Saturday, June 06, 2009

DCS: Black Shark Review

I'm a flight sim junkie. I can't help it. And to feed my needs, I just picked up a new PC flight simulator: DCS: Black Shark. It's the first real dedicated helicopter sim I've ever owned, and it's been an interesting ride.

Most other sims offer a hangar full of aircraft. Microsoft Flight Sim X has twenty. The latest iteration of the IL-2 Sturmovik series now has a whopping 246 flyable aircraft. However, in each of those, the aircraft are "dumbed down" so that the minimum of learning is involved before the pilot takes to the sky. The flight models are reasonably accurate, so the aircraft perform well enough, but in terms of cockpit operation most aircraft above the piston twin level are severely limited. For instance, if you're flying the A321 or B777 in FSX, don't expect a truly functional Flight Management System without buying an expensive 3rd party add-on. But, it also won't complain about TOGO and flap settings when you push the throttles to stops for takeoff. It makes it easier for new pilots to fly.

DCS:Black Shark, on the other hand, simulates only a single aircraft, the Russian Kamov KA-50 Black Shark attack helicopter. One aircraft, you say? How can that be any fun? Easily. There is more detail put into this one aircraft than an entire squadron of Microsoft Flight Simulator or IL-2 Sturmovik aircraft.

Here's a user-created video showing what the sim looks like in action.

So ugly it's... ugly.

Don't mind us. We're just hunting deer.

Flying and fighting this thing is more akin to a first person shooter than a jet simulator such as Falcon or Lock On. Rather than screaming in the Mach numbers and the flight levels in your F-15 and launching AMRAAMs at targets far beyond visual range, here you're low and in the dirt. Those are trees whipping past your windshield, not clouds. Below the radar is the name of the game. And you need to be careful. No Rambo antics. You need fly intelligently. If you wander too close to that M-1 Abrams while you're trying to lock it up, it will blow your ass out of the sky with its 120mm smoothbore.

The KA-50's role is similar to that of the AH-64 Apache or Mi-28 Havoc: low level attack and interdiction. However, it is unique in three regards.
  1. First, it has a coaxial rotor system which gives it excellent maneuverability and survivability. The entire engine and transmission is kept very compact. Without a tail rotor, there's no chance of a Black Hawk Down "Super 64" moment.
  2. Secondly, it has only a single crewmember. Every other attack helo in the world operates with two: a pilot and a gunner, usually seated in tandem. This divides up the workload very efficiently, allowing the gunner to focus on the tasks of targeting and weapons deployment while the pilot flies and navigates.|

    The Black Shark forces one person to take on all of these roles. It's a challenge, because you're operating a high performance aircraft at extreme low levels, deploying numerous weapon systems - laser-guided missiles, rockets, and 30mm cannon - and communicating with your wingmen. When you're in the weeds, keeping track of your enemy, dodging SAM launches, and
  3. Lastly, it is not an all-weather aircraft. While you can use it at night and in bad weather, it's not designed for it. It doesn't have thermal imaging sensors or radar warning receivers. It doesn't have an actual radar like the Apache Longbow has mounted on its rotor. It's strictly a line of sight aircraft and the most important sensors are the pilot's eyeballs.

Cockpit and Systems Complexity

This is by far the most complex simulator I've flown outside of the real full-motion Level-D Boeing 757 sim at Alteon. Like most advanced aircraft, you're literally surrounded by control panels. In front. Above you. To the left and right. Even behind your shoulders.

However, unlike most other sims, all of those panels actually function. You're immersed in a fully clickable cockpit. 99% of the switches, buttons, toggles, rotary pots, and dials operate as they do in the real aircraft.

The developers modeled nearly every system to its full functionality. Hydraulics. Engines. Avionics. For a full list, check out this page on the developer's site.

For beginners, there's a "Game" mode which simplifies everything. It's designed for folks who want to fly the missions, but don't want to deal with learning all the controls. It simplifies everything down to something like Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X where you've got radar, big glowing compasses, target icons, and all kinds of computerized help to assist you on your way.

