Widely panned by online gamers, we take a closer look and share why, in many ways, they were wrong…and right..
Bargain basement shopping!
If you are like me, you tune in to holiday sales with a bit of cynicism and hope that you’ll be surprised by some game that either you never knew about, or one that you had been waiting to come down in price. So it was late November when Helicopter Simulator 2014: Search & Rescue came across my Amazon deals list for the whopping price of $2.49. Two-fiddy and another fiver buys you breakfast at McDonald’s and a flight simulator?! Sign me up!
Now, before we get started, let’s take a look at some of the comments on Steam for this gem, because it is worth knowing what the public perception of this game is prior to plunking down your hard earned not quite three bucks.
No, just no. Another one of these damn horrible “simulators”. – Carrythxd
This game is quite honestly not worth the money… this is NOT a simulation game… not even remotely!!! Helicopter is nearly impossible to fly and controls don’t make any sense. My worst buy ever!! – Paladriaan
Terrible controls, bad graphics and boring gameplay. Avoid at all costs. Not even worth it during a Steam sale, just stay far away from this trainwreck.- [LEU] Serin
Well, you get the gist. Nearly all of the “reviews” list control problems with the helo, poor graphics, and boring gameplay. But did they give it a fair shake? Let’s explore….
There are at least three initial problems that set the pitchfork wielding masses into a frenzy upon starting this game. The first is that the controller setup process can be incredibly frustrating – usually for one simple reason: if your controllers are not centered, and all of the buttons are not showing a neutral state, you’re going to have a bad time of it. My Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS has a couple dozen buttons and switches that have various resting states. Depending on where the switch is, it might be reporting to Windows an action. So in Search and Rescue (SAR henceforth), while you are in the controller configuration screen, both buttons and axes can screw around with your attempts to map if they are unknowingly sending inputs. Additionally, it seems the game was really made with a pad type controller in mind since assignments are generically labeled “button” and even the description of the controller when you use a joystick is “pad”. If your controller axis is even reporting the slightest movement, difficulty will ensue. For me, I had to ensure my Warthog throttle was in the mid-range and my CH Pro Pedals were not reporting any inputs. Provided everything is neutral, you can go ahead and map to your heart’s content. I feel this is the area where most gamers had the biggest problems and their patience level was near zero. Incorrect mapping of the controls means that the helos will either fight you as it responds to another axis you aren’t even using, or it will just go berserk as collective and cyclic get switched or reversed or any number of problems. A few minutes of patience and thoughtful assignment of buttons and you are good to go.
The second obvious problem is the menu system itself looks pretty low rent. The options and pages are not capitalized or formatted very nicely.
The third obvious problem (to me) is the title of the game. Helicopter Simulator. The word “simulator” has grown to encompass fairly liberal usage. Personally, I don’t care. Is it a simulator? Probably not as much as it is a game, but there are simulator type moments in it. The flight model is simplistic, the cockpits are nearly non-existent, and other than a few items such as auto-hover, winch activation, and a spotlight, there is no systems simulation. So immediately you have a group of people that probably bought the simulator and expected something akin to DCS Huey or the Aerosoft Huey X for FSX. Anyone who has been around the genre for a while would have probably had a more realistic expectation of something more along the lines of the old Search and Rescue 1 through 4 series. So essentially, one needs to go into the purchase with expectations of a $2.49 game that has helicopters in it. Attain that moment of Zen before double clicking the icon on your desktop and you will be in a much better place mentally to accept what is about to happen.
Gameplay & Graphics
The premise of the game (in case you hadn’t guessed it) is that you are a search and rescue helicopter pilot and your job is to run around various islands which seem to have a penchant for disasters relative to their diminutive sizes. There are five different regions (islands) that you work your way up through. Each is similar and different. The towns and buildings have different structures and architecture to them, but the general premise is the same across the islands. Some island have high mountains and deep valleys, and all feature coastal areas, err..being islands and all.
The game features 45 missions of which I’ve actually flown 27 and accumulated 7 hours and 30 minutes of in game flying. Each mission you fly unlocks the next mission. After nine successful missions you earn access to the next geographic region. Currently, I’m in Siberia (don’t tell Vladimir!). As well, you have access to a hangar of nine helicopters that have different capabilities based on the mission requirements. Helos avoid trademark names but are clearly based on the Robinson R44, Hughes 500, EC-135, Mi-8, Mi-26, S-76, the civilian versions of the CH-47 and SH-3, and the Agusta A109. Not all of the helos are created equally by the developers. Some have better looking cockpit graphics than others and others seem to have better external 3D models and textures. My personal favorites were the Hughes 500, EC-135, and CH-47, and I tended toward using them when they were available.
Gameplay initiates from your home base where you sit in a virtual office. Looking around the office highlights various things you can do: the computer monitor takes you to missions, the map lets you change weather and time of day if you like, the door to the hangar offers training, a whiteboard gives a summary of missions accomplished and flight time, etc. For all the hokiness of the virtual office, it is the type of thing we repeatedly ask for as simmers, but when people implement it we think it’s silly. Not me. I kind of like it and seeing my selected helicopter through the office windows.
