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Comanche 4

by Bob "Groucho" Marks

Article Type: Review
Article Date: November 30, 2001


Armageddon. Con Air. Pearl Harbor. These are the creations of Jerry Bruckheimer, noted producer of these and other high-action, pretty, violent, but basically stupid motion pictures. I admit it—I ‘ve seen each of these in theatres, and enjoyed some of the highly polished and choreographed action sequences. At the same time, however, I have always winced at the gaping plot holes and glaring inaccuracies of these ultra-slick filmed frag-fests.

Most of Bruckheimer’s films are interesting to look at, but ultimately vacuous, uninteresting, unfulfilling, and generally not worth going back to see a second time. I like explosions as much as the next guy, but how many huge fireballs can you look at without completely losing interest? After the first dozen or so, the urge to engage in something more cerebral like performing a quick lint sweep of your navel becomes overwhelming.

Welcome to WWF Whirlybird Smackdown!

NovaLogic blew it, in my opinion. If their marketing folks had just looked at the sim-like bang-bang shooter game that Comanche 4 ultimately turned out to be, they would have named it Jerry Bruckheimer Presents All-American Super Ninja Choppers of Death. Think about it. This would attract the intended core audience (13 year olds), be much more up-front about what this title actually is, and would have pocketed old Jerry a couple of easy bucks.

Throw in a voice-over or two from Nicholas Cage, add a cameo of Liv Tyler, and voila—instant shooter classic. This may not be fair. At least Bruckheimer films have a common plot thread, even if gossamer thin, that ties the explosions together. Comanche 4 lacks even this.

Full Disclaimer

This newest outing from the people who have sprouted forth such instant Voxel classics as, well, the first three Comanche games, not to mention such lasting gems as those F-22 and the Delta Force series of tactical combat sim…er…games. You’ll have to excuse my careful choice of verbiage for this particular…flying shooter. It is this webzine’s intent to judge such entertainment programs as C4 in the genre for which they were intended. I don't normally play flying shooters, but I was the lucky…ahem… reviewer who drew Comanche 4 as my latest assignment.

A pirate boat becomes yet another artificial reef

Novalogic does not so much as mention the "Sim" word in any of its C4 literature. In fact, great pains are taken to use the word "game" as often as possible, even while coupled with the prefix "video". Novalogic, therefore, tacitly admits any sensation that actually feels like piloting a rotor-wing aircraft is purely coincidental. So much for immersion.

Enough of this foot dragging. Come with me, kicking and screaming, into the world of things that go BOOM!

No-Migraine Installation

Installation was a piece of proverbial cake, or donut, as the case may be. The full install takes up a fairly average 485MB of hard drive space. One very cool feature about the opening splash screen is the "Update Game" option. No need to hunt around for the latest patch, download it, then executing it. Novalogic has fully streamlined this process. All one needs to do is hit the Update Game button and the whole dirty business is done for you. No muss, no fuss. Other developers—take note.

Control Issues

True to its niche as an action shooter game, C4 is truly set up as a mouse- and keyboard- controlled game. There is an option to configure joystick and anti-torque pedals (actually yaw pedals—like most aspects of the grossly perverted Newtonian physics in C4, torque is strangely absent), but their implementation is wonky and unnatural. Once your altitude is set by key press, for example, controlling one’s altitude with increased collective while cranking the cyclic around is unnecessary. This screws me up to no end. I know that C4 is NOT a sim, but when you are trying to control the training-wheel equivalent of a helicopter with a real HOTAS the counterintuitive reaction to control inputs effectively make the machine almost unflyable.

But all that misses the point, doesn’t it? C4 is a shooting game—the primary reason for controls is to put iron (and depleted uranium) on evildoers. It'll come as no surprise then to the twitch-shooter crowd that your mouse is all the controller you'll need for this task. In actuality, the ultimate controller would be a PS2-style gamepad…an option that is conspicuously missing in C4’s controller options.

So, there you are, steering with a mouse and using the arrow cursors to move forward, slide back, and to strafe right and left. With my feet dancing uselessly on my pedals (hey-it makes me feel better), I drive about looking for stuff to shoot at. My frustration grows.

A terrorist about to have his romantic walk on the beach interrupted

While flying in the cockpit view, locked targets are lost the millisecond they stray from your fixed-forward field of view. Since turning your head to track a target is only an option if you have the dexterity of a pickpocket, the helo must be pointed in the general direction of the intended target at all times. The situational awareness borders on non-existent. Annoying and dangerous. I die a lot.

At this point I abandoned any hope of realism and took the third person view. This is possibly the most disorienting thing I have ever done in a computer game. Once again, you both steer and move the target cursor with the mouse. Spinning around in circles at a dizzying rate to track a threat with the cursor is enough to throw anyone off, especially while moving. Target selection can be done by putting the cursor on the threat, or by using the incredibly inefficient right mouse button to cycle through the targets. Either way, your situational awareness is so horribly poor that death is inevitable.

I suck at controlling things with a mouse and keyboard. Using the space bar as a pop-up cyclic is just too wrong, for example. This isn’t a big deal while just piloting around, however, as most of the RAH-66 as modeled in C4 is apparently made of some mil-spec Nerf® substance. Running into things like hills, towers, trees, and the like are a minor inconvenience. Instead of a precursor to the horrible sounds of metal tearing itself asunder and composite panels ripping apart, it politely goes "clang". While a few hit points are deducted from your health status, no harm is done and you are free to blunder merrily on your way.

The water effects are truly spectacular

Pretty Pictures, Bring Horsepower

There is just too much in the way of really amazing graphical stuff going on to not be somewhat impressed. First and foremost are the water effects. Everyone has seen the gee-whiz shots of the rotor wash feathering the surface, but what has blown me away is the 3D depiction of depth. The surface has a reflective quality when seen at oblique angles, but as you look down into the sea with your line of sight closer to right angles at the surface such undersea landmarks as reefs and shoals are visible. Things float in the water, as do individual survivors. A very nice, realistic touch.

As is worthy of this genre, the explosions are spectacular, with bright orange and yellow fireballs veined with black smoke as debris showers around the impact zone. The particle effects are also very nicely rendered, with smoke plumes blown by the rotor-wash. Individual troops are rendered well enough to engage individually, and dust / splash effects are impressive indeed.

In all, the atmospherics are very evocative of Mechwarrior 4. The fog effects are overdone and too close, but I soon learned why.

Upon startup, C4 automatically selects the best graphical settings optimized for your computer. On my particular machine, a 1.7GHz P4 / 384MB RDRAM / GeForce3 64MB, the software cranked every option to the right. I set the resolution to the maximum 1280 x 1024, confident I have the oomph to run a simplistic airborne shooter game. How did it run on this chain driven, afterburning, and capable number annihilator?

Under fire, and the frames per second drops to a crawl


Cruising about the countryside, gawking at the lovely, if hallucinogenic vistas, all is smooth as a baby's bum. When the bullets start to really fly, however, just when image smoothness is essential, the frame rate drops to a slideshow. Seriously. The game becomes unplayable, right when you need every ounce of situational awareness. I cannot stress enough what a problem this is. Lacking the challenges of actually needing to pilot anything, enjoyment of this game must be derived entirely from the combat action. Right at the point where the game is supposed to be the most fun, however, the action brings even a high-end system to it knees, sobbing and crying like a little girl.

Campaign Structure

There is none. Nothing at all, short of the generic geographic locales, connects the individual missions. Go fly, blow stuff up. To increase the difficulty (this means you are "advancing"), we’ll give you even more stuff that shoots at you, until you die so often that you will give up and go watch reruns of "Full House".

Other Stuff

To no one’s great surprise, C4 has multiplay capability, including the ability to log in at NovaWorld and frag each other stupid. I could care less, this game has pissed me off to the point where the last thing I want to do is sign up to get killed many times over by pre-pubescent flying UFOs that look a lot like the RAH-66. There is also a mission editor that looks incredibly obtuse and hard to figure out. Having had quite enough of user-hostile software for three evenings, I shut it off and uninstalled the offending code.

Close the Curtain

I am not a hardcore sim snob. The helicopters in Operation Flashpoint, for example, have very lightweight flight models. They are, however, a blast to fly and fight in. The helos react in ways that at least give a nod and tip o' the hat to real rotary-wing flight and such high-falutin’ concepts as gravity and inertia.

Comanche 4, however, seems to go out of its way to be annoying. From the hyper-simplistic flight model, to the lobotomized damage modeling, the challenge of flight itself has been castrated. Okay, they’ve taken that away, and given us things that look pretty, even more so when they go boom. This, however, seems to take a liquid-nitrogen cooled dual-processor P4 set up—one that few of their apparent intended audience will actually own. Most of the folks interested in the drivel Novalogic offers here in C4 will have similar, far better implemented fare on their Xboxes and PS2s anyway. At least then they have to option of using gamepads.

Run far, far away from this thing. Comanche 4 offers all the fun, excitement, and sense of fulfillment that a trip to the laundromat does, only a lot more frustrating. Hopefully you can find one playing Jerry Bruckheimer’s The Rock on a TV.

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