It's something we've been saying about a lot of games recently, but it hasn't half been a while since we've had a helicopter sim in to review. In fact, now that we think about, it's probably been getting on for 20 years since helicopter gunship sims were kind of a big deal, with the genre having all but vanished since the days of Apache vs Commanche, and the ill fated GUNSHIP! way back in the year 2000. Bar a brief diversion for Apache Air Assault, it's been practically silent on the western front ever since - something that Air Missions: Hind looks to put right.
Developed by the team that brought us the enjoyable Air Conflicts: Secret Wars, and the reasonable Air Conflicts: Pacific Carriers, Hind is a departure from the team's norm in a number of ways. This time taking it upon themselves to self publish the game, rather than working with the backing of their usual publisher Kalypso, the team have instead developed the game through Steam Early Access, leaving them free to take the game down a much more simulator-y route than those which have come before.
Instead, what we have here is a gunship sim that for the most part strives for accessible authenticity over arcade action, much in the vein of the good old helicopter sims of yore - although that's not to say there aren't still plenty of explosions. Letting you control one of four iconic Russian helicopter juggernauts, from the angular KA-50 Hokum, the beefy Mi-28 Havok, the transport oriented Mi-8 Hip, and the versatile attack helicopter/transport craft with a sting in its jaw, the titular Mi-24 Hind, you'll work your way through a simple campaign made out of some 15 missions, most of which are heavily ground attack based. With nothing in the way of a storyline to distract from the action, this is a game all about being a helicopter pilot pure and simple - with plenty of missions that'll put your skills through their paces.
If you've never flown a virtual helicopter before, you'll be pleased to know that not only is there a range of tutorials that'll talk you through the basics of what you need to do (namely how to fly, with a number of extra individual tutorial missions that explain how to use the more complicated weaponry) - but there's also a variety of control schemes too, along with plenty of options for tuning the game's realism. You can turn collisions with trees, buildings, terrain, and even other helicopters on and off, along with enabling or disabling friendly fire, indestructible landing gear, and damage from explosions. There's also the ability to set whether your guns are aimed manually (which is bit awkward) or automatically, which gives you one less thing to think about when flying. That's definitely a good thing, too, as the initial tutorial can be a little bit confusing - not to mention hard to actually complete once you're just finding your bearings with helicopter controls! As helicopters work in a rather different way to a plane, there's a real learning curve here - not least in figuring out how to attack targets on the ground by pointing your nose down, without ending up gaining too much speed and overshooting due to the laws of physics.
Still, once you've got your bearings, you'll find an array of missions that regularly offer surprises. Whether you're having to land your Hind in the middle of some crossroads streets to pick up some injured troops (the Hind being pretty much unique in its role as an attack gunship/transport helicopter); defending a downed helicopter against an entire army's worth of soldiers until reinforcements arrive; blowing up bridges; stopping transport planes from taking off; or even switching to a side mounted mini-gun to pick off some insurgents, there's a huge amount of variety here, and plenty of interesting challenges. One of the more unique (and frustrating) missions sees you having to take over an airfield, without damaging any of its essential infrastructure - of course, with mostly unguided rocket pods and cannons at your disposal (and with your dastardly enemy having parked all their tanks/jeeps/equipment a few inches away from the all important hangars), it's easier said than done...
One of the main advantages of helicopters is how incredibly customisable they are - and at the end of each mission, you'll almost always unlock a new weapon to try out, with the game gradually introducing you to the more complex and impressive weaponry. With the game giving you chance to switch out your helicopter's weaponry before each mission, checking the mission briefing to see what kind of enemies you'll be coming up against will give you the chance to ensure you've always got the right tools for the job - there's no point equipping heat seeking air-to-air missiles if your mission mostly involves blowing up bridges.
Some of the weapons here are really unique, too. One of the more unusual is what's known as a MCLOS missile, or Manual Command to Line of Sight. In a nutshell, rather than being a heat seeking missile, this is a rocket you can actually fly yourself - as soon as you've fired it, holding the right shoulder button will bring up a targetting reticule on screen, showing where your missile is. From there, you can fly it as you would anything else, by using the left analogue stick to guide it to its target.
Outside of the campaign, there's a further eight missions to get stuck into, which almost kind of form their own mini-campaign. Substantial, and a lot of fun, in all honesty, we're not entirely sure why these didn't make it into the campaign itself. There's also an Instant Action mode for those looking to jump straight into a quick, essentially time attack style mission, with nine different variations to choose from. There's even support for four player co-op online, across the full campaign, the instant action stages, and the additional missions!
However, while we've had a lot of fun with Air Missions: Hind, it hasn't been without its frustrations. While we can overlook a slightly dodgy translation, and some equally dodgy voice acting, the occasional bug here is a little bit harder to overlook - including one in a single mission that wants you to land on an aircraft carrier, only for you to end up flying straight through the deck when you try. As a repeatable issue, that really should have been picked up before it made its way into the game. There's a few graphical issues to speak of here too, with distant trees flickering in and out distractingly, but nothing a little bit more polish wouldn't fix.
Needless to say, then, Air Conflicts: Hind is a game we had a lot of fun with, and one we could easily keep writing about. While there's a few nit-picky questions to be asked about authenticity (you can still land and pick troops up even if you aren't flying a helicopter that can carry passengers; and somehow, armed insurgents on the ground can damage the heavily armour plated Hind, which apparently should be impervious to small calibre weaponry), Air Missions: hind is a real breath of fresh air, a true blast from the past, and is well worth the asking price - we just wish there was a bit more of it!
Format Reviewed: Xbox One