Wot I Think: Take On Helicopters

By Rob Zacny on November 22nd, 2011 at 11:14 am.


Start with the odd name: Take on Helicopters. At once a warning and an invitation, it sounds at first like a bad translation. After a few hours at the controls of its rotary-winged menagerie, the title ceases to sound strange and becomes a fairly accurate invitation. It asks, can you Take on Helicopters? Here’s wot I think.

Helicopters. They are a formidable challenge. I don’t think I ever really appreciated how strange they were until this game, despite having flown a great many digital Apaches in the 1990s, when there was a new Apache game roughly ever year.

ToH’s helicopters do not fly so much as they dangle from the sky, suspended as if by wires on a handful of slender variables, all anchored to the laws of physics. Nothing is simple here; there is no thoughtless action. Everything is connected. The pitch of the rotor blades affects lift, but lift is also a function of airspeed, which is itself a product of the angle of the rotor disc and, once again, the angle of the blades. Understanding and using these relationships, with ever more finesse and precision, is what ToH attempts to teach.


It can be daunting, but still you are encouraged to Take on Helicopters! The campaign follows an easy learning curve across several missions, and if they court tedium at times, they are at least more interesting and enjoyable thanks to the curious family drama at the heart of this flight sim. You play Tom Larkin, the young scion of Seattle helicopter royalty (!), who has returned home in the wake of his father’s death and brother’s accident to help save the family business. Each mission gives him some new task, or forces him to fly with greater skill and finesse, so that you grow as a pilot alongside Tom. There are training missions, but the campaign is really the easiest, most entertaining way to learn by doing.

Sincerity and absurdity live side-by-side in this civil-aviation Cinderella Man, where Tom has to dig deep and fly the best six waypoint flight plan ever in order to save his family. A villain oozes onto the stage, the head of an international conglomerate involved in trade and military contracting, and he does everything short of strangling a puppy in order to make clear that he is not to be trusted. Naturally, the elder brother immediately sells him the family business.


All of this is rather endearingly told through the ArmA II engine, with character animations that make Deus Ex look graceful. After dropping my passenger, the sinister Vrana Corp. executive, at his private airport, he went sprinting into his compound like a character in a Wes Anderson movie.

As awkward as it is, there is something compelling about this storyline. Tom Larkin is not a hotshot pilot, but a dutiful son and brother who is working for a family business to which he sometimes seems indifferent. He’s fighting for his dad’s legacy and his brother’s dreams, and along the way he has to run missions for the very rich and their sycophants. I find myself wondering where this story will ultimately lead him. Will he embrace the business and the life prepared for him as a Larkin? Will he get sucked into mercenary work in South Asia? Will he save the business and walk away? The stakes are small, and the story awkwardly told, but it’s relatable.

Take on Helicopters is not all aerial chauffeuring. From time to time, Joe Larkin opens up about his time in the army, flying combat missions in South Asia. This leads to flashback combat missions. You won’t confuse these choppers with Apaches, but you’ll still get plenty of chances to put a brace of Hydra missiles through some poor bastard’s windscreen, or lazily orbit a squad of enemy infantry while listening to your door gunners chew them to pieces with miniguns.

One really superb mission occurs fairly early in the game: a routine mission goes badly awry when your helicopter is ambushed, and you have to make a quick emergency landing. The helicopter is pitching and bucking wildly while the rotor blades turn ever more slowly, and the cockpit is a cacophony of klaxons and warnings. Your eyes dart everywhere, searching the landscapse for a decent place to put down, back up toward the treacherous rotors, down to the instrument panel and its ominous readings. Then there is the ground rushing up to meet you. And the nightmare really begins.


You clamber out and suddenly you’re playing Arma II. You have an M4 carbine and a few clips. You are in the middle of nowhere. You race to the back of the chopper and there is your captain, slumped in his seat. Unconscious or dead. Enemy infantry begin converging on the wreck. Your helicopter sim has degenerated into a firefight, and there are too many of them. You run, watching them swarm toward the wreckage and your comrade. Nothing you can do for it. A dry voice over the radio tells you that rescue is a long way away, but you will have some close air support. “Good luck, Larkin.” It’s grim, disorienting, and deeply unheroic.

At times like that, I can see the possibilities for a game like Take on Helicopters. It models its machines well, but does not lose sight of the people who depend on them. It gives some context and meaning to routine maneuvers and long flights across empty seas and rolling hills.

But those are isolated moments. Most of the time, Take on Helicopters feels coarse and even disappointing. It is not an attractive game, especially in light of the choice it gives you between playable framerates or convincing textures and draw distance. I have a solid PC and graphics card, and yet I have to play with ghastly distracting object pop-in and blurry textures at a fairly low resolution. That’s no small thing in a helicopter sim, where altitudes and distances are low. This might be something that I have gotten used-to, but it also means that Take on Helicopters never takes my breath away. I always see trees frantically racing ahead of me toward the horizon, while square buildings pop out of the ground like prairie dogs.

