A flight sim veteran attempts to take a look at DCS World from a newcomer’s perspective, and finds a surprising amount of gameplay…
This article was inspired by a post I read a few months ago on a social media site that I found both interesting and confounding. The post was a long editorial on how sims in general have too high a cost of entry for new users. Examples were given of premium priced add-ons and the cumulative cost of bringing a sim up to par, with specific mentions of some popular FSX products. The conversation (or walls of text with various people coming down on either side of the issue) naturally expanded out to include combat simulations and it got my mind to thinking: How would I view DCS World as a newcomer to the series and what “barriers to entry” would I encounter on the way? There was only one way to find out - to start fresh!
As most of us experienced users know, DCS World is comprised of a free-to-play base game that includes the Su-25T and the TF-51D. I suppose if one were wanting to stretch the definition of a barrier to entry, one could object to the fact that the installation of a bare bones DCS World install is going to weigh in at nearly 25GB. For internet users on slow connections, or those that pay per GB of data, this could be considered limiting I suppose, but I don’t think this is a situation that is often encountered. The installer is very efficient, using torrents and Eagle Dynamic’s own servers to provide the files. The auto-updating nature of DCS World is convenient for new and experienced users alike. For the purposes of this article, we will ignore Open Alpha and Open Beta installs and instead just focus on the core stable DCS World install.
Upon launching DCS World, new users will be prompted to either login or create an account, but you can actually skip the login box and proceed without doing that. I won’t go exhaustively through the menu screens, but for a new user, only the Su-25T Frogfoot and TF-51D Mustang will be listed under the installed modules tab.
Once again, one could argue that hardware cost might be a barrier to entry for any game or sim if you are looking to run at maximum resolutions and features. That is a bit of a stretch though since even modest hardware runs DCS World at very nice framerates. Again, trying to put yourself in the place of a new user, you may want to just choose a preset option (Low/Medium/High) and go with that. It is not probable that a new user would be VR ready, but I guess it could happen.
I would argue that one of the biggest obstacles to new users perhaps having a rough initial impression will be when they first get in the cockpit and attempt their first takeoff in the Su-25T or TF-51D without realizing that all of their axis commands are all simultaneously mapped to multiple controllers. For the purposes of this article, I unplugged my TM Warthog and T.Flight pedals and connected my single Mad Catz F.L.Y. 5 joystick. I was in luck in that the controller did not provide any conflicts and DCS World properly configured the pitch, roll, yaw, and throttle to the correct assignments. For new users, it certainly would be nice if, on the first launch of DCS World, a controller setup box would pop up similar to what we see in X-Plane that would have you wiggle your controls and set assignments. A basic combined stick and throttle, and even a gamepad with a throttle axis can be used to play DCS World, so there are no real prohibitive controller hardware issues for the new user. Once again, you have to sort of put out of your mind TrackIR and the high end controllers like the TM Warthog - things we know exist and that add immensely to our sim experience. A good Logitech Extreme 3D Pro joystick will only run you around $35. The goal with attracting new users it to minimize frustration and ease the cost of entry.
Now here is where things get good. To this point, we’ve spent nothing for DCS World, and maybe $35 for a controller. As a longtime DCS World user - some of you might be laughing and thinking “well, what are you doing to do now?” It was with great surprise that I found the answer to that question is: Quite a lot…!
- 8 Su-25T Instant Action missions
- 3 TF-51D Instant Action missions
- 1 Su-25T Campaign “Georgian Oil War”
- 15 Su-25T Training missions
- 6 TF-51D Training missions
- Limitless Fast Mission generated missions
New users would likely start with the Training missions. The fifteen mission Su-25T training course is phenomenally well done. The missions include all the basic stepping stones from start, taxi, takeoff, to landing, navigation, and weapons. The missions are superbly voiced over by Matt Wagner and are set at a scale and tempo that are perfect for new users, and are even enjoyable for veteran DCS World pilots that might not have visited those areas of the sim in some time. The use of fly through boxes to provide guidance and the brilliant Active Pause feature (which allows you to freeze the aircraft in mid-flight while still operating controls) is the perfect way to teach concepts to new pilots. The TF-51D, owing to its non-weaponized status, has a shorter training curriculum of six lessons, but users get the added bonus of being introduced to clickable cockpits and the smooth voice of the instructor from the original A-10C training missions.
