One of my major disappointments in games is the consistent lack of flight titles. The industry seems to have an aversion to three dimensions, consistently downplaying or eschewing the vertical axis altogether in an attempt to keep games simple. Having grown up in the skies, that really irks me — so how happy was I to find a new military flight game hitting the market.
Heliborne is the first title of indie developer JetCat Games, and it’s a PvE/PvP helicopter action game with a decidedly historical streak. Featuring over 50 different birds from the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, the game’s scope includes battles and vehicles from the last 70 years, contextualising everything from missions and loadouts to maps and research paths.
Most famous choppers are already in the game: the US has legends like the Huey, Apache, and Black Hawk, while the Soviets can fly the Ka-52, Hind, and Havoc — everything from the first active recon military helicopters of the 1950’s to the modern gunships that appear in many a video game are in Heliborne, and chances are you will be able to fly your favourite chopper here.
Each craft is beautifully detailed, often with full interiors and faithful geometry. The fuselage and armaments are lovely to behold, and each helicopter looks extremely well modelled. The texture resolution is considerably below standard especially on the interior compartments, but the outer shell looks good enough to keep you entertained during long flights — and how long they are.
Each craft has specific stats, and they don’t always make sense. The H-19 transport achieves airspeeds in excess of 220 km/h, while the Bravo Huey caps at 148 km/h. The same Generation I H-19 transport has 132 NAKA 38mm missiles, while the extremely advanced Generation IV AH-1Z Viper only carries 38 Hydra 70mm rockets. Given how little splash damage and area of effect the game’s weapons currently possess, the Viper comes off as nearly useless compared to the H-19 when taking out ground targets. Attack choppers seem especially unsuited at performing their role in non-PvP environments.
Those roles are the main gameplay loop, where each chopper performs a different function: recon crafts can mark enemies with the touch of a button, transports can unload several soldiers to provide fire support or capture control points, and attack gunships carry a variety of very powerful ordinance. All of those are essential to a match: transports capture and reinforce control points, attack crafts are able to deal with heavily armoured vehicles, and recon helicopters can direct mortar fire and mark the myriad of infantry troops that are otherwise nigh-invisible to players.
Missions revolve around using your rotary wing beasts to complete those tasks, which appear as multiple objectives in a big and interesting square area measuring somewhere between four and five square miles. Completing them before their individual timers run out gives you a star point, and the match ends once a set number of stars are won. Not completing them leads to a fail, and once a small number of objectives are failed, the mission ends in defeat.
While it works, I find this single game mode to be somewhat bland and uninspiring — there is no tactical or strategical purpose behind it, as objectives randomly appear and even captured control points serve only to shoot other choppers down. While one specific mission type involves an automatic win once a convoy reaches the enemy base, matches are often finished long before then. The end result is a repetitive and slightly boring setup that only works due to the core gameplay loop being fun.
And how absurdly fun it is. Flight feels too sluggish, at first, but soon clicks into place, and when it works, Heliborne has the uncanny ability of making you feel like a real air support pilot. Hovering into position above an enemy emplacement and sending bursts of autocannon rounds downrange never fails to amuse, and the game just gets the feel of gunner aerial support right. The flight UI is especially good, doing a fantastic job of displaying the flight indicators, even changing which elements of the HUD move in first and third person to facilitate craft and aim awareness.
However, the first person mode needs a lot of love in order to feel like a proper gunnery position, especially since unique cockpits for each craft are unlikely given the small size of the development team. The interface is a bit bare and fails to immerse you properly, which is especially off-putting as you progress to later generations — Vietnam era crafts have the exact same interface of a modern chopper, and even the thermal vision of gunships is nothing but a disappointing black and white filter that doesn’t highlight enemies, serving no actual in-game purpose.
The flight model in itself, while serviceable, could use certain tweaks. The ratio between climb/movement is disproportional to how strongly and for how long you hold down the climb/direction buttons, feeling as if you are constantly wading a truck through mud. Yaw rates are similarly slothful, and all helicopters take a few seconds to match the crosshair heading to the mouse’s camera angle.
