The line between “game” and “simulation” can sometimes be colored in shades of grey, but in some situations the distinction is starkly obvious. Even then, some so-called simulations are focused on just a few aspects of the real-world equivalent and/or certain areas are simplified to better suit a consumer environment. There is no genre where this is more evident than the realm of flight simulators. Even the top-tier PC-based flight simulations such as the superb Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane titles have to make concessions to usability. In both of those cases, the broad nature of the types of airplanes modeled requires a somewhat generic approach to the interactions with the airplane controls and the flight environment.
Consider, for example, the F-18 fighter/bomber as modeled in the Microsoft Flight Simulator. Aesthetically, it looks great. Sitting in the virtual cockpit, you are surrounded on all sides by the complex switches, buttons, knobs. levers, handles, and a plethora of other protuberances that are used to interact with the airplane. Or would be, anyway, if you were sitting in a real airplane. In the simulation, however, the level of effort that would be required to make all of those controls functional would be orders of magnitude too prohibitive to make the undertaking commercially viable. If every one of the dozens of airplanes available in the simulation were modeled to the utmost level of interaction and reality, the purchase cost would be somewhere in the hundreds of dollars.
You might point out that it is possible to purchase third-party add-on airplanes that approach this degree of realism, but that would simply point out the next big weakness: the flight environment. Put simply, no matter how realistic the F-18 airplane model is, it does not “fly” in a realistic fighter/bomber environment. In Microsoft Flight Simulator, you cannot drop bombs, fire the gun, get battlefield direction from an orbiting AWACS jet or a Special Forces troop on the ground, manage your flight of other F-18s as a Flight Leader, or do any of the other things that an F-18 is purposely designed to do.
It can safely be postulated after an examination of these examples that the only way to provide a true high-fidelity and ultra-realistic simulation is to concentrate on a single aircraft. While doing so offers the opportunity to model the specific airplane to the most precise standards possible, it carries quite a bit of commercial risk as well. Keep in mind that modeling the airplane itself is at most only half of the equation; the flight physics and flight environment need to be modeled as well. And if the airplane under consideration is a fighting military model, the flight environment requires a very complex adjunct: the fight environment. Also to be considered is the availability of performance, operations, and systems data. When it comes to military equipment, it is not surprising to find that data of this nature is not overly easy to come by. Without that data, the resulting model is nothing more than a collection of (hopefully) educated guesses.
The aforementioned “fight” environment requires the modeling of both the weapons and the weapons management systems. The modeling of weapons in turn requires the modeling of weapons delivery physics, impact or explosive effects and physics, and target damage physics. Bombs don’t drop in a vacuum; they are every bit as influenced by aerodynamics, air density, wind direction and strength, and gravity as any other flying object. Add a rocket engine and a guidance mechanism as you would see in a weapon like a Maverick missile and the equations get even more complex. Weapons need to be aimed, and in this day and age that means you need to develop a model for GPS or inertial guidance, laser tracking, and Continuously Computed Impact Point (CCIP) calculations, amongst other more esoteric means of displaying to the pilot where he can expect his ordnance to land.
Now throw in the fact that pilots don’t fly alone. The typical military air operation of the modern day environment has the complexity of a world class ballet. There are multiple roles that need to be performed by drastically different types of aircraft, and the entire effort has to be choreographed down to mere seconds. Support aircraft such as aerial refueling tankers and reconnaissance types like AWACs have to be on station and ready to provide assistance at exactly the right time. Every aircraft has to be on the right communication channel at the right time. Multiple squads of attack aircraft have to arrive at the target from the right direction and at the planned time to avoid disastrous consequences. And, as obvious as it may sound, they all have to be aiming at the right target. Unintended collateral damage can, and has, caused huge international repercussions.
If you were to consider the development of a consumer product like that, you would then have to ask yourself how big the potential market is. Keep in mind that it takes military pilots years to become adept at this kind of flying, and that is in a full-immersion, all day every day environment. How many consumers are going to sign up for that kind of learning curve? As many as would buy, for example, a Call of Duty game? Certainly not! A tenth that many? No, again, probably not. One hundredth, a thousandth? Without the promise of hundreds of thousands of buyers, how high would you need to set the price to even hope to recoup even a portion of your development cost??
Would you believe $59?
