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  • Writer's pictureAaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza

Review: Thunder Helix (Pre-Release)

A Nostalgic Lens Over a Modern Flight Shooter



The power of nostalgia cannot be denied. Whether it is tied to a life experience from long ago or a faux memory of a past we barely knew, utilizing that feeling of personal connection can be compelling. Since October 2020, Thunder Helix has drawn a steady stream of nostalgia lensed praise for its looks, but it has more going for it than that.


On March 5th, 2024, Skyward Flight Media received a Steam Key for Thunder Helix from its developer, David Walters. Our review is of the pre-early access release version of the game, which is not representative of the game months from now. We will be sure to update this review or create a new review when the time is right. This review was made without direction from the developer.



The Vibe


From the outside looking in, much of the anticipation around Thunder Helix has been from its visual likeness to a pair of games from the early 1990s. Over the past three years, it has fairly consistently been compared to LHX Attack Chopper (1990) and Desert Strike: Return To The Gulf (1992) by Electronic Arts. LHX is more of a flight simulation experience, while Desert Strike is a third person "shoot'em up" with plenty of smaller strategic elements; like resource management and using the in-game mission map to plan out attacks instead of running in guns blazing all the time.


From the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, Electronic Arts was a pretty reliable source for flight focused games and simulators such as these. Delving into the nostalgic memory sentiment personally, I've got fond memories of my oldest brother introducing me to F-22 Interceptor, U.S. Navy Fighters, F-117 Night Storm and many others. LHX and Desert Strike among them. Because of this, it is hard for me to not also see Thunder Helix and tie its identity and what it "could be" to those retro titles.


To summarize what "the vibe" of this game is, you could say: Thunder Helix plays the way we think the games in our memories were played. Like a hands-on evocation.


Thunder Helix beneath a bridge.
It feels like you've been here before, doesn't it?

Rotary-Wing Vehicles


The three steads of battle in this game represent three concepts of attack helicopters.



The UH-85 "Lewis" is a heavy utility transport helicopter, inspired by the UH-1 Huey. The Lewis represents what could be considered the first attack helicopters: heavily armed transport helicopters. It has the highest armor count and crew capacity, though it lacks medium range precision weapons. Players flying the Lewis must be prepared to rely on long range rocket tossing onto groups of enemy units and its pair of straight shooting miniguns. The Lewis is the slowest, lease maneuverable aircraft in Thunder Helix.



The RH-2K "Raven" advanced scout/recon helicopter seems to be inspired by the cancelled RAH-66 Comanche; a product of the Light Helicopter Experimental project of the 1980s. This high speed, highly maneuverable helicopter features weapon bays that are toggled opened and closed to deploy four Hellgate guided air-to-ground missiles. Its 20mm cannon has an especially high rate of fire, but its a fixed weapon system that must be aimed by maneuvering the Raven itself. The RH-2K may have some stealth properties to it while the weapons bay is closed, but I do not have hard evidence to back that up.



Finally, the AH-92 Avenger tactical gunship is inspired by the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. With ample amounts of guided anti-tank missiles, rocket pods, chin mounted 30mm chain gun and the second most armor available for a helicopter, the Avenger is easily a go-to choice for any mission in the game. Its standoff attack ability is substantial with its eight Hellgate anti-tank missiles and the ability to maneuver while firing the chain gun. It is not as fast as the Raven, but with its long-reach it does not have to be.


Cold Start, Hot Start


You may have noticed the option for Cold Start and Hot Start in the previous section's screenshots. Before you gather tutorials for starting up an attack helicopter, I need to bring you back down a bit. The Cold Start process in Thunder Helix does not include clicking on screen switches. Instead, the cold and dark aircraft is brought to life with a minor throttle increase. An automated cold start process runs, the helicopter powers up, and it is ready to fly within 30 seconds or so. I personally do not believe this is a negative thing, but I wanted to clarify that for players that are more flight simulation leaning.


Thunder Helix cold start cockpit.
An Avenger cockpit, cold and dark.

Controller Support


In a way the wide controller support Thunder Helix has is funny because the look of Thunder Helix would place it in an era where there were so many proprietary controllers for specific games or platforms, the idea of a single game accepting any controller you use on it was a pipe dream. You would use one specialized controller for one or two specific games and just be happy it worked as advertised.


In the later stages of the Thunder Helix pre-release development, the developer took time to include "out of the box support" for keyboard, keyboard and mouse and multiple common game pads. The supported include the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, PlayStation 4 Dualshock 4, PlayStation 5 DualSense, Xbox X|S Controller and a general Joystick profile.



Of note is the joystick profile. To test this, this review of Thunder Helix was made using a joystick not seen in the developer's picture of controllers he used. I used a Thrustmaster T.Flight 4 hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS) on a J-Pein desk mount.


It worked perfectly fine. Throttle, roll, pitch and rudder axis were mapped in game with a set of instructional screens that ask users to move their flight stick and throttles to certain positions and press the fire key to confirm their axes. It took me roughly three to five minutes to set up, including remapping a few buttons to positions I preferred, rather than the positions suggested by the game.


I did not have to make compromises for the sake of just getting the T.Flight 4 to work. Any extra buttons I did not feel like assigning to the HOTAS I used on the keyboard. Using a more advanced HOTAS with even more buttons and switches built into it would easily allow for all game controls to be mapped.


Flight Model


Do not expect to enter Vortex Ring State mid-combat or be extra careful because of debilitated engine output in high temperature, high altitude situations. The flight model of Thunder Helix is firmly an arcade style flight shooter with weightiness behind it to make it feel as though it is a bit more simulator like.


Engine collective and throttle responses are consistent and always available for rapid power increases and decreases without potentially causing engine damage. Though understanding the different between collective, throttle and adjusting the helicopter's attitude to manage speed without gaining altitude is still a needed skill set to fly and fight as effectively as possible. For example, players can attack and turn away from targets just using cyclic inputs. This results in long, sweeping turns. Players that can coordinate their cyclic inputs with yaw inputs can quickly snap turn their helicopters in much smaller areas, making follow-up attacks or sudden evasive maneuvers more viable and more frequent.


Thunder Helix maximum pitch and roll example.
Example of maximum left roll, maximum pitch back.

It is not possible to roll the helicopters inverted or backflip them, as there is a limiter in place. There is still plenty of pitch and roll authority to fly the helicopters effectively, but this does make me wonder if this is an intentional measure taken to protect the player's experience. I can appreciate this, but it would be nice to have an option to disable this limiter for players that feel confident enough to fly without it. Something in the options menu that needs to be disabled, with text warning people that they are removing the limiter. Or something labeled "Arcade" and "Realistic" that has the same effect.


Pulling off maneuvers like side slips and pop up attacks from behind terrain does require good coordination between the cyclic and yaw. Maneuvers like this take a bit of practice to perfect, but in pre-planned attacks against large enemy defensive positions, maneuvers like this can make or break the attack. I appreciate that while Thunder Helix does have some type of flight control limitation, advanced maneuvers like these can still be done.


I believe this is what makes Thunder Helix an easy to learn helicopter game. Even for people that are not flight game aficionados. This simplification of the complicated nature of flying helicopters in general makes the game approachable and very easy to learn, while letting players focus on the action.


Thunder Helix Supply Pick Up.
Picking up supplies from a local settlement.

Thoughts on Combat


Knowing that this is a flight arcade title, I can say I am pretty satisfied with the combat in Thunder Helix. Circling back to the LHX and Desert Strike comparisions for context, it feels as though David Walters has acknowledged the flaws within those two titles and successfully avoided not repeating their flaws.


The most glaring one that comes to mind is targeting. In both of those games from the 1990s, they had well remembered issues with target management. Whether it was LHX targeting system always grabbing random targets at the most inopportune time or Desert Strike's targeting working by proximity to target and the direction of the nose of the aircrat, Thunder Helix's more deliberate and stable targeting system is a positive addition.


Thunder Helix technical.
Troops jumping from a technical moments before missile impact.

Players have controls to either select targets directly ahead of them or cycle through them from left to right or right to left on three separate buttons. Once targets are selected, they remain prioritized with obvious indications in the user interface in cockpit view and third person view so long as players keep the target within their weapons envelope. Completely turning away from a target or placing terrain between the player's helicopter and the target will break that lock. Which is fair considering you cannot keep eyes or sensors on the target. But the minimization of auto target selection has helped the Thunder Helix experience.


Thunder Helix missile hitting SPAA.
An anti-tank missile impacting self propelled anti aircraft artillery.

The amount of information displayed in the cockpit is appropriate. All relvanat to the immediate needs of the player without too much extra information purely for the Rule of Cool. By far the two most useful functions are the gun camera which displays an image of the object actively being targeted by the player and the ability to zoom in up to eight times magnification, allowing for visual identification of targets even before the targeting system can start reccommending targets.


The three primary weapon systems of the game can be categorized into:

  • Fire and forget anti-tank missiles that guide onto locked targets. Players have the option to watch them fly onto target in a third person view. They have the most destructive power and largest blast radius.

  • Unguided rockets with high explosive warheads that must be manually aimed by the players.

  • Different flavors of rapid fire machine guns or cannons, with the 30mm chain gun being able to fire at targets indepdent of the aircraft's flight path.

