It's been quite a while since we last got our hands on a good, meaty flight simulation, and even longer since a decent military helicopter sim came chuppa-chupping into view. It's about 12 years since Origin Systems released the fantastic AH-64D Longbow 2 and it has stood (arguably) at the pinnacle of PC attack helicopter sims ever since. A new contender now arrives in the form of DCS: Black Shark, Eagle Dynamics' new sim that has firm intentions of stealing the whirlybird crown.
Black Shark sets out to simulate the Russian Kamov-50 helicopter down to its last nut and bolt. That's no exaggeration either. This is very much a 'study sim' which focuses exclusively on one aircraft, rather than providing a range of different machines to try out. A quick glance at the fully modelled cockpit should be all you need to convince you that this is a serious sim - every single button, switch and dial has been rendered and most of them can be clicked on and used as if you were sitting in the real thing. It's intimidating, overwhelming and undeniably fascinating. We will, however, admit to a few moments - no actually, make that a few hours - of sitting there, thinking you must be joking and wondering where the hell to begin.
The in-game tutorials seemed like a good a place as any but sitting through the first few only induced a more desperate state than before. There's an overview of the KA-50 that's a blizzard of meaningless acronyms, and on finding out that simply turning on the engines takes a series of approximately fifty - yes, fifty - sequential key presses we started looking for the exit. There is, thankfully, a keyboard shortcut that automates the whole start up sequence but this isn't mentioned in the tutorial. Matters aren't helped by the fact that the tutorials aren't really interactive - you can either sit, listen and try to remember what your instructor is telling you, or take control and try to follow along. If you get lost along the way, though, the instructor will keep barrelling along rather than waiting for you to sort yourself out.
Also, as far as we could tell, these tutorials only run in Real mode, rather than the more accommodating Game mode. Each mode can be set up to use a unique control scheme, so it was annoying that after having set up our controls in the simpler Game mode that the tutorials insisted on using the far more complicated real mode controls, avionics and flight model. It really does make it that much more difficult to gain a toe-hold in an already massively complicated simulation.
Thankfully, there is some salvation to be had in the warm embrace of the Internet. The game's producers have posted quite a few tutorial videos (available here) that are very helpful, and really should have been included with the game. If they can get around to patching in a basic, interactive flight school, then Eagle Dynamics might find Black Shark's audience expanding beyond the super-hardcore. Patience, persistence and sheer bloody-mindedness do, eventually, start to pay off. While we never approached anything like mastery of the KA-50, we were able to get stuck into a few missions and the game's main campaign, and we liked what we saw.
It certainly looks a treat, and the KA-50 itself has been painstakingly modelled right down to the last rivet. It's a mean looking machine, with two sets of rotors and a very lethal vibe. Exactly the sort of thing that makes you want to strap in, take off and give the local trouble makers a bit of bother. The terrain is nicely done, in the typical browny-green way favoured by most sims. Cities, villages and military installations are detailed and, most importantly, everything goes bang in a suitably violent fashion when it gets a missile up the tail pipe. When you're not chucking explosives at the peasantry, going for a spin around the countryside can be quite relaxing, and a good way to learn the finer points of chopper control. The sound is also particularly well done, to the extent that various engine tones and the sounds of the rotors can be helpful in letting you know what the aircraft is doing and what you should be doing to fix it.
There's quite a range of one-off missions and, for the adventurous, a full campaign. You can also whip up your own missions with the in-game editor, though we were far too preoccupied with the basic principles of Trying Not To Crash to spend too much time with the editor. Suffice to say that once you're confident enough to step into a mission or campaign, you'll find plenty of new ways to die.
One of the great secrets of helicopter sims is that they contain some of the best stealth-based, sneaky, back-stabbing gameplay around. A helicopter is a very fragile machine but it has the tremendous advantage of being able to tip-toe up to heavily armed foes, pop up over a ridge, unleash a barrage of instant death and then bugger off before anyone knows what happened. Getting involved in a face-to-face showdown is almost always a bad idea, so sneaking up to a point where you can get in a killing shot can be tense, exciting stuff. When combined with the extremely touchy, 'balanced on an oily beach ball' nature of the KA-50's flight dynamics, every second of a mission demands full attention. It's exhausting but also very immersive and, if you can pull off a successful attack and escape, one of the most profoundly satisfying experiences you'll have on a PC.
The previously mentioned Game mode goes someway to lightening the burden on novice pilots, without ever making anything too easy. We eventually settled on using Game mode options for everything except the flight physics. Game mode's physics makes the KA-50 handle more like an aeroplane which sort of undermines the whole point of having a helicopter simulation in the first place, so using Real mode's flight model keeps things interesting. In Real mode, learning how to move smoothly from a hover to forward motion is an art in itself, and it's quite rewarding to start to come to grips with the interplay between the cyclic (forward-back-left-right) and collective (up-down) controls.
A good joystick will greatly enhance your experience. While the game can be played with keyboard and mouse or, in a pinch, a gamepad with a couple of analogue thumb sticks, it really does cry out for one of those embarrassingly serious joysticks that's encrusted with buttons, switches and toggles. If you feel the need to splash out on an IR head tracking system, or to build a full replica plywood cockpit with multiple monitors and a vibrating seat, don't let us stop you. Black Shark is exactly the kind of sim that's capable of provoking a whole new level of fanaticism and dedication.
For the rest of us, however, Black Shark remains a tricky proposition. Here's a quick test: the combined page count of the game's Pilot Manual and GUI guide is 555 pages. If that has you salivating, then go forth and get stuck in. Black Shark is the flight sim you've been waiting for. If, on the other hand, you're more comfortable with game manuals that run to 555 words, consider yourself warned. The first few weeks spent with it will be an exercise in frustration, confusion and a pressing desire to go and do something else. It's not that much fun to spend countless hours plummeting into the ground while warning lights and a squawking voice highlight your repeated failure to distinguish your virtual arse from elbow. It's a shame that the gripping centre of the game is buried under such a thick layer of hardcore shenanigans and in-game tutorials that only partly lift the veil of confusion.
Still, we won't criticize Black Shark for being one of the deepest and most thorough flight sims we've ever seen. It is what it is, and it does what it does exceptionally well. It is, to state the obvious, not for everyone - we suspect, to be honest, it's not for very many people at all. Despite all this, though, and after all the hurdles and screen-punching irritation, there is something awesome lurking at the heart of DCS: Black Shark. Just expect to spend a few months getting there.