Me neither, but it’s true. The only way such a thing would be possible is if someone else was footing some (most, actually) of the development cost. Even then it would need to be an investor that had both deep pockets and no real interest in consumer sales revenue. This investor would have to have an inherent need for the product. This (finally!) at last brings us to the topic at hand: the DCS A-10C Warthog simulator from The Fighter Collection / Eagle Dynamics. Borrowing heavily from the introduction in the voluminous PDF Flight Manual included with the simulator, we find:
A-10C Warthog is the second module in the Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) series and follows the critically acclaimed DCS: Black Shark. Eagle Dynamics has been developing a high-fidelity Desk Top Simulation of the A-10C for the U.S. Air National Guard for the past several years, giving us a tremendous access to A-10C information. We were fortunate enough to work out an agreement with our client to release an entertainment version of this simulation.
That explains a lot, doesn’t it? Access to critical aircraft data: check. Angel investor with demonstrable need for the product: check. Laser-like focus on minute and legion details about the target aircraft and its operating environment: check and mate.
I’ve been studying (as opposed to “playing with”) the DCS A-10C for more than a month now and I can sum up the experience in a one sentence: DCS A-10C is unarguably the single most complex, realistic, all-encompassing, extremely high quality PC-based consumer accessible flight simulator on the market today. If I was pressed to provide more adjectives, I would also add frustrating, intimidating, addictive, impressive, demanding, and rewarding. DCS A-10C is the embodiment of every single wish a dedicated flight sim junky could ever ask for. It is by far the most elaborate consumer-grade simulator imaginable. And it’s not just the sim itself, either. The flight manual weighs in at over 600 pages, chock full of well-written and useful information.
Wait, did I say “frustrating?” Well, yes, but in a good way. This is a warning that you should take to heart: DCS A-10C is not something that you will be able to plug in and use effectively without hours of study. Even after more than a month of doing it, it still takes me fifteen minutes to get the two engines started and the avionics configured for flight. It took me three days of effort to even launch a Maverick missile, although there is a caveat to that difficulty that I will speak about soon. For now I simply want to impart an understanding of the complexity of this endeavor: if you take the time to learn how to correctly operate this simulation, I am convinced that you could sit down in a real A-10C and get it started and ready for flight. If you, as I do, have 700+ hours of flight time and 250 of those in a nimble, fighter-like airplane, you could probably fly that A-10 too.
Since it’s not very likely that such an opportunity will ever present itself, we have to satisfy ourselves with the virtual experience. As I’ve mentioned, this is initially a somewhat daunting prospect, but it’s not as if you have to sequester yourself away in a sensory deprivation room with nothing by the flight manual and five gallons of coffee just to get started on your journey up the learning curve. Eagle Dynamics has thoughtfully provided a series of in-game tutorials to get you through the basics. These extremely well implemented tutorials walk you through operations using voice narration followed by the visual highlighting of the switches and knobs that you need to interact with. In most cases the tutorial will visually highlight the switch to help you find it and click it with the mouse. The narration will also tell you which switch to use on the joystick, and also tell you the keyboard equivalent if there is one.
This is where I need to digress a little bit. I’ve been trying to find a way to break some bad news, and this seems as good of a place as any. The bad news is this: to realize the full, vast potential of DCS A-10C, you’re going to need some hardware. It’s probably obvious with a flight sim that you’re going to need a TrackIR head position sensor, and it should be at least equally as obvious that you’re going to need a good flight stick, rudder pedals, and throttle quadrant. The problem is that not just any flight stick/throttle quadrant will do. To utilize the ultra-high fidelity of the DCS A-10C aircraft controls, you really need an ultra-high fidelity A-10 controller. The cost of the completely replicated systems and switchology of the actual A-10 in the DCS A-10C is that you need a complete replica of at least the throttles and joystick. The actual A-10 employs a HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) methodology in its design of the weapons management controls, and this methodology is more complex than the standard generic joysticks you are used to can provide. The bottom line is that you need a Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog system
to truly operate this simulation satisfactorily. At more than $450 street, that’s a pretty steep demand. And it doesn’t come with rudder pedals. You’ll need to throw some more dollars at CH or Saitek for those.
This isn’t to say that you can’t get by with a good Logitech flight stick and the keyboard, but attempting to do so will add layers of frustration to the process. Do you remember the three days that it took me to launch a missile? Those three days were spent struggling to get a good mapping set up for my Logitech G940. Once I got access to a Thrustmaster HOTAS, I was able to better follow the in-game tutorials as they described the switches I needed to use to arm, aim, and annihilate. The difference was night and day. The integration between the HOTAS stick and DCS A-10C is so tight and easy, it’s as if they were designed in conjunction with each other.
So, having dropped that bomb I’ll get back to talking about the tutorials. Assuming that you are able to follow the directions for providing switch inputs to the aircraft and weapons management systems, the tutorials will guide you through engine start, radio communications, takeoff, landing, and the employment of five distinct weapon categories. At the completion of the tutorials, you will have learned that you need to go through each of them another half dozen times. They move fast and since you are for the most part also flying the plane, there are distractions that can cause you to miss things. After you’ve learned all you can learn from the tutorials, get ready for a humbling experience: your first real mission.
