Serious sims have always seemed to be a bit of a niche market in PC gaming, the emphasis being more on a cerebral challenge without the visuals to back up the mechanics. It’s only recently that graphics hardware has reached the stage where gameworlds can be realistically rendered at decent framerates with beautiful lighting, detailed 3D objects, volumetric particles, HDR effects, and realtime physics calculations. Then there’s the new peripherals: hi-res flatscreens, touchscreens, multi-monitor support, head tracking devices, and premium-quality programmable joysticks. Perhaps that’s why DCS world, the most hardcore of hardcore sims, is enjoying a surge of success despite (or perhaps because of) its intimidating detail and painstaking authenticity – the sim gameworld actually looks good, works well (e.g. weather, aerodynamic, airframe and gravity physics) so you don’t have to imagine a beautiful gameworld behind the instruments any more – it’s right there, all around you.
And DCS World certainly does look impressive, both inside the fully interactive & authentic cockpit, and outside in the enormous gameworld. DCS World is a free sandbox, with purchasable aircraft. I’ve bought the popular A10-C, and even after hours of repeatedly working through the tutorials, I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s like being back at school – there’s just so much to learn: all the nomenclature, theory & operation of the aircraft systems, and it feels like a triumph just to get the plane ready for take-off with no errors showing on the fault panel. Combat operations seem like a long way in the future.
A happy by-product of this learning investment is that simmers tend to be passionate enthusiasts, eagerly reading round the subject in their quest for mastery of a craft which very few people actually get to do for real. One such enthusiast is Mell of the BVAR team, who offered an online training session for any new pilots struggling with the rather dry & terse tutorials, not to mention the monster of a manual. Myself and fellow BVAR player, Slash, met up with Mell in TeamSpeak, joined his server, and commenced with the basic vocabulary (such as the sectors of the cockpit) basic principles (such as the electrical power generation chain of the aircraft: battery-APU-main engines) and then proceeded with the startup sequence. Mell’s comprehension of the systems is impressive, and getting an explanation of how they all work and integrate together had the effect of overlaying a logic, purpose and functional organisation over the otherwise bewildering array of switches, knobs, dials, screens and buttons. Mell was also a very patient teacher, and helpfully backtracked when either of his pupils got stuck.
After this first explanatory runthrough of the starup procedure, we restarted the game and repeated the process, and were able to get ready for take-off in less than half the time. Mell explained taxiing & takeoff procedures, formation and comms etiquette, and we were finally actually going to move! I was experiencing a very unusual cocktail of excitement, satisfaction and trepidation as I looked out of the cockpit to see Mell and Slash taxiing in formation along the apron towards the runway. I eased throttle forward and my hog started rolling. This was a training mission with no ordnance loaded, so the planes felt nice and responsive. I took up my place in the takeoff formation, and watched Mell and Slash rolling at 10-second intervals. Then my turn came: release the brakes, turn up the wick from 80% to full, remember to disengage nosewheel steering at 50 knots, prepare to rotate at 120, 5 degrees climb angle, gear up, check airspeed, altitude and rate of climb, keep an eye out for Mell & Slash, speed building too fast, back the throttle to 90%, omg there’s a lot to think about.
Once we’d stabilised our aircraft at 12,000’, Mell encouraged us to practice our formation flying, which required careful adjustment of course, altitude and speed. Unfortunately I haven’t mastered the various autopilot settings yet, so it all had to be done manually, which was good practice for getting a feel for the (lightly-laden) hog. And then our chief instructor had to call a timeout because his tea was ready. This was excellent timing as I was starting to feel the strain of two hours of intense information-sponging, but the excitement of bringing the plane and its systems to life, taxiing to takeoff and then flying in formation was joyful, and all the more satisfying for the effort involved.
And we’ve still only scratched the surface – there’s still all the navigation modes, stores management, weapons and modes, and of course landing, still to come. Thanks to Mell for being a natural teacher, to Slash for being an enthusiastic and capable co-pupil, and indeed to all the other gamers who take the time to encourage and support noobs like myself instead of flaming them.