The novelty of the Vietnam War setting is just about all that Whirlwind Over Vietnam has going for it.
- Vietnam setting
- Choppers are a great change of pace from the usual plane-oriented flight sims.
- Difficult flight model and no tutorial or documentation to ease the learning curve
- Boring, overly long missions
- Awkward keyboard controls
- A few bugs and performance problems.
Developer G5 Software deserves a lot of praise for its chopper sim Whirlwind Over Vietnam. Unfortunately, virtually all of these kudos are for the company's decision to skip World War II and set a flight sim in Southeast Asia, not for anything to do with gameplay. Everything beyond the offbeat setting ranges from merely pedestrian to downright bad, thanks in large part to problematic controls that won't satisfy serious simmers or casual fliers, overly long shoot-'em-up missions, and some serious technical glitches.
Controls are the biggest issue. As you might expect, piloting a Huey helicopter is a bit more complex than something like a Spitfire or an Me-109. But the game does almost nothing to prepare you for that challenge. There is no flight school; there are no training missions. You're simply set free to tackle the 10 historical missions included in the game (that's all you get in the game, actually, as there is no multiplayer support) with nothing more than a couple of brief pages in the pamphlet-size manual detailing the basics of takeoff, thrust, and flight control, along with some tips and chopper-specific dangers like the vortex ring. Much of this text is incomprehensible, too, as the manual appears to have been translated from the original Russian by someone who needs to brush up on English articles and prepositions.
Of course, you need a lot more guidance than this to feel comfortable at the helm of a helicopter. While the few hundred words dedicated to basic flying are enough to get you off the ground, this game is crying for an interactive tutorial of some sort. Even if you switch off a lot of the more treacherous chopper physics effects like air cushion and that dreaded vortex ring, you still need to go through loads of trial and error before figuring out how to keep your bird in the air and positioned correctly to fire rockets and riddle Charlie with bullets. Also, the keyboard controls are awkward, so you need a flight-sim joystick with a hat to have a good shot at becoming a Huey pro.
You can skip this piloting rigmarole and switch on an autopilot feature, but it has a couple of serious problems. For starters, sometimes it doesn't function properly. Switch it on and you might twirl in a circle, or you'll meander along your patrol route so oddly that you're moving sideways as much as you are forward. Second, switching on the autopilot removes the flight sim characteristics entirely and turns Whirlwind into a rail shooter. Missions mostly feature simplistic search-and-destroy patrols or hold-a-location objectives to protect ground troops. So with the autopilot on, all you do is gun down Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regulars on the ground with your Huey's two side miniguns and watch air support light up the jungle with napalm.
Even this isn't as entertaining as it could be. Missions are long, drawn-out affairs where you spend much of your time flying from one location to another, so if you're not sitting in the pilot's or copilot's seat, you generally don't have a whole lot to do. Fast-forwarding is available, and it does help some, although even at 8x it can take a minute or more to get from one point of interest to another. And just like with the autopilot, sometimes it doesn't seem to work. Crank the FF up all the way and you do nothing but crawl along the patrol route on some occasions, a problem that can't be fixed without reloading the mission. Also, shooting the minicannon is tough because bullets leave no tracers for your eye to follow. As you're generally some distance away from your targets, it can be really hard to aim; moreover, your bullets always seem to kick up sand or water when they hit terra firma.
Performance problems also make the game tougher than a tour of duty in Ia Drang. Sometimes, the game just doesn't want to load. It will appear to start fine, but then the splash screen disappears and you're left on the Windows desktop and forced to shut down the WV.com process manually before making a second try. On other occasions, it boots perfectly. Loading times are spectacularly long. Missions take two to three minutes to load, and the progress bar typically doesn't move from its starting point for the first 30 seconds or so, leading you to believe that the game has crashed. The look of levels isn't worth the wait, either. Choppers are impressive in flight but jaggy, the Vietnamese jungle terrain is a mostly uniform blurry green, yet despite this you've got to dial down a lot of the visual settings on a midrange machine to get acceptable frame rates. Only nifty napalm flame effects and smoke give the game a Nam look, although both of these effects murder the frame rate. Well-acted and varied radio commentary from pilots brings the game's audio effects to life, at least, although the constant braap-braap of chopper guns is thin and annoying.
Great idea and setting aside, Whirlwind Over Vietnam makes mistakes on just about every level. While you've got to appreciate G5's willingness to just say no to WWII, all of the issues with ease of use, mission design, and performance make the game hard to endure.