DCS Black Shark – PC Game Review
DCS Black Shark. PC Game Review. Eagle Dynamics/The Fighter Group. $39.99.
Passed Inspection: Painstakingly detailed simulation of the Ka-50. Great graphics and sound effects. A product that hardcore simulation enthusiasts can really sink their teeth into. Superb replay value. Links with LOMAC Platinum online.
Failed Basic: Internet connection required to activate digital rights management. Extremely long loading times, even with 8GB of RAM. Even some hardcore enthusiasts will be intimidated by the take-off procedure. Even when using the simpler options found in Game Mode the missions and environment, which are by design that of a hardcore combat aviation simulation, don’t change.
I appreciate serious simulations first and foremost, and this is as serious as it gets.
Eagle Dynamics and The Fighter Collection is the dynamic duo responsible for the classic Su-27 Flanker series, and Lock On Modern Air Combat (LOMAC). DCS Black Shark is their most recent venture into the realm of "study simulations." A study simulation examines one aircraft model in painstaking detail instead of providing a survey simulation of multiple aircraft. Following in the Flanker tradition, the aircraft modeled in DCS Black Shark is Russian, the Kamov Ka-50 Black Shark, a single-seat, modern-day, military helicopter design, an ideal candidate for a study simulation of this caliber.
The DCS in DCS Black Shark stands for Digital Combat Simulator, the brand for a new series of ultra-realistic study combat simulations from Eagle Dynamics and The Fighter Collection. Each new release will integrate into the same virtual battlefield as Black Shark. The next DCS product will be A-10C Warthog.
The level of simulation in Black Shark could best be compared to the now-classic Falcon 4.0, only in a helicopter. The QuickStart Guide is 52 pages, and it’s the only paper manual you’ll find in the box. There’s a pdf version included as well in case you lose it, but don’t—it has your serial code on it, which you’ll need if you ever have to install it again.
The Flight Manual is 383 pages, the GUI Manual is 162 pages, the Game Mode key reference card is 5 pages, and the Realistic Mode key reference card takes up a whopping 9 pages. All four are in pdf format in the /docs folder in the installation directory. Recently, Eagle Dynamics and The Fighter Collection released a 536-page, steel-coil bound Extended Flight Manual as well, available for an additional $29.99. And for the true hardcore pilot, there’s even an operational map of the entire region where DCS Black Shark takes place that you can purchase as well! That should give you an idea of how serious a flight simulation this is.
Among the reasons Black Shark makes for a unique and interesting gameplay experience is that the Ka-50 is a unique helicopter design. Not only is this one of the only single-seat attack helicopters out there, it’s one of the few coaxial rotor designs as well. While most choppers employ a single rotor assembly system and a tail rotor to counteract angular momentum, the Ka-50 features two rotor blade assemblies, placed one on top of the other, each of which turns in opposite directions. No tail rotor is needed with this design, since the two blades moving in opposite directions eliminate angular momentum and provide stability. This also gives the Ka-50 more power because traditional helicopters use the same engines that power the main blades to operate the tail rotors, thus reducing power available for lift and momentum.
One might argue that, in the real world, this design introduces more of a chance for failure, since there are more moving parts in a coaxial rotor design, but from a military standpoint more helicopter crashes and failures have occurred from incidents involving the tail rotor than anything else. Remember Black Hawk Down and Super 64? It’s also said that the Black Shark rotor blades can take direct hits from 20mm cannon and small arms fire, so this design is quite durable and very combat-worthy.
Game installation is fairly straightforward, but it does use copy protection. Once installed it will take up 5GB of hard drive space. The minimum system requirements are WinXP/Vista, a 2GH Pentium 4 CPU, 2GB RAM, a 256MB Direct X 9.0 compatible video card, sound card a DVD-ROM drive, soundcard, mouse and keyboard. The recommended specs are WinXP/Vista, Intel Core Duo 2/AMD X2 (Dual Core CPUs), 3GB of RAM, an ATI 4850+ or Nvidia 8800+ video card with 512mb of RAM, sound card, keyboard, mouse and a joystick. I’ve had no real problems with it on an AMD Phenom quad-core CPU-based system with 8GB of memory and an Nvidia 9500 GS video card, using a Saitek X52 Pro stick and throttle combo.
Even with 8GB of RAM, the program still takes forever to load missions and unload back to the interface menus after missions. I’ve waited as long as 1.5 minutes just to load a mission on more than one occasion. In terms of gameplay performance, I’d have to say that the minimum system requirements might run it with all of the details turned down low, but the recommended requirements are more realistic to get the most out of this title with nice visuals and a decent frame rate.
There are two modes of play, Realistic and Game. You can also toggle on or off various features to bring Game mode towards more realism, and vice versa. For instance, you could start out in Game mode, but opt to use the Realistic flight modeling, limited ammo and fuel. While Game mode completely defeats the purpose of seeing what this product really has to offer, it’s a nice way to jump in and start blowing things up just the same. If you attempt the Realistic mode, you had better be ready to read and learn. Make no mistake about it this is a true-to-life simulation. Eagle Dynamics worked directly with Kamov during development of the game and the attention to detail shows.
The game’s graphics look fantastic. Little details are most impressive, like the heat blur coming off the exhaust, missiles leaving the rail, explosions, even the attention to detail on the external model of the Ka-50. The damage modeling is visually very impressive, too. The progressive damage detail is amazing. The terrain lends itself to NOE (Nap Of the Earth) flight too, and looks quite nice, complete with exceptional rivers and flowing water.
The cockpit detail leaves no dial, switch, lever or button behind, and you can manipulate every single one with the mouse when within the 3D cockpit. The training missions show you in detail the order in which buttons/levers/dials/switches are manipulated to perform the proper take-off procedure. If you attempt Realistic mode, you had better memorize that cockpit layout.
Black Shark also supports multiple monitors, allowing you to use the main monitor for the cockpit and another for the ABRIS (Advanced Moving Map System, a full-color, real-time map) or Shkval imagery (the TV-like thermal imaging system). You’ll find the various multiple-monitors settings within Options.
I can’t find anything to complain about in the audio, either. The radio chatter, bitching-betty to warn you when things are looking grim, and all of the SFX for explosions, missiles leaving the rail, and even the sound of the Ka-50 operating as normal are on par with any other high-end combat aviation simulation I’ve ever experienced.
The product includes a semi-dynamic campaign system that can trigger various possible outcomes to your missions, depending on how well you do, so you can play through the campaign multiple times and have a completely different game-play experience each time. A variety of single missions are also provided, but the mission editor is what will keep this simulation alive for years to come. This editor allows for triggered events, giving players the means to create in-depth and compelling missions like never before. There are also a handful of training missions—which I’d consider required to play through if you are even considering full-on realism. The online multiplayer support is fantastic, as the matchmaking server browser is built right in, and online games didn’t seem to me any different than an offline missions. More recently Eagle Dynamics released a patch giving Black Shark owners the means to interface with LOMAC Flaming Cliffs 2 (click to read the ACG review) players for cooperative and competitive online missions together over the same virtual battlefield.
DCS Black Shark proves that the hardcore simulation market is alive and well, but it is a study simulation that requires a lot of studying. There’s so much modeled in detail that it’s hard to fully dumb-down this simulation into a Game mode that would be on par with a title like Tom Clancy’s HAWX. Game mode is a lot more accessible than full-blown Realistic mode, but it’s still more simulation than game, with simplified controls and weapon systems functionality set within a realistic simulation environment. Anyone looking for a game like HAWX or a console-like arcade game depicting an attack helicopter isn’t going to find that in DCS Black Shark‘s Game mode.
I enjoy Game mode a lot, but I appreciate serious simulations first and foremost, and this is as serious as it gets. We haven’t seen a product this complex in more than a decade. Just when you thought that the hardcore simulation market was dead, along comes DCS Black Shark. If you were a fan of the legendary AH-64D Longbow and Longbow 2 from Jane’s Combat Simulations, you’ll find this is another instant helicopter classic that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s very challenging but also very rewarding.
Armchair General rating: 89%
About the author
Rod White is a veteran writer with almost two decades’ experience covering games, hardware, military aviation and combat simulations for the PC, as well as diecast collectibles and various tabletop miniatures war games. Formerly co-founder and owner of PC Multimedia & Entertainment Magazine, one of the Internet’s first true online gaming publications to cover PC games, simulations and hardware, he also hosted the ground-breaking RealVideo/RealAudio show called CombatReporterLive! for the AllGamesNetwork/Pseudo, Inc.
Editor’s Note: DCS Black Shark has already provoked some lively discussions on the ACG forums.