DCS Black Shark is the first module in the Digital Combat Simulator series. What do I mean by module? Well let’s explain it like this; right now Eagle Dynamics is planning on releasing multiple different modules, each one a fully functional study simulator. Supposedly, these will all be able to integrate. The future modules will also include things such as engine enhancements, new features, new things modeled, etc, you get the idea. The one they are talking about releasing next is the A-10 module, which will be essentially this, except for the Warthog.
DCS is a modular combat simulation series and that brings me to this point, DCS Black Shark only has one aircraft, the KA-50. This module is a study simulation of the Kamov KA-50 Black Shark. It is a Russian built attack helicopter designed in the 1980's for use in anti-tank roles. DCS Black Shark was originally going to be an expansion to Lock On, but because of changes that had to be made to the engine in order to expand the ability of the engine to handle things, such as adding a clickable cockpit, they released it as a full new simulator. It has been highly anticipated over the time since announcement as a possible competitor to the throne currently held by Falcon 4.0. Will it live up to the hype, will it dethrone the mighty king Falcon 4.0? Let’s find out.
A note about the screenshots in this review
You may notice multiple resolutions and aspect ratios of screenshots. This is because I had multiple hardware failures during my work on this review. First my video card died, so I wound up getting a new one, and about a month after I got my new video card, I had my monitor fail.
The biggest reason is because my old monitor was a standard monitor, and the new one, and the one on the laptop, are both widescreen. Furthermore, you will notice in some screenshots black bars, which is me censoring my call sign. I really would prefer the whole world not being able to match my call sign with my real name.
A little background on the KA-50
What I want to go into here is a little history on the KA-50 as a lot of people probably don’t know what it is. The KA-50 is a coaxial rotor helicopter developed by the Soviets in the 1980's. It never entered production because the Soviet Union collapsed before it could go into service.
It is essentially a single seat attack helicopter designed to take out targets from up high. It has a cannon but the cannon can only fire forward as it is mounted on the side of the helo and not on the chin like western attack helicopters. Furthermore, because of the coaxial design, there is no tail rotor.
It was designed to take out NATO tanks, but when it was finally out of the prototype stage, it was not able to take out current NATO tanks as it was designed to take out the M60 tank. By the time it was ready to be fielded, the M1 Abrams had been introduced in Europe. Multiple prototypes were made and various prototypes are now in museums. Luckily for the aircraft however, it got fielded in Chechnya and there are 19 KA-50s currently in service in the Russian military. It was later upgraded to the KA-52, a 2-seat, much improved version, but that’s not the helicopter we're flying here.
Installation and Documentation
The download consists of 2 files, the data.cab file and the setup.exe file. After downloading and copying the files into a folder to install, I clicked the setup executable. It set up without any issue.
I think I should state this right off the bat, the download version has an activation limited star force copy protection. This was actually relatively painless, much to my surprise. I have always been known for being Anti-DRM. This is especially true for activation limits. My personal belief is that I shouldn’t have to have a limit on how many times I can install it before I have to contact product support for more activations, or get forced to buy another copy.
My other big issue with activation limits is that occasionally games and sims have a life span much longer than initially thought. Falcon 4.0 is still kicking 10 years after release, which proves my point about life span of good sims. If a copy protection platform goes under, or the developer goes under, it could render the program useless. Another bother with DRM is that it has a tendency to screw with the legitimate consumer, while pirates, the ones DRM is meant to deter, can use the software with a cracked copy very easily and pain free.
Star force has a very bad rep from its early versions, which had a tendency to cause things to get FUBAR on your computer. So far, I haven’t had a problem with this version but my real issue with stuff like star force is that if I wanted to put it on Linux and run it under WINE, then I would HAVE to crack it to get it to even boot.
Current DRM really isn’t designed to work on anything but Windows, which means that it really can’t interface with the Linux kernel, thus preventing it to boot. Now with that rant out of the way, let’s get to the documentation.
The documentation comes with a couple of PDF's, including a 383 page flight manual, and a 162 page GUI manual. The flight manual contains all the info needed to fly the Black Shark, but the GUI manual is mainly a guide on how to operate the actual sim interface, including the scenario editor. The problem I have with the manuals though, is they seem to be poorly organized and lack a few key details, and because of that I can’t give them full credits.
