Access Granted Situation Report: Heliborne in Early Access

By Alex Connolly 09 Mar 2016 0

Heliborne has officially hit Steam Early Access. With the latest patch, I felt it was time to drop the collective, putting skid to pad to see what's going on with JetCat Games' tilt for World of Flying Tanks. 

Though enthralled by my time in the pre-alpha, the then-minuscule player population offered a sporadic glimpse at what Heliborne was selling. Freshly deployed and on active duty in Early Access, population boom across the three-strong servers - EU, US Central and SE Asia/Oceania, at the time of writing - makes the ten bone purchase argument far more convincing. A full-blown Heliborne match, with its unique sense of territory control, speaks for itself.

If you're chasing a more detailed look at just what Heliborne is, do have a goosey at our pre-alpha coverage. In a nutshell, this is an excellent use of the modern "World of [insert romantic hardware]", and perhaps one of the more nuanced of its ilk. Featuring a simucade feel, aiming to capture the revolutionary flexibility and fragility of the war whirlybird, Heliborne is as much a ground game as it is one of the air. It has an intimacy where others don't. Each sortie an exercise in grazing ridgelines and hugging rivers; dancing between the snarl of AA tracers and coming in hot under rocketry to snatch bases with a bellyload of troops. 

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Heliborne is a neat concept, and despite having a tiny team behind it, it's already more solid and tactically interesting than most other multiplayer efforts I've playing in the last few years. Not without caveat, but these are early days.

With the base game more or less established, JetCat Games are now beginning to roll out the tweaks and twists. 

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According to Matt Chelen's fine interview over at MMOs.com, JetCat Games' Anthony Keeton discussed near-future plans for Heliborne, including the introduction of a Wargame series-esque deck-building element. Players will be able to build their own finite selection of choppers and discrete loadouts. This should raise the stakes considerably, cementing the legend of cavalier jockeys or planting them firmly on the bench once they burn through their deck. Including the rotational repair downtime, whereby damaged aircraft can be exchanged for another in your deck during matches, Heliborne's multiplayer horizon looks to be adding legs while mitigating the possibility lengthy, often tiring attrition. A good game, as they say, is a snappy one.

Chopper acceleration, pitch and collective have been given a fresh pass, with a more natural feeling of weight and speed inferred through the mouse. Big birds like the Chinook and Shawnee swing wonderfully under their double rotors, lurching about with every new heading. Each aircraft feels more distinct, even if just a product of the increased control fidelity and modified. Modern era gunships, particularly the Apache and KA-50/52s, dip and bob with rangy mobility, Dobermann-lethal when compared with their Chow Chow transport comrades. 

Heliborne

Another pleasing change appears to be non-designated landing areas; being able to land a bird on a hillside to offload MANPAD Surface to Air missile troops opens up a further element in the territory control game. Inclines might be kinder, or my piloting skills have increased, but seeing teammates temporarily lock down a valley or plateau with tactical missile coverage measures out the ground game. Even if the flare path sees to aimless, confused ordnance scudding into the hills, the sense of security remains.

What's most promising is seeing roles being filled. Like any other class-based multiplayer game, it goes to pieces the moment teams act as anything but. Heliborne is certainly not immune, but more often than not, I've had the fine pleasure of heaving my troop carrier towards an LZ under the serrated care of gunships or, in a pinch, brazen recon. I've seen a duo of NATO birds lurk behind ranges, popping up to burp SACLOS ATGMs downrange into enemy LZs, clearing the way for heavies to disgorge their compliment of soldiers and await the armour column. Running interdiction in the trusty Polish Salamandra, I've done my part for the Greater Motherland in escort duty. And as many times as my fuselage has been minced by hungry cannon, it has been saved by diligent wingmen. Pays to return the favour. 

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Beyond slight after-hours desolation on the Asia server and the odd, inconsistent bout of lag-relatedly zip, Heliborne is a compelling package for folks wanting something quite unique in the combat multiplayer sphere. Unlike a lot of Early Access titles, the core conceit is strong and eminently playable. Rotorheads could do a lot worse with their air force stipend. Which leaves only one sensible thing to do.

Run. Go. Get to the Chickasaw.

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