After Choplifter’s smart debut on the Apple II in the early-eighties and a couple subsequent sequels, the series went missing in action. Like so much eighties culture, the intensity of our love for the combat helicopter proved to be unsustainable. And yet, recently we’ve seen a kind of resurgence in videogames taking us back to the heady days when the attack helicopter was king.
Choplifter HD presents a functional throwback to the simple design of the original. As advertised, the formula’s been modernized into HD, and it remains structurally true. The enduring outline of air combat and escort missions define the contents, while developer InXile Entertainment takes some liberties in execution.
As a 2.5D shmup, Choplifter HD’s passable. The helicopter can go right or left and alternatively face the foreground. A gun attached to the nose and some stock missiles provide a sufficient enough means for defense, although aiming becomes unwieldy, with the laser guide not always tracking well. Sometimes when the action heats up it’s hard to tell where much of anything’s coming from and occasionally you’ll get shot from off-screen or have no sense for whether a missile’s still locked on, lending certain frustration. Generally each scenario has a handful of these highly concentrated action areas and the rest goes over smooth.
The main draw is in the escort missions anyway, with Choplifter being one of the first games to get those right, if not to do escort missions altogether. The main problem in the update is in waiting for the painfully slow AI to work its way into or out of the helicopter. Mechanically it all works fine and there’s still a strict tactical emphasis on occasionally returning to base for fuel, weapons, and drop-offs. It’s the heart of the game and provides the best argument for why it exists: at its most stressful and difficult, it’s clear just how unforgiving and true to the original the reboot can be.
Sadly, progression through the missions is handled in a linear way. Each one has to be completed in order. It feels rigid and frustrating later, as Choplifter HD hits some wildly inconsistent difficulty spikes starting about halfway on. Then there’s just not a whole lot there afterwards. Some helicopters can be unlocked through performing well enough in missions and will have to be in order to make any progress. A new difficulty’s unlocked after finishing but scanning the leaderboards, there only seemed to be a single guy who’s played much further than normal. That sums up the relevance of the reboot.
The feeling is that everything’s slightly disjointed and out of place. One can’t help but wonder who it’s for. The source material’s been left out, as with so many downloadable updates, making it hard to put any absolute stock in the title as a means for fan service. Some inclusions, such as hordes of zombies, or a couple brief Duke Nukem cameos, come across as arbitrary to the actual design, although the first couple meetings with Duke admittedly provide some welcome flavor to the otherwise lifeless tone.
The main point to take issue with, however, is the amateurish voice-acting, seemingly provided by the developers, barring the odd couple lines from Jon St. Jon. It’s all awkwardly written and doesn’t take itself at all seriously but it’s also never funny. Each mission features a hidden running gag character in Scoops Anderson, an obnoxious journalist. Occasionally the pilots will make amusing quips about leaving him to die and why did we pick up that self-aggrandizing journalist anyway. Otherwise the dialog’s mostly bad and rarely comes across as useful or as contributing to the scenario.
The transition into HD looks all right. It’s nothing to linger on but there are some good things to it. A few areas look pretty good and have a decent sense of depth but others feel completely flat. Importantly, the helicopters are modeled well enough and there’s a nice effect to the dust clouds when hovering over some areas. The main problem is the environments all feel a bit perfunctory and static. Apart from how things are placed, there’s not much in the way of distinguishing features to tell one part from the next.
Choplifter HD is exactly what the name describes: Choplifter, in HD. While the franchise has slipped off the map a while back, it’s nice to see the return of a well-regarded classic, albeit perhaps a less fitting one than it deserves. For those unfamiliar with the originals, 1200 Microsoft Points seems a bit too steep. Either way, despite the flaws in the execution, it’s more Choplifter. And for a select few, that still means something.