Copy that, rogue leader?
Note: Screenshot quality looks a bit variable, for two reasons. Firstly, WordPress wrecks all my screenshots anyway. But beyond that I kept playing with video settings, including running 3D resolution at 50% of my native res, which causes some screenshots to look like a blurry mess.
You know out of all of the things to simulate, helicopters probably rank up there as my favourites. You can keep your planes, trains and automobiles, give me a chopper any day of the week! Bohemia Interactive Studios are most famous for their ARMA series and the original Operation Flashpoint. Don’t confuse them with the new Codemasters Operation Flashpoint titles, which are absolute bullshit. When I first heard about TOH I thought it was a joke. “Oh those guys, they’re just teasing us with this before they announce ARMA3.” Joke was on me I guess because it’s a real product, and so is ARMA3. Of all the developers out there BIS pretty much make me go apeshit and buy anything they make, even if sometimes I get burned quite badly as a result. I was interested to see how TOH works, because a lot of people seem to be throwing around “SimCopter” when discussing it. For those who weren’t around for the time when there were more Sim games than just SimCity and The Sims, SimCopter had you fly around in a bunch of different helicopters doing various randomly-generated missions. For example you might have to follow a speeding car, or do a MEDIVAC, or put out a fire, or rescue some guy from an overturned boat. The cities used were actually built off SimCity 2000 cities, so you could take your SC2k savegame and import it into SimCopter and fly around it in 3D. Pretty cool for the time! It was an arcade game but there’s not much else like it, so take this as a recommendation to track it down.
Anyway, back to TOH. The idea of the game is simple; fly civilian helicopters to complete missions. Fairly simple stuff. The entire thing is set in Seattle, using satellite imagry to generate the terrain and buildings. How realistic is it? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m from Brisbane, Australia, so I wouldn’t have a clue and I didn’t bother to look it up. I can only comment on how it looks. And it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Firstly, this is the same engine that we’re seeing in the ARMA games, which is both good and bad. When it wants to be, the game is fantastic; helicopters are highly detailed, the cockpits look fantastic, and the water and cloud effects are awesome. Character models are reasonable. Some of the animations have improved quite a bit since ARMA2, but they all still look quite stiff. Then again we all know by now that this is an engine quirk probably borne out of how much other stuff it has to do, so we can forgive it. Terrain and building textures look ugly at times. Granted, there’s a lot of level geometry here, and if you compare it to any other flight sim game it’s par for the course, but for ARMA2 they’re low detail. Whipping past buildings in your chopper probably doesn’t mean this is a huge point, but hovering or zooming in makes some of the dodgy textures stick out. Then again, at least buildings are all placed in the right spots based on the satmaps. From the air it looks great, but on the ground… not so much.
Performance is exactly what you’d expect from a BIS game – abysmal. My system is reasonably high-end: i5 2500K, GTX570, 6GB RAM, Win7. I averaged between 25 to 35 FPS for most gameplay. It did occasionally drop down to 15 FPS when looking at the cockpit and on the ground in detailed locations, like the heliport. This is on the High default settings except with the “3D Resolution” at 1920×1080, my monitor’s default resolution. For those unfamiliar with this, BIS has a weird engine which has a separate setting for 3D rendering resolution and interface resolution. While the interface (and the game at large) can run at your native res, the game can change the 3D rendering resolution to something else for better performance. On one hand, this means you can dial down the 3D resolution to something offering better performance without making the interface practically unreadable on a high-res display. On the other hand, it still looks like someone smeared Vaseline all over your screen. In general the rule with BIS games has always been “defaults, then minor modifications” when it comes to playing with video settings. Be prepared to screw around with it for a while.
The game itself has a fairly strong, story-driven Career mode, as well as free flight, challenges, and the mission editor from ARMA2. In career mode, you play as Tom Larkin, who has returned to help his brother Joe out with their family aviation business. The business has fallen on hard times, and Joe suffers a debilitating injury such that he can’t fly anymore. It’s up to you to save the family business while learning how to fly again. Surprisingly, the voice acting isn’t half bad by most standards, and by BIS standards it’s friggin’ outstanding. You have the opportunity to buy new helicopters and equipment, as well as customise your helicopter’s paint schemes. It’s a pretty decent system and I like it, but given that you usually pick up helicopters as part of the game anyway, I kind of wonder why they bothered letting you buy new ones. There’s a fair bit of cool stuff to play with, like FLIR, cameras, and slingload rigs. The campaign isn’t particularly long but it’s quite good, and has another sideplot that follows Joe’s time in Asia flying for the military.
Let’s talk about how it actually plays. For reference, I play with a PS3 controller rigged up to emulate a 360 controller and a TrackIR 5 with the Pro clip. I ended up having to stop using my TrackIR setup because the sensitivity setup is completely messed up and it slips and slides all over the place, giving me a major pain in the neck. Which is annoying, because this is one game where you need to have your head on a swivel to keep an eye on what’s going on. I played on the Beginner and Trainee difficulty modes, mostly because I’m not particularly good at the finer points of flight sims, and also because controllers aren’t ideal for sims in the first place. To its credit, TOH does a decent job at making the 360 controller useful, and I didn’t find the experience frustrating. I found the flight model to be just right for my tastes as a casual simmer. It’s more realistic than the ARMA2 model (and therefore head and shoulders above something like BF3 for those thinking along those lines) but on the Beginner and Trainee modes they’re not overly punishing. From reading the forums, Expert mode seems to be quite realistic, at least somewhere around X-Plane levels which is pretty impressive. It’s still accessible for beginners, but don’t expect it to be an arcade experience even on Beginner mode.
The training missions do an admirable job of getting you up to speed. There’s quite a bit of information in the missions and in the manual that teaches you how to fly in TOH, as well as a bit of helicopter theory. It’s not DCS Black Shark in terms of depth, which is probably a good thing because reading the manual for that is like going to ground school. Starting up a helicopter can be as easy as selecting autostart from the menu, or memorising a very simple set of actions to control the battery, starter switch, and throttle. It’s not hard to learn, and all of the controls are very clearly marked. Usually I use the autostart options in flight sims (particularly ones like the DCS sims) but I just did it manually for this one. It gives you something else to continue immersion without descending into eternal procedure, which is what the DCS gamers love. Another touch that I like is that in career mode you can inspect the outside of your helicopters prior to takeoff, looking for damage (which is persistent) and repairing it as necessary. The learning curve is actually reasonably gentle on the lower difficulty settings, so if you’re looking for a more casual kind of flight sim which isn’t arcade, then I really can’t think of anything better than TOH.
Of course in terms of lifespan it’s hard to say with any certainty that TOH will last the distance, but if the community picks it up like they did with ARMA2 (and being based on the same engine, that’s probably not difficult to accomplish) then TOH will be one of those long-life games which might seem a bit barren to start with, but over time flourish into an incredible game with an insane amount of content. The included mission editor is akin to those found in the other ARMA games, which means it has a decent amount of depth (though it has a decent learning curve too).
I think the highest praise I can offer for TOH is that it’s fun. I say again: it’s FUN. Most flight simulators aren’t really “fun”. They’re challenging and give you a sense of accomplishment, but they’re not so much “fun” as they are “satisfying”. A game like DCS KA-50 Black Shark is satisfying when all your procedural stuff wins you a mission. A game like TOH is fun in that you’re completing enjoyable missions without getting bogged down in procedure. It’s not a procedural sim like the DCS games where you spend ages learning how to flip switches in a certain order. It can operate as a sim with a good flight model, or you can play it as a more casual simulator. I think TOH really shines as a casual sim. It strikes that perfect balance between arcade and hardcore, which is where I think the flight sim market ultimately needs to have more titles to appeal to the masses. Of course the flight sim sector doesn’t need to do that because it has its market and that’s all it needs, but still I wish there were more titles like TOH.
Is TOH the new SimCopter? Specifically speaking, no. Or at least not yet. Dynamic missions are in ARMA2 so I guess it’s not impossible for a similar system to pop up in TOH, but for now you’re tied to the storyline or pre-created missions. It’s not a free-roam random game like SimCopter was. But in terms of getting new equipment, the kind of missions you face, and the focus of the game, it very much is like SimCopter. There’s a decent balance between learning to fly the helicopter and playing some very well done missions. They’re deeper than the missions that come with Flight Simulator X for example, and you’ll have fun playing them.
Do I recommend TOH? You bet I do! If you’re looking for a more casual sim with a decent story mode, I’d say you’ve found your game. The hardcore simmers will want to look elsewhere, and the arcade kids who think BF3’s helicopters are ultra-realistic will get frustrated quickly, but for those who are looking for a sim that isn’t bogged down in technical manuals and procedure, I think Take on Helicopters is fantastic. It’s a little pricey, and the engine needs some patching to become playable at a decent FPS, but there’s definitely a good game under here.