Inside Pulse 12

Review: Choplifter HD (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Choplifter HD
Genre: Shooter
Developer: InXile Entertainment
Publisher: InXile Entertainment
Release Date: 01/11/12

Of the various older and long forgotten franchises that exist in the video game market, Choplifter does not spring to mind as the first franchise one would want to revive. The original game came out on the Apple II waaaaaaay back in nineteen eighty two, and was great for its time, spawning releases in the arcade and on the NES and SMS, among other consoles of the time period. There are also sequels to the game that were released into the nineties, and while parent company Broderbund is long since defunct, the game itself is still one that older gamers can remember instantly. Still, it seems like an odd choice to resurrect the franchise after nearly two decades of inactivity, but InXile has certainly shown that they’re nothing if not a company of gamers who remember the past. As Hunted: The Demon’s Forge was an attempt to merge rogue-like elements into Gears of War gameplay, so too is Choplifter HD an attempt to bring the classic gameplay of that franchise into the modern market with a HD facelift and new elements. The question, then, is whether or not Choplifter HD can bring enough to the table to make it a worthwhile resurrection of the franchise; that is, can the game take the core components and update them in the same fashion as something like Bionic Commando Re-Armed, or does it show that the franchise was better left dead, like Splatterhouse?

Let’s take a look.

There isn’t a plot to Choplifter HD per say, in the sense that there’s no obvious reason why everything is going on that the game feels the need to explain. However, the game does seem to have a plot, of sorts, going on through the different missions, as your mission displays indicate that there various sorts of terrorist threats, oppressive governments and viral outbreaks to contend with, and your chopper team has to do so. The meat of the plot is mostly handled by your pilot and gunner, as their banter carries the exposition of the game’s plot as the two discuss various related and unrelated topics while you fly the unfriendly skies, and while the banter is often silly, it works and actually makes you like the team by game’s end. The duo isn’t exactly heavily developed or anything, but they don’t really need to be; they’re two guys trying to save lives and they’re pretty amusing while doing so, and as such, they work pretty well together. Everything you can do with the game is confined to the campaign, as there are about thirty missions of objectives and sub-objectives to complete, though the game does also offer the option to view your statistics as well as check the online leaderboards for competitors to your scores. There are also multiple difficulties to plow through for those who enjoy this thing, though outside of any add-on DLC there’s only the main campaign to plow through.

Visually, Choplifter HD is pretty solid looking, featuring great technical effort for its relatively low price. The environments are varied nicely, and while you’ll see some palettes re-used as you play the levels are redesigned enough from use to use that it’s not obvious when you see it. The enemies, allies and vehicles in the game all generally look great as well, and when the game zooms in to show you people as they climb on board the chopper the game holds up well in its texture count and framerate. The game also doesn’t have any noticeable slowdown issues, even in later levels where enemies are pounding you with artillery, and the game features some solid fire and explosion effects, working with a special effect style that’s both believable and arcade-oriented. Aurally, the game music is mostly composed of solid orchestral score, and while it can at times seem to be a bit in contrast to the occasionally more silly nature of the game, when the situation gets hot in-game it becomes instantly fitting in a hurry. The voice acting between your two main characters is generally well cast and, at times, absolutely hilarious, as the two riff off each other and the game world constantly and bring a real buddy cop feel to the game that helps sell the experience. The rest of the voice work is also generally solid, though it mostly consists of people screaming for help (or just screaming), with the exception of frequent rescue requestor Scoop Sanderson, who is also well cast, and is both one of the best and worst parts of the game. The various effects in the game also straddle the line between arcade farce and serious experience, as the various gunfire and explosion effects pop up alongside bugle calls to identify helpful hints, and it’s odd, but all comes together surprisingly well.

Choplifter HD isn’t too far removed, mechanically, from its predecessor, and it’s not a hard game to get a handle on. The game is played on a 2D side-scrolling plane, and the left stick moves the helicopter around that plane as needed. The right stick aims your targeting laser, which you can use to paint targets for attack with machine guns fired from the right trigger or missiles fired from the left trigger. The bumpers turn the helicopter to face into the foreground and either left or right, depending on the bumper pressed, and the face buttons kick on your boost for evasion or fast movement. Your objective is to fly through the level, shoot everything you can, and pick up people in need of an evac by landing near them (landing on them kills them) so they can be evacuated to the home point. The HUD on-screen measures your health, fuel, people you’ve rescued, people who have died somehow, and people on your helicopter at the moment, while the bar at the top shows where all of the important landmarks on the map are located. Generally, the game is pretty easy to understand and work with, and you’ll likely have a good handle on how everything works by the end of the tutorial missions. There’s nothing overly complex aside from properly orienting your helicopter, so you’ll likely get it all down without a problem.

