Gunship 2000. (computer game) (Column) (Evaluation)
by Peter Olafson
Ah, Gunship. If you've flown your IBM long, that name is bound to take you back. In 1986, when XTs and EGA still ruled the MS-DOS world and sound meant only that poor, nasal-voiced speaker, MicroProse brought out the helicopter simulation and quickly made the computer-game skies its own.
By today's standards, that Apache gunship simulation seems quaint--a rather unadorned world of pyramidlike mountains and amorphous targets. But that hardly mattered back then. It felt real. The air was always thick with threat, and the game was absolutely riveting until you limped back to base for your medal (or so you hoped).
In the fast few years, MicroProse has been upgrading its classic meat-and-potatoes games to filet-mignon level: F-15, Silent Service, and, just recently, F-19 Stealth Fighter. It was only a matter of time before the company returned to its five-year old Gunship. It's surprising that it look as long as it did.
The result is Gunship 2000, and it's just what the title suggests; a leap forward. It's the best helicopter simulation around. While Gunship fans will find some elements broadly and happilu familiar--the target-camera view, the in-flight map, the primary and secondary missions--the heart of the game has been retooled. Guess what. It's still absolutely riveting.
What's new? Well, for starters, Gunship 2000 has spread its wings. Included are no fewer than seven types of helicopter--from the Apache to the Blackhawk, the Comanche to the Kiowa Warrior. Once you've advanced to the rank of secon lieutenant, you can command a packet of five helicopters. (And you thought it was tough enough controlling just one!) These small-unit operations are the heart of game, its reason for being. Computer gaming is traditionally a rather solitary activity, but with these folks on your wing, you won't feel alone for long.
A fascinating array of missions complements this mode. You may find yourself running recon, finding and picking up troops, hauling in supplies, or hitting targets far behind enemy lines. And then there's a full campaign option as well, with an arduous schedule of combat missions. You're going to be busy, friend. When you start to play, though, you'll be able to choose only between training and single-chopper combat missions. There's so much to take in here that it's hard to know where to start. On that score, hats off to MicroProse for another superior manual.
Let's try the air over central Europe--one of two combat theaters included with the game--at 75 feet up and 125 miles per hour, fresh out of ammo, and with Soviet Hind choppers circling like mechanical vultures. (Toto, I don't think we're on traffic patrol anymore!) With greater control over the machine comes a much more vivid impression of speed. Gunship 2000 takes off when flying close to the surface on a fast machine, and if that's still not speedy enough, you can use time compression to get to the target area with dispatch. (The autopilot also comes in handy here.)
VGA definitely has worked its charms on the program. This is a beautiful game in flight and out of it. Europe, the ground below is an enchanting patchwork of hills and dales; in the Gulf, make that palm trees and boulders. Roads have acquired telephone poles. Bullet holes may pockmark your windshield if you get careless. Explosions have texture, and hits have your enemy smoking. Enemy targets sometimes aren't just a single vehicle, but a full unit that will require a few hits to take out. Get the picture? There's a lot more game here.
All this is choreographed by digitized speech reporting on the direction of targets, the approach of incoming fire, and the success of your own salvos. On machines using Roland or IBM sound, the speech comes through the PC's internal speaker. It's actually a nice, crusty effect, as though heard over an intercom, but on those systems--and systems equipped with the Ad Lib sound card--the game pauses when speech is heard. Not exactly a blow for realism. However, delivery was crisp and delay-free on my Sound Blaster.
When flying flight sims, I've often cursed myself for not shifting to an outside view quickly enough to watch my weapons do their nasty business. That's a good deal of the fun, after all, and Gunship 2000 has several handsome exterior views.
But suppose you forget to look in the heat of battle. It's all been taken care of. After you've landed, you'll have an opportunity to see a post-mortem--I mean, a replay--of your flight from any position you care to adopt. There's no reason to miss a thing and no need to invoke a replay mode first. The files generated can be traded with other Gunship 2000 pilots.
Indeed, there's not a part of Gunship 2000 that doesn't make a mark. As you leaf through the briefing, you can hear the soft scrape of paper on paper. If you're still finding your way in the game, there's an option to have the computer take care of firing weapons and defensive countermeasures. Even the countersign required by the copy protection feels like part of the game.
You may find it hard to resist Gunship 2000's more casual charms, as well. The selection screen back at Brigade HQ--where you pick the active pilot, theater of duty, and mission type--just barely looks like a selection screen. The desk officer really seems to be writing. Watch those fingers and dig the curt little nod he gives you when you click on him for an assignment. (Try clicking on the computer screen at the back of the room a few times for some undocumented fun.) None of this has much to do with how well you fly, but it's charming and immensely satisfying in some way. It makes you feel as if you're really in Gunship 2000, not just a visitor with $69.95 plus tax.
That's not the end of it, either. MicroProse has never been a company just to boot the baby birds out of the nest to fly or fall, and Gunship 2000 proves no exception. MicroProse is upgrading the program on a regula basis--incorporating user suggestions, fixing bugs, adding features. The most recent upgrade (as of mid November) is 469.05, and Gunship devotees will want to make it a point to download the file from an electronic bulletin board where the company provides customer support or obtain it directly from MicroProse.
The game's not quite perfect; no game is. As you might guess, with all this good stuff going on, Gunship 2000 can be rather stodgy at 12 MHz. (A minimum speed of 10 MHz is recommended, and you can always chop away some of the detail to improve performance.) Even at 33 MHz, while speedy and smooth, the game doesn't have quite the raucous, branches-slapping-your-face speed I'd associate with seat-of-the-pants chopper flying.
While add-on theaters are promised, the two included don't seem to be nearly enough, and overtaken by recent events, central Europe isn't as inviting a hunting zone these days (unless BMWs are legitimate targets). The digitized voice also seemd a mite too loud on my Sound Blaster.
Ok, I'm being pickly. But I don't mind picking a little, because the rest of Gunship 2000 is so good. None of the minor problems make much difference when you're outbound at treetop level, Primary Target finally pops up on the target-camer screen, a Hellfire under your wing ignites, and the night sky blossoms with its impact. Home, James, and step on it.