Before attempting a mission, I recommend making an initial stop at the Gameplay tab of the Options screen. There you will want to enable the ‘Labels’ option. Without this, you will find both airborne and ground targets/threats nearly impossible to find. While setting options, you might also consider enabling the easy communications option. This will help with the distracting task of changing radio frequencies. There are other selections that will simplify certain aspects of the simulation, but even maxing out the selection of enablers will not change the fact that fighting a determined enemy in this jet is very likely to result in your tragic and untimely demise. A lot.
When it comes to the actual missions, I have to make a confession. I have yet to survive one. When it comes to coordinating with an AWACs jet or a JTAC resource on the ground, sending orders to my wingman and the rest of the flight, finding a target to aim at, and configuring a missile or bomb to send to the target, I am an unmitigated failure. There aren’t any tutorials for this; successfully flying a mission requires book work or hours watching and re-watching YouTube videos. That’s a level of intense dedication that I simply cannot bring to bear given my current work level with a day job and the building of an airplane in the evenings.
But that’s okay, really, because even using 15 or 20 percent of the capability in DCS A-10C is quite gratifying. Simply flying the airplane is a real delight with it’s smooth response in both flight and instruments. The A-10 is not a fire-breathing powerhouse like an F-15 or other front line air superiority fighter. It is actually not overly powerful at all, and this is readily apparent in the flight model. You actually have to manage your energy wisely in climbing and maneuvering because, just as with 99% of the real airplanes in the world, the A-10 doesn’t have ample reserves of power available on demand. In other words, you have to fly the wing, not the engines.
I find that the handful of Instant Action missions are plenty to keep me engaged if I want to just fly around blowing stuff up. Those missions are very simple in that they have five target areas with pre-placed tanks, troops, trucks, or whatever. Your flight plan is already loaded; all you have to do is fly to the waypoints and destroy the targets. At the higher difficulty levels, you will also have to defend yourself against anti-aircraft guns and missiles.
If that gets too routine, the next higher level of difficulty is to use the quick mission generator. The generated missions are similar to the instant missions in that they are easy to just jump into, but this mode gives you more control over the environment. You can define weather conditions, the number and types of both friendly and enemy aircraft and ground units, and the relative skill levels of each. The missions generate very quickly and before you know it you’re in the air and headed towards an enemy encounter. Note that this is where you will start to see the limitations of your computer’s horsepower. With the addition of a lot more moving objects that the processor needs to manage, you might start to see some lag in performance. If you’re married, the solution to this is to re-configure the mission generator parameters to reduce the traffic level. If you’re single, just buy a new PC.
The geographical region that the battles occur in is nicely detailed and has plenty of hilly areas to fly around in at tree-hugging height, and if for some reason you can’t find the intended targets there are plenty of cars and trains to shoot at. For a real challenge, start up a mission that has a tanker on station and practice the very difficult art of aerial refueling. The navigation process involved in finding the tanker in the first place will be educational. As the arming, aiming, and annihilating becomes almost second nature, perhaps then you will be ready to get into the real missions or a full blown campaign. Another fun challenge is to set up a mission with low clouds and high winds and then navigate to an airbase and make an instrument landing.
For the armchair colonels that scoff at canned or generated missions, DCS A-10C also includes a very detailed mission creator. I looked at it just long enough for my eyes to gloss over with the same level of incomprehension you’d see plastered on the face of a dog pondering a nuclear physics textbook, but judging by the missions that have been created with it, it is extremely capable. The 130 pages dedicated to it in the game manual (as opposed to the flight manual) is also a fairly good indicator of the depth available. Missions can be built that allow other human players to fly along in multiplayer mode. This capability could enable virtual flight squadrons to be created in much the same way clans have formed around ground-pounder games.
It’s hard to find anything not to love in DCS A-10C. The software is simply phenomenal and will easily provide months of entertainment with its challenging learning curve coupled with the ample sense of accomplishment incumbent with each successful flight. That having been said, the hardware demands are high if the program is to reach its full potential so it is clearly not for everyone. This is not a flaw in the design or implementation of the simulation, though. It is instead simply the cost of providing a highly realistic and all-encompassing simulation of a complex military flying machine. Approached with the right mind set, you will find no betterr consumer grade flight simulator of any type on the market today. Conversely, if you approach it with the idea of sitting down and mastering it as a game without devoting a great deal of effort to learning it, you will find nothing but frustration. DCS A-10C will amply reward you for every bit of effort you put into mastering it, but will punish you for trying to get by with minimal effort.