DCS: The Border Campaign

We take a look at the recently released campaign for the DCS: Mi-8MTV2 “Magnificent Eight” module and examine the gameplay as we thump, thump, thump our way across the Caucasus…

The Premise

Set in the border area of Georgia and South Ossetia (remind me not to invest in property there), you assume the role of a Russian Air Force pilot flying the Mi-8MTV2 in various roles over the course of the fifteen mission campaign. Featuring over 200 custom radio transmissions (broadcast in Russian – subtitled in English), the missions unfold at a nice pace as you wage war against terrorist groups that are trying to infiltrate north from Georgia.

Missions are well briefed although they do suffer from some Russian to English translation roughness. Instructions are easy to understand, mission goals are well defined, and the supplementary navigation and communication information is readily available. Briefing maps are perfectly constructed with notations, headings and distances, and defined mission points and operating areas. Some missions contain additional recon images that further specify mission details with illustrations of landing areas or other operational requirements.

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Detailed briefing maps clearly paint the picture of each operation and provide excellent navigation references for the Doppler system.

Much of the campaign (created by Armen) occurs around the border area, with very specific instructions not to cross the border. While you will eventually become familiar with the area of operations, use of the Doppler Inertial System, radio beacons, and instructions from your navigator will play heavily in the conduct of many of the missions. Prior to this campaign, I was completely unfamiliar with the different navigation methods available in the Mi-8, but by the end of the campaign I was an ace when navigating using the onboard systems. Our own EinsteinEP wrote a fantastic article on the Mi-8 Doppler Navigator in THIS article.

Use of the Doppler Navigation system is very helpful in staying on the correct mission flight path.
Many of the campaign missions skirt closely along the border, making map reading, onboard use of the navigation equipment, and familiarity with the AO essential.

The Border campaign differs from some we’ve seen for DCS World in that the missions are mostly “all business” with a very staid, no-nonsense approach to both the unfolding of the campaign and the individual missions. There is no idle chatter, no slang, and no really light or humorous moments. Well, at least I don’t think there are, because I’m simply reading the English text that accompanies the Russian voices that populate the mission. The recordings are of very good quality and even though I don’t understand them, they impart the right feel during the missions. Some other campaigns have included rather intricate back-stories, overall campaign/situational briefings, and/or mission-by-mission back-stories, but this campaign does not include such extras. As well, though the many tasks required of you as the Mi-8 pilot are well broadcast through both the briefings and the in-mission messages, there are large gaps of non-communication between action points where other campaign designers might have filled that void with some non-mission critical dialog. I have yet to meet a pilot that doesn’t talk with his crew about women, pay, or food and alcohol. Maybe these are Mormon Russians. Whatever the case, the missions are varied, intricately designed, and feature a fantastic array of tasks that very much showcase the flexibility that the Mi-8 brings to the battlefield.

Missions

As mentioned, expect a wide array of missions that take advantage of the multiple capabilities of the Mi-8. What I really appreciate about the missions is that they are quite achievable and don’t overwhelm you with unrealistic tasks or excessive (as in “over the top”) combat. They seem quite realistic with a nice balance of navigation, flying skill, and combat. It is also worth mentioning that the campaign really highlights the capabilities of the Mi-8 and demonstrates what a fantastic job Belsimtek did with the modeling of the Mi-8 in their module. Much of the emphasis is on the flying, with precision flying inherent to combat helo operations. Heavy weights, sling loads, icing, instrument failures, and uneven surfaces are among the challenges you’ll run into. The missions are achievable, but not easy, and I’ll admit to taking five tries to complete one mission because I missed a very important component of the helicopter that escaped my attention (feel free to e-mail me if you want to know what it was – but I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone!). Mission length varies from 30 to 60 minutes to complete, with most being toward the upper end of that time period. The author designed the missions with nice variables, some good surprises, and a fantastic feel of linked accomplishments and challenges that provide nice continuity throughout the campaign. By that I mean that each mission blends seamlessly into the next, addressing components from the previous mission, building a narrative as the campaign progresses.

Sling load missions are included, which was my first encounter with sling load operations in DCS World. The last time I had visited the Mi-8, the sling-load capability had not yet been added, so exploring it in the context of the campaign was great fun, but required looking up some specific sling-load control inputs. The sling load visualizer aid is fantastic, and the Mi-8 has a great “auto-unhook” switch that you can arm to drop the load once the weight on the cable starts to lower (ostensibly because you put the cargo in the drop zone).

Do you know what all these switches do? You might want to know!

Missions have a nice flow to them and there is a heavy reliance on the F10 “extra” communications menu to make decisions, contact outposts, troop commanders, accompanying flights, and other entities. Often you will work in conjunction with other Mi-8s, Mi-24s, and ground troops. Radio communications weigh heavily into each mission and you will spend some time swapping frequencies to accomplish different phases of some missions, so familiarity with the radios is highly recommended. One criticism I would have is that the missions are a bit devoid of activity outside of the orbit of the mission itself – for instance, there is not a lot other action going on around the FARPs, bases, or areas of operation. It would be nice to see some unrelated actions going on in the AO to give a sense of a larger operation unfolding. When working in conjunction with other helicopter groups (Mi-24 or Mi-8), the operations are very well coordinated and blend well with the goals of the mission.

Missions unfold with great timing and precision, but I did encounter a few instances of triggers that had perhaps a bit too tight of tolerances. For instance, in one case I landed near an objective, but apparently I wasn’t within the locus of the mission advance trigger, so repositioning a few dozen meters to the other side of the LZ smoke did advance the mission. In another instance, landing at a FARP pad did not trigger a mission ending, but moving to another pad did. While these are not huge errors given the entire scope of the hundreds of trigger items that work perfectly, moving from one hover location to another can prove disastrous for certain (cough) inept Mi-8 pilots, so the risk is very real. A slight widening of a couple of the trigger zones might be useful.

Night missions are moody and fraught with potential disaster.

The Mi-8 Module

An obvious requirement to fly The Border campaign is the Mi-8 module itself (currently $49.99, though it occasionally goes on sale). Though I had futzed around with the Mi-8 within the first few months of release, it had been a long time since I had revisited it. The aforementioned sling-loading capability is just enormous fun, and a great challenge for precision flying aficionados. With the capability to mount rockets and gun pods, the Mi-8 makes for a fairly potent gunship as well – and in The Border you’ll find some instances where you mix up roles in the same mission: providing both gun and lift support during the same sortie. The Mi-8 is definitely a module for stick and rudder pilots (well, cyclic, collective, and anti-torque pedals) and the finesse required to complete some of the missions results in a great feeling of accomplishment. I can’t tell you how many times vortex ring state kicked my butt during this campaign. Haste and cutting corners does not benefit your blood pressure when you’ve invested nearly an hour into a mission only to crash because you got reckless on the last landing at a FARP or outpost. Though the initial familiarization with the Mi-8 cockpit and procedures can be daunting, just running through the tutorial missions included with the Mi-8 module are sufficient to get you up to a proficiency level that will allow you to tackle The Border campaign. A bit of practice with the sling-loading using a single mission or just using the editor to create your own sling-loading mission would be recommended however.

Conclusion

For those people that are predominantly offline players of DCS World, the tutorials, single missions, and campaigns included with modules are essential to deriving the most from each purchase. It is worth mentioning that the included “Spring Tension” campaign that ships with the Mi-8 is fantastic (you can read an AAR from one of those missions HERE), but it is always encouraging to see both user created single missions and pay DLC populating the available content list for modules. With fifteen well constructed missions, The Border is a pretty good value for time spent versus the investment. Normally priced at $9.99, the campaign does occasionally go on sale for $4.99 (the price point at which I picked it up). Even at the higher price, you get great value with a solid 15-20 hours of gameplay – perhaps more if you end up crashing as many times as I did and having to replay missions. The campaign tilts toward precision flying enthusiasts with some nice combat action thrown in, but don’t expect to be faced with hoards of enemies or impossible goals. As a helo enthusiast, I very much enjoyed the campaign and hope that more campaigns (free and DLC) are released for all of the DCS modules.

Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth