 at this point a speculative investment with what we all hope will be an awesome dividend in the end.
Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth