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Watch virtual fighter jocks fly multimillion-dollar warplanes through simulated bullet hell

The most fun you can have with DCS World

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

I’m always a bit reticent to cover flight simulation here on Polygon, but sometimes modern-day virtual fighter jocks make themselves impossible to ignore.

That’s clearly true of the team at Grim Reapers, a group of “plane buddies” who share their exploits regularly on YouTube. Late last year they ginned up a scenario that amounts to a real-life shoot-’em-up, one that translates bullet-hell-style arcade gaming into the real world. They arranged a gauntlet of increasingly difficult anti-aircraft platforms in a narrow valley, and then took turns rocketing through it at top speed. The result is a spectacular collection of close calls and fiery crashes.

The 90-minute clip has been viewed nearly half a million times, and with good reason. There are some seriously skilled pilots showing off here, and they do the subject matter justice.

Their platform of choice is called DCS World. While some folks might be more familiar with the flight simulator known as DCS Warthog A-10C, this free-to-play product is much more recent. It first came out in 2008, only to show up on Steam in 2018. It’s more of a platform, with multiple modules for sale that allow virtual pilots to tackle everything from WWII fighters and Korean War-era jets to the latest models in the U.S., Russian, and European inventories.

These are realistic simulations, mind you. It takes quite a bit of effort just to get the engines humming, let alone get these planes into the air and over a target. But the pilots in the Grim Reapers group skip right to the fun part, warping into the session cruising at hundreds of nautical miles per hour. First they tackle a few miles of old-school automatic weapons fire — think dudes in a trench with machine guns. Then they level up to radar-guided systems. These weapons, like the ZSU-23-4 Shilka, use radar to target fast moving aircraft and then pummel them with fire from multiple batteries, all armed with high-explosive rounds. They’re absolutely not to be trifled with. The final boss, as it were, is a valley bristling with heat-seeking missiles. Few of the pilots make it to the end.

For me, the highlight was seeing an old Russian MIG keep on flying with half its wing missing. Sadly, the Warthog itself doesn’t fare well. The ugly old bird — which entered service in 1976, if you can believe it — simply can’t go fast enough.

The folks at Eagle Dynamics are hard at work making a new combat flight simulator for the rest of us. Called Modern Air Combat, it promises high-test flight models that can be controlled with a mouse and keyboard.

The next level of puzzles.

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