It's been a long time coming but finally a really sensational helicopter simulation has arrived - well almost, it should be released about now. In the past, many a programmer has tried to master what is perhaps the trickiest form of flight, usually with mixed results.
In the case of Thunderhawk, Core Design have produced what many a flight sim fanatic has been waiting for: a playable, and more importantly a believable, chopper simulation. Probably the best comparison to Thunderhawk is the Electronic Arts classic Intercepter which never claimed to be the ultimate in realism but is one of the most enthralling action sims on the market.
The comparison between Thunderhawk and Intercepter is mainly inspired by their similar approach to gameplay. As a result Thunderhawk isn't for the aeronautical purists, but if you want action, excitement and a real feeling of being in the cockpit, it's breathtaking.
The key to the program's success is its excellent mouse driven controls. In the past, control of the chopper has been the element which let down some otherwise excellent programs. In Thunderhawk the three essential elements which make up the control of any whirly bird are condensed, along with other commands, to a series of simple click-and-drag combinations.
For example, the first element of chopper control is the collective, which basically refers to the angle of attack adopted by the rotors; the steeper the blade angle, the greater the lift.
Within the sim it's controlled by clicking the right button and dragging the mouse up and down. The part of the equation is the cyclic which acts just like the joystick on a normal sim. This particular bit of manoeuvring doesn't require any buttons, just a steady hand and some gentle adjustment.
The final part is the anti-torque rotor controls which on a real chopper are at your feet but in the sim are adjusted by holding down the RMB, while the mouse is pushed either left or right to spin the machine on its axis.
So, when all of the above are combined a take off would mean holding down the right button and push forward to get some vertical lift. Next, a second click and a drag to the right would spin the machine a full 360 degrees so you could spot any possible bandits. Lastly, a gentle push forwards dips the nose and you're on your way to the next objective.
Once on the move you can double click to flick through the weapons and select your targets, all without a single keypress. If you happen to be a keyboard person the option to fly without your furless friend will be incorporated into the finished version.
0K, I know it sounds complicated but it really isn't that bad, and when the subtle controls are combined with perhaps the smoothest graphics on any sim, the effect is excellent.
So what's it all about? Well, to say the Gulf War influence is strong would be a bit of an understatemt. The Apache's part in that conflict has not gone unnoticed, although your ship is supposed to be the next generation machine.
The game revolves around six campaigns each of which takes place in seperate theatres of operation, such as the Middle East, Asia, Russia and so on. The campaigns consist of a series of missions and your success in each of these is important. Once a campaign is secured you receive orders and it's off to the next war-torn part of the planet to deal out a bit more death and destruction.
The various missions and campaigns combine to make up a total of about 60 different scenarios. As you progress the tactical element grows, and to complete a campaign a little brain-power will need to be added to the awesome fire-power of your ship.
Each mission has a predefined set of objectives which can be tackled in any order, but if you re to proceed all mission objectives must be met. The usual familiar flight sim elements are used such as head up display, electronic counter measures, multi-display radar, and just about every aeronautical acronym you can think of, most of which require the odd click on the keyboard to activate or adjust.
Unlike Intercepter, Thunderhawk is awash with little extras which add to the involvement and atmosphere. For example, you have your very own Stormin' Norman who, for reasons of security, is known as jack. At the beginning of each mission good old Jack gives you the low down on the next objective as well as a reasonable helping of some rather dated cold war rhetoric, such as: "Those dirty pinko Russkis are at it again Bub. You've gotta get up there and kick their ass".
After old Stormin', it's off to the briefing room where you get the complete picture of the next mission. This is my favourite silly bit, complete with a Star Wars style attack briefing which is piped up on the main screen and occasionally punctuated with essential bits of info from the boss.
Once all the necessary mission selections are complete there's an armament scene where you can experiment with your own flair for ordnance. After a couple more scene setting animation sequences you finally take to the skies.
As soon as you become one with your machine and its radically different controls it's time to find the enemy. Unlike most sims Thunderhawk doesn't insist on the usual 10 minute flight before you see your first opponent.
Things usually happen pretty fast. With flax and tracer flying up from the ground and enemy gunships closing in for the kill, you have to duck the radar, avoid the bullets and still destroy your objective - whether that be a convoy, an airbase, a radar installation or any one of the many possible targets in the campaign.