Once you’ve selected your mission and helicopter you are placed outside by your helicopter and are free to walk to it and enter it or go sightseeing around the base on foot. Enter the helicopter, press whatever key or HOTAS switch you’ve assigned to start the engine, and you are off and running. The graphics range from terrible to fantastic. Yes, the graphics look a bit dated, but I will say that after a few hours you actually adjust to it. The game does feature some depth of field setting that you can turn off and on and I preferred to play with it off. Framerates were smooth and fluid no matter what settings I selected on my rig. The landscapes are actually quite well done, with nice geographic features and plenty of trees. Interestingly, the trees move and sway depending on the weather settings and they positively flap about during hurricanes. Ground clutter is fairly limited but enough to impart that you are flying around a populated island. The water textures in particular are phenomenally good. As well, there is a blurred windscreen effect that occurs in heavy rain that slightly blurs and doubles up the view through the plexiglass that is unique and fairly well done. There are some issues with object sizing in the game where the designers must not have quite been working on the same scale because some objects look bigger or smaller than they might should look when viewed comparatively. For instance, the Chinook should dwarf a small Cessna, but that isn’t really the case. The instances of this aren’t startlingly obvious or frequent, but they are there.
As one would anticipate when flying a search and rescue helicopter, the type of missions are not unexpected. You’ll probably search. And you’ll probably rescue. Missions are both unique and repetitive. Types of mission include: hoist rescues, medical evacuations, stranded victim rescues, marine rescues, firefighting via Bambi bucket, heavy lift of objects, and other similarly themed adventures. A typical mission might have you fly out to the site of a factory fire, rescue the injured victims, fly them to the hospital, fly back to your base to rig a water bucket, fly to the water and fill the bucket, fly to the factory to extinguish the blaze (multiple water trips may be required), then return to base to drop off the bucket and land on your pad. The missions are well constructed and they always work. I feel this is important – the game is about search and rescue missions and the game actually does this quite well. Is search and rescue sometimes boring and repetitive? Yes – but why ding the game for doing what it is intended to do? The good news is that the islands are relatively small meaning each leg of the mission only takes a few minutes to accomplish. The longest mission required leg I’ve had to fly was about ten kilometers. If you do the math I’ve flown 27 missions in 7.5 hours meaning that missions roughly average about 16 or 17 minutes each. I would like to mention too that I think the water bucket operations and fire fighting is the best implementation I’ve seen in any sim that I know of. The fire and billowing smoke are nicely presented and the gradual reduction in intensity as you make the water drops couldn’t be done better. Do the trees look like they are out of Far Cry 3? No, but this game didn’t cost $50 either.
Flight model & difficulty
The helicopters in SAR are easy to fly given that they don’t feature advanced flight models. No translational lift, vortex ring state, ground effect, or any of those advanced aerodynamic traits. With that said, I actually enjoyed just using my stick and throttle to move the helicopters around the world. They do exhibit helicopter physics in that you can hover, fly backwards, sideways, and combine the anti-torque pedals with cyclic inputs to do precise movements. The game is more about putting the helicopter into tight spots and managing your location in space rather than coming to grips with all the intricacies of flying a helicopter. The helos each have some personality with the light Hughes 500 and EC-135 being nimble and responsive while the Mi-8 and Mi-26 lumber about. An onscreen mini-map shows you the way to your mission locations and pop-up flight instruments can be used or hidden at your discretion. Views include a cockpit view, a chase view, and an outside panning view. A fly-by view, which should be a staple in all fight simulators and flight games (I’m looking at you Arma 3!), would have been a nice feature and I could have made some great movies with that. The cockpit view is hobbled by vertical field of view limitations that make it impossible to look downward, which is an essential task in a helicopter performing hoist operations. You can look left and right and up all you like, but for some curious reason, down was not implemented. TrackIR is not supported but only mildly missed. Fortunately the external views compensate and are actually preferable for the tasks you are assigned with. Hoist operations are aided by onscreen graphics that show where you need to be to successfully deploy the pararescue crewmember or to hook up to objects you are required to lift. A spotlight can be used and can even be independently aimed, but the dark of night is only the dim of night in the game making the spotlight unnecessary.
So did Steam users not like this game because they didn’t play it due to the frustration of trying to get their controls set up? Or did they not like it because they thought it was boring? Or was it the dated graphics? It’s hard to tell. Statistically speaking, it doesn’t appear that very many people gave it a chance when only 3.9% completed 25% of the missions in the game and only 2.3% finished 50% of the missions in the game. I would be interested in hearing the opinion of the game from the very small percentage that got past the setup phase.
When I picked this game up for $2.49 I wasn’t expecting much. For a decade I’ve been searching for an heir apparent to the old Search and Rescue series that we all know and love and this game actually fills that spot quite nicely. It isn’t DCS level, and it doesn’t look as good as Arma 2 or 3, but it does do everything it supposed to do for a fraction of the price. Is it boring? Compared to what – flying down a valley with guns blazing while F-15s fly top cover for your helo insertion? Then yes, Helicopter Simulator 2014: Search and Rescue will probably pale in comparison. But if you want a easy to fly game, with nice mission structure, decent visuals, and a long string of missions to explore, then this game will work well for you. And for $2.49 on sale – is there really anything to lose other than a few minutes of your time if you hate it?
Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth
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