By the end of the training lessons - particularly in the Su-25T - new users will have a pretty good grasp on the capabilities of the Su-25T, and how to perform basic attacks. Just knowing how to shoot a missile or drop a bomb are only the first steps though - tactics such as terrain masking, picking a route through enemy defenses, and general principles of how to survive on the battlefield are lessons that will be learned in single missions, campaigns, and online play.
One striking thing from the perspective of a longtime Flanker / LOMAC / DCS user is that even though some of the curriculum of the training missions remains similar to past versions, the environments have evolved so much over the years that the experience is pretty jaw dropping. As DCS World has evolved it has added HDR lighting, camera lens effects, clouds, improved graphics, better performance, smoke, fire, etc., and the experience even in the training scenarios is vastly improved. New users definitely have it good in that all of the DCS World core components are in there to see and interact with - completely free of charge. Even add-on modules become part of the core content, meaning that you get to fly next to supremely detailed creations that give an added punch to the realism that DCS World creates. As well, the advances in physics, tweaks, bug-fixes, improved mission editor and AI capabilities have all been rolled into the core game and the experience only gets better with each DCS World version.
After the training missions, a new user would likely move on to either the Instant Action missions or the Single Missions. The Instant Action Su-25T missions include some nice free flight missions, general target practice missions, and varying difficulty levels of close air support missions. Some of these missions have substantial threats, so new users will probably get to experience the DCS World damage model quite frequently. Single missions are generally more fleshed out than the Instant Action missions, and include more detailed briefings and more complex mission goals.
Missions tend to be somewhat difficult for new users, and even veteran users that are coming back to the Su-25T might find some challenge in completing the goals. DCS World is fairly scalable with regards to realism options and difficulty settings that should allow new players to take advantage of things like labels, unlimited weapons, damage, and fuel. For the purposes of this article, I found my single twist grip stick and throttle was completely adequate for flying in DCS World while using the hat switch to control the view. Is it ideal? Probably not - but again, we are focusing on entry level experience and hardware
A bonus feature of any DCS module (payware or free) is that the user community tends to create their own missions, campaigns, skins, and utilities to tart them up even more. If you visit the DCS User Files database and filter by Su-25T and missions/campaigns, you will find a good number of single player missions that can also be freely played with the free Su-25T. I tested a number of them, and most worked just fine, but be aware that as DCS World development marches on, the changes to the Mission Editor sometimes result in glitches to older missions. User created missions range from simple to complex, with basic targeting missions to complex voice-over missions with many triggers and immersive sound effects.
It is also worth mentioning that you essentially have unlimited replay value when using the Create Fast Mission editor to gin up quick missions that are saturated with action. These can be a real melee and probably aren’t as useful to new users as more balanced, hand crafted missions provide better briefings and more obtainable goals.
The included Su-25T Georgian Oil War campaign is very nice, but does offer a pretty steep and brutal entry into single player campaign flying. The first mission will have you diving straight-in to a relatively high threat environment with AAA, SAMs, and even aircraft possibly shooting at you. In my opinion, the campaign is an intermediate to advanced level difficulty level. The missions are definitely achievable if you’ve cut your chops on the Training, Quick Missions, and Single Missions, but be prepared to face a stiff enemy.
Just as there are user created single player missions, there are also a few user created campaigns. I spent a couple weeks with some of these campaigns and I found their gameplay a bit more suited to the new user with a gradual ramping up of difficulty and nice entry scenarios, briefings, and back-stories that really helped build up the gameplay. One campaign, “Revenche”, which is a remake of an older Flaming Cliffs campaign, is particularly good with a very nice sequence of missions that has you fly into the theater, practice some bombing, then moves on to progressively harder missions. It is very well constructed. As well, another campaign, “Outremer”, has you assuming the role of a French Air Force pilot in a fun campaign with some interesting challenges. Both of these campaigns are well suited to a new DCS World pilot and perhaps add a bit more plot and drama than the more difficult default campaign. Total cost to you = $0.
