Ka-52 Team Alligator is the follow-up to Team Apache, which UK developer Simis released about two years ago under the imprint of SSI/Mindscape. This time around, the publisher is GT Interactive, and instead of the AH-64 Apache, the star of this particular simulation is the Kamov Ka-52 Alligator, a two-seat command/attack helicopter of Russian manufacture. The game comes with two scripted campaigns and a variety of stand-alone combat missions, which you fly as a member of the Russian armed forces. While the Ka-52 is a two-seater, Team Alligator puts you in the place of the pilot, while the weapons officer is controlled by the computer.
Team Alligator is billed as an "action sim," which should immediately tip off hard-core simulation fans that the game is not meant to compete with more technically accurate sims like Longbow 2 or Apache/Havoc. Instead, Team Alligator attempts to provide a reasonable facsimile of helicopter flight while concentrating on creating an interesting and immersive environment. This approach worked well for its predecessor, Team Apache. Unfortunately, Team Alligator's stripped-down flight model is a spectacular failure that taints all other parts of the game, making it much less than what it could have been.
Team Alligator's focus is on running a squad of six Alligator helicopters while progressing through two different campaigns, one set in Belarus and the other in Tajikistan. You're tasked not only with flying the lead helicopter in each mission but also with managing the pilots under your command. To this end you can even discipline your pilots or offer them "treats," such as American candy bars (of which you have a limited supply). This role-playing aspect is actually quite enjoyable, and it gives a good feeling of overall command. There are also plenty of wingman commands to help direct your squad's attack while the mission is actually in progress. However, there's no mission builder, so you'll have to be satisfied with the campaigns or the stand-alone and instant-action missions. The game also supports up to eight players in head-to-head mode, and cooperative multiplay can accommodate up to six.
Team Alligator's terrain graphics are very crisp and effective, especially at low altitudes. However, the effect is marred slightly by melting terrain on the horizon. The object detail is very nice in Team Alligator - for instance, the game looks particularly impressive when you're lining up a close-range shot at a tank. But the cockpit is blurry and difficult to read in 3D mode, meaning that many players will opt to fly in "HUD-only" mode, which detracts from the sim's visual realism.
The avionics are clearly simplified and are meant to get new gamers quickly into the sim. To this end, the game includes a manual that not only explains the basic functions of the helicopter's weapons and controls clearly and effectively, but also explains the basics of helicopter performance and flight characteristics for those unfamiliar with rotary-wing aircraft. To top it all off, there are some good training missions that will have new pilots flying quickly and easily after one session with the game.
The general concept of mixing action and simulation elements is fine, but any flight simulation worthy of that distinction needs to have at least a reasonably believable flight model. Unfortunately, the flight model in Team Alligator is decidedly strange. The Team Apache flight model before it wasn't extremely realistic either, but it at least gave a good approximation of helicopter behavior while still letting relative novices quickly master the essentials of flight and air combat. On the other hand, Team Alligator exhibits bizarre behavior that calls into question what, if anything, the game is supposed to be simulating.The most noticeable problem with Team Alligator is that certain angles of attack appear to have absolutely no effect on flight. For example, the helicopter can be made to hover and then tilted substantially to the left or right with no sideslip whatsoever. Once the helo has been tilted past a given point, sideways movement takes place. This also occurs with forward and reverse movement, meaning that in practice the Ka-52 can maintain unrealistic angles of hover. There seems to be a similar drop-off in stability where the helicopter departs controlled flight rapidly but is unnaturally stable prior to that. The relationship of collective and cyclic to altitude and airspeed can also be quite abnormal, causing the aircraft to accelerate and decelerate when it shouldn't do so. In short, the game does a terrible job of reproducing the rudiments of helicopter performance.
The problem with the joystick dead zone is equally disturbing. On many controllers, a dead zone exists where stick deflection does not result in any response from the helo. For example, you might tilt the stick substantially to the left without causing any pitch change to the aircraft. Then, once the stick passes a certain point, the helicopter will all of a sudden pitch violently to that side. This seems to be controller-dependent but in a completely unpredictable way. Consequently, fine control of the aircraft is almost impossible, and even skilled pilots will end up rolling the copter side-to-side like a rowboat in the ocean. This is separate from the "control lag" flight-model option that is available, which attempts to mimic the lag between pilot manipulation of the controls in a real helicopter and the machine's response. Players suffering from an excessive joystick dead zone should turn control lag off, as this may improve performance.
But what is strangest about Team Alligator is that it does model some technical aerodynamic factors peculiar to helicopter flight, such as blade stall and vortex ring state, which a less ambitious sim would simply have ignored. You even get the ability to reverse the collective, letting gamers who are used to the reversed throttle characteristic of helicopters not to have to pretend they're flying jet aircraft. It's clear that Simis was out to create a good approximation of the Ka-52 in flight rather than the bizarre UFO that is present in the game and which seems to write its own laws of physics. But unfortunately, the flight model that ships with the game is so bad that it borders on the unplayable. If you are unlucky enough to have a controller setup that suffers from the dead-zone problem, control of the helicopter (especially left and right cyclic) will be so frustrating that you'll feel the need to take a handful of tranquilizers before playing the game. There's a user-created patch to the flight model available at an unofficial Ka-52 Team Alligator site, but while it helps correct some of the physics anomalies, it doesn't correct the dead-zone problem.
Ka-52 Team Alligator had the potential to offer the enjoyment of the Team Apache squad-management concept with modern graphics in a novel helicopter with interesting flight characteristics. However, the broken flight model interferes with play so badly that most of the fun is lost. In addition, the control problems can make the game impossible to play if you're unlucky enough to have a controller that suffers from them. If GT Interactive and Simis were able to fix these twoflaws, the game would have been worth purchasing. However, in its current state, Ka-52 Team Alligator is best left on the store shelf.