Flying a military helicopter is a tough job at the best of times - and when you're in the thick of combat and they're using you for target practice, quick thinking and perfect control are your best weapons. MicroProse's Gunship, one of those complex simulations so popular in America, is an attempt to recreate the reality of flying a US Army armoured helicopter, the state-of-the-art AH-64A Apache introduced in 1982.
To add to the effect, Gunship's two cassettes and hard cardboard case (the American-style packaging which supported its great success on the Commodore 64 there) come complete with an 88-page 'operations manual' giving every detail of the game - and technical specifications of the real helicopter, its armament and its enemies.
Once in the chopper, you look through an armoured glass windscreen complete with cross hairs and gunsight. System-damage lights are situated above this, and below it is the main instrument console. This contains such navigational instruments as heading, course, and airspeed indicators; fuel gauges; weapon update systems; a radar jammer; and an enemy threat display. There's also information on the helicopter's ammunition, a sector map, a damage monitor and a radio which brings vital messages.
The helicopter is flown using two basic controls: the 'cyclic joystick', which controls the pitch and roll (direction of the copter), and the 'collective', which alters the angle of the rotor blades (and therefore the altitude).
Flying can be simplified by choosing the 'easy' rather than the 'realistic' flight option. This limits the pitch and roll elements of flight. (Other flight difficulties include air turbulence at low altitudes.) Landing, weather conditions and the enemy's fighting skills can also be independently selected as easy or realistic.
The handbook recommends you use the realistic flying option as soon as possible, perhaps leaving the tricky landing and weather problems for later - and once the basics of the craft and combat have been mastered in practice attacks on the US training camp, actual combat missions abroad can begin.
One of four duty assignments can be chosen: Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East and Western Europe. Each assignment includes some missions which are more dangerous than others, and volunteer missions are exceptionally hazardous.
Briefings before each operation give the essential information. A password and countersign are particularly important; when you're approaching a friendly base, ground control radios the password. And you'd better respond with the right countersign, or risk being blasted from the skies.
Briefings also include other information on such matters as the weather, enemy equipment and tactics.
But if you decide to be a chicken-livered cur you can go on sick call and get out of a mission.
On a mission, you're flying into the unknown. The sector map gives a localised view of the ground, and a full-screen map can be activated to give the entire layout of the combat zone. This larger map isn't entirely accurate, but does show all the major geographical features, friendly troops, installations and targets.
The AH-64A Apache is armed with standard weaponry, but before some missions it can be rearmed to your specifications. Cannon ammunition, flares and fuel can all be added (within a weight limit), or left behind if unnecessary.
The enemy strikes with ground fire from antiaircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles, and with its own airborne fighters.
But the enemy's ground radar can be disrupted and your movements disguised by releasing metal strips of chaff, or by activating missile jamming circuits.
And combative Soviet-made HIND helicopters, sent up to attack, can be outmanoeuvred and blasted from the sky in a perilous battle of wits. (Note those HINDS; the enemies in Gunship are recognisably America's enemies, and there's even a warning that 'the Warsaw pact is the most formidable enemy on this planet'!)
Fighting in Gunship is very high-tech. The TAOS (Target Acquisition & Designation System) tracks a target once you're close to it, so it's always in your sights.
But some weapons are only effective against particular targets: your 30mm cannon can destroy everything but bunkers, while Heilfire air-to-ground missiles (directed by laser to a TAOS target) can take out bunkers as well as all vehicles. On firing cannons and missiles the helicopter recoils and must be quickly brought back under control.
Once a mission has ended and you've brought the copter to rest, the debriefing begins. You could be promoted; you could end up working for the US Army Sanitary Maintenance Corps; more usually, you'll have to make a decision on whether to refuel, rearm or repair the helicopter.
Remember, however, that if you land in the wrong place you might spend the duration in a prisoner-of-war camp. Spectrum gaming, let alone war, is hell.
But is it fantasy or fact? Perhaps the playability is all that matters, though MicroProse may have a special insight. The American company's President and well-known eccentric, 'Wild' Bill Stealey, is an enthusiastic military man who even put a real helicopter simulator, used for training pilots, on MicroProse's stand at The PCW Show!
And the company's releases next year will include Project: Stealth Fighter supposedly simulating an American fighter plane so secret that nobody but MicroProse has heard of it.
In the meantime, CRASH's reviewers have greeted Gunship as the best of the few helicopter simulations around. Others include Digital Integration's 1985 Tomahawk (93% Overall in Issue 23) and Durell's 1984 Combat Lynx (88% Overall in Issue 10).
Joystick: Kempston, Sinclair
Graphics: vector graphics updated superquick
Sound: the occasional beep - but you can't hear much in the din of battle anyway
Options: retry a mission; easy/realistic modes of flight, landing, weather and enemy: a training camp and four combat assignments; sick call option for pilots who get cold feet
'Gunship is the most realistic flight simulation around. The copter's response to controls is remarkably convincing, and the graphics are a good deal better than Tomahawk's - did I detect my helicopter flying through hills, though? Gunship has loads of playability; the manual makes good reading for a couple of hours, and the in-game presentation is excellent. It's the best in the ever more competitive world of flying on the Spectrum...'
MIKE ... 90%
'Tomahawk was good but MicroProse's Gunship is out of this world. It's one of only a few games that simulate flying accurately and give you a 'real' feeling of being in the cockpit, at the helm of millions of pounds worth of machinery. And handling a helicopter is even more of a challenge than flying a fighter plane! Helicopters aren't as responsive as planes and Gunship's controls reflect this important aspect. The graphics aren't as fast and smooth as those of, say, Mercenary, but when you finish a flight you really feel drained. Gunship is probably the most realistic simulation you'll ever play.'
PAUL ... 94%
'Anyone out them considering jumping into the cockpit of an AH-64A Apache without an induction course, forget it! Even if you're not into reading pages of instructions, take time out to attack Gunship's operations menus. It's well worth it - and this is the best helicopter simulation yet. Gunship brings together the realistic aspects - helicopter controls, reactions from those controls, and travelling above ground - and the excitement of a thrilling, involved mission with deadly enemies.'
BYM ... 91%
The game that's been causing Commodore (spit spit!) owners to emit grunts of delight for the last year or so has finally been converted to the Spectrum. Yes, at last Gunship is finished, and now we can experience the joys of some real serious Commie-bashing.
In case you hadn't heard, Gunship is a helicopter simulation, and a pretty comprehensive one at that. It's along the same sort of lines as DI's Tomahawk, but a little bit more complicated, to say the least. For a start, one glance at the 84 page manual will be enough to put many people off. But don't be one of them, 'cos Gunship should be at the top of your Christmas present list.
Having fought your way through the box-load of bumph that accompanies the game, (the box would be great for carrying groceries home from Waitrose once you've finished with it), selected which of the two tapes is the one you're after and loaded it up you'll be able to start the pre-flight checks.
It's not just a case of jumping into the seat, switching on the ignition and taking to the skies like they do in Airwolf. A lot of options need tweaking first, such as scenario, weather conditions, enemy skill and simulation level (simplified or realistic). Once you've done that you'd be advised to read the mission briefing and intelligence report. Finally a few adjustments to the chopper's armaments and you're ready to go.
Actually getting off the ground is the next obstacle. You'll need to wade through pages of explanation of flying principles and equipment descriptions before you can get onto the meaty stuff: switching on the engines. Then, with your joystick between your knees and a cigar between your lips, engage the rotors, twiddle with the collective and you're flying.
The improvements over previous simulations quickly become apparent. The ground is covered in buildings, rivers, roads and, of course, those dastardly Commies. Mountains are property filled in, so there's none of that wire-frame rubbish we've been used to.
Anyway, you're flying along, minding your own business, when suddenly your VDU flashes up "Target". Press fire and a close-up of the target, be it friend or foe, appears on the screen. Yeurch! Time to reach for the manual again.
Your AH-64 Apache is armed with four types of weapons. Firstly there's your basic chain gun. This is aimed automatically by the TADS system, so all you have to do is press fire when the target is in range. Then you've got unguided rockets, Sidewinders for knocking down enemy helicopters and Hellfire guided missiles for those really tricky targets.
It's not all fun, though. In your briefing you're given the location of a primary target which must be found and destroyed. It's normally one of the enemy bases which are dotted around the map, and if you manage to reduce it to rubble and get safely back to base you'll be given a medal, promoted and set out on another even harder mission.
The missions vary from training nice and safely in America, to full blown combat against the Reds in Europe. I couldn't even get past the second mission, described as "Easy" in the briefing, it's going to be a real long-term challenge to work up the ranks to a Colonel with a Congressional Medal of Honour.
Obviously Gunship is only going to suit the sort of people who beat Elite while they're waiting for the kettle to boil for a cup of tea and eat Starglider for breakfast. However, persevere and the rewards are worth it. Totally compulsive and thunderin' good value!
Well, it's been a long time coming, hasn't it?
Gunship from Microprose was around ages ago on the C64 and everyone thought it was the best thing to happen to the future of combat simulations since sliced bread (What's that got to do with combat? - Ed).
Unfortunately, it took so long being ported across to the Spectrum many people lacking the faith of us at SU began to doubt the possibility of the conversion, and complain that it wouldn't turn out at all well.
Well, nyah booh sucks to them, because they're totally wrong in every way. The boys at Ver Prose have come up trumps and produced what is arguably the best flight simulator yet on the Spectrum.
In the game, you get the chance to take to the skies in an Apache attack helicopter. Armed with a staggering array of weapons and protected by armour plating, it can chew up and spit out just about anything thrown at it.
Talk about fools rushing in. Within seconds I had come to more grief than you could imagine. I hadn't a clue where I was, and was struggling with a machine that's not easy to control in the best of conditions, let alone in a strong sidewind at night with full enemy frontline forces attacking.