But when you're in "Realism" mode, this is not IL-2 Sturmovik where you press "I" to start the engine and a few seconds later you're trundling down the runway in your P-51. The sim requires players to do some actual study and practice with the systems, almost like you would if you were learning to fly the real aircraft. And when these systems break, the results are pretty interesting.

Example: I got shot up by flak during one of my missions. I crested a hill, didn't see the convoy directly below me on the far side, and got a belly full of 23mm from a ZSU-23 Shilka. I quickly turned tail, but not before the damage punched holes in my hydraulic lines and caused a fire in my right engine.

I triggered the right engine fire extinguisher, cut the fuel for the right engine, and shifted the throttle (not the collective) for the left engine from "auto" to "emergency" so I could sacrifice engine life for raw engine power. At the same time, I was getting a "Main Hydro" warning. This bird's hydraulics control landing gear extension, cannon movement, and the flight stabilization system. Not wanting to make a belly landing, I lowered my gear before all the fluid bled out. A minute or so after the attack, I lost my pitch and bank dampeners, turning a normally steady helicopter into the "Phugoid Cycle Queen". I actually made the 20km trip back to base and landed safely, although I think those 23mm shells damaged my pride as well.

Flight Model Realism

The flight model physics are second to none. Vortex ring states are very accurately modeled. VRS occurs when you're descending rapidly with little forward airspeed, so essentially you're dropping vertically into your own rotorwash. Aircraft move relative to the air around them. If you're settling into your rotorwash your helicopter is now flying in descending air. If you try to add power to arrest your descent, it only worsens the state. Your only real recourse is to nose over and start moving laterally away from the rotorwash to build up transitional lift. If you're too low to the ground to recover... BOHICA.

VRS is just one facet. The Black Shark's a tough bird, but you need to be careful just like in the real aircraft. Overly hard maneuvering can cause your co-axial rotors to touch and, well, that's a bad thing. Pouring on too much collective for too long can make your blades meet as well. Hard landings will result in blown tires. Strong winds will have you weathervaning, which make landings even more interesting. Overspeeding will tear your helo apart. Rotors and engines will ice over when weather conditions are right.

And trimming. Trimming is a constant in this helicopter. In a fixed wing aircraft, you can dial in the trim and use that setting even when you make minor changes to attitude or speed. Not here. Trim, trim, and trim some more at the slightest change. After a while, it all becomes natural.

Hovering is also a real feat the first time you do it. The helo does have an auto-hover function, but you really do need to learn to hover on your own. Heck, that's Lesson #1 when flying a real helicopter. Finding that perfect balance of power, attitude, and trim is tricky. Your first few missions will inevitably end in disaster since hovering is part of, well, landing. But soon, you'll get the feel for it. Smooth transitions from 280kph speed runs to a complete standstill behind cover will be easily executed.

All that sounds tough, right? A lot to learn and process? That's what makes the sim so great. These are all issues that real-life helicopter pilots deal with and they're accurately modeled here.

And that's just flying the helo. I haven't even talked about weapons, communications, or the world you fly in.

The World

In the simulator, Russia and the former Soviet republic Georgia have gone to war over oil. The United States and other NATO forces have stepped in to assist Georgia, sending in carrier groups and marines. What began as an insurgent action is now a full-blown war between major military powers. You're dropped into the middle of this situation.

DCS:BS features four different campaigns, all based around different stages of the war. The developers have done a good job of bringing the region to life using a combination of satellite imagery and 3D modeling. Some areas make for good helicopter country with plenty of foliage and terrain cover. Canyon running is quite fun. Then there are the wide open plains where your only protection is to fly as low as possible. You don't pick your warzones; they pick you, and you need to make the best of it.

The orders of battle for both sides include all kinds of units. Main battle tanks. SAM batteries. Air strikes. Command posts. Attack helicopters. APCs. Artillery barrages. Aircraft carriers. Individual soldiers armed with Stinger or Igla MANPADS. You need to operate carefully and use cover to your advantage to remain hidden.

