Somewhere out there in the vast sea of possibility dwells an alternate-reality version of myself who managed to get off his ass and actually do something with his life, instead of opting for the sexy rock-star lifestyle of the alt-weekly video-game reviewer.
Actually, multiverse theory says that a lot of those guys technically exist, but I'm not talking about all the boring accountants and insurance salesmen here. No, the guy I'm thinking of joined the Air Force right out of high school, making pilot in record time and getting his pick of assignments from a military branch glad to have his service. This guy is currently flying missions over Afghanistan in a Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II. Despite the vaguely anti-establishment sentiments that come with the aforementioned alt-weekly lifestyle, I envy him.
Commonly known as the "Warthog," the A-10 is a close-air support aircraft that's more flying tank than jet fighter. Built around a primary weapon as large as a Volkswagen, which shoots 30 mm shells with enough cumulative force to actually stall its twin turbofan engines in certain situations, the A-10 is an ugly, angry-looking thing, a snub-nosed straight-wing testament to precision-controlled militarized destruction.
I found out about the trick where the A-10's cannon stalls the engines firsthand, by the way. Cross-universe communications are out of the question (and I'm certainly not going the really hard route and actually joining the Air Force), but thanks to the magic of Valve's Steam PC gaming distribution platform, I found the next best thing. Russian developer Eagle Dynamics' Digital Combat Simulator: A-10C was recently released on Steam, giving this very niche product from an equally obscure developer a level of exposure wider than it could reach on its own.
The game is, for better or for worse, a picture-perfect simulation of the iconic air-to-ground aircraft. Focusing on the intricate details of pilot aircraft management, it combines a complex physics model with a level of graphic detail that borders on the photorealistic. The result is as real an environment of close-support engagement as can be had without a few years' worth of in-depth training. This makes DCS A-10C a double-edged sword. Its meticulous attention to even the smallest of details is a relic of a bygone age in which the simulation was king; it could be argued that this single-minded focus is a distraction today when even DCS A-10C's peers in the simulation genre all too often forgo such detail in favor of a lowbrow, action-movie feel.
This argument would not be without merit, but at least in my experience, DCS A-10C falls squarely into the "for better" category. I installed the simulation. I fired up the first of 13 tutorials. It took me 30 laboriously guided minutes just to turn the plane on. Two or three tutorials later—when I was actually allowed to take the thing into the air—I planted my virtual Warthog into a simulated Eastern European cornfield within 30 seconds. The next few runs didn't fare much better.
It was awesome, but not for the reasons that games usually are. DCS A-10C obliterates the line between "game" and "simulation." It's not strictly fun in the classical sense; like the air combat simulators of yore, its focus is on precision rather than victory.
The hoops you jump through are the ones that get the Warthog up and running, and for the layman, the greatest accomplishments lie not in feats of arcade-like reflexes, but in the mental gymnastics required to remember the steps needed to launch countermeasures before an enemy missile finds its target. (Less detailed modes are included for the Warthog underachiever, but playing those rather misses the point.)
You don't come away from it with the sense of outlandish achievement you'd get from rescuing a princess from a giant cartoon turtle. Instead, a session of DCS A-10C missions—whether you complete your objectives or, like me, you're scrambling for the ejector seat controls—leaves you with the feeling that you've learned something. It's the same rush that certain kinds of people get when they re-enact long-dead wars or watch (according to my wife, entirely too much of) the History Channel.
I don't expect to be a passable Warthog pilot by the end of the week, or even by the end of month, or the year, or ever. And that's exactly how it should be—I expect to be insultingly, irredeemably bad when presented with something as realistically complex as a turn as an A-10 pilot. If that's not your cup of tea, then look elsewhere for your kicks. But if you want a taste of a real challenge, DCS A-10C delivers.