Target acquired! A line of Russian T-72B tanks, teasingly stationary against the spinach-green plain, lights up my A-10C's HUD. If I was playing almost any other combat flight game, I would likely press a key or two to lock on, then squeeze a joystick button to deposit a 1,000-pound CBU-97 cluster bomb on the enemy.
I'm not playing a “game,” though. I'm playing Eagle Dynamics' meticulously authentic DCS: A-10C Warthog simulation, and establishing a firing solution on those tanks is serious business. Set the appropriate CBU-97 ordnance on the left multi-function display stores management page with a series of button presses; configure release parameters (ripple settings, time of fall, minimum altitude, eject velocity, escape maneuver) with several more virtual button and switch clicks; cycle master mode control to CCIP (Constantly Computed Impact Point) bombing; enter a shallow dive toward the tanks; and release the bomb when the CCIP pipper in the HUD hits the sweet spot. The kills you work for are the most satisfying.
Heaven in the sky
All of this can be confusing and exhausting for flight sim neophytes—doubly so in the heat of battle—but for the perpetually demanding hardcore simulation crowd, DCS: A-10C represents combat-flight nirvana. Every single switch, gauge, button and display in the fully clickable virtual cockpit is completely functional, while the (almost) classified avionics and high-fidelity flight modeling deliver piloting challenges rarely seen outside of a full–dome, military-grade cockpit simulator. Superficially, everything from its 100,000-polygon aircraft models and intricate damage system to its expansive HDR-enhanced Crimean Peninsula terrain graphics is absolutely gob-smackingly gorgeous.
It's not completely inaccessible, for those willing to learn. A terrific set of interactive, narrated training missions and animated control cues provides a great starting point. An “active pause” cheat that lets you stop in mid-air to flip switches and configure your weapons is another godsend—it gives you time to pore over the nearly 900-pages of PDF manuals for hints. There's also a “game mode” option that lightens the workload (but don't expect arcade-game simplicity). Eventually, jet-jock wannabes can perform anything from cold engine start-ups to bitch-slapping Russian tanks with a laser-guided Paveway.
When you're ready, A-10C has 19 standalone missions and three linear—albeit randomized—campaigns that boast enough contiguous AI action to seriously distract you en route to your own mission goals. Toss in a convenient random mission-generator, a mission editor with its own precipitous learning curve, and a co-op multiplayer game for up to 32 players (sadly not compatible with DCS: Black Shark yet) and A-10C is easily the most feature-packed combat jet-study simulation since 1998's Falcon 4.0.
DCS: A-10C Warthog isn't for everyone—this is a simulation that demands dedication to reveal its true worth, and only those prepared to put in the time and effort to mine its treasure trove of avionics challenges will see that reward. The Hog is a relatively easy aircraft to fly, but doing so while battling armed forces with this brutally realistic weapons delivery platform is one of the most challenging—and intensely satisfying—undertakings you'll ever face in a PC flight sim.