The first boot
The first boot left me wondering where was I supposed to activate the serial number? Well I soon found that out when I started a training mission, which is essentially a training video with voice overs. As I was loading the simulation to actually load the mission, Star Force popped up asking for the activation key.
Easy enough to get, it’s on my account at the DCS page under the same area as where any products you own are located. Furthermore, I noticed that the interface has been streamlined compared to Lock On DCS’s predecessor. Another improvement I noticed was that they finally got rid of the annoying LOMAC menu music and they replaced it with a nice and soothing instrumental piece.
After getting into the air, all I can say is WOW ! I have not seen a combat flight simulator like this in a LONG time. This is the most AMAZING experience I have had in a VERY long time of flight simulation, as I haven’t been this stunned since I got Falcon 4.0.
The graphics are decent. They look like LO:FC, but that’s not too important as they will be updated in patches. It’s the flight model that stunned me the most. It has the best of both worlds, the best avionics detail combined with the best flight models.
When I saw this, I was absolutely stunned by the amount of detail put into the simulator. This is something that is an amazing piece of work. Just the flight model has enough detail to make me want to go out and get a helicopter pilot’s license! I have always been a CFS fan at heart, sure I fly the heavies but that’s not my favorite type of flight. What do I love the most, well it’s hard to put a finger on any one thing, it’s all amazing.
The interface is gold, simple, yet effective. The only thing that I wish they would improve, interface wise, is the editor, which is a bit clunky and could use a bit of an enhancement for precision placement. The biggest thing within the editor that I think they could have improved with is allowing the placement of objects in a 3D environment, and allowing us to change minimal spacing between objects (I doubt an infantry squad will have each member of the squad 100 feet apart).
I noticed that the Kamov logo was in the corner of the main menu, and I was wondering about that. It’s obvious they had to get permission to put it there otherwise it would be lawsuit city. Since I was really wondering, I did a little research. It turns out that Eagle Dynamics, the developers of this sim, worked with Kamov to develop this title to the maximum realism possible. Personally, I take that with a grain of salt as all we really have is Eagle Dynamics’s word on this, but that Kamov logo in the corner says at least there was a little working together in the development.
The editor had a major overhaul since LOMAC, and that is a very good thing. The editor though was still just a bit clunky.
Use the tutorials Luke!
When I started a training mission, it was voiced over by the producer of the series, Matt Wagner. The tutorials are essentially voiced over automated missions where you can see everything happening, and you can even take over at any time to gain control of the simulation and practice on your own.
tutorials are a MUST for flying the KA-50. It doesn’t
matter how much experience you have with other birds, as you
need to learn the systems. For
Let’s just say she handles like a (black) shark
The flight modeling is what we are going to talk about here, and I can sum it up in one word: sweet. DCS models ring vortex effect, which is essentially when you fly low and slow over the ground. If you are too close to the ground your helicopter can’t gain enough lift and drops out of the sky. Think of it as stalling a helicopter.
From what I’ve picked up while waiting for this sim to come out, it has been said that ED actually had real KA-50 pilots and Kamov actually assisting in the flight modeling. Supposedly, at least on the forums, it has been said that the flight model changed at least once in beta. I personally take this with a grain of salt as well, but I don’t doubt it being possible either.
Honestly, I feel that the one thing they could have improved on in the flight modeling was just the fact that it seems that a hard landing almost always results in an explosion. I feel that this could have been improved by just allowing the aircraft to survive crashes without exploding as much. For instance, in a scenario where I clipped my rotors which resulted in all my rotors beeing cut in half. I can still slow the decent to an acceptable rate where the helicopter would surely be trashed, but the pilot at least should survive (to my knowledge). But the helicopter always blows up on impact.
I personally would comment on the flight model’s accuracy, except I’m NOT a KA-50 pilot. I will say a few things about how it feels though. For one, when you clip your rotors (and you will), your helicopter starts to wobble if you only clip one or two. If you clip all of them (and you will) your helicopter will fall out of the sky. But not as fast as say a lawn dart, just fast enough to make you go boom.
Why I say you WILL clip your rotors is that in DCS, if you over speed or if you pull too many G's or if you even sneeze, you will probably rip your rotors up. Finally, you will notice a lot of crash pictures in this review, well let’s say that I am NOT a helicopter pilot IRL for a reason.
