Are you a gamer of a certain age, who looks back with rose-tinted glasses to games like Desert Strike, and the huge amount of helicopter-based fun they brought? Did you enjoy flying about, rescuing people and destroying enemy hardware? Well, on paper at least, the latest game from Klabater should help scratch that chopper game itch. Well, I say new, but it was released on PC way back in 2017, only now being brought to the Xbox platform. Can it hold a candle to my memories of Desert Strike? Strap on your helmet and let’s dust off!
So, the first thing that you notice about Heliborne is in the visuals, and not in a good way I’m afraid to say. There’s nothing here that would stress an Xbox 360, to be brutally honest, and the draw distances are very short indeed, with the rest of the map you are flying around being covered in fog. There are apparently enemy units to shoot, but all you can see until you get really up close and personal is a series of red dots; shooting in their general direction is enough to defeat them. The sound is okay mind, with the correct chopper noises and guns sounding as they should. But I have to say, first impressions are not favourable.
This impression is only reinforced when you try and get into a game, either offline or online (and you have to make this choice before you do anything else). Playing offline is a relatively smooth experience, compared to say, brain surgery, but trying to get into an online game with friends is a nightmare. I roped in a willing volunteer, and we partied up, ready to try and fly some helicopters together, gearing ourselves up for objective-based mayhem. First we tried PvP, the classic choice when people come together on the internet. The problem was that creating the session, and then inviting in others, sees Heliborne freaking out with a message that comments on the fact that we need the Xbox Series X|S version of the game. I guess the fact that both of us were playing on Series X was irrelevant. However, whilst party invites failed to work, browsing server lists and joining via room codes lets that mayhem commence. After 15 minutes of head scratching, all was golden. Right?
Well, no, hold your horses there. In Heliborne you can either select to play as Russia or the USA, however a lack of USA helicopters once more caused issues, especially as we couldn’t both team up on the Russian side. In fact, after scrabbling through many menus and being left utterly confused, abandonment was the best call, taking to the PvE side of things instead. Unfortunately this is, again, exceedingly confusing and only by hammering pretty much every button on an Xbox controller, rubbing a lucky rabbit’s foot and crossing all fingers and toes did anything ever manage to really work. Let’s just say that the menu screens for Heliborne are up there with the most confusing, least optimised menus to have been placed in a game in recent years.
Now, when you finally get into a game, peering through the fog to see which way you are meant to go, the action finally kicks off. It’s still not straightforward though and whilst in every game that has ever involved a helicopter sees something like the RT to increase power or height, here in Heliborne things have been switched up, with the LT actioning things. Again, it’s utter confusion and after hours of play, it still doesn’t feel right.
Taking off is only the start of the issues though, as to fly forward, you have to push the left stick forward, and then pull it back to slow down, fiddling with the right stick as you go. At least, I assume that’s what we do, as a tutorial where the controls are explained is just one of the many things missing from Heliborne.
Anyway, eventually you’ll get flying, zooming around the hills and on occasion through them – seeing a big transport helicopter flying backwards through some trees and sustaining no damage is quite a sight. It’s here where Heliborne gives you various missions to carry out, all detailed in the world’s smallest font, in the world’s smallest box in the top right of the screen. Doing so earns you points, and points go towards levelling up, enabling you to research new choppers and abilities for existing ones. The problem is, that while playing with a friend can be fun, mainly as we laughed at the state of the gameplay, the whole ‘grind to get new stuff’ style of gameplay left me utterly cold. Control and menu issues aside, Heliborne is just not fun enough to keep playing. Even though it just about gets better with better gear and the option is there to fly all the helicopters in the single player game, even with Blackhawks and so on to command, it struggles to raise any form of enthusiasm. In a nutshell, Heliborne is not rewarding enough to warrant time investment.
On the plus side, there are a great number of choppers to unlock, and as some of the maps, challenges and objectives can be played at night, the crippling draw distance isn’t as noticeable; mostly as the fog is replaced with black. I’m really struggling to find anything too positive to say though and that’s a shame as there’s definite promise in what Heliborne is trying to achieve – but the menus, the visuals, the gameplay and amount of grinding needed to get anywhere holds everything back.
What Heliborne manages to do to my finest memories of helicopter games from years gone by cannot be spoken of on a family website. Yes, playing with a friend does provide a modicum of fun, and the sounds are nice, but the rest of the gameplay loop, and I want to choose my words carefully here, absolutely sucks. Visually it looks bad, the controls are shonky, and rarely can any fun be had. A lack of tutorials, confusing menus, and errors popping up all over the place sees Heliborne spiralling to earth, totally out of control. If you are a fan of helicopter games, after playing this, you won’t be.
Heliborne gets the all clear for launch on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One