Access Granted: Heliborne

By Alex Connolly 14 Jan 2016 0

I trail a clutch of lurching Shawnees across the shimmering shoals of Tonkin; the rugged lines of my Huey catching the light of an Indochinese sun as we roll with the topography and thrum upwards toward an LZ on a hazy coastal plateau. The bananas come around and land, their prows nesting in the dusty downdraft. Squads of marines dismount and run in a crouched gait towards empty ack-ack positions on the perimeter, claiming the location for Lady Liberty. My Huey hangs overhead, and I catch the hungry silhouette of a Cobra coursing past. One banana lifts off its triangular struts and turns back towards the FOB. The other throttled up and, once behind me, we follow the gunship as it makes for the dangerous interior. What awaited us there was near-death and daring-do.

Indie outfit JetCat Games are certainly playing my kind of Wagner in Heliborne. Based in Vilnius, Lithuania, they're a six-strong studio comprised of Belorussian, Russian, Ukrainian and American developers, and bring with them an earnest love for the flexible nuances of the whirlybird. Heliborne is aiming squarely at the team-based military multiplayer market, currently dominated by World of Tanks, Armored Warfare, and War Thunder. I recently had the chance to throw the JetCat cofounders, Raman Ulasau and Diana Leer, and community manager Anthony Keeton some questions surrounding their debut project. The first question was, simply, why helicopters?

"We're trying to show helicopters in their 'natural' environment in the game," Raman explains. "It's about what they bring, and have brought, to real conflicts. They're perfect for a large variety of interesting tasks, like CAS (Close Air Support) and tank-hunting to reconnaissance and troop transport." It's that multi-role versatility JetCat are hoping to capture in Heliborne. The thrum of a rotary-wing has never been far from gaming's earshot. From ChopLifter to DSC, most people have, at some stage, thwopped across a digital landscape.

Figuring out how to convey flexibility and class was originally envisaged by the team as a MOBA-esque experience, the popular sub-genre defining its character roles relatively cleanly. After initially conceiving a five-on-five mode, with discrete helicopter classes and models, it became clear something more was required.

"The deeper our helicopter research went," admits Raman, "The more our desire to make a different type of game grew. We wanted to allow people to experience fifty years of helicopter technology; from the formidable to the classy to the downright fun. World of Tanks played some role in it, as the game does for armoured vehicles what we hope to do with helicopters."

Not content with a condensed who's who of rotary-wings, JetCat unpacked the entire history of combat helicopters. Upon its full release, Heliborne will sport sixty-seven player aircraft from the Soviet/Russia, France and the US. "Our plans are to have two maps for each historical tier, those being the Fifties to Sixties, Seventies to Eighties, and the Nineties to modern day," Diana says. "All maps are based on historical events - different conflicts with heli involvement. So, you're looking at Vietnam, both Afghanistan wars, Angola, Iran-Iraq war, Balkan war and so on."

JetCat are planning three distinct game-modes, with the chance for more in the future. PvE co-operative is the tilt towards historical accuracy, offering an asymmetric mode where only one side has helicopters. PvP Point Control - currently in the alpha, and more on below - is a traditional location capture mode, where teams vie for and engage over installations. Finally, PvP Frontline, which has launched, dropped in a fresh alpha build. Taking cues from Herzog Zwei and a twist of the MOBA subset, players provide the blitz and support role to automated ground troops as forces move across the terrain towards objectives. "We're also working on in-game economy, player progression and match-making." Diana adds.

Speaking of economy, I asked about pricing and whether Heliborne was going to follow its contemporary inspirations and be Free To Play. "It'll most like be a premium game," Raman reassures me. "When it hits Early Access in the Winter, we'll charge around 9.99USD, to show our appreciation for the people who believe in us." And as far as DLC goes, "We're not thinking about that just yet, just the main game."

While the Steam Early Access release is set for Q1 next year, an alpha version has been released for testing and bodes very well. The two main modes released are classic capture skirmish and a best of five team chopper duel. Two maps are available at the present time; the aforementioned Tonkin and a slightly more contemporary Badakhshan province, where you can live out your dreams as a stony Soviet Hind pilot within the valleys and craggy, sawtooth ranges of the Afghan border province.

The capture mode is pleasantly well-rounded in alpha-state. Like any sort of team-based multiplayer where objectives need to be capped and held, there are no great surprises. It all works swimmingly. Hardware variety in all its East versus West grandeur is compliant to theater and era; the Vietnam maps feature UH-1s and H-21 Shawnees, balanced by the tractoresque Soviet Mi-4 and Ka-25 Hormone. The more modern Badakhshan locale offers a proving ground for the more serrated Cold War gunships like the Hinds and Apaches. Multi-role and transport helicopters provide the means to capture outposts; each can deploy a small number of troops upon landing, manning AA to defend against enemy approach. A nice wrinkle is the addition of two-odd shoulder-mounted AA soldiers, who can be individually deployed at any position on the map, provided there's room to bring the chopper down. They can be used to bolster defenses at landing sites or dropped on plateaus or in valleys beneath predicted enemy flight-paths. It adds a pliable tactical layer to an already exciting strategic flow.

The various flight models aren't true simulations, but they're of that simu-cade concession that governs the big military MMOs like World of Tanks or War Thunder. "It's an authentic arcade," Raman says. "We would love to have a realistic mode, but it depends solely on the community. It'd require a lot of resources and a solid player-base." The helis still lurch and yaw and churn in a satisfying way; large transports heave about with that elephantine glory you'd expect and similarly, the lighter gunships and recons flit and jink nicely. There's a good delay between control and machine response that infers weight and aerodynamics, so don't expect quad-rotor zip when maxing collective to haul from a hot LZ. Controlling everything works markedly well with mouse and keyboard, but there will be support for all sorts of HOTAS and gamepad peripherals in time. Each helicopter has an selectable loadout, which can include TOW missiles and FLIR targeting systems. Of course, this is governed by machine and era, so Chickasaw jockeys won't be loosing any XM-26s.  

But what I find most pleasing about Heliborne, even in the game's infant state, is the pace. It's an elegant pace. It gives players time to take in the landscape as it rushes under the struts and skids, offering a good middle-ground between that of ground armour and aircraft from a far earlier era. Engagements, be they rolling beyond the clawing sweep of AA to ducking and yawing an enthusiastic salvo of M3 rockets, have a tense yet measured speed about them. What's more, unlike their higher-altitude cousins, contact distances are delightfully intimate and relatively low-tech. Pitched exchanges of cannons between escort gunships as transports drop and duke towards their destination. The SPANG-SPANG-SPANG of a Chinook taking fire on the ground from a Soviet Hokum, lurking on a ridge. This is my level. My speed. I still spend a lot of the time as a burning hulk, smashing and rolling down the Hindu Kush, but there's great appeal in the theme and mechanics. The roles, the aircraft capacities, the ordnance, the era.

Tanks have received their due. Battleships, their majesty recognised. The valiant romance of the warbirds is well-catered to. Heliborne is set to pull pitch for the combat whirlybirds.  

The alpha sign-ups are ongoing at the time of writing, which can be found here.

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Thanks to the JetCat Games team for their time. They can be found and followed on Twitter as well as their homepage.

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