How it performs
Let’s talk about performance of DCS. All in all, it does work well for what it is. But because it is still just using a modified LOMAC engine, called the TFCSE or The Fighter Collection Simulation Engine, it suffers from glitches and performance issues from LOFC. They are working on porting it over to a new engine which will be available as a free update to allow it to work with future modules of DCS on multiplayer (or at least that’s what they are saying).
The plan is a noble idea, and I can understand about them not doing it now as it costs a lot to make an engine, let alone a sim. But let’s talk about now instead of the future. I noticed immediately that two real big things I feel could have been done to see a massive performance increase would have been 64 bit and multi-core support. Those two alone would see massive frame rate increases on modern systems. Using the Vista affinity trick will give just an example of the kinds of increases multi-core support could bring.
On Vista you can boot DCS and set the affinity to run on all cores, and you will get about a 50% increase in frame rates in some situations. Now, for me I never noticed any frame rate increase, but a lot of people have. So, I guess it must be my computer. As far as other things they can do to improve performance, they could easily boost it by supporting SLI and Crossfire, but those should be secondary to multi-core and 64 bit support, as simulations tend to be CPU heavy.
The biggest issue I had was when I tried to make a massive land battle involving a ton of infantry and a few Strykers, it brought my system to a slide show. The mission had about 500 US infantry moving on a airfield defended by 400 Russian infantry, and it brought my machine to a crawl. I wound up having to cut the infantry numbers to about 100 on each side to make it work.
I honestly think that it was because all of my cores weren’t used, thus causing it to lag so much. The other possibility is that all those infantry each had their own AI. This is what I suspect considering you have to individually place them which may have easily brought it down. As of the time of this writing, there is a useful tool out there for those of us with multi-core CPUs, called DCSMax. You can find it directly on the official site’s forums.
The Campaign Format
This is the first and really the only major thing that semi-disappoints. The campaign is what they call a staged campaign, it is sort of a mix between linear and dynamic in that it isn’t a set of missions that have to be played in a certain order, but it isn’t a fully dynamic battlefield ether. Falcon 4.0, for example, has a fully dynamic engine.
Fully dynamic means that every action has a consequence. For instance, if a plane gets shot down, a CSAR mission is launched and the whole battlefield is alive and something in one area of the theatre 100's of miles away may be happening while you’re on a strike mission. It is understandable on the other hand that DCS doesn’t have this, yet, as dynamic campaigns cost a lot of money to be able to make. The engine has to be designed in a way that allows for AI to run the campaign.
Now on to a little fun fact. The English version has more campaigns than the Russian version. My one issue is that these additional campaigns are designed for XP only, apparently because of memory management issues on Vista. I haven’t noticed any real problems on my system, so I’m not sure if you’re system will be able to handle it or if it will collapse from exhaustion and go boom.
What the heck was that!
Here I am flying around the enemy’s territory, and all of a sudden I hear my Bitchin' Betty tell me that a SAM has been launched at me and a split second later, I see a smoke trail fly by from below! Turns out that the SAM launcher is right under me and I’m literally flying directly over him. If I hadn’t been moving I’d be dead. That’s exactly what happened to me a few days into the review.
I was in a slow, near hover flight over an enemy SAM site and they fired and missed. Turns out that the missiles need a certain amount of time to lock on after firing, just like in real life. IRL if a missile is shot at you it has a minimum engagement range along with a maximum range; that minimum range is needed to arm the weapon.
I just happened to fly so close to the launcher, which was directly below me at 35 feet, and he missed because I was moving, so he couldn’t fire accurately. My question is why they even fire that close. Ah well, I guess AI isn’t perfect. Especially MANPADs, which leave a LOT to be desired in the AI. But honestly, I don’t want to see that AI improved until they implement hiding in the trees.
Right now trees aren’t collidable, which means that MANPADs would be way too powerful without anything stopping them. Honestly, they say that the trees aren’t collidable because of multiplayer and AI balance issues. I would rather see them set up blocks of collidable trees rather than a ton of non-collidable ones. I feel that collidable trees are something that are highly important if you want to create a helicopter sim.
It’s an egg hunt!
There are a few Easter Eggs you may not think of seeing in a sim, but they are here. The biggest one is radio Mayak, which if you tune in to the station near Maykop city, you hear music over your radio, SWEET! You can even create your own radio stations with custom music by doing some basic editing of the LUA files and creating a few folders.
