The helicopter is probably the most complicated means of travel which humankind has ever invented - right after the pogostick. This entirely comes across in Bohemia Interactive’s chopper simulation Take On Helicopters: the smallest lapse of attention is enough to result in the your helicopter’s rotors cutting a deep ditch into the neighbor's yard. And that's probably exactly what helicopter enthusiasts expect from a game like this. Nonetheless, Take On Helicopters has some surprises up its sleeves - not all pleasant in nature.
The first surprise: Take On Helicopters has a story. The game tells the tale of the Larkin brothers, Tom and Joe, who inherit after their father's helicopter airline after his death. Tom, the player characters, has some experience with flying, but need to brush up on his flight skills after a long break from helicopters, and therefore he needs a teacher on hand. It’s a nice trick to justify the game’s tutorials.
In the tutorials , which you can revisit any time, you learn everything you need to fly a helicopter: from the correct start sequence to autorotation training for emergencies. The theory is quite simple, but the practice is much more difficult. The first missions of the campaign are straightforward outings with a landing challenge at the end. But it’s in the higher difficulty missions that Take On Helicopters really comes to life.
Later in the campaign, the tasks involve more complicated manoeuvres and landings - for instance, settling on top of windy high-rise buildings, transport flights with heavy loads strapped on, or formation flights with other choppers, and usually under tight time restrictions. Joe also talks regularly about his experiences in the war somewhere in Southeast Asia (thought it looks suspiciously like Afghanistan), so in flashbacks, you even get to fly combat missions.
In one of these missions Joe’s helicopter is shot down, and you suddenly find yourself with assault rifle in your hand, and the game becomes a first person shooter. Bohemia Interactive has built Take On Helicopters on the foundation of their soldier sim Arma 2, including the military elements, but they’ve not done so well in that regard. The FPS mission is incredibly tricky: your camouflaged AI opponents are shooting from 300 meters away, and able to pop a round in your head before you’ve begun to identify where they are. This kind of thing simply has no place in a helicopter simulation, let alone one that stars a civilian.
But if the story of Take On Helicopters is no prize-winner, the dialogue at least shines – the cutscenes are knowingly silly, and charming with it. There’s also fun to be had from buying and selling helicopters, repainting them to your own tastes and picking up additional equipment such as winches or special cameras to use in specialised missions, such as transport flights or whale watching.
In the campaign, you pick up missions you don’t get in in free play. So, you might train as a mercenary for foreign missions, which entails low-level flights through the treetops and quick landings in forest clearings. Unfortunately Take on Helicopters is stingy with feedback, so we regularly didn’t know quite what the game wanted from us.
As we waited around on the Larkin Aviation heliport until the airspace above, we spotted a large helicopter about a hundred feet away. Suddenly, the game declares we’ve failed the mission: apparently we’d somehow disabled the other helicopter. If the game had just told us how much distance we should keep, we wouldn’t have to go all the way back to the last save point, involving several minutes of uneventful, uninteresting repeated flying time.
Simulation enthusiasts would probably expect Take On Helicopters to ship with a thick manual loaded with details on avionics, flight characteristics and technical features. Instead, there's just a thin booklet with only rudimentary information. At least getting the helicopter off the ground wasn’t too complicated, unlike, say, A-10C Warthog, which required devouring a 400-page guide before you could even achieve take-off. Bohemia Interactive has reduced the starting and switching off the engines down to minimalist button-pressing, and some features, such as trim and hover, can be managed automatically.
In addition to the South-East Asia scenario, Take On Helicopters has recreated the entire metropolitan area of ??Seattle, but unfortunately what looks great in pictures ends up hamstrung in the game itself. Take On Helicopters is so hardware-hungry that even our most powerful test PCs could rarely squeeze out more than 30 frames per second - even at low resolution and reduced details. This means pop-up textures and objects, which is particularly annoying when you’re hovering at low-altitudes.
Take on Helicopters’ performance doesn’t appear to have any hard and fast rules: whether the program runs smoothly on your system is pretty much a gamble. In addition, the infamous Bohemia flakiness comes to bear, with occasional crashes and conflicts in the default keyboard layout causing all kinds of problems. At least it automatically detects a wide range of joysticks and throttles. You can get by with mouse control, but we do recommend some kind of analogue throttle control as the keyboard reacts too slowly.