There has been a fair share of '80s arcade titles that made the transition to the current generation. From Pac-Man: CE to Galaga Legions, the downloadable platforms have become a haven for games that try to capture that nostalgia of old in a flashy new skin.
Choplifter HD takes Choplifter to the Unreal Engine 3 era with an update in visuals and gameplay depth alike. And just like the original, it's definitely not for the faint of heart.
Choplifter HD (Xbox Live Arcade [Reviewed], PlayStation Network, PC)
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publishers: inXile Entertainment, Konami
Released: January 11, 2011
MSRP: 1200 Microsoft Points, $14.99
The core gameplay of Dan Gorlin's classic Apple II title remains largely intact in this HD revisiting. Players still fly a helicopter across a horizontal level and pick up people in need of an airlift to safer ground, while trying not to be blown to bits by the enemies that litter each level. Like in the original game, you can turn your chopper to face left, forward, and right by pressing the associated bumper buttons. The the left stick is used to fly in any direction regardless of where you are aiming.
Because simply flying left and right to shoot enemies and pick up people would quickly become pretty boring, the foreground of a level now features enemies that can only be targeted by facing that direction. This leads to a frantic type of gameplay where you try to push forward in a level to rescue people, or blow objectives to smithereens, while continuously shifting your chopper around to face the hostiles that target you from every direction. Sometimes enemy soldiers will shoot heat-seeking missiles at you that, for the most part, can be evaded by using any of the face buttons to boost out of the way. At other times, you'll want to use a rocket or two to get rid of an annoying soldier who ducks behind cover in the foreground, or just to destroy armored targets that much faster.
Flying around costs fuel, which can be replenished at your starting-point base or at strategically placed fuel depots elsewhere in the level, and boosting across a level can save you a lot of time at the cost of a large increase in fuel consumption. Occasionally, you'll have to transport wounded soldiers who have a timer to indicate when they'll die, which forces you to prioritize your pick-ups while keeping fuel, a limited passenger capacity, and potential hazards in mind. Your helicopter's health points and rockets can be replenished at your base when you land, but ideally you'll want to land as little as possible and finish missions efficiently for a higher score.
The upgrades to the core mechanics work remarkably well to give you the kind of arcade helicopter experience we haven't seen in a long time. Besides the deeper gameplay, different types of missions keep the game varied enough to stave off any issues with repetitiveness. One level you are rescuing P.O.W.s, in the next you are trying to escape to the end of a level without dying, and occasionally you'll have to drop down a Ranger to blow up a building or rescue scientists from an impending zombie invasion. Of course, you'll still be flying a helicopter left and right but you get the sense that the team at inXile had a lot of fun creating often outlandish scenarios.
You get the same sense when you encounter the annoying reporter Scoop Sanderson and his cameraman in sometimes hard-to-spot locations, who counts as one of several hidden objectives sprawled throughout the game if you choose to rescue him. As often as Scoop will spout ridiculous lines at you, even more so will the two chopper pilots offer comedic banter in each level. Although their jokes can range from funny to relatively painless, it adds an unexpected amount of charm and personality to a game in which the main characters are just two immobile guys in a helicopter. Besides, it's hard to argue against picking up a Ranger who shouts "Get to da choppaaah!"
Between the jokes, the variety of the missions, and the enjoyment of making things explode with a helicopter, Choplifter HD can offer a lot of entertainment. However, there is a pretty large obstacle in the way of players who just want to have fun blasting through the game's 30 missions: its difficulty.
Choplifter HD's difficulty comes in three flavors: Normal, Hardcore (more hitpoints for enemies), and Survival (like Hardcore, but with less fuel). You have to complete the entire game on Normal in order to unlock the Hardcore difficulty, and the option to pick Survival becomes available after you finish any level on Hardcore. Alas, Normal difficulty is not really that normal at all. It's more like something you would expect in a bonus Nightmare difficulty mode.
True to its retro roots, you have but one life to complete a level with. Although a mission-specific time limit may sometimes frustrate and ruin your score if your playstyle is too cautious, the major challenge comes from simply trying to survive the majority of the levels in the second half of the game. Whereas challenge in a downloadable arcade type of title is never a bad thing, since it helps to increase the lifespan and validate your purchase, there is a difference between skill-based challenge and the kind that elicits pure frustration.