Back in base I admitted that maybe the instructions and options could bear a once over and I was happily surprised to see quite how easily accessible they were.
When you're starting out you can select a number of options to make life easier in the early stages. The background for the menus is a rather nice illustration of the helicopter, and the tasteful grey boxes containing the options overlay themselves from top left to bottom right.
You can tailor the basic elements, like weather conditions and the skill of the enemy. Also highly inexperienced pilots - like myself - can also choose the 'perfect landing' option which prevents almost any encounter with the ground from turning into a crash.
The best thing about Gunship is the realistic way the missions are detailed. Cycling through more grey screens, you gradually learn more about the nature of your assignment - the strength of the repelling forces, location of primary and secondary targets and difficulty, etc.
Missions vary from easy stuff like taking out a tank somewhere to seriously tough Purple Heart material that no- one in their right minds would try.
Once you've selected your mission equip yourself with varying combinations of cannon, rocket and missile ammunition, together with fuel. It's up to you to decide upon the correct combination, depending on your mission.
Once you get going, having grasped the engine, rotor and thrust controls, you can start darting around the vector graphic landscape looking for trouble. Soon enough your on- board computer will flash up a message either indicating that a target of some description is in range or than an enemy helicopter is now airborne. Unfortunately, as far as on-board computers go, this one isn't too smart and will happily inform you that your own base in a target. Anyway, when in range, it's a fairly satisfying affair to lock on and let rip with whichever weapon is appropriate.
You can flip to a map screen, too. So you know where you're going and so you can make more economic use of fuel than if you were to simply bumble around.
Graphically the actual 3D, it has to be said, isn't particularly exciting to look at. Let's face it, vector line graphics aren't much cop. In Gunship. though, Microprose has managed, by keeping everything fairly functional, to make sure the game plays at a sensible speed.
Gunship is a game of great depth, incorporating nearly all the things that give real combat pilots a headache.
It's very entertaining for both serious sim-heads and people, like me, who aren't too fussed about the more high-brow intellectually challenging elements of flight control.
Incidentally, Gunship also looks set to be one of the first titles out on disc for the 128K +3.
Price: £9.95 (tape), £12.95 (disk)
Reviewer: Jim Douglas
Atari ST, £24.95dk
IBM PC, £34.95dk
C64/128, £14.95cs, £19.95dk
Spectrum, £9.95cs, £12.95dk
CPC, £14.95cs, £19.95dk
Hughes AH-64A Apache
Major Wild Bill Stealey has carved quite a reputation for himself in the UK games industry. His company Microprose do have a knack for turning out impressive products with quality packaging and a good dose of healthy gung-ho aggression. Hostiles beware as Wild Bill sends you off on mission after mission with the promise of promotion to Colonel and the award of the Congressional Medal of Honour.
Gunship makes an interesting comparison with Tomahawk from Digital Integration. The former has all the hallmarks of an American up-market product, with an excellent manual and a lot of backslapping throughout the game that helps keep interest from flagging. Disk versions have a Hall of Fame, and the structure of the program is cleverly designed with enemy recognition tests, training missions, radio transmissions from base, armament screens and so on. Some versions even have a cassette tape featuring a live tutorial from Major Bill himself. Yee har!
By contrast, Tomahawk seems a rather restrained affair, but once you've put down the bulky manual and started flying, Gunship shows definite disadvantages over its UK rival. It's easier to fly, but somehow less convincing, and the landscape (although more colourful) is less effective. Instrumentation is as complete but not as neatly laid out and as a result rather more tiring to look at after a long time in the air. There's even a rather clumsy screen glitch that regularly flickers across the screen on the Commodore version.
These niggles apart, this program still represents reasonable value for money - but Major Bill has some tough competition in Tomahawk.
MACHINES: CBM64/128, Atari XL/XE, Amstrad 464,664,6128, Apple, Amiga, Atari ST, IBM, Spectrum 48/128
PRICE: £? (disk) - (tape)
VERSION TESTED: Spectrum 48
This is the Spectrum version of Gunship, the best flight/combat simulator available on the market today, based on the American-built Apache combat helicopter now coming into service with the US Army. Microprose has now produced Spectrum versions of most of their best-sellers. But Gunship has so much in it that the question was always whether they could fit it all into a Spectrum's memory and graphics.
I'm afraid that the short answer is no. The scenarios have all been kept, but the solid landscape view and multi-coloured map have been replaced by wire-frame hills and trees, and the cockpit layout is far harder to read than in other versions.
The problem is that Gunship is in fact so good. It is such a realistic and complex simulator that it needs split-second responses from the player, just like flying a real combat helicopter while trying to engage an enemy. This version, with its fuzzy graphics and trick controls, just isn't up to it.
The good news for Spectrum 128 owners is that if they send the game back to Microprose they will provide a singlecassette version, instead of the three sides of tape.
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