It is also worth mentioning that there is a dynamic campaign for the Su-25T, “Operation Red Bear”, that has been created by Cristofer using MBot’s Dynamic Campaign Engine. I’ve only had a chance to dabble in it, so I can’t report back on just how it works, but it certainly has potential for some interesting gameplay. It is pretty nifty to see so many assets on the map at once, but take care to adjust your settings to assure smooth framerates. The dynamic campaign is probably near the more advanced end of the spectrum, so again, until a new user has some Su-25T time under their belt, it would be best to progress though the other single missions and campaigns to build up a base of knowledge.
Rounding out the free content is online play with both the Su-25T and the TF-51D. It is definitely possible for a new user on a limited budget to play indefinitely using the Su-25T in a multiplayer environment. Many servers feature Su-25T slots for both Blue and Red teams, so there should be plenty of opportunity to ply your trade online. And the Su-25T is no slouch in the online environment - it is fast, carries an enormous payload, has legitimate anti-radar weapons, precision ordnance, and can even surprise an opponent with its air-to-air capability. True, with the free content you’ll be limited to the Caucasus region, but there seem to be plenty of servers offering up action in that region.
So we’ve taken a quick look at all that the free to play DCS World has to offer the new user. Does it require some commitment of time and learning? Sure - but you can’t beat the price of $0 dollars. The obvious observation is that the Su-25T and TF-51D are the carrot that will hopefully lead new players further down the DCS World rabbit hole. The Su-25T does not have a clickable cockpit, whereas the TF-51D does. The strategy there is obvious: show them the technology and cool factor of the clickable cockpits, and the flash and bang of the combat capabilities with the other. And a combat sim pilot is born. Once the hook is set, ED would love for you to start exploring their payware content. This works good for ED, and works well for a community that should always be interested in drawing in new players, regardless of their experience level. When a new players gets the taste for DCS World, it should be a natural progression for them to want to explore something like the A-10C or try out a fully clickable helicopter.
The follow on question is - what should be next for the new user? That is definitely a wide open question with lots of community answers. One could argue that Flaming Cliffs 3 can offer the most bang for the buck, but then the new DCS user will miss out on the fun of learning a complex aircraft. A good value will always be the A-10C since it has an overwhelming amount of both free and payware content in the form of missions, campaigns, and multiplayer popularity. I’d also argue the L-39 is a great choice because it is a high fidelity simulation with clickable cockpits, weapons with some teeth, and fairly straightforward systems that would get a new player bogged down in the minutia of the A-10C CDU or the Ka-50 ABRIS. World War II fans will branch off in their own directions of course, as well as those with an interest in helicopter operations.
Modules often go on sale, so while extending the new user beyond the DCS World free content will ultimately cost money, it doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank. Given the freeware content that the new user can start with, and the weeks (if not months) of value-added gameplay that can be added with community created missions and campaigns, there is good reason to hope that the strategy of dangling the carrot in front of potential customers will work out for Eagle Dynamics.
The process of writing this article was quite revealing for me personally. While I’ve bought pretty much every DCS module (despite not having the time to play them all) I’ve also come to realize that you can have a ton of fun with even the most basic DCS modules. Approaching the article while viewing DCS World through the lens of a new user was also a useful to confirm my thoughts that DCS World is wide open to a range of user experience levels. The free content is very well done, the included training missions are superb, and the entire DCS World project is simply awesome in scale and scope. The first time a new user successfully brings an Su-33 aboard the Kuznetsov, or a pilot successfully hooks up to a tanker are moments that most of us veteran simmers can never recapture. Fortunately for us, the DCS juggernaut rolls on with third party content coming out at a pace that I can’t keep up with, and with the promise of platforms and content that we’ve been dreaming about. So in that respect, we are all finding constant opportunities for renewal. I look forward to plying the skies with new pilots that have spent $0 dollars and fly with an X-Box controller, and pilots that have sunk small fortunes into their module library and hardware. There is room enough for all of us up there.
Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth