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Larkin About: Take On Helicopters Test Flown

H is for hot-diggity

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My left mouse button is confused. It’s just spent five unbroken hours with a Bohemia Interactive game and not once was it asked to snuff out a man’s life. There were times when I felt like asking it to snuff out a man’s life, but as the preview build of Take On Helicopters doesn’t include player firearms, such a request would have been fairly pointless. After the jump, a picture of the man I wished dead, plus twelve hundred words where four -“Take On Helicopters! Gosh!” – probably would have sufficed.

That’s the swine in question. The bloke on the right. One of the two missions in the preview build involves delivering him and his two colleagues to a forest-hemmed firing-range near Seattle. You’re Tom Larkin a man with a chopper for hire. He’s Frost, a training officer for Vrana Corp, a PMC last seen on ITV in Arma.

En-route to the range, the obnoxious Frost insists you fly at treetop height and go like the clappers. Any tardiness or accidental altitude earns an irrate “What did I say about touching the trees!” or an apoplectic “Follow my orders, Larkin!”. Deviate for more than 30 seconds and the mission is scrubbed. You’re plainly meant to end-up loathing this client, but, thanks to annoying autosave points, confusing instructions, and the aggravating drip-drip of those reprimands, you end-up loathing the scenario designers too. I hope ‘Best Laid Plans’ isn’t a typical story mission. If it is, then saving Larkin Aviation, could be a gruelling business.

Right, now I’ve got that off my chest I’m free to say nice things like “Even if the campaign turns out to be a bug-spattered nightmare, I’ll still be recommending ToH to anyone with even a passing interest in simulated flight”. Most of my time with the preview code, has been spent tearing around the sim’s 3800 square-km Seattle terrain, ogling the amazing vistas, and enjoying the friendly-yet-flavoursome flight models. I can’t remember the last time a flight sim made me this keen to just jump into a cockpit and ramble about the countryside. I can’t recall the last time a sim caused me to spend so many hours simply swooping around like a swallow in love.

While my talk of chicken and washing machine-littered LZs turns out to be a bit over-optimistic (the scenery isn’t nearly as detailed as an average Arma map) ToH’s Seattle environment has to go down as one of the finest tracts of terrafirma the genre has ever seen. Fabricated from a blend of high-definition elevation mesh, photo-derived ground textures, tens of thousands of hand placed(?) structures and millions of individual trees, the combined effect is breathtaking and – going by the preview code – not too unkind to GPUs to boot. My modest i5/GeForce GTX460 system cruised along contentedly unless visibility was turned up to excessive ranges.

I doff my hat-switch to whoever it was that decided to put Jimi Hendrix’s home-town at the centre of the sim (there’s also a SE Asian map but that, apparently, will play a supporting role). With its crinkly coastline, surfeit of hills, and striking city-wilderness juxtapositions, the place is perfect for interesting low-altitude aviation. The fact that the cradle/sepulchre of civilian flight simulation is a five-minute helo ride from Larkin Aviation’s waterside base, is either a strange coincidence or deeply symbolic. I’ll go with deeply symbolic.

You’d have to be a mean-spirited bastard to pick holes in this gorgeous chopper playground.  Fortunately I have such a bastard living in the cupboard under my stairs. Over to you, Beswick.

“What that soft-hearted pillock hasn’t told you about ToH’s main environment is that it appears to be completely devoid of powerlines. That’s right, BIS’s landscape lackeys haven’t bothered to model the helo pilot’s arch-enemy! I’ve also yet to see a train or a moving boat. Automobiles are there. Just. Currently cars spawn and vanish at intersections. The readme implies this distracting shorthand is a temporary state of affairs, but with release a mere month away, I smell a rat.

Then there’s the hillside highways banked like NASCAR circuits, and the hillside homes with exposed foundations. And don’t get me sta”

That’s quite enough, Beswick. Back in the cupboard with you, you misery-monger. ToH’s scenery does have its rough edges and omissions, but nipping along at 500 feet and 120 knots, the flaws seem pretty insignificant. However much money you’ve thrown at your FSX scenery folder in recent years, I guarantee you’ll be blown away by what BIS have achieved.

The second preview mission – ‘Sling Your Hook’ – gives a tantalising glimpse of ToH’s randomly generated optional sorties. I’ve flown it four or five times so far and found myself visiting different locations each time. On arrival the jobs do always seem to entail roughly the same thing – skycraning two loads from one construction site to another – but the idea of keeping Larkin Aviation afloat through unglamorous contracting like this, is still very appealing to this old Air Hauler. Hopefully we’ll also get the chance to intersperse story missions with unscripted taxi work and tourist sightseeing trips.

Don’t expect sinuous cables or sophisticated pendulum physics from ToH’s skycrane outings. Even with the expert flight model active, strops never seem to snap, cargo never seems to end up oscillating wildly. Loads swing a little, yes, and drag plausibly on the ground, but other helo sims have dangled things more persuasively.

Other sims have also made more of an effort to compensate for the absence of an instruction-spouting co-pilot/winchman/groundsman. If ‘Sling Your Hook’ is any guide, the only help ToH pilots will get during delicate lifts or landings will come from the immersion–fracturing external camera. Oh, and the FM-dampening ‘auto hover’ cheat.

I could release Beswick at this point and let him rabbit-on about the inadequacies of the FM and the various non-functional switches in virtual cockpits, but I’m not sure how helpful that would be. Unless your a regular visitor to www.hovercontrol.com or a DCS: Black Shark devotee, I doubt you’ll find much to complain about in the realism department. Helos can be cold-started with a single click or coaxed into life in a more involving multi-stage fashion. During the 30 minutes of tutorials the only notes I bothered/needed to write were:

FROM COLD
Battery on (Ctrl + B)
Starter on (Ctrl + 1)
Wait a Bit
Throttle to idle (Insert)
Wait a bit
Starter off (Ctrl +1)
Wait a bit
Throttle up (Insert)
Wait a bit
GO!

That’s about as technical as ToH gets.

My time with the preview code hasn’t banished my damage model misgivings, neither has it convinced me that meteorology has been treated with the respect it deserves. What it has confirmed is a suspicion that the staid world of civilian flight simulation is about to get a glorious kick up the arse. Beswick probably isn’t going to enjoy Take On Helicopters. The jolt of elation I feel every time I lift off from Larkin HQ, and dip the nose of my MD 500 towards the glittering waters of Puget Sound, convinces me that I will. Roll on October 27.

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Tim Stone

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