It also fails to take advantage of some common pieces of sim-gamer kit. ToH supports the TrackIR head-tracking device, but it also depends on delicate in-cockpit mouse controls that become almost impossible when using the TrackIR. And yet, TrackIR is invaluable during flight. So when would you like to be inconvenienced: when playing with cockpit controls, or when trying to pilot?

ToH also knows exactly which kind of throttle and stick I use, but how it uses them is baffling. The trigger is my “push-to-talk” button? [Actually, that's consistent with real helicopters - Nerdy Aviation Ed.] Button 4, an out-of-the-way thumb button, fires weapons? The primary hat switch controls where I am looking, a pointless redundancy next to mouselook. The ergonomics are terrible here. I also had to disable my controller profile and go with a different Saitek stick because, for some reason, the controls were unstable when I used the profile for my X52. This was a known issue on the forums, and the problem is so bad people could not even take-off without using aids. Yes, you can remap commands (although ToH’s interface makes that a frustrating and error-prone process), but it would be nice if the defaults were in the neighborhood of sensible.


Mission sometimes reach baffling fail-states, and the save system is a hopeless ruin. It doesn’t always erase your saves after a mission failure or a tap of the “escape” button, but that happens way too often for a game with so many long missions.

As someone returning to simulated flight from a long hiatus, I appreciate all that Take on Helicopters does right. It rather painlessly taught me to fly, something that a lot of other games have failed miserably at doing. But it lacks the veneer of polish and user-friendliness that is so key to the entry-level experience. It satisfies, but it does not inspire. Inspiration is important if you ever want players to take on richer, more demanding sim challenges.

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27 Comments »

  1. GetEveryone says:

    But with enough time spent taking on helicopters, could I actually fly one?

  2. Will Tomas says:

    I can’t believe the top picture wasn’t a helicopter from the outside with the alt-text of the chorus of Ah-Ha’s Take on Me…

    • Rao Dao Zao says:

      I’d expect a screenshot run through a pencil-sketch-ify filter at the very least.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Now I have that song stuck in my head, thanks, thanks a lot. :(

      I’m still hovering (HA!) over a decision to get this game, but maybe in a year or two when Skyrim gives me my life back, some of the annoying issues will have been patched out.

    • Stuart Walton says:

      I really hope some of the ArmA communtiy modders get in on TOH. What I really want is an update or mod that fleshes out the career sandbox with a ton of new helis and dynamic missions to fly.

      I was also a bit miffed that there’s no real ATC. Aircraft and structures are lacking visible collision lights (even though you have a cockpit switch to turn them on).

  3. Stuart Walton says:

    Pretty much echoes my take on it, although with better words. I really need to write more often.

    I would have played it a bit more but the 1st update patch killed my career save. Thankfully I had already finished the main story and was left with (the sadly quite bare) sandbox stuff.

  4. Dozer says:

    I’m surprised at the control difficulties. I’ve not played ArmA 2 but I’ve had a few weeks with ArmA 1 back in the distant past and it had all the normal control configuration options. Why would that functionality be removed in TOH?

    Also, I think in real life it’s not uncommon for the ‘trigger’ or most accessable joystick switch to be the push-to-talk radio switch, and a thumbswitch for firing. If you think of it, pilots spend a lot more time (a LOT more time) talking on the radio than firing missiles.

  5. pepper says:

    I find the review to be quite true of what the game is. Strangely enough I have a ton of fun with it, then again I could fly for hours in the same region in flightsimulator with my trusty bell 205 and less to do then in TOKH.

  6. Cooper says:

    It’s no SimCopter

    • karumpa says:

      “GET MOVING YOU STUPID IDIOTS”
      “DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING?”

      Great game. Wish they remade it. Also I remember some of the cheat codes for it. Its weird how you could actually get a sense of atmosphere in each city.

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      Chaz says:

      SimCopter was great fun, I really enjoyed that. Didn’t one of the devs get fired afterwards when they discovered he’d surreptitiously programed in a gay parade or something like that?

    • metalangel says:

      That’s correct. His name was Jacques Severin, and he decided the game needed equality… specifically, if hot bikini girls could come and congratulate you, why not hot musclemen too?

      I played SimCopter to DEATH. I bought it (a pack in with aviator sunglasses!) and Tomb Raider in a boxing day sale. I barely touched Tomb Raider because of SimCopter.

      Anyone remember Sharpie’s SimCopter site?

  7. ZIGS says:

    Imagine if you could talk to the helicopters

  8. Vagrant says:

    My main interest in this game has always been:
    If your helicopter experience comes from Battlefield and the like, is this the best tutorial for learning basic flight techniques? Flight sims of all types are rather poor tutors, in my experience.

    Also, I use an X52, so it sounds like it’s a no-go.

    • RobZacny says:

      I should emphasize: I was still able to use my X52. The issue I ran into is that when I loaded ToH’s default profile for the X52, the aircraft were incredibly unstable and twitchy at low speeds and altitudes. Hovering was effectively impossible, as was a vertical take-off. I saw a small number of people dealing with this at the Bohemia forums.