I was concerned that game balance would be heavily reliant on the use of anti-tank missiles to solve a majority of the problems players would face, but I was mistaken. In fact, for non-anti aircraft units, I frequently launch small volleys of unguided rockets from medium distance with a four times camera zoom, saturating them with enough rockets to defeat main battle tanks while retaining missiles for more complicated situations.


Thunder Helix unguided rockets.
Firing rockets at long distance targets with a maximum zoom camera.

The guns are capable of defeating armored targets with sustained, accurate gun fire, but the 30mm chain gun is the MVP weapon choice, as it can be used while the aircraft is maneuvering to evade fire. With it packing enough punch to do serious damage to armored targets without the large spalsh damage of the anti-tank missiles, it is the most versatile weapon in the game.


Even in the most intense moments where multiple units are firing at the player, not all enemy vehicles are so laser accurate that getting in close range combat is an immediate death sentence. Closing within 200 meters of an aware and angry anti-aircraft position is still not a great decision, but that same anti-aircraft gun is not going to be reliably sniping your helicopter from roughly six kiometers away either. There are gaps between the abilities of the players weapon systems and the enemy's weapon systems that can be taken advantage of.


Supplies to rearm, refuel and repair facilities are scattered enough to make players consider their tactics in combat do not solely consist of just running in guns spraying, but also include where to resupply between objectives or the pursuit of extra enemy units for an increased high score.


Thunder Helix sneak up on SAM site.
RH-2 attempting to sneak up on a SAM site.

The combat in Thunder Helix is easy to understand with a short learning curve. Even when things do go rather bad for the players, it is not a frustrating loop where a singular unit could be enough to block and only a well timed lucky shot can progress the players forward. Even when dodging surface to air missiles, the option to leave the area and reapproach it from another direction is always there. So far, there are never so many hostiles in a single area it is impossible to egress from a bad situation, which is something smart players will use to their advantage when things go sideways.


There is enough breathing room in the combat of Thunder Helix for players to both jump into the action and take time to plan comfortably. The next section of this review highlights exactly why this is possible.



Mission Map Management


This is most likely the most useful tool players have access to in the entire game. When the map is open, the game pauses and all relevant information about the mission is available to be read without being under constant fire. While in this map view, players can:


  • Scroll through the map and zoom in to plan their next move while looking at terrain.

  • See the locations for known threats.

  • See the locations of supplies like ammo, fuel and friendly landing zones.

  • Review all slides of the mission briefing to make sure they are clear on their objectives.


While in the map, they can also open the options menu and adjust controls, graphics and gameplay options as needed without having to go back to the main menu.


Thunder Helix
Example of known anti-aircraft artillery positions.

Scenario Missions and Campaign Missions


Thunder Helix is launching into early access with one scenario mission and one campaign mission.


Thunder Helix main menu.
The main menu.

The Scenario missions seem to be setup as one-off missions, not tied to a consistent story. A free flight style tutorial mission is available for players to teach themselves the controls in a non-combat setting. Also, with plenty of wooden camels that are definitely not meant for target practice.


Thunder Helix Wooden Camel
The wooden camels are tempting aren't they?

The campaign missions are exactly what they say they are. Multi-objective, multi-mission campaign with a consistent storyline. The first mission has four objectives, with a possible fifth objective. Threats include squishy, easy to destroy targets like fuel trucks and radio towers, to more formidible foes like surface-to-air missile sites, self propelled anti-aircraft artillery and hostile gunships.


Thunder Helix example of briefing.
Example of breifing screen.

Players will need to resupply frequently, manage their finite resources and pick and choose their engagements to survive the entire mission. Players have up to three lives (retrys) to complete the mission before they fail it completely.


Thunder Helix mission failed screen.
This screen changes depending on which helicopter the player was flying.

Content Roadmap


As this is an early access release title, it would be unfair to lodge a complaint about lack of content when the point of early access is to support a project long-term as it generates content working towards its full game release.


It will take many months for it to reach its "1.0" status. During that time a steady stream of content is planned. A day before the game's release, the developer posted a public roadmap for what early access players can expect. Rather than post the road map here, as it is subject to change on the developer's schedule, I reccommend seeing the roadmap for yourself and keeping track of it if you are interested in this project.


Closing


In the past couple of years, fixed wing aircraft have recieved multiple modern retro game style releases from various developers. Tiny Combat Arena, Frontiers Reach and Sky Rogue come to mind. Rotary wing aircraft have not recieved nearly as many in comparison and I can only hope that the success of Thunder Helix could inspire others to try the same. I look foward to seeing what Thunder Helix accomplishes in the next four to six months.


Thunder Helix exit game screen.
They said the thing!
 

About the Writer

Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.

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