This is a good thing, because the enemy progressively throws more and more at you as the game progresses. At first you’ll have to worry about little more than soldiers wielding rifles and the odd rocket launcher, but you’ll eventually face jeeps, EMP snipers, tanks, jets, anti-air turrets and even zombies (yep) as you progress, making each stage harder than the one before it. You’ll also find that later missions have injured people to pick up who have timers associated with them, and if that timer bottoms out, they die, so you’ll have to prioritize your targets and work hard to keep them alive. You won’t be stuck without aid, however, as you’ll be fully refueled and repaired when you make it to home base, and several stages have fueling stations at midpoints throughout the level in case you have to make a long trek. You’ll also unlock upgraded helicopters as you earn stars in the missions, of which there are three different types (one for speed, one for carrying pickups and one for combat scenarios), so you’ll get new boosts to your ride as you do well. At the end of each stage you’re graded based on the time you have left in a level, the targets you eliminated and the hostages you recovered, and given a star ranking based on that performance; more stars means faster upgrades, so putting on your best performance is a good idea.

You can generally get through the thirty missions in the core campaign of Choplifter HD on the Normal difficulty in about five or so hours, give or take, though the game does offer more to it than just a one-and-done campaign mode. You can return to missions you’ve completed with the other chopper types you’ve unlocked if you haven’t gotten a five star ranking and try to take on the mission with superior firepower, and each mission has secondary objectives to complete that you can also return to in case you miss them. There are also two more difficulty modes, Hardcore and Survival, that you can unlock if you’re looking for more of a challenge, so those who find the game too easy the first time around will find that the game offers more for you to fight against if you’re looking for a challenge. There are also leaderboards to match up on if you’re looking to be the best, as well as Achievements to unlock for those who desire this thing, and the game also indicates there will be DLC somewhere down the line to add onto the core game, which is fairly robust in and of itself. Basically, for a twelve hundred point, fifteen dollar game, Choplifter HD does a pretty good job of selling itself on its content and volume of options, and as such, is pretty easy to recommend from that standpoint alone.

The biggest issue with Choplifter HD is that the game is, even on the default difficulty setting, a bit of a bear later on in the game. While the first two scenarios aren’t bad overall, by the time you get to “Operation Bravo Breakout” you’ll find yourself either failing miserably or scoring very low unless you master the controls, as the game is very much a subscriber to the old school mentality of game design in its difficulty. While gamers of that mindset will likely enjoy the game for its unapologetic challenge and relish the opportunity to fight through the stages, less skilled gamers will likely find the game frustrating in many respects in later stages of the game where nearly expert flight skills are needed. You can come back to these stages with better helicopters later in the game, but this assumes you can make it through the stages in the first place, and even then, the equipment only makes up so much for a lack of skill, which, again, can be frustrating late in the game. Additionally, while the game adds in some additional concepts and a couple of cute surprises, it’s basically Choplifter in the modern era. It’s a fun game, to be certain, but it’s a side scrolling shooter where you have to airlift hostages and try not to die a lot, at the end of the day, and while it’s a little more in-depth than many shooters because of its mechanics, it also doesn’t add on as much as something like Bionic Commando Re-Armed did to the core game, for example.

At the end of it all, Choplifter HD takes neither the “take the core concept and stuff it full of new stuff” road of Bionic Commando Re-Armed nor the “take the core concept and make a whole new game” road of Splatterhouse, but instead sticks to basics and goes with what worked for the game with a little spit and polish added on top. The end result, then, is a game that reflects this idea, as Choplifter HD is a solid, well executed shooter with some interesting elements that is likely to impress genre fans, but doesn’t quite do as much as could to make any converts. The game has just enough plot via its character interplay to be interesting and the game is very flashy and well put together, both visually and aurally. The gameplay is simple to learn but complex to truly get a handle on thanks to its combination of standard shooter conventions and more complex physics and aiming mechanics, and it’s a pretty good time as a result. There’s plenty to do with the game as well, thanks to the variety of unlockables, difficulty modes and Achievements in the game, and the promise of possible DLC somewhere down the line also implies that there may be even more to offer as time goes on. The game is a bit on the challenging side even on its easiest difficulty, however, and could prove problematic for newcomers, and even beyond that, the game doesn’t add much to the Choplifter formula in comparison, and while it’s good, one wonders what could have been added to make the game into something more. Choplifter HD comes across less as a reinvention of the franchise and more as an homage to it, as InXile opted to bring the series into the modern era with a strong facelift rather than make it their own, and while one wonders what could have been, what’s here is still worth the asking price.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
As the score implies, Choplifter HD is indeed an enjoyable game, and while it tends to gravitate toward updating the franchise for the modern era rather than trying to improve upon it, it’s still a fun time for nostalgic gamers and genre fans alike. Though the plot is barely there the game is carried along by the character interplay well enough, and the game is aesthetically pleasing in the visual and aural departments thanks to some strong technical work and artistic investment. The gameplay is easily understood but carries interesting complexity behind it that will keep gamers interested, as the game is very much invested in pushing the gamer to improve as the game progresses. There’s also plenty of content to the game, both in the initial playthrough and in subsequent replays, allowing for plenty of reason to return to the game for those who enjoy it on the first go-round. The game can be a bit on the rough side for those with less experience with the genre, as it becomes punishing as the later stages come up, and even beyond that, the game is often content to work with the concepts the franchise created rather than really innovate, and the game never really evolves out of being an homage to the original. Still, for the price, Choplifter HD is a strong reworking of the original, and does a very good job of bringing the series into the modern era. While it may not quite draw the interest of those who don’t know of the series or aren’t fans of the genre, for anyone who is, it’s an excellent use of your money and a joyful experience all around.