The Black Shark in its natural habitat

Urban locations

The port city of Novorossiysk, Russia. Correlate the locations of the piers to this shot from Google Maps.

Wide open fields = no cover

The Admiral Kuznetsov

Weapons Systems

The weapons and their support systems are just as accurately rendered as the flight model.

Targeting is built around the Shkval electro-optical targeting system. The video from a camera on the helo's nose is displayed inside the cockpit on a screen below the HUD. A laser designator provides the range and there are various modes for Air-to-Ground and Air-to-Air that calculate lead times for moving targets. (It's damn satisfying to engage another helicopter and blow them out of the sky). The system is only visual, not thermal, so you can't track, say, the heat bloom off a tank's engine.

Missiles: The KA-50 carries up to 12 Vikhr laser guided Anti-tank Guided Missiles (ATGM). They've got about 7.5km worth of range and good striking power, easily able to kill an M-1 Abrams or T-72/T-80.

Targeting and firing takes a little practice, but it soon becomes second nature. Take a look at how many steps I need to go through to take out an enemy tank.

Once I've killed the first one, I can just repeat steps 3, 8, and 9 to engage the next one. Acquire. Lock. Fire. Acquire. Lock. Fire. Rinse. Repeat.


Rockets: A variety of rocket pods can be carried, with different quantities and sizes of rockets. They can be fired in selectable bursts, with the smallest number being 2 rockets.

Rockets away

Small helo. Big world.

Cannon: Unlike all other attack helos, which have a chin turret controlled by the gunner, the KA-50 has a 30mm cannon on a semi-rigid mounting on its right side. While obviously it doesn't have the traverse of a traditional chin turret, it makes up for it in other ways. Remember step #6 above, "Auto-turn on target"? Enable that, and when you lock up a target the helicopter will automatically rotate to engage it nearly as fast as a chin turret moves.

Open fire

Rounds on target. Spent shells falling on innocent bystanders.

The mounting is also more stable than a chin turret, increasing accuracy. You can select between high explosive and armor-piercing rounds with the flick of a switch. For instance, you can engage a couple of Stryker AFVs with your AP rounds. Then you can switch to HE to kill soft targets like soldiers and trucks.

All in a day's work

Multiplayer and Communication

In this world, you don't fly alone. You're usually accompanied by at least one wingman on each mission. Now, the game's communication menu has all of the usual combat flight sim commands. "Engage my target", "Return to base", and such are all represented.

However, what's unique to this sim is the Datalink feature. It's a computerized system that allows each aircraft within a flight to exchange targeting data with its wingmen silently. It's terrific for maintaining situational awareness and delegating tasks for your wingmen.

Here's how it works:
  1. Each flight member is assigned a number from 1-4 at the start of the mission. You just dial in the number on a control panel knob.
  2. As you fly to your mission area, you can view each of your wingmen's position on the moving map display. It'll literally show a #2 for your first wingman, #3 for your next wingman, etc.
  3. You acquire a target and use the Shkval and laser to lock target.
  4. Using the control panel on the top left of the windscreen (green and yellow buttons) you can save the target's type and location into your helicopter's memory.
  5. Using that same panel, you can then transmit that target's location to your wingmen (note the 1-4 and Send All buttons)
  6. You can then delegate responsibility for those targets to your wingmen.

Datalink Panel - top left, with the three rows of green and yellow buttons

Let's say our mission is to destroy a platoon of tanks, protected by a pair of antiaircraft artillery guns. I can lock up the AAA guns and save each of their positions to memory. Then I can transmit their locations to my wingmen - AAA battery #1 to Wingman #1, and AAA battery #2 to Wingman #2. Once they've received it, I can then order each of them to "Engage Datalink Target" and they'll head off on their own to do my bidding. I can then lock up the tanks and send them to them as well. Once they've taken care of the AAA, I can order them to help me take out the tanks.