      When I used a profile for the Cyborg X, another Saitek stick, controls were somehow more stable. Other people reported something similar. It’s a strange problem.

      Once I found a profile that didn’t make the helicopters uncontrollable, my X52 worked well.

    • Vagrant says:

      I wasn’t sure if you switched profiles or switched sticks. That clears that up. Sounds like the perfect Steam Sale game for me, then.

    • Zenicetus says:

      If you really want to learn basic helicopter flight techniques in a sim, then get X-Plane 9, which has the best (in my opinion) helicopter flight model, and some very good payware helicopters to fly.

      You’ll need a good joystick (cyclic), separate throttle (collective) control for your left hand, and a set of pedals for the tail rotor. A twist-type joystick makes it much harder…. get pedals. You’ll also need a fast enough computer/GPU for a liquid-smooth frame rate, so you don’t end up getting behind the flight model. TrackIR isn’t as essential, but it’s good for precision landings where you need to look down to gauge height above ground in the last few feet, while still juggling the controls.

      Start with one of the heavier, more stable models like X-Plane’s payware BK-117 or Bell 206. Stay away from the jumpier light stuff at first. The BK-117 is my favorite:

      http://nd-art-and-technology.com/BK117_main.html

      You’ll have to learn some non-intuitive moves. I’ve heard real-life helo pilots describe it as trying to stand on top of a big rubber ball, and not fall off. For example, on takeoff you have to hold a little “rudder” (tail rotor) pedal against the torque of the main rotor, and at the same time slightly tilt the main rotor with your joystick to counteract the way your tail rotor is trying to push you sideways, once the skids are off the ground.

      Very tricky. But lots of fun, once you learn how to do it. I still have trouble doing precision landings-on-a-dime in X-Plane, but it’s the closest you can get to the real thing in a PC sim at the moment. From the sound of things, this Arma II model doesn’t come close. But it does have missions, if you need more than just sightseeing and mastering the flight controls as an incentive to fly.

    • Vagrant says:

      It’s not so much learning a realistic flight model thing that I’m interested in, but in how the game teaches you to play. I’m more interested in something that can show me effective methods that I can then carry to other games, with either more or less realistic flight models.

      Sort of like Gran Turismo. Sure the physics are crap, but I learned how to race cars pretty darn well with it, which has served me well in everything from real life racing, to Mario Kart.

    • soldant says:

      Ugh, X Plane 9. I’d like it a lot more if it wasn’t so ugly by default, especially considering how many DVDs it comes on.

      @Vagrant: The flight model is a step up from arcade, and having played both this and BF3, TKOH is more realistic than BF3 but some of the skills will translate across to other flight sims, at least in basic theory and operation. If you’re not aiming for super realism with pedals and so on then TKOH is fine and will give you a better challenge than BF3′s much more arcadey flight mechanics. You get the basics of helicopter flight and an introduction to autorotation landings… which AFAIK only X Plane 9 really simulates?

    • Zenicetus says:

      @ Vagrant: “It’s not so much learning a realistic flight model thing that I’m interested in, but in how the game teaches you to play. I’m more interested in something that can show me effective methods that I can then carry to other games, with either more or less realistic flight models.”

      If you learn to fly helicopters in a more realistic simulation like X-Plane, you’ll be all set to fly DCS Black Shark as a combat helicopter sim (or vice-versa). Or any other realistic helo sim that comes next (maybe DCS Apache?).

      With a helicopter sim that models the real thing well enough, you can go outside the gaming community (I know, a radical thought!) and talk to real helicopter pilots in the PC sim forums about how these things work.

      @ Soldant: Yeah, X-Plane is ugly with the default low-level terrain, but there’s a ton of good user-created scenery, both free and payware, and some of the payware scenery like “Inside Passage” is great:

      http://www.xplanefreeware.net/tom/InsidePassage/Home.html

      You don’t have to install all those DVD’s that come with the sim, it’s just the default airport and navaid data for the whole world. You can install just the areas you’re interested in. And X-Plane runs on PC, Mac, and Unix, which means the user community is larger than the typical one-shot flight sim.

  9. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    So.. who’s this Rob bloke? Have we seen him around these parts before?

    • Vagrant says:

      I think I recognize the name from Shacknews? It’s been a while since I’ve read that site.

    • Rob Thomasson says:

      He previously did a Wot I Think on Tropico 4. Rob Zacny hosts the Three Moves Ahead podcast and writes/blogs for PC Gamer US online amongst other endeavours.

    • Vagrant says:

      Ah that’s it, Gamers With Jobs. I knew it was from some podcast I used to listen to.

  10. asshibbitty says:

    I’d love to know why this game costs twice as much, on Russian steam, as most new AAA games. Another lesson from Bohemia on how to Take On Pirates (not).

  11. TheHipGamer says:

    I find it interesting that the ARMA team is making a helicopter sim — if only for the suggestion of better flight models in ARMA 3, given how unrealistic so much of ARMA/ARMA2 was.