Start as you mean to go on, they say! That’s presumably why my first review of 2012 is a thoroughly mediocre Xbox LIVE Arcade title; a game with some good ideas, some nice touches, and a fair number of whole-heartedly irritating problems. Roll on the rest of the year, clearly.
In much the same vein as, say, Pac-Man: Championship Edition, Choplifter HD is a modern-day re-imagining of a well-loved game of years past. Choplifter was a title in which players, controlling a helicopter, picked up hostages and gave them a ride back to a friendly base, while avoiding or destroying enemy tanks and jets and whatnot, and monitoring a constantly-dropping fuel gauge. Your helicopter could point left or right or (wow!) towards the screen, each of which aided in destroying different enemies, and the landscape was even pseudo-3D so it all looked rather impressive too.
inXile’s shiny new version follows this fairly faithfully. You pilot your chopper with the left stick, aim with the right, fire miniguns and rockets with the triggers, hit the shoulder buttons to turn, and mash the face buttons to activate a fuel-devouring speed boost. Fairly twin shooter-y, in short. You blast soldiers, RPG troopers, jeeps, tanks, EMP snipers, and a whole horde of other foes, while hovering around the wide variety of maps, rescuing stranded soldiers and returning them to base. While monitoring your constantly-dropping fuel gauge, obviously.
Initially, at least, it’s fine enough. The action is enjoyably shooty with your helicopter kicking out a huge amount of gunfire; more than enough to reduce enemy soldiers to red clouds and vehicles to flaming husks in a matter of seconds. The chopper itself has a pleasing weight, too. Momentum and inertia are taken into account meaning that it can’t easily stop dead, nor can it quickly jink out of the way of incoming projectiles without judicious use of the fuel-draining boost function.
Completing missions earns you stars, and stars earn you more campaigns and more helicopters to choose from. Some are faster than others, some deal more damage, some hold more fuel and are more heavily armoured, while others can carry a busload of passengers at any given time. Unless you’re grinding away for stars you’re usually stuck with any given mission’s default chopper on your first runthrough, admittedly, but taking another copter can assist if you go back to… well, to grind stars.
Different missions have different requirements. Some are classic Choplifter – fly into a hostile area and evacuate people. Others ask you to destroy targets. Some simply demand you get to the other end of the map alive. The increasing amount of opposition changes the tactics you need to employ, and other little features (like particular groups requiring evacuation within tight time limits) mean that you’ll need to make a few decisions as to which groups to leave until last, whether or not you have enough fuel to pick up another couple of people, and so on and so forth. Forward planning!
All of this is combined with a reasonable level of wit, too. The chopper pilots have some fairly amusing banter for each mission, and it’s rarely grating. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously – references to Predator abound in one mission (which is always a good way to get me on your side) and some of the more entertaining missions involve zombie outbreaks, of all things… which were quickly followed by a mission involving religious extremists beginning a genocide of the local populace. Um.
So it’s a decent side-on shooter with some neat gimmicks, a bit of personality, and it demands a modicum of thought – but I called it mediocre. What went wrong?
Three things, I think. Three little issues which, despite not being particularly problematic on their own, combine to make Choplifter HD a staggeringly frustrating experience.
The first: the view. The action’s rather close-in, which isn’t really that much of a problem by itself. It becomes more of a problem when you realise that enemies can shoot you from off-screen, even though you can’t really shoot them (although sound cues will thankfully clue you into the fact that a tank is about to blast you in half).
The second: the copter. As I said, it’s fairly slow to turn or move, and you always need to compensate for momentum or inertia. Barrel ahead at full speed and you’re likely to smack right into a cloud of flak, simply because you’ll be unable to stop in time. Not a problem, obviously – it just means that you need to be cautious and decide whether it’s worth the risk – and it’s fun to work with the momentum.
The third: the difficulty. Choplifter HD has a mess of difficulty spikes. Some of these pop up when you’re trying to figure out how to deal with a new enemy type, but that’s perfectly reasonable, and they’re fun to struggle through. More problematic is that, once you’re past the game’s first third, the amount of hostile fire on the screen at any given time begins to approach that of a bullet hell shooter. Which, again, is no bad thing – by itself.
But when you combine it with everything else, you get a game that all too often fills your screen with hostile fire, which is hard to dodge because you’re in a weighty and sluggish copter, and some of it’s coming from enemies you can’t yet see or shoot at. And when you make your return journey, some or all of them may or may not have respawned, just to add to the enjoyment. Add one teaspoon of shaky hit detection and stir until frustrated.
The further in you get, the less the game resembles a fast-paced blasting experience, and the more it turns into a trial-and-error memory exercise as you struggle to remember which way you need to be facing and roughly where you need to be aiming to get past this next load of enemies. Not all of the levels have this problem, certainly – some are gleeful and exhilarating romps above jungles and cities in which you’re destroying AA guns and saving POWs, hastily dropping low to avoid jets and slamming on the boost to power past a platoon of soldiers with RPGs – but the problematic levels crop up regularly, and they’re not much fun at all.
Choplifter HD isn’t entirely without merit. When its levels actually favour the above design choices and it manages to be difficult without being unfair or frustrating, it’s an enjoyable experience. The problem, really, is how often it manages this, and how often you have to beat your head against a brick wall of a level to find the fun.