Windows – 1999
Description of Gunship!
In the “classic era” of gaming, I was completely obsessed with a certain helicopter game on my Commodore64. It was a time when hills were green pyramids, objects were wire-frame polygonal affairs, and gamers single-handedly took on the entire Red Army with only an eight-way joystick. It was 1988, I was serving as an Apache crewchief with the 1/24th Attack Helicopter Battalion, and this was as close as you could get to the “real” simulator across post. Microprose’s Gunship, predated by Digital Integration’s Tomahawk a year earlier, was an excellent title for the period. Indeed, it still lives on in the hearts and minds of nostalgic gamers everywhere. Three years later, Microprose would again enchant helicopter combat enthusiasts with the Apache’s triumphant return in Gunship2000. The sim truly pushed the 386 and early 486 machines to their limit with the best graphics, depth, and attention to detail yet seen in a simulation game. Several helicopters were available, missions were recordable for later playback, and the game was a complete blast to play. We’ve come a long way… Considering the love affair that helo-sim enthusiasts have long maintained with GS2000, it is not in the least surprising that the announcement of a new title in the series was met with much applause and nervous anticipation. It was made clear from the beginning that Gunship! was to be followed by a sequel of another classic Microprose duo – the M1 Tank Platoon series. This was to be the merging of two titans of nostalgia, in what was referred to as the “Air-Land Battle System.” However, what was not made widely known was that the Gunship! title would lean more toward the simplified play mechanic of M1 Tank Platoon II. Perhaps it is that we all, through years of loving remembrance, mentally-upgraded GS2000 far beyond its actual substance – but this image of perfection was the tough measure to which this new game must compare. Perhaps we were also spoiled by *Jane’s****Longbow 2***, which was certainly the spiritual successor to ***GS2000*** in many respects. In short, the hardcore crowd was suitably unimpressed as more facts about the game became public …but perhaps left something behind. Peculiar in their absence are some of the basic details of the older games – things that helped to make them the classics that they have become. Immediately, questions were raised about the lack of engine controls, the inability to jettison stores, lack of autorotation modeling, and several other basic staples of helicopter simulation, such as the design decision to begin all missions in flight rather than at a FARP or airfield. M1 Tank Platoon was, to a great extent, played from the gunner’s position in conjunction with the map view. Gunship! is born of the same philosophy and, by apparent design, focused more heavily on the role of the co-pilot/gunner (CPG) than that of piloting the aircraft. Indeed, it seems as though the lion’s share of development time was spent in perfecting the feel of the CPG station and the Optical Relay Tube display – the front-seater’s main tool in battle. Oddly, however, some of the functionality and ease of command that was present in the earlier tank sim is missing from this title. Bleeding-in-the-middle raw, and the cook won’t take it back. Hasbro, now called by a colorful variety of monikers by many gamers, has certainly made an infamous name for itself in the simulation industry. After a painful botch-job with Falcon 4.0 more than a year ago, and the subsequent axing of further development for that long beloved and ambitious series, it is with great resentment that we witness this next faux pas in their saga of carving the heart out of a once great simulation publisher. If you can get past the frustration, the game is suitably fun. Not exceedingly fun, but just enough to make you realize what it could have been if a little more care and soul had been put behind it. “Just enough to make you mad,” in other words. Some aspects are truly admirable, while other entire regions of the game are broken beyond reasonable hope of repair. There are things broken here that could not possibly have passed through any sort of even casual testing procedure without setting off klaxons and flashing red lights. Here’s the short list of vile issues that I found whilst playing… and by no means a comprehensive listing either: Keys listed on the reference card for “turn left” and “turn right” produce no effect. In fact, pressing either key will result in the pilot announcing that he is turning in the same direction. Pilot command keys in general are unreliable at best. Switching missile types and modes, from radar to laser and from LOAL to LOBL mode is broken. It simply does not change despite repeated presses of the selection key. (Possibly linked to some other – unrelated — game setting.) The key for centering the view does nothing. Rockets often refuse to fire, and despite the target being designated being directly in front of the helicopter an inexplicable “Constraint” warning cue answers all requests from the trigger. These, I would classify under shoddy design: The waypoint system, which has proven to create complete confusion for many players. AI pilot, when left to his own devices, will get you killed every time. He certainly does take his time about approaching waypoints. When switching to external or map view, control is handed to the AI pilot, who aggressively insists on exposing you immediately to enemy fire and fouling any intentions you might currently have for a battle plan. In an utterly stupid decision, there is no option to reverse collective input! The view keys are completely undocumented… doh! And, they’re weird to boot! There are no “snap views” and you must use the 2nd joystick button in conjunction with the joystick in order to look around unless you use the keys. Poor wingman command menu system. Absence of “attack my target” or formation commands. Advancing the waypoint or giving any meaningful order requires multiple inconvenient keypresses. Truly an ill-conceived interface. Flight model… well, at least it goes where you point it so long as you don’t use the pedals. I could, of course, continue to lodge further allegations against the game’s many “issues” but this is sufficient to convey the gist of the experience. How all of the broken controls could have gotten past QA is anyone’s guess at this point. The lack of a “reverse collective input” option is simply shameful in any helicopter title and is a constant rub during gameplay, even long after you think you have become accustomed to it. The waypoint system is… unique. Truthfully, it can prove confusing in the extreme to new players and even the experienced veteran will strongly dislike it. The premise is that you are always flying to waypoint #1, and that as you advance to the next waypoint it becomes waypoint #1, the previous waypoint is deleted, and all following points are decremented by one. Huh? Here it is again: Commanding “advance to next waypoint”, via the cumbersome menu, will erase the current #1 WP, turning #2 into #1. All following waypoints drop a number. The limitations of this system are manifold… you simply can’t remember that “waypoint 4 is the target” because by the time you get there, it will be #1. Furthermore, other than a shift in the heading-bug (^) on the HUD, there is little indication that you have changed waypoints at all. Finally, you cannot go back to a previous waypoint, because it’s simply gone! The only applicable definition for this feature is “stupid.” Gunship! tries to cater to the novice gamer, and this is apparent in the extremely simplified modeling of the helicopter and weapons/avionics systems. However, it seems that someone lost track of that vision because there are some aspects that are far too unwieldy for even the experienced player to tolerate without objection. Namely, the labyrinthine menu system used for changing waypoints and issuing orders. While every simulation (or other game) in memory has used something simple, such as a press of the “W” key, in Gunship! the process is: [TAB]    [TAB] [TAB]. Beyond the vile and glaring collective awkwardness issue, some further control problems present themselves. Firstly, I would strongly suggest that you choose the option to begin flight in the gunner’s position. Since the mission begins in mid-air the helicopter has a strong tendency to go beyond control for the first few seconds of flight… spinning wildly and dropping like a rock, until you can wrangle the controls into trim. (This can bring instant death in multiplayer for both passengers.) The collective response, even in hover, is notably sluggish and when combined with the lack of “over-torque” effect, lends itself to a “slam it full up, slam it full down, center the collective to hover” style of control. The tail rotor (pedal) control is a complete miscarriage of the concept, and the helicopter (if you have any forward airspeed) will rotate 90 degrees to either side only to return with a “rubber band” effect to its original heading when the pedals are relaxed. This is rather amusing to see, especially at only 15 knots of airspeed where the helicopter should spin quite nimbly and retain its heading after the maneuver. In short, sheer aggravation no matter the realism setting. So… does this game do anything right?! Oh yes, and that’s the aggravating part of it all. The only true issues that present themselves as undesirable in the game all occur within the helicopter itself. The world outside is another matter entirely. The graphics for units and terrain are certainly worthy of pause. As you can see by the screenshots, it is simply impossible to take an ugly picture of this game in action. The terrain, even at lowest altitude, rivals that of Falcon 4.0 ‘s ideal landscapes. And then, there are the trees… If Gunship! gets any single aspect nailed to perfection, it is certainly the forested environment in which the campaign is fought. Far too many helicopter sims portray the tanks as easy prey for their concealed hunters, who are only threatened in earnest by other aircraft and the occasional well-positioned SAM battery. Gunship! is the first game to accurately bring home the cat and mouse aspect of tank hunting. If you’ve ever had occasion to see a spider and wasp locked in mortal contest, that gives an accurate approximation for the reality of this “air vs. ground” battle. The ground forces are anything but static and while you are playing hide and seek in the foliage, rest assured that the enemy is stalking you as well. Remaining exposed for longer than a 10-count is sheer folly and will most often result in a sudden, unwarned death, dealt by an unseen assailant with a missile and a grudge to satisfy. The rule of hunting safely, then, is to creep ever so carefully through the tree line, exposing yourself only long enough to make a quick scan for potential targets. In the German Tiger, unequipped with radar, the paranoia aspect is increased twofold. Gunship! scores handily in the tension department. It should have been titled “TADS! – The attack helo targeting system simulation.” A genuinely brilliant aspect of the game is the modeling of the TADS system, your main tool for locating, tracking, and designating targets. I had a wonderful time during my military service when I had the opportunity to spend several hours with a real TADS simulator at Ft Eustis, VA. The F3 view in Gunship!, while not detailed or technically accurate in complexity, manages to capture the same experience as the “real” simulator did. Granted, that experience is 10 years past, but I remember it quite well even if all of the technical aspects have fallen victim to fleeting memory. Unmasking, hurriedly scanning your surroundings through the ORT display, and then dashing back to cover is the key to success. The whole experience — carried out with the joystick and zoom keys — of squinting desperately for the heat signatures of tanks creeping through the dense woodlands is 100% authentic in feel, if not entirely modeled in all the complexity that the actual equipment requires understanding of. Even the hotter components glow more brightly on the thermal scope, making it easy to line up a shot on the vulnerable hind-quarters of the heavily armored tanks. The vehicles, both ground and air, look and behave convincingly. There are certainly few “sitting duck” targets and the aggressive AI ensures that only the patient and stealthy player will prevail. “Rambo-esque tactics” will leave you a smoking crater and wondering what killed you. In addition to enemy air-defense vehicles, even the tanks themselves will engage you… often with their main cannon! In many missions, there seems almost no end to how many platoons of tanks and IFV’s the enemy will send charging across the landscape and the missions can prove quite lengthy. Even the generally non-threatening transport helicopters are a threat, since the Russians send them in huge wave assaults to land troops and seize their objectives and they are usually guarded by a group of watchful attack helo’s on CAP duty. Multiplayer seems reasonably stable, at least on the high-speed connection I tested it on. The game’s longevity, were it not for all the detracting issues, would be greatly enhanced by the well-implemented single-mission scenario building tool. The campaigns, however, seem to be a string of straight “canned scenarios” that are played out in a set order, requiring victory to progress. While this is not ideal, at least there is some variety to your tasks. Hey! You’ve got your chopper in my tank game! One does not have to study this game long before it becomes apparent that it has firm roots in the design and gameplay of M1 Tank Platoon II. In fact, the menus, maps and interface will stir an eerie sense of déjà vu in veterans of the earlier title. I feel that Microprose would have enjoyed greater success by releasing the Tank Platoon! half of this duo first, which would have left Gunship! to be perceived as a welcome expansion. It seems a bit reversed in its current state, as this game still manages to feel like the helicopter conversion of a tank-based game. If this title had been thoroughly tested and brought to a finished state, I would hardly hesitate to recommend it to those who enjoy similar “sim-lite” fare. As it stands, the released version is so full of odd quirks and blatantly broken features that I can only demand a patch before even considering encouragement of its purchase. Brandon Gamblin, programmer, has publicly commented that there is no concrete plan for any such patch at this time, but that the team may wait until the release of Tank Platoon! to address these issues. To this, I must wish them luck — because an utter failure in the marketplace with this title could cause the Hasbro axe to fall on the neck of the next game.
Review By GamesDomains
Gunship! is available for a small price on the following websites, and is no longer abandonware. You can read our online store guide.