Choplifter HD preview

By Jeff Mattas, Jun 02, 2011 3:45pm PDT

If you've been gaming for a few decades, you might fondly remember a little game called Choplifter. Created by developer Dan Gorlin in 1982, the game was a two-dimensional side-scroller for the Apple II which had players piloting a helicopter into hostile territory in order to rescue prisoners of war. Choplifter bears the unique distinction of being one of the only games to be released for home computers before spawning a coin-op arcade version (which was subsequently ported back to home computers and consoles).

Fresh from the release of the Bethesda-published Hunted: The Demon's Forge, developer InXile Entertainment has taken up the Choplifter mantle with Choplifter HD, an Unreal-powered reinvented version of the classic. Initially planned as a digital release for PC and PlayStation Network, InXile plans to self-publish on Xbox Live Arcade as well. According to Sean Patton, director of development at InXile, the team worked closely with Gorlin in order to remain true to what made the original successful. "Choplifter is all about the empathy that you build for those guys you're rescuing," said Patton.

I recently got a chance to play Choplifter HD, and discovered that the core pillars of gameplay that made the original game such a success are kept intact. For example, rescuing hostages while under enemy fire is still the primary task at hand, and the choppers have a good sense of weight and momentum, requiring a bit of nuance to take off and land without damaging them. Gorlin agreed, explaining what elements of the original were crucial in making a faithful Choplifter experience.

Gorlin replied:

For my part, there are a few basics. One is the classic easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master principle. The controls and scoring should be simple and obvious, and whatever happens should make you feel you could have done better, rather than 'this thing is too hard to control.' Working that into a modern game is a challenge, but I think it's important. The inXile team understands this and the design is moving in a great direction.

Another is to focus on the people you're trying to save and your relationship to them. Blowing things up is fun, but it's not the reason you're out there. There are ethical reasons you might emphasize this in a game, but I'm looking mostly at the fun factor. Community is fun, blowing things up is fun. If you need to blast things to pull your community back together, that can tell a compelling story and look flashy enough to draw people in at the same time :) There's nothing wrong with high concept if it has a good story to back it up.

Like in the original, players will need to manage their copter's armor and fuel and keep their guns from overheating, while rescuing hostages, mowing down bad guys, and blowing stuff up across four primary environments and numerous levels. Each level is a 2D side-scrolling affair, though some isometric camera angles give the battlefields a good degree of visual depth. InXile has also added a boost feature to the copters, useful for traversing cleared areas more quickly, or escaping enemy fire.

Three different playable choppers will also be included. The helicopter I got to play with had a high cargo (rescue) capacity but a limited number of missiles. However, I was told there would also be an Apache-like chopper with heavier armaments, as well as a faster and more agile "little bird" copter. The controls were very easy to pick up, with altitude and movement controlled by the left-stick, and gun-aiming controlled by the right-stick.

It's also worth noting that not all prisoners of war behave in the same way. In addition to your standard hostages, there are also slow-moving, injured P.O.W.s that take longer to pick up. There's even a recurring journalist character to rescue, one who stubbornly refuses rescue until he's finished his live report. Patton jokingly referred to him as "the worst version of the injured guy."

Ambient wildlife, in the form of feinting goats and chickens will get sucked into your rotors and explode, keeps the tone light-hearted and chaotic. It's also interesting that each level can be completed by rescuing or killing all of the hostages, though the murder of innocents isn't going to earn you respect on the online leaderboards.

As we all know, zombies are to games as bacon is to food: In other words, just add some to pretty much anything for some extra flavor. A later mission utilizes the undead to twist the standard search-and-rescue formula a bit. After air-dropping soldiers at a ruined hospital, I had to provide air support from an encroaching zombie hoard. Picking up hostages in zombie-infested levels proved a bit trickier too, as they'd mob the copter on the ground, making it necessary to lift off and shake them free. Anti-aircraft guns and soldiers with RPGs also make things tougher as the game progresses.

In a cool twist, Patton told me that he's also been in touch with numerous indie developers to include some light cross-over content from other games. Flying past the final objective during the first mission I played, I found a secret heli-pad out in the desert where a very special passenger awaited me: Super Meat Boy. In fact, each level will contain a number of secrets to find, including some more special character appearances from other titles.

Choplifter HD will also include some fairly robust online stat-tracking, for those with competitive inclinations. Numerous stats with tongue-in-cheek names, like "Pounds of bullets used" and "Buckets of chicken made," give players plenty of opportunities to chase stats.

Choplifter HD is a fun reboot of a classic game that should appeal to newcomers, as much as it does fans of the original. The zombie-based levels, different playable choppers, and cheeky presentational touches add fun twists to the classic formula, without sacrificing the core gameplay that made the series popular in the first place.

Choplifter HD is coming "this Fall" to PC, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade. The price has yet to be revealed.

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