Though HOTAS setup thankfully exists, the flight model is not realistic enough to adequately support it. The helicopter generates lift in the Z axis regardless of the angle of the rotor blades, which means it always climbs up relative to the ground and unaffected by pitch. I went through a fair bit of fiddling to configure my HOTAS for review purposes, and after a few matches with it, went back to mouse and keyboard — as much as I love flying with a HOTAS, it just wasn’t worth the hassle.
Speaking of hassle, the game developers thankfully had their heads in the right place when determining progression. Your final score is determined by your actions, and you get points even if you lose a match — as a result, you can quickly and swiftly unlock everything you want with constant play. It is by no means fast and you do need to put some time in, but I never felt like I was grinding — every aircraft I had my eyes on could be acquired after a few well played matches.
The actual progressing is a bit obtuse at first, thanks to little information and a especially subpar main menu that could seriously use a functionality pass. The toggle buttons for faction and vehicle categories are unclear, and the progression system seems unnecessarily convoluted — you can’t edit a helicopter’s soldier loadout from the hangar screen nor preview a chopper without buying it. At the time of writing, you must access the Squads tab and edit a group in order to change its loadout, and go to the “Progression” page to preview vehicles (clicking them for details still inexplicably bugs you first with a “buy” prompt). Instead of reuniting all relevant information on a single screen, Heliborne inexplicably asks you to access three different tabs to interact with the same information.
Severely more egregious and infinitely more frustrating, however, is the game balance. While helicopter weapons and healths are mostly efficiently balanced against each other, they all fall flat when facing ground enemies. Aircrafts in the game are absurdly fragile to the point of ridiculousness — one bullet from an infantry rifle takes 9% off the health bar of a Bell AH-Z1 Viper. According to Heliborne, a soldier with an AK-74 can shoot down an attack gunship with half a clip.
It gets worse the larger the enemy is. AA guns adequately shred you from a distance, but APC’s, tanks, and other ground vehicles can instantly kill you from half a kilometer away even when you’re flying at full speed. As a result, you spend most of your time flying from the single spawn base towards the battlefield, only to be killed in two seconds, unable to react thanks to the sluggish controls.
The worst aspect of gameplay, without a doubt, are the missiles. RPG’s deal immense damage to your craft (completely ignoring their real-life armour penetration that sometimes causes rockets shoot through the fuselage unexploded), but MANPADs are absurd. They simply can’t be dodged by maneuvers, only by flares — trying to dodge missiles always results in them hitting you 5 meters behind the tail rotor yet still dealing full damage, forcing you to either use a one-press win button or risk dying immediately. It is absurdly frustrating.
Aside from balance, those shortcomings could be attenuated if ground control served a purpose besides anti-air support. Infantry units are utterly incompetent at dealing with enemy troops, and you often lose entire outposts to a couple of soldiers. The game refuses to mark enemies unless you are right on top of them, making long distance recon or target acquisition a pointless endeavour — which forces you to do strafing runs that more often than not result in you exploding unceremoniously. The fact that resupply can only take place on the main base and not on the myriad of control points on the map only reinforces the already shallow and nigh useless feeling of ground control, and exacerbates the frustration of the “spawn-fly-die” cycle.
Sound design is the one technical area the game sincerely falls short. Most choppers don’t have distinct sound effects, and the ones that do are too alike to really tell apart. Non-diegetically, musics are often repetitive, sometimes inappropriate, and mostly ordinary — each map has its own track, which plays on an endless loop (which quickly becomes a problem as missions usually last over 15 minutes). Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin, for example, has a generic rock soundtrack instead of a Creedence Clearwater Revival inspired soundscape, which makes the game feel like a cheap MMO title and fails rather spectacularly at setting the tone of the time period. In contrast, the Kosovo mission in does a much better job of setting the mood via its Baltic music.
Despite its shortcomings, Heliborne is a fantastic product with a foot deeply planted on history, and it honours that context. But as satisfying as it is to perform a high speed strafing run as your minigun opens fire on an enemy position, all enjoyment and immersion flies out the window when your Apache explodes two seconds later to machine gun fire. While the title does have severe issues that hamper enjoyment on the long run, both from realism and game design perspectives, neither of them are insurmountable. Given what I’ve seen from this small four people team, I am confident they can fix it.