Next is ejecting, If you eject safely, your pilot can walk around on the ground (sorry no weapons). Here’s a good one, ever want to hear the ground crew yelling at you over the radio in a flight sim? You can do that in Black Shark. Just “forget” to switch the radio off of the intercom when taking off and the ground crew will yell at you. Turning on the ground crew radio simulates the ground crew plugging in their headsets to your helicopter while on the ground. So if you take off, they will be angry, to say the least, mainly because you took off with their headsets still plugged in.
There’s no place like home, especially when your home is the cockpit!
The cockpit detail in DCS blew me away. I felt when I first got in there that I had gone to combat simulator heaven. I have since done some extra research and apparently at least 2 areas aren’t modeled in the cockpit. One of them we have no idea what it is because every picture we find of a KA-50 has it blacked out, and the 2nd is an overhead panel on top of the one modeled.
I can’t fault them for not modeling the blacked out area, as that’s probably classified data. I really wonder though why that overhead panel wasn’t modeled. All in all, the switches and buttons are all in 3D. You have to click the guards to lift them to tweak the switches, and so on. One minor thing I noticed is not everything is interactive. Supposedly that’s because these are non-vital systems. I would like to be able to play with the cabin pressurization or the maintenance controls.
Also, I should note that those turnable knobs are controlled with your mouse wheel. This is something that threw me off for a few minutes. There is a selection in the options menu where you can switch the cockpit language from English to Russian and vice versa, and that is cool. But it lacks one thing I really wish was there, a Russian speaking Betty.
It was there in the Russian release but was replaced by an English speaking one in the English release. I would like to see the option to switch between native (Russian) and an English Betty. Finally,there are a few things that aren’t modeled or switchable and as far as I can tell, they’re not that critical to the simulation. I would prefer to have everything work in the pit, at least everything that isn’t classified. The one big problem I saw was that even thought the Shkval has a wiper on it, it’s as useless as dust and water. The same goes for the windshield wipers. I hope they add these things in, as they would make sense. But until then, I can’t give that full marks ether.
Where can I even begin with the avionics? When you start the ABRIS, it comes up with a bios screen saying all sorts of fun facts about the KA-50’s computer, such as the amount of RAM it has. I found one funny thing where you can hit the HUD test button and it brings up the name of the developer, Eagle Dynamics, its kind of a watermark to prevent plagiarism I guess. The shkval is realistic enough (at least to my knowledge), in that it forces you to come to at least a near hover and zoom in and set the target size to fire, along with arming the laser and all sorts of stuff.
I will say this, if I were to go into even half of the KA-50’s avionics in this review, it would wind up being a extremely long review, besides, that’s what the manual is for. You can download the manual for free off their website once you register. You have to register on their site to buy the game (through digital distribution) and can access pretty much all the other downloads. I recommend you read the manuals first before you buy, as it’s critical you realize the level of detail you’re getting into.
The problem with the avionics is that some things aren’t modeled that were deemed ether classified or not critical. I can see not modeling classified systems as I feel that it’s better to not have some detail rather than having classified systems leaked. I feel that things such as the cabin pressurization and other items like that should have been modeled in, but they may do that in the future, or they may not, we don’t really know. As far as other cool things go, you can hit the test buttons on the various gauges and test them, and you can test the EKRAN.
Just to give you an idea of the level of detail of the avionics, when you start a mission, you have to set the number of aircraft in the flight on the data link, and you have things such as the air to air targeting systems of the Vikhir anti-tank missile modeled (yes I said Air to Air on an AT missile, that is correct as it is on the real aircraft). Things such as flare launch salvos are also configurable. You can launch the flares in salvos and set the time between launches, how many salvos and how many flares in each salvo, and even which side to launch from.
Skynet wants YOU!
Here we go, the AI. The AI can be smart or dumb, depending on the situation. Here’s a classic case. I landed my helicopter right next to a squad of enemy infantry in plain sight, and they did nothing. I started the sim and tried again, and they shot my helicopter to the point where it explodes.