On the hunt

Online Multiplayer works nicely, although there is no voice chat. However, most reputable servers have an associated Teamspeak or Ventrillo channel. The server browser is easy to use and there are a variety of custom missions out there thanks to a growing community of Black Shark players. The datalink feature works online as well. It adds a lot to the sense of teamwork.

Most of the online missions are co-op, with all the players on one side working towards a single goal. However, there are a few servers with red vs. blue missions. It's immensely satisfying to go head-to-head with someone and blow them out of the sky before they even know you're there. :)

Final Words

If you like your simulators challenging and deep, this sim is for you. It will take practice and effort to get familiarized, but once you've nailed the systems it's a lot of fun. Unlike MS FSX, where "anyone" can fly a Boeing 777 right out of the gate, there's a definite learning curve. It can be downright hard at times.

It's all about the little rewards. When you make that first landing without blowing your tires or crashing, it's an accomplishment. When you achieve your first hover without Auto-Hover, it's an accomplishment. When you watch your first missile launch strike home, it's an accomplishment. And the first time you aviate, navigate, target, fight, and communicate your way through a mission, it's a hell of an accomplishment.


JC said...

Great review and awesome blog.

Cheers, said...

You just using a regular joystick? You click all the switches with your mouse or do you have certain switches linked to certain keys?

Sven said...

Looks like an impressive sim, too bad I've never been one for helicopter sims. Fixed wing all the way for me. :)

One small nitpick: FSX, unlike its older brother FS2004, does not include a 777. The 737 and 747 are the only commercial Boeings included.

And it's a continual disappointment that there's no good 777 add-on for FSX either; sure, Wilco made one, but it's absolutely terrible (VC looks terrible, flight model is bad, autopilot is retarded, FMC is terribly buggy, documentation is non-existent). I'd kill for a 777 in FSX with the level of quality of the PMDG 747 or LDS 767. :)

Wicked Penguin said...

JC: Thanks!

Toby: I use a Saitek X45 Hands-on-Throttle-and-Stick (HOTAS) which has a ton of buttons, knobs, and switches directly on the stick and throttle. The newer version of it is the Saitek X52. I also use a Logitech G15 gaming keyboard.

Here's how I have mine setup.
X-45 Stick
Hat switch 1: Camera view
Hat switch 2: HMS toggle / Select cannon / Select inboard pylons / Select outboard pylons
Btn 1: Fire cannon
Btn 2: Lock target
Btn 3: Flares
Btn 4: Release weapons (missiles/rockets/bombs)
Btn 7: Auto Hover
Btn 8: Uncage Shkval

X-45 Throttle
Btn POV1 (mini hat switch): Slew Shkval
Btn 5: Trim
Btn 6: Trim reset
Joy Slider2 (rotary): View zoom
Btn 19/20/21/22 (4-way switch): Head-on airborne target / Ground moving target / Auto turn-on target / Airborne target
Rudder rocker: rudder

G15 Keyboard
G7/G8/G10/G11: Autopilot buttons (BANK / HDG / PITCH / ALT)
G9: Master Arm
G12: Laser Standby
G13: Datalink - Vehicle target
G14: Datalink - AAA target
G15: Datalink - Other target
G16: Datalink - Select Wingman #2
G17: Datalink - Select All Wingmen
G18: Datalink - Memory / Transmit

Sven: Oops. I think I got my FS2004 and FSX wires crossed on the B777 thing.

I've never been one for helo sims either. I hated flying helos in MSFS as I could never land or hover them properly. I just lost patience and stuck to my fixed-wing aircraft.

I wonder how well I would do in them now after so much time flying DCS:BS.

R.A.C.E. said...

You should be paid for this! Thanks, great review.

mikethesky said...

I have bought the game but try as I may,I cannot fly this thing well. Why do I fly backwards when I takeoff. Using Saitek X52 with the slider for collective,doesn't seem very accurate.You are obviously an expert,what am I doing wrong.Fixed wing aircraft ,no problem but this is difficult!!!!!! Mike