To many gamers of a certain age, Choplifter is considered a classic. Published by Broderbund software in 1982, the game amassed a following based on the simple concept of grabbing hostages and taking them back to your base while defending against enemy attacks. The game proved to be so popular that it was ported to as many systems as possible, including the Sega Master System, the NES, and even the arcades. There was a sequel or two afterward, but there wasn't a new entry in the series beyond the 8-bit era. As we're closing in on the 20th anniversary of the game, inXile Entertainment decided that it was time, especially since some of the game design sensibilities of yesteryear are coming back en vogue. Depending on how you see things, Choplifter HD could bring the series back into the public spotlight.
The plot is about as simplistic as the original. Enemy forces have taken soldiers hostage, and the only way to liberate them is to use a helicopter to ferry them from their rendezvous point to the home base. Using your state-of-the-art copter, you fly through deadly enemy territory, destroying both air- and ground-based forces while you grab as many soldiers as you can and safely take them back to base without getting killed. In short, don't expect much if you're looking for a gripping tale to go along with the action. This is all about blowing up things and saving people.
The simple approach for the story also extends to the gameplay, as your primary goal is to transport soldiers, with enemy destruction coming in at a distant second. A few other things help retain the flavor of the original game. The soldiers you're trying to rescue can still be killed in a myriad of ways, including gunfire, reckless flying and reckless landing. Hitting any objects while you have passengers on board could cause them to fall to their deaths; hard landings can either squash them when you try to pick them up or dislodge them when you're trying to cart them to safety. Fuel is also a concern because you have a finite amount. It isn't too important in the early levels, but the expansive later levels require you to get refills either at your base or at fuel depots across the battlefield. Finally, your chopper can only hold a limited number of soldiers at a time, forcing you to traverse the battlefield more than once to rescue everyone.
Some changes keep Choplifter HD in line with current expectations. Some are merely cosmetic, such as replacing a few of the soldiers with the constant reappearance of a reporter and his cameraman as well as brief cameos by a few video game characters. Environments also fall into this category, since the differences between snowy and desert environments don't affect enemy appearances. Then there are the more substantial changes to the game. For example, some of the soldiers you rescue have timers attached, forcing you to quickly get to the base before they expire. Your chopper has a boost function that lets you fly faster at the expense of more fuel consumption. Your weapons include a limited supply of missiles as well as a rotating chain gun that has unlimited ammo but needs to be cooled down after use, and your helicopter is more durable this time around because of a health meter, which nullifies the one-hit kills in the original title. Finishing levels not only gives you a score but also a star rating, and attaining certain star milestones opens up new copters for you to use, with differences in soldier carrying capacity, speed and armor, to name a few.
One change that wasn't made was the perspective. Following the trend of more recent remakes, this one resists the temptation to go 3-D and sticks with a 2-D perspective. You'll always move from left to right and vice versa, but you'll never be able to move into the background or foreground even though everything is rendered with polygons. That doesn't mean that interactivity is disabled, however, as the player is encouraged to fight enemies in the foreground, which is atypical for 2-D games.
If you're looking for the game to have some type of multiplayer component, forget it. Whether offline or online, there's no co-op or competitive multiplayer whatsoever. However, there are leaderboards provided for every level in the game, and since Choplifter HD is such a score-oriented title, this isn't a bad trade-off.
Even with the game being a single-player-only affair, what you have is quite entertaining. Each of the 30 levels always introduces something new, such as environmental hazards (low ceilings) or new enemies (RPG soldiers, jeeps and jets). Even though the crux of the game is almost always the same, it still entertains. The balancing act of fuel maintenance and destroying enemies on top of rescuing hostages is a nice hook simply because most game objectives are more straightforward. Adding the little elements doesn't detract from the experience, and these little changes go a long way in ensuring that every level feels fresh and ensures a small increase in difficulty as the game progresses. It's odd that unlockable choppers are only accessible after a level has been completed; it's confusing when you see messages stating that a new chopper has been unlocked, and you can't find it on your next mission.
With that being said, there are some game aspects that will irk players. Though there are a good number of levels, the length of each one is quite short, and unless you're obsessed with unlocking everything and getting the best scores, skilled players will be able to complete the campaign in a couple of hours. Respawning enemies can also prove bothersome to players who are not well versed in this old tactic. While it's uneventful to traverse a level without respawning enemies, it is annoying to see an assortment of well-armed soldiers return only moments after you've wiped them out. It's especially true because many of them unleash their attacks just before they are within range of your gunfire and missiles. Finally, the rescued hostages tend to run to the chopper rather slowly. It makes sense for the ones carrying wounded people, but everyone else seems to take their sweet time boarding the rescue craft.
Helicopter games don't always have the most intuitive control schemes, but Choplifter HD does, no doubt because of the side-scrolling nature of the game. The left analog stick controls basic movement, and the L1 and R1 buttons pivot the helicopter; this is essential when firing at enemies in the foreground and making the most out of your speed boosters during sharp turns. The L2 trigger fires missiles while the R2 trigger fires the chain gun, with aiming done by the right analog stick. This scheme is similar to that of Dead Nation, but it's more viable since you have a choice of which weapon to fire. Boosting is handled by all four face buttons. As a whole, the copter feels responsive, and you can easily dive to avoid hitting construction beams or stop short of some flak fire. You feel like you're piloting a nimble aircraft, not fighting with a lumbering beast.
The game sounds good but falters at times. The music is your standard action game fare; it isn't particularly memorable or overwhelming since it plays at a lower volume. The sound effects follow in that same path in that they don't overpower the player but don't feel like background noise, either. The voices vary wildly in both content and delivery. From the moment the first line is spoken, you know that the dialogue will be filled with humor, but the jokes hit as often as they miss. The lines from the oft-rescued reporter, for example, are cringe-worthy while the rescued soldiers often say funny things when you touch down safely on the ground. Half of the co-pilot's lines are expected and trite, but the other half of the lines makes you grin. The reporter is annoying to hear, the pilots have deadpan delivery, and the rescuers are the most enthusiastic. What hurts, however, is the jumble of lines given every time you pick up and deliver soldiers. Instead of delivering just one or two choice lines per stop, you're given everything at once, and what would have been a funny line ends up being a cacophony of noise. Had this been sorted out, the humor would be great, but as it stands, your reward for a job well done is a bunch of barely intelligible static.
Despite being a commonplace thing for console gamers, it's still rare for a downloadable game to sport the Unreal Engine logo. The visuals in Choplifter HD are fairly average. The backgrounds get a bulk of the attention, as they sport some pretty good details, and this is amplified by the fact that there's always action in each scene. The particle effects are also pretty good. Everything from explosions to smoke is rendered well and akin to what you'd see in a full retail game. The copter is decently detailed, but you won't be able to see most of it until you land on bases since the camera only gives you the shape of the copter, minus details like camo color and such. The same goes for any soldiers you see on the ground and on towers, though they look blockier when the camera zooms in. There are also other issues, such as a few disappearing shadows and the detailed texture pop-in for which the engine is notorious. The subtitles for the dialogue are also inconsistent. Sometimes, they'll be on and displayed in tiny text while other times, the subtitles completely disappear. Altogether, it's neither spectacular nor damning for the engine.
Choplifter HD is a good — but not great — update to a real classic. The core game still holds up after all these years, and the various tweaks freshen up a concept that would've grown stale after a few levels. The scoring and unlock system also give the game some legs, as it encourages replays to hit the top of the leaderboards and unlock more choppers. The only detractors are some graphical glitches and poor use of sound. The higher price tag (1,200 Microsoft points or $15) certainly doesn't encourage people to pick up a game with a relatively short campaign. Fans of both the original game and old-style shooters would do fine by adding this game to their digital library.
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