It’s always classic to see the enemy try to fire a SAM at you and miss. Well, I had a scenario where in a mission I had a SAM launch at me, and I had no idea where it was coming from and I was about 50 feet off the ground and moving. Turns out the SAM was DIRECTLY BELOW ME! It kept missing because the missile didn’t have time to acquire the target, me, so I did what any person would do, and I played chicken with the SAM site which was entertaining to say the least.
I have noticed plenty of incidents where the AI does stupid things, while plenty of times the opposite happens. One time I had my wingman flying close formation with me while I was doing a corkscrew decent to avoid SAMs, and he flew into me, BOOM! All in all, the AI needs serious work. Some stuff it does well, but too much is done not so good.
I was actually doing a lot of flying with the community over at SimHQ during the review, primarily to get familiar with and learn the KA-50 but also because I primarily prefer working with other people rather than AI (If you look at a few of the screenshots, you may figure out my call sign).
The MP is pretty good. I only noticed 2 problems; the server dictates the graphics and scenery levels, and that the browser is a bit screwy. The browser won’t detect games sometimes and you have to connect via IP. The server dictating the graphics screws with people with lower spec systems because those people can’t handle the server settings.
I noticed coop and pvp game modes, but no campaign. Turns out they were promising the campaign for MP but never could deliver on the timeframe. As far as I see, it’s excusable up to a point, but still, they should have at least had a working prototype of the campaign system on MP before they opened their mouths about it.
I have no reason to really dock points right now, as there is not that big of an issue with it as the missions can be converted for MP use. The only thing that really got on my nerves was that there is no dedicated server tool. This has really made server hosting a pain in the butt. Luckily, this is supposedly in development.
Summary / Closing Remarks
Is DCS worth it? Well let’s put it like this, if you want even a decent helicopter sim, get it. If you want the best one currently available, there is no excuse not to have it! Those Longbow fans who are going to say this is heresy; well you’ll have your day. They're working on an AH-64A simulator as well. It won’t be a Longbow, but the Longbow flight manuals aren’t declassified either, are they?
Why didn’t I just compare it to Longbow in the first place? Well that lies with my not having a copy of Longbow 2. If I had a copy, I could compare it, but since I don’t, I can’t. That also has to do with the fact that I’m not supposed to be comparing products really, I learned the hard way not to do that, and I don’t intend on doing it again.
That’s the key thing to remember about DCS. People ask for the Raptor or the Typhoon and they forget that Eagle Dynamics will only make a title in the DCS series if the manuals to the aircraft are not classified. They aim for at least 90% accuracy in their DCS series, and in Black Shark they delivered big time! If I was a KA-50 pilot, I’d have much more authority on saying that, but the sheer amount of detail put in the avionics and flight modeling convinces me. Furthermore, you must remember that this development team actually makes sims for the real militaries of the world.
The team that made this title actually had to put DCS on hold for a while to make an A-10C simulator for the USAF Reserve. The info that came out of that A-10C sim, will soon be implemented in the next DCS module.
I personally love the sheer detail. The flight modeling handles like someone who knows even a little about aerodynamics and physics would expect. Overall, there is no better current CFS from the past few years I can think of, even for a beginner. Getting this for a beginner is the equivalent of when I got Falcon 4.0 back when I was a kid, and if you even value accuracy a little, you’ll LOVE this!
I have to say there are only a few gripes that prevent me from saying this should get a Gold Star Award. If they were to just release a dedicated server tool, along with fixing the damage modeling on vehicles, plus upgrading the AI, I’d easily say this is Gold Star material. Until then, this is very close, but no cigar.
Just to give you an idea of how I feel about DCS, all I can say is that this is the beginning of a new era of Combat Flight Sims if they continue making DCS modules, and it will be a sweet era at that. If they continue making them, they are saying they will make them all play on multiplayer, finally realizing the Combat Flight Simulation communities dream of an integrated online battlefield.
Overall, if I had to choose one combat simulator or flight simulator add-on to get above all else from the past 4 years, this would be it. I’ll be flying this baby for a VERY long time (at least until the next DCS module or Fighter Ops comes out). Final note: I was planning on doing a multi-part review of this, and I could have easily done it, but I feel that long winding reviews just get boring after a while. Also you may wonder why I have so many crash picture in the review? Well let’s just say some days I wonder why I don’t change my call sign to Crash, then I remember that there are a lot of people with that call sign.
What I Like About Black Shark
What I Don't Like About Black Shark
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