The residents of Gudauta must hate our guts. We’ve spent the last few evenings flying about their lovely town, landing on the tops of tower blocks, kicking up dust storms in back gardens, and pulverising harmless buses with rockets and anti-tank missiles. There’s nothing malevolent in our low jinks, we’re just trying to get comfortable with a virtual Ka-50 attack helicopter so thoroughly modelled it’s a wonder the KGB (or whatever they now call themselves) haven’t popped ‘round to the Eagle Dynamics studio with a box of Polonium 210.
No combat sim, with the possible exception of Falcon 4.0, has ever included a more faithful facsimile of a war machine. Everything about the single-seat, coaxial rotored star is exquisite. The flight model with its scary vortex ring stalls, the clickable cockpit with its fur of fully functioning switches, the infinitely subtle damage model... If only the game’s training facilities were equally impressive. Despite making encouraging noises about accessibility in the run-up to release, ED has delivered a sim with a handkerchief-sized welcome mat. The tutorials turn out to be lengthy in-cockpit lectures denser than any depleted uranium. You can learn plenty from them, but you’ll need to take notes and pause often.
Then there’s the intimidating manual to toil through – a 400-page pdf packed with facts, but short on procedural advice – and the limited scalability. Once you’ve abandoned the ‘easy flight’ (no unplanned altitude changes) and ‘easy avionics’ (one-click targeting) settings, assistance abruptly ends. On a calm day the Ka-50 is a surprisingly obedient steed. What’s hard is flying it while navigating, dealing with weather, locating targets, using weapons and dodging SAMs. Right now we’re missing what you might call intermediate aids. We want to fly without wind effects and rotor blade clashes (a nasty quirk of coax choppers). We wouldn’t mind an idiot-proof autopilot, access to mid-sortie saves, and a ‘switch to wingman on death’ option too. We want a few extra crutches, but Black Shark refuses to oblige.
We could walk away in disgust, but that would be madness. In between the bouts of befuddlement and frustration, we’re having too much fun. A few weeks (months?) from now, assuming we keep studying and practising, Kamov’s hoverer should feel like a second skin. Whether a few months from now we’ll still be enjoying the two campaigns is less certain. Unlike greats such as Enemy Engaged and Falcon 4.0, Black Shark doesn’t provide a vast unscripted war. Its Caucasus-based campaigns are old-fashioned sortie strings, albeit with some branching. There’s atmosphere, busyness and lashings of custom audio, but little room for freelancing and failure here.
Fortunately, a fabulous mission editor and an established community (this is effectively phase 3 of the LOMAC project) should mean pilots are never short of fresh ground attack opportunities. And of course there’s always multiplayer. Why humiliate yourself in private when you could do so in public?
So, to recap: if you want to experience Black Shark at its realistic best you’re going to have to study hard, and be prepared to plummet to the ground more often than a crow with acute narcolepsy. We think the prize justifies the pain.
Apr 10, 2009