In the Comanche series' fourth installment, NovaLogic has gone back to what it does best--making flight sims with as much bang-per-flight-minute as possible.
The first two games in NovaLogic's Comanche series were flight simulations in the loosest sense of the word. However, Comanche 3 tried to please the hard-core crowd as well. In the series' fourth installment, NovaLogic has gone back to what it does best--making flight sims with as much bang-per-flight-minute as possible.
Although it can be classified as a flight simulation, Comanche 4 really isn't a simulation of anything, except perhaps what it would be like if aliens were to land in your front yard in craft shaped like an advanced US Army helicopter and if the US Army were to let you fly this craft on many adventures. Departing controlled flight in Comanche 4 is nearly impossible unless you actually crash into something. The flight model is billed as being "scalable," but this really only means that you can toggle two advanced options: slip control and limited cyclic range. (The manual refers to pilot-induced oscillations, but this does not appear in the game.) Neither one of these affects the flight model very much. The avionics are similarly sparse, and in lieu of different weapons modes, you simply select your weapons via the keyboard, let the computer target the threats for you, and fire away. The game seems to be designed for play in first- or third-person mode, since the cockpit view is extremely restricted, sparse, and serves no real purpose, especially when suspension of disbelief isn't possible.
In fact, the whole game seems designed so that casual players can get into the action as quickly as possible. There are three altitude presets, and while flying at high speed on the low altitude preset runs the risk of crashing into a hill, observing a reasonable speed limit makes this setting a suitable proxy for "Nap of the Earth" flying so crucial to helicopter survivability. There is an automatic "pop up" mode that lets you quickly rise above an obstacle to fire your weapons and then returns you to your previous altitude setting. The game is even controllable via the mouse/keyboard setup ubiquitous in first-person shooters, which suits the game's style just fine. Comanche 4 also works with a joystick, throttle, and even rudder pedals and lets flight sim veterans reverse the collective so that instincts from more hard-core sims like Longbow don't have to be unlearned. But having a controller setup worth several hundred dollars isn't any advantage in this game. For those who like to do things by the book, there are a series of tutorial missions that will run you through all of the Comanche's systems and have you flying the campaigns in less than 30 minutes. The keyboard overlay is a great touch and reminds you how you used to be able to control all the functions of even "advanced" flight simulators with just one row of function keys. In many ways, Comanche 4 is a throwback sim with modern graphics. Which is just fine.
Despite this seeming tilt toward casual players, the missions in Comanche 4 are actually quite difficult. The game throws numerous bad guys at you at once, and the lack of any countermeasures (like flares or chaff) combined with the fact that enemy missiles and gunfire are almost supernaturally accurate means that many missions will require numerous attempts. There are two enemy difficulty settings, normal and advanced, which should have probably been labeled "superhuman" and "from outer space." The missions themselves are a mix of stealthy seek-and-destroy and simply blowing up everything in sight. There are supposed to be consequences to not keeping your radar signature reduced (opening weapon bay doors only for firing, for instance), but with enemies having the aforementioned supernatural powers, this doesn't seem to have much effect. The manual at one point also suggests keeping your landing gear down when flying NOE so that if you hit the ground, you damage your wheels and not your guns, so that's kind of odd.
The missions themselves are split up into six "campaigns," although these are both quite short (five missions each) and completely unconnected with one another, except thematically. The linear nature of the campaigns extends to the missions themselves, which have the event triggers and scripted plots with which flight sims fans have become very familiar. The missions do a good job of throwing enemies out in front of you for you to then blow up, which (and this can't be emphasized enough) is the whole point of the game. At times, this makes flying out to a series of waypoints completely superfluous, since it would seem no less "realistic" to fly across the hill to the conveniently placed "terrorist base." In-game sound is good, and the scripted radio chatter does fill the void pretty well.
Fortunately, stuff blows up real good in Comanche 4. While the graphics are a bit uneven, the special effects are definitely the highlight of the game. NovaLogic has dropped its Voxel engine for a 3D polygonal one, and the results are generally impressive. Explosions and rotor wash are exceptionally well done, with the effect of flying low over water being one of the signature effects in the game. Unfortunately, the terrain isn't quite up to these high standards and has been done better in older games, including USAF and Gunship. There are also a limited number of vehicle models, which is a problem that has carried over from Comanche 3. It's definitely a good-looking game, though.
Once you've replayed the individual missions enough to complete the whole thing, there's multiplayer, which supports up to 16 players in a variety of game modes, including cooperative play. There is also the standard deathmatch and team deathmatch. The game includes a mission editor as well, but there is no "random mission generator" to extend the life of the single player past the scripted missions. Frankly, after you've played those missions all the way through, you'll have probably had enough.
Whether or not you like your flight sims to be in any way realistic, Comanche 4 does a good job of disguising the fact that you're playing a flying version of Serious Sam. The excellent graphical effects, nonstop action, and nominal helicopter content make this a great game to fire up for a while just as a change of pace. Comanche 4 is a good time in small doses, and while you'll quickly get tired of the homogenous gameplay, you'll probably end up jumping back in sooner than you think. That is, if you like to see stuff blow up.