Choplifter! is something of a lost classic. The original 1982 game for the Apple II wound up ported to every console or computer that would have it and is one of the few games to actually start on the home computer, before seeing a port for the arcades. Despite that success and a pair of sequels in the early 90's, it's a title that often elicits confused stares from people when I mention it.
Maybe some of that confusion will fade when Choplifter HD arrives, bringing with it an experience that's true to its retro roots.
Choplifter HD (Xbox 360 [Previewed], PS3, PC)
In the original Choplifter!, you piloted a rescue chopper sent into a war zone to rescue prisoners. The strategy was always to get in, clear the area of enemies and then load as many people as you could cram into your helicopter to drag back to your base before moving on to the next building full of soldiers. And Choplifter HD is no different in this respect, but provides a variety of scenarios (30 in all) that will see you piloting from the tundra to the desert and everything in between.
But, no matter where you are, the goal is to rescue people. Every stage is laid out on a 2D plane and a rough "map" at the top shows your position and the locations of people who need your assistance. You can only fit so many in the helicopter and have a limited amount of fuel, so nearly every stage will require more than one trip through. Some of the people who need saving require medical attention and have a limited time to make it to the base before expiring, adding a little further pressure.
So Choplifter HD becomes something of a resource game. With a rough idea of how many people are waiting at each location, you can formulate a plan of attack that keeps you fueled and efficiently moves everybody from where they are to where they need to be. And it would work perfectly if it weren't for all those damned bonus objectives, such as the news reporter who always seems to be on the scene. You can scoop up some other people in need of rescue besides your required targets, practically a necessity for achieving a high ranking in a stage, but that's going to throw off your entire strategy.
You know what else is going to put a monkey wrench in things? All those damned enemies. Men armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades dot the landscape, anti-aircraft guns pepper the sky with explosives and persistent jeeps keep the pressure on. Some stages even feature zombies who'll grab on to your chopper if given the chance and have to be shaken off.
The combat is an excellent example of how inXile has effectively modernized the mechanics of Choplifter for this new game. Your chopper can face left, right or forward, just as in the original. Whereas facing forward was primarily used for destroying tanks directly below you in the past, now it allows you to attack enemies in the foreground. You'll constantly be shifting from one direction to the next to keep up with all the firing, easily done with the click of a button, and it makes an already busy game positively frantic.
It also makes for a really difficult game. Once the elements start piling up and more enemy types become unlocked, you're the one who's probably in more desperate need of rescue. Armed only with a machine gun (which overheats pretty quickly) and a complement of missiles, sometimes the best thing to do is simply charge through as quickly as you can. To help with that and other dodging, the chopper features a booster that can give you a necessary burst of speed but drains fuel quickly.
Your choppers also improve over time, receiving upgrades as you earn success in levels. Every stage awards you a ranking of one to five stars based on your performance and those stars unlock new choppers and add improvements to those you've already unlocked. The craft are pretty different from what I experienced in my preview and in more than just base statistics. The Sparrow, for example, is the first craft you pilot and offers almost no protection for the people you rescue as they sit exposed on the skids, so you have to be careful about the hits you take or they're going to die in transit.
The gang at inXile should be pretty proud of themselves. From the very beginning, this feels like a logical extension of Dan Gorlin's original Choplifter! into the modern age. It may have flashy HD graphics and be full of cool explosions, but it's still Choplifter and that's a good thing. Make sure you check it out when it releases this holiday season on PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade and Steam.