Review - a helicopter flight combat game for first person shooter fans
While most flight sims aim for an almost excessive degree of realism, manuals that put War & Peace to shame and controls that require several hours of real life pilot training to master, Comanche 4 is a very different beast. Designed to appeal to the Quake generation, it's all about pick up and play action rather than detailed flight models. A brief tutorial mission should make even the most inexperienced of PC pilots feel at home with the advanced RAH-66 Comanche helicopter, and then it's time to head off to war. Suitably enough this is a new kind of war you are facing, with heavily armed terrorists the target in most missions rather than hostile nations. In all there are six campaigns, which you can play in any order, and should you get stuck on one mission you can simply switch to a different campaign and come back when you're feeling more confident. Settings range from the Balkans and Belarus to the Libyan border and tropical islands, with everything from deserts and jungles to snow-covered forests and debris-strewn city streets to explore. The one thing that these locations have in common is that they all look absolutely stunning. Doing away with the voxels of yore, Novalogic's new polygonal graphics engine still produces extensive and highly detailed terrain while taking full advantage of modern hardware.
Sweet, Sweet Candy
The result is eye-catching and the sheer attention to detail is impressive. The wash from your rotors stirs up dust as you hover low over the ground, oil tanks explode in huge rolling tongues of flame, buildings gracefully collapse in on themselves in a cloud of smoke and shattered glass, and ships slowly keel over and sink as your missiles strike them. Moreover, for the first time in the Comanche series you really feel as though you are in the middle of a full scale war. Enemy helicopters and fighter jets fly overhead while jeeps, tanks, trucks, anti-aircraft vehicles, infantry, icemobiles and dune buggies litter the ground. Up close during the in-game cutscenes at the start of each mission they can look slightly blocky, and the way the tanks glide along the ground without their tracks moving is a little disconcerting. But in the heat of battle you won't notice any of this, and from a distance the vehicles look every bit as beautiful as your own intricately modelled helicopter. Sadly all of this eye candy comes at a cost though. Even playing at 800x600 with a fast Athlon processor and GeForce 2 graphics card the game can be rather choppy when things get frantic, and that's with the default settings the game recommended for my hardware. If you lift your helicopter too high into the air during a large battle the whole thing can grind to a halt, rendering literally one frame every second. There are plenty of options available to reduce the detail of the graphics to improve your frame rate, but we would recommend taking the minimum system requirements on the box with a recommended daily allowance sized pinch of salt. The bottom line is that while Comanche 4 still looks attractive on lesser systems, if you want to see the game in all its glory you really need a GeForce 3 graphics card.
Luckily most of the time you will be hugging the ground, making things relatively easy for the graphics engine while maintaining a low radar profile. Comanche 4 might be an action game at heart, but it also has a healthy dose of stealth, and you will sometimes need to take advantage of the terrain to avoid detection and complete your sortie intact. Missions often boil down to "follow the waypoints and shoot the red dots on your radar display", but there is enough variety to keep things interesting. You may be called upon to infiltrate Russian airspace and destroy a missile silo before terrorists can launch an attack, to clear the way for engineers to recover a downed satellite before the local army can get to it, or to take out the anti-aircraft turrets and radar systems on a pair of destroyers to open the way for an air strike on a naval flotilla. Frequently you will be called upon to work in co-operation with allied ground or air forces, with some campaigns seconding you to the CIA or Delta Force to fly air support for their covert missions around the world. The bad news is that a few of these missions are incredibly difficult, and there is no in-game save function. Combine this with the fact that a quick burst of machinegun fire followed by a direct hit from a ground-to-air missile is enough to scatter your flaming wreckage across the landscape, and you can imagine that things get rather frustrating at times. There is nothing worse than triumphantly taking on the entire Libyan army, only for your team mate to fly into you from behind or a lone enemy soldier to knock you out of the sky with a shoulder-fired missile as you close in on your final target.
This is made more irritating by the occasional targeting problems which the game suffers from. For obvious reasons you lose your lock on a target when you lose your line of sight to it, but this often happens even when you can still quite clearly see your target and it's only obscured by a few branches of a tree or the corner of a ruined building. Luckily you can still take out a partially hidden anti-aircraft gun with your cannon by aiming it manually, but in the heat of battle this is easier said than done. It also makes using Hellfire missiles far more difficult than it perhaps should be, as you must maintain a target lock for as long as the missiles are in flight. Unless you're out at sea or in the middle of a desert this is harder than it sounds, especially if you are trying to dodge incoming fire at the time. And if at any point your target disappears behind a tree and you can't regain your lock quickly enough, your missile will fly off out of control and miss completely. The enemy AI doesn't seem to quite understand trees either, and sometimes you will catch your foe trying to fire ground-to-air rockets through foliage, only for the missile to blow up in its face as it strikes a stray twig. Otherwise the AI does a reasonable job, although the focus seems to be more on numbers than brains when it comes to enemy forces. It's not unusual to find yourself going up against dozens of hostile troops single-handed, which can be highly satisfying, if not particularly realistic. Ammunition is often in short supply, but you can always return to base or find a forward resupply post to restock and repair at. Again, this isn't particularly realistic (your 'copter is restored to full ammo and health the second you touch down), but it does make some of the tougher missions that little bit more manageable.
Comanche 4 is essentially a first person shooter in the skies, best played with a mouse and keyboard, and as such it's not likely to appeal to hardcore flight sim fanatics. For action fans though it can be highly entertaining, particularly when taken in short doses. Disappointingly the Novaworld online support still isn't working, but given the variety and difficulty of the single player missions on offer there should be enough here to keep you busy for at least a couple of weeks, and if you run out of things to kill you can always set up some new scenarios with the mission editor.