Hands-onThunderstrike: Operation Phoenix PS2

We've played an updated version of Eidos' tactical helicopter combat game for the PlayStation 2.

Core Design recently supplied us with an updated version of its helicopter combat simulation for the PlayStation 2, Thunderstrike: Operation Phoenix. The burn Eidos representatives stopped by to show us includes four playable levels with several mission objectives within each. The campaigns include Middle East where you fly across the ocean in search of an oil rig that must be taken over and landed upon; Africa where groups of motorcyclists roam the rolling desert terrain; the snow-blown plains of Alaska where rival helicopters hawk your every move; and Eastern Europe where you're required to take out a number of ground targets including radar towers and groups of silos.

Controlling the chopper takes some time to get used to, but once you do, it becomes fairly intuitive. The left analog stick controls both forward and backward movements, as well as strafing to either side. The right analog stick controls pitch (your chopper's height) and lets you quickly turn to face either left or right. The chopper's machine gun features a bottomless clip, and you fire it by pressing L2. If abused, it will overheat--forcing you to wait for it to cool off before resuming your attack. Missiles are fired using the R2 button, and the L1 button toggles through several different targeting modes. If selected, you may take control of your maverick missiles in a first-person view and seek the enemy. You may also select a bombing view that lets you look directly down at the ground and drop artillery on targets. Enemy targeting is made easier with the circle button and the game's auto-aiming capabilities. You may cycle through targets manually until the appropriate enemy is selected, or you can let the computer perform the action on its own. This latest version also includes the ability to control wingmen. You simply hold down the square button and then use the directional pad to cycle through the control options. You may instruct your wingmen to attack any enemies you target, join a formation behind you, wait for further orders, or relay their status. Wingmen respond rather quickly to your orders, but picking targets for them to destroy is a random process. You can see which targets are selected in a small window that pops up on the upper left-hand portion of the screen, but choosing a specific target is nearly impossible unless you cycle through well over a dozen different enemy armaments within view. For any weapon, the directional pad is used to zoom in for a clear shot.

As each mission begins, you can select a handful of weapons for your mission at hand. There are several different types of machine guns, bombs, torpedoes, depth charges, and missiles at your disposal, and it's imperative that you choose the correct armaments for the mission objectives specific to each campaign. There will be seven campaigns included in the final version of Thunderstrike, and each will include up to five different scenarios. Additional bonus missions become playable after you complete specific objectives in the one-player mode. Mission objectives will come in a wide variety, but most included in the game thus far consist of finding a specific target and destroying it. However, one mission asks that you destroy a train carrying a nuclear warhead piece-by-piece until only the car containing the explosive device is left, and another has you overtaking an enemy installment.

From a visual perspective, Thunderstrike already looks markedly improved when compared with the version we received in June. Explosions have been reworked and appear even more believable than before thanks to a new particle system; weather conditions such as snow blizzards, lightning, and driving rain have been added; and new enemies have been dropped into the terrain such as motorcycles and infantrymen. The game's levels are enormous and littered with details like trees, bunkers, missile launchers, radar dishes, relay towers, and more. While you will control just one chopper throughout the game, it will change depending upon upgrades you acquire while playing, and small details like the landing gear folding up inside the helicopter's belly give the game a feeling of authenticity. There are three different playable camera angles to choose from, including a third-person view that lets you get a good look at your chopper; an inside-the-cockpit view that shows a trinket dangling from overhead and all the dials, gauges, and controls of a real chopper; and a first-person view that eliminates the dashboard of the chopper to give you a clearer view of the action. There is also a convincing infrared option that can be used to make it through campaigns in the pitch black. The frame rates are solid in the latest build of the game we played, but most missions still have quite a bit of geometry to be added before the game is complete.

Electronic Arts hasn't announced a new Strike game for next-generation consoles yet, but Thunderstrike: Operation Phoenix is shaping up to be more than a worthy replacement. There's still quite a bit of work to be done before it's ready for its September release date, but considering the improvements made since we last played the game in June, it should reach store shelves on time. We'll have more on Thunderstrike: Operation Phoenix when it becomes available, and look for new media from the game early next week.

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