Comanche 4

Preview - a hands-on look at Novalogic's latest helicopter action game

The Comanche series has proven popular since its introduction back in 1992, with the original trilogy selling a couple of million copies worldwide. Now it's back for a fourth time with an all-new polygon-based graphics engine and more action-oriented gameplay. We took a trip down to Novalogic's UK offices in London earlier this week to have a play with the latest build of the game.

Back To Basics

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Comanche, and not a voxel in sight

Perhaps the most striking thing as I entered the office of Novalogic UK PR executive Chris Clarke was the fact that there wasn't a joystick in sight. Indeed, Comanche 4's controls have more in common with those of a first person shooter than a typical flight sim, working perfectly well with just a keyboard and mouse. Hardcore flight sim fanatics will be glad to hear that the game includes a scaleable flight model though, which can give players more detailed control over the eponymous next-generation RAH-66 Comanche armed recon helicopter and its systems if desired. But at its most basic the game is very much a case of pick-up-and-play. Comanche 4 is being presented by Novalogic as a return to the simplicity and fast-paced action of the first game in the series. The developers promise that you can get into the swing of things within five minutes, and judging from my own experience with the game so far, they seem to have accomplished that. Anybody who is at all familiar with first person shooters should be able to quickly get to grips with the Comanche and then get on with the important business of blowing stuff up with its 20mm cannon, 70mm rockets and Hellfire and Stinger missiles.

New World Order

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Red sky at night, hellfires take flight Or something

This wholesale destruction is encouraged in a series of six mini-campaigns, each featuring between three and five missions to complete. These are based very much in the modern world, with less focus on all-out conflict and more missions involving special operations against terrorists and criminals, in settings ranging from the islands of the Carribbean and tropical jungles to arid desert valleys and abandoned city streets. Mission objectives include everything from attacking drug smugglers' boats as they bring narcotics into America to blowing up chemical warfare facilities behind enemy lines. You will defend diplomats, provide close air support for Delta Force troops and even take part in an attack on an aircraft carrier in one of the more warlike missions. Obviously some of this was considered a little close to the bone in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in America, and although our understanding is that no major changes are planned, at least one mission (in which you had to help escort the American President to the safety of Air Force One) has been rescripted. Once you have beaten the single player game you will no doubt want to try your luck against more intelligent opposition. Multiplayer support will allow up to sixteen players to fight it out over a LAN, with a mixture of teamplay, co-operative and deathmatch modes on offer. Meanwhile online support will be available via the Novaworld service, although it has yet to be confirmed how many players will be able to take part in an internet battle simultaneously.

Ground Force

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Tanks and other ground troops are now available to be blown sky high

Despite the focus on rogue nations rather than Cold War confrontation there is still plenty of opposition to face, much of it consisting of Soviet built military hardware. And for the first time in the Comanche series there is an active land war going on around you, with ground troops and vehicles to fight as well as other helicopters. As a result the warzone feels more alive, with jeeps, trucks, tanks and armoured personnel carriers from both sides driving around while infantry guard the perimeter and parade through their bases. Not only do they provide more cannon fodder for you to eliminate, but some of those innocuous looking foot soldiers may have mobile Stinger missile launchers hidden away in their backpacks. You will also need to watch out for anti-aircraft artillery posted around enemy strongholds and gunboats patrolling the rivers and coastline. At the moment the enemy doesn't always put up much of a fight as the AI is far from complete, but the potential is clearly there. The aftermath of a fight also leaves something to be desired, as helicopters gently spiral to the ground when they are destroyed. Again, this is something which is still being worked on, and the final game should have more varied and interesting crashes and explosions.

Visual Treat

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The foam looks even prettier in motion

But while there is still work to be done, the game's graphics are already looking rather tasty. Novalogic have finally decided to ditch their old voxel-based technology in favour of more traditional texture-mapped polygons, allowing them to take full advantage of modern 3D graphics cards such as the GeForce 3, and the result is a sharper, more believable world. From the lush vegetation of the jungle levels to rolling snow-covered valleys lined with fir trees, the terrain over which you will be flying is nicely detailed and extends all the way to the horizon without any obvious fogging. All of the buildings dotted around these maps can be damaged or destroyed, with windows shattering, clouds of dust rising into the air and entire structures collapsing in on themselves as you pump rockets into their walls. The helicopters and other vehicles are intricately modelled when you get up close, and with a choice of first person, chasecam and virtual cockpit views on offer you should have plenty of opportunity to admire them amidst the smoke trails and tracer fire. Most impressive though is the sheer attention to detail. When you hover low over the ground dust and snow gets blown into the air by the wash from your rotors, while dropping down to sea level will cause the water beneath your helicopter to foam realistically. And although it wasn't implemented in the version which we played, Novalogic are promising that the trees will sway as you fly close to them in the final game. It all adds up to an eye-catching and immersive world, and if the developers can bring the game's AI and damage modelling up to spec, they could be on to another winner. Expect to see Comanche 4 flying on to shelves across Europe around November 23rd.

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