The Future of the Combat Helicopter Simulation

by Guest Writer Walter “Torquatus” Manley


Let us take a walk down memory lane to a quieter time, where you could go to a computer-games store and buy a product called Janes Longbow. I’m sure that the name brings a tear to the eye for some of you. This was an era of sim greatness, graphics were looking better and better, “hardcore” was a selling point, and the world was teeming with games companies all wanting a piece of the pie. Later we saw the excellence continue with Longbow 2 and Enemy Engaged: Apache versus Havoc (EEAH).

These were, of course, only a select few of all the numerous helicopter simulations out at that point. For every major success, there were minor successes, now mostly forgotten, and abject failures, remembered perhaps with a shudder by those familiar with the genre (such as the ill-received Gunship!).

Now let us look to the present. Presently the watershed for combat-helo sims is (by and large) Enemy Engaged: Comanche versus Hokum (EECH). As the title suggests, this is a continuation of Razorwork’s series that started with Enemy Engaged: Apache versus Havoc. It is, however, a game that dates to the year 2000 and despite the excellent work by third-party user groups, it is looking dated, particularly the terrain. The only new offering on the horizon is an add-on for Lock On: Flaming Cliffs, a fixed-wing flight simulator. I don’t think it would be going too far out on a limb to say that it is unlikely that this will revive the combat-helo genre. There is just nothing on the horizon.

Flying a helicopter is a difficult, dirty job. Everyone used to want to be Chuck Yeager or Tom Cruise, now they just want to be Ding Chavez. Can you name a real-life chopper pilot? Anyone who said “Michael Durant” can move to the front of the class. Now think about why Michael Durant is famous. He didn’t break the sound barrier, become an ace or save the world. He was unfortunate to have his chopper shot down and suffered injury and capture. I am not trying to belittle his achievements prior to or subsequent the events described in “Blackhawk Down”, I just don’t feel that many people are familiar with them.

Combine this with the fact that most people who want to experience the down-and-dirty world of tactical warfare tend to play first-person-shooters and what we have is a negative effect on the “saleability” of a helicopter simulator. Add to the fact that helicopters are hard to fly if modeled correctly, and you have an unprofitable game.

The demise of the pure combat-helo sim can be summed up in a simple statement: you can’t make and sell a million copies of a game that focuses on a slow-flying aerial tank-killer to the exclusion of all else. However, you can sell a first-person-shooter (FPS) that includes flyable helicopters.

I believe that this is the future of combat helicopter simulation.

By now some of you will be yelling “heretic” and breaking out the torches, but please hear me out. This can work for all of us.

As a long time player of both flight simulators (of all sorts) and first-person-shooters, I find that there is one aspect that any simulation must capture to be enjoyable: the feeling that you are part of something bigger; part of an actual combat situation. In my experience a game can have the best avionics and systems modeling around, but if it does not capture the feeling of “being there” then it will simply not hold my attention. Falcon 4.0 and the Enemy Engaged series gave you that feeling by using a well-designed dynamic campaign engine. IL-2 used a realistic flight model, graphics and sound to make you feel like you were in the cockpit of a World-War II attack aircraft. The contemporary online first-person shooter uses team play with real people filling out your team to capture this feeling.

A real letdown in all of the current games is the pathetic flight models. Personally, I feel that the best model is in “Operation Flashpoint” (which can hardly be considered an online game), but even that doesn’t model features like rotor torque properly, let alone retreating-blade stall. The limitations of having to be able to control the chopper with a keyboard and mouse essentially preclude a realistic flight model in this case. Add this to the (over-) simplification of the weapons systems and I can see why helo-simmers have not taken games like these seriously.

I am the first to admit that there are plenty of FPS players out there who think the best use for a helicopter is to fly it directly over the next capture point and bail out, leaving the helicopter to crash and burn. Even more excruciating is when the helicopter happens to fall on a bunch of friendlies (though humorous when the same happens to enemies). I am also the first to admit that, for a person who is into simulators, this is quite annoying.

I believe the current term for these people is a “smacktard” but it’s not completely their fault — the time taken for equipment to respawn in these games is far too short. The most rewarding experience is when a player with the necessary skill, guile and attitude manages to get their hands on the chopper. There is nothing better than calling for a pickup, to actually have someone respond and have a chopper appear in a timely manner. It’s good, as a chopper pilot, to be properly appreciated and used as well.

So how can you, as a frustrated combat helicopter pilot, get the most out of such a game?

1. Play with like-minded friends or in a clan.

There are clans that allow you to specify what equipment you want to take, and besides, if you are good enough then they won’t want someone else flying them around. Playing with like-minded friends is self-explanatory; if everyone is attempting to get the same thing out of a game then you are far more likely to have an enjoyable experience.

2. Use real-world helicopter tactics.

Use trees for concealment, practice quick pickups and drop-offs, and learn how to fly in the game precisely. It is surprisingly rewarding, even with the poor flight models. In addition, a lot of the tactics that actually work in real life work in the games.

3. Try to help your team win.

One of the annoying features of “smacktards” is that they ignore requests for pickups and assistance. The other players on your team will not be very happy if you do the same (particularly if you play in a clan). While it is entertaining and useful to go hunting behind enemy lines in the Apache, try to provide support when your team is pushing on a capture point. If you are flying a transport helicopter, obviously your job will be to transport players from the spawn point to where they are needed. You will be surprised how busy you can be in a transport role in some games.

4. If there are no choppers about, either go and steal one (from the enemy) or do something else that benefits your team.

There is nothing more annoying, to most players, than fighting over the (limited) resources you have available. If the other players won’t let you have a chopper then do your best to help your team win, but after the game is over try to find a different game (this actually ties into point one above).

5. Try to pick a game where the helicopters are difficult to fly.

If you are an elite chopper pilot, do not to play a game where anyone can fly the helicopters. This, in some cases, conflicts with point one in that you have to play whatever your friends or clan members play, but you will have a far more enjoyable experience if you are employing a skill that few people have the patience to master. Admittedly, the helicopters in the game may not fly much like a real helicopter, but helicopters are difficult to fly!

It is going to take a long time, and a lot of lobbying, before we will see a realistic flight model and weapons system simulation in a first-person-shooter, particularly a massively multiplayer one. However, I doubt that we will ever see another “pure” helicopter simulator, and I believe that the current gaming trend, where even flight simulators are moving towards multiplayer at the expense of single-player content, will not be reversed. If anything, as broadband connections become more accessible and affordable, we will see this trend accelerate. I contend that this may not be a bad thing. If we can make ourselves known and encourage the makers of such products to indulge us, we will all have a better gaming experience.

Happy gaming!

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