The problem in Choplifter HD is that you'll start to encounter punishing attacks that are initially manageable, after some trial-and-error and coming to terms with a level's layout, but which become increasingly hard to manage as these attacks start to coincide with each other. One of the main annoyances is found with the mortar shells that fire in the background to give you a general idea of when it's safe to fly through their smokey columns of catastrophe. These shells can dish out about a third of your health in damage if they hit you. However, in most cases you can't simply take your time to hover around and pass them as you learn their patterns, because at the same time there will be rocket infantry and AA guns shooting at you from the sides and the foreground, and time restrictions from wounded civilians don't give you the luxury of taking the cautious approach.
Jets do a fly-by in the background before swooping in and unleashing a lightning volley of missiles, unless you boost out of the way (i.e., up or down depending on your initial position). You'll also hear an alert that you're about to be hurt, big time, but chances are you won't be able to distinguish this alert from the general beeping noise your chopper makes when you are low on health. Additionally, the timing between a fly-by and the actual missiles appearing on screen seems to depend on whether you are flying towards or away from the incoming jets, making it hard to gauge exactly when you're supposed to evade.
When these jets start coming in while you are inbetween the columns of mortar fire, trying to deal with the enemies that are already shooting at you, it can be pretty hard to notice the incoming rain of missiles until it is too late due to the sheer amount of hazards that distract you. When a jet destroys you just when you were trying to fly back to base after an almost successful tenth attempt at a level, because you weren't paying enough attention to one out of a dozen simultaneous hazards, it becomes more of a frustration than a fun challenge.
Some other frustrations lie with evading incoming fire in general. It primarily depends on your skill with handling the type of chopper you've selected for the mission -- helicopters are not the most agile of flying beasts after all -- but on occasion you'll be hit by an off-screen tank shell when you were adamant it wasn't going to hit you. You were wrong. Likewise, rockets from infantry do a fair deal of damage and need to be evaded at all costs, but it's easy to boost too late or too slowly to effectively escape from having them connect with your chopper's hit-box.
These things inevitably add up to a large number of deaths that often occur with the player having little control over them. It's by no means impossible to complete the game on Normal, but it's curious that this is the easiest setting available. There is an option to unlock improved versions of your chopper by collecting more stars in the levels you've completed before, but using these choppers quickly becomes mandatory rather than optional if you want to survive. To be fair, if you take your time and persist through the frustrating deaths and finally pass a mission, it can lead to a level of elation not often felt in many of today's mainstream games. Some missions actually do feature an excellence balance between skill, challenge, and pacing, but this balance is skewed against you in far too many missions by putting too many hazards on screen to handle at the same time.
Choplifter HD boasts a more realistic visual style, and this type of realism is reflected by not being able to carry a near-infinite amount of people in your helicopter, or the unfortunate event when you accidentally land on top of someone you were supposed to rescue. The latter occurs more often than you'd hope for as NPCs will sometimes run around like idiots and suddenly end up underneath your tail, while at other times you just didn't think clearly before you changed your chopper's direction on the ground, mowing the back rotor into a bunch of civilians. The Unreal-powered graphics look good enough from a distance, but they also make soldiers and AA guns somewhat hard to spot at times. It makes you wonder if the game perhaps wouldn't have benefited from a more cartoon-y style for the sake of clarity, both with regard to being able to spot danger as well as the already zany comedy that is already in the game.
The amount of default damage you incur upon making the smallest of mistakes at the wrong time can lead to the type of "instant restart" behavior you know from time-trial games, and a simple Easy difficulty would've made the game that much more accessible to a crowd of players who are less eager to deal with a retro level of hardship. Make no mistake, there is a lot of fun and spirit to be found here. It's just unfortunate that many of the jokes between the pilots grow stale as you restart a mission over and over again due to the punishing level design, and that the average player will likely give up well before reaching the end of the game.
Some games are just hard games to start with, but the type of difficulty seen in the likes of Ninja Gaiden Black depends on tight controls and increases in player skill rather than the pattern learning and occasional luck you'll need in Choplifter HD. Given the amount of times I've shouted at my screen, came close to throwing -- even biting -- my controller in anger, and flipped off the game when it felt like I was being intentionally trolled by whoever designed the enemy placement in a level, I can't recommend playing it if you are an easilly annoyed player or generally not obsessive enough about completing a game to stick with it.
If you are no stranger to the type of punishment you remember from playing arcade games in the '80s, Choplifter HD is definitely worth checking out. This is game that doesn't mess around, and doesn't allow you to mess around either. I only wish it would have allowed you to mess around just a little bit more without mutilating your psyche in the process.
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