BGYNP – DCS KA-50 Black Shark

Insert Starcraft air unit quote here. Also, new content. Just like I promised. Sort of.

It’s time for another Best Game You’ve Never Played, because I doubt that most of you have played this rather prolific simulator. I’m going to be playing it with a twist though; I’m foregoing the use of my Saitek x52 HOTAS setup for a humble PS3 controller emulating a 360 controller. I’m doing this for two reasons. Firstly, most people probably don’t own an expensive HOTAS stick setup and likely have either a console gamepad or a dusty, old joystick hanging around. Secondly, a HOTAS setup takes up a lot of desk space, so I was interested to see if I could learn it without using a HOTAS setup. I’m running the PS3 controller in 360 mode using MotionJoy because trying to run it as anything else in MotionJoy causes the game to quit as soon as the launcher loads up, and I don’t know why. This is a pain in the arse, because the 360 binds the triggers to the Z axis, when it’d be much, much more useful to have them as actual buttons. But I digress.

Yes, this is easy mode.

For those who aren’t in the know, DCS KA-50 Black Shark is a simulator that focuses entirely on the KA-50. Eagle Dynamics have made a name for themselves out of modern air combat simulators, namely with the Lock On games. The previous Lock On games focused on a number of different aircraft, and if you’ve ever played them, you’d know that they harken back to an age where PC games required a nice, hefty manual which could not only be informative, but could knock a man out. KA-50 focuses only on the KA-50 itself, but it simulates it to an insane level of complexity. For those who simply can’t cope or don’t want to cope with learning how to use the avionics of the real thing, there’s a “Game” mode which automates a lot of the things for you, like designating targets, selecting weapons, and autopilot controls for hovering. There’s also a Game flight mode which makes it a lot easier to control the KA-50. And trying to play on Simulator mode with a PS3/360 controller is… well, pretty much impossible for me at least, the thumb sticks are just a bit too small for the required movements, and you need a full HOTAS system to really control it properly.

As I’ve already said, this simulator is ultra hard core. Because it’s focused on only one aircraft, it simulates it to a very high degree. When you’re in the cockpit, you’re faced with a massive array of switches, knobs, displays, sounds, lights, and other crap. 95% of these things actually do something, and that’s not an understatement. The controls extend from the left side to the right side rear wall. Fortunately I have a TrackIR so I can actually turn my head and look at all these things, even if I have no idea what most of them do. Do you need to know what all of them do? Well… yes and no. In general most of them you don’t really need to know in too much depth, but you will need to know what panels are used for what function. For example I found myself in a mission at night wearing night vision goggles. Unfortunately for me, in the chaos of trying to escape from a base under attack, I couldn’t find the switch to turn off the internal cockpit lights. I had a choice between seeing the landscape and nothing of the cockpit, or seeing an empty black void and seeing the instruments. It took me a little bit to find the switches. Fortunately, everything can be clicked in the cockpit using the mouse, and tooltips tell you what everything does. Unfortunately the tooltips are no substitute for the manual.

The manual is massive, and is some pretty heavy bedtime reading. It goes over every panel in depth, as well as all the keyboard commands, checklists, and theory behind using the KA-50. It’s informative, but in my case it went in one ear and out the other, so to speak. The quick start guide is a lot better, and it goes over how to use most of the weapon systems and how to recognise most of the instruments. Expect to spend time reading the manual and looking for help on forums, because this is a complex game. Playing it in Game mode though is a snap and quite easy to do with a PS3 controller… but it’s not as simple as HAWX. In Game mode, the game will look after targeting for you. Just hit a key and it’ll auto-target the nearest enemy, allowing you to fire missiles away with ease. It also gives you a nice, easy radar display to locate all the targets, and holds your hand a fair bit. You still need to be reasonably proficient with controlling the helicopter, but it’s not anywhere near as bad as sim mode.

And this is easy mode at night.

Sim mode is the real deal, and it’ll demand you do everything. The mission will usually start with the heli completely powered down, and you’ll need to run through the entire start up procedure in real time. Targeting involves using the target designator and TV screen, which means staring at the screen trying to decide if that’s an enemy target or not, all the while keeping your heli stable and away from damaging weapons fire. If you haven’t got the manual near by for your first few flights, you’re absolutely screwed unless your memory is flawless.

Trying to play this with a PS3 controller is pretty daunting, and I’d say borderline impossible. There are just too many controls. If you’re fantastic at very quickly mashing out the commands on the keyboard with one hand, you could probably manage it. The way I got around some of it was to use a modifier key with the controller; I assigned L1 to act as a modifier, so that when I held it down, it would let me use the buttons for a whole new set of commands. So if I held L1 I could use the DPAD for moving the targeting camera around, as opposed to selecting hardpoints or whatever. If you want to practice a bit of this, Game mode will still let you have a good degree of control over the avionics; targeting using this mode is still a bit fiddly because it has a tendency to snap to targets, but it doesn’t stop you from manually slewing the targeting camera, or doing a full start up on your own. Most people however will advocate just playing the entire thing in Sim mode and learning from scratch, so that way you don’t develop bad habits. I don’t know if that’s fair to say or not because if you haven’t had any flight sim experience, it’ll take you a while to get the hang of flight alone, forget about shooting things. The developers put in an accessible mode for getting up and fighting easily, I don’t see why people shouldn’t use it. Also by default the cockpit is in Russian. I don’t have time to learn Russian.

KA-50 is without a doubt one of the best simulators out there, even if at times it can be a nightmare to learn and play. But that’s the entire point of the game; to simulate the KA-50. A lot of stuff goes on inside the cockpit to do something as apparently simple as fire the cannon, and the game will show you all of that and expect you to do it. If you’re going to play, you’d better be hardcore. If you’re looking for a modern air war simulator with one of the most interesting helicopters around, then KA-50 is the one to get. Nothing comes close, this is pretty much as real as it gets without literally climbing into one.