One thing impeding mass proliferation of games on PDA is undoubtedly the pale visuals it has against what is on the market today. For some titles, even the antiquated black and white Gameboy seems to possess far better graphical abilities. Although hardcore purist gamers may claim that, visuals do not make up for a fundamentally deficient game, there is still no doubt that it is the first thing that inspires awe into potential buyers. One only needs to look at the constant scouring and hoarding of the ubiquitous screenshots for upcoming games. It seems like minds are made up long before the title has even been shipped to the retailers. An article like this traditionally argues for a title that is bereft of artistic talent either because of development costs or the fact that such a title does not directly benefit from 3D graphics. Jane's Fleet Command comes into mind as one that may not have. However, I have had the chance to examine Chopper Alley, probably one of the best examples of what Pocket PC game developers has to offer; at least graphics-wise.
When I heard about this game, before seeing the screenshots, I thought this was something along the lines of a Choplifter mixed with Space Invaders like play. The word Alley perhaps suggested an arcade roots. As it turns out, this happens to be one of the most graphically intensive games ever built. At first glance, it bears close resemblance to a PC simulation. But, this is a sheep of a simulation in a wolf's clothing. At its heart, Chopper Alley is an arcade shooter and nothing more than that. The controls and physics are much more akin to Novalogic's Comanche rather than Jane's Longbow. Since this game was not ported over to the handheld platform it has been designed with the pda format in mind. For example, basic flying controls like setting altitude can be easily done via the stylus.
When you set out, you can choose up to six different choppers, each with their own handling abilities. Other than the cosmetic differences though, I couldn't say that there is one chopper that gives a significant feel to it. This is exasperated by the fact that most of the actual flying is done hands-off. The developers have you focus on the myriad of buttons that turn any Pocket PC into a handheld cockpit control. When I looked at the amount of buttons mapped, I balked at the functionality given by this title. There were button combinations I never even knew could be done on my iPaq much less remember intuitively. Each Pocket PC is configured differently, so perhaps the much touted Casio gamepad like input is preferable to handling the myriad of controls. Each chopper is given a series of weapon bays so you can equip them with specific weapons. In Chopper Alley, these bays are called pods and indeed, you can mix and match your loadouts to reflect your own tastes. Your helicopter is able to carry every thing from a rocket pod to the venerable machine gun. What you put on your loadout, of course, is dependent on what the mission will assign you. If it is a stealth mission, perhaps dropping a weapon and putting in an extra fuel tank will be more helpful. For a mission where you are tasked to destroy ground targets, Maverick missiles are better than sidewinders.
Gameplay operates more along the lines of a PC sim. You move from waypoint to waypoint to execute your orders. As mentioned before, the 25 missions are filled with things like hostage rescue, assault or even stealth missions. None of them are ground-shaking in design but they are decent enough to keep someone busy although playing all 25 in one stretch may be a bit boring except for the most devoted fans. One of the promotions for Chopper Alley is a realistic chopper flying model. Due to the ease of using the stylus and the multitude of buttons though, you don't exactly have any trouble flying the aircraft as long as one keeps in mind this is a helicopter rather than a plane. It is not as hard to master as, say, the helicopter in Flight Simulator. To the developers' credit, they have included some tutorial missions to familiarize the player with the environment.
The AI in the game is rather a mixed bag. Difficulty will probably only come because of either overwhelming numbers or mission specific constraints like the requirement for absolute stealth. Much was said about the initial release of Chopper Alley including slow performance even on the iPaq and flawed AI or empty maps. The version being reviewed here is v1.5 and at the time of writing, yet another patch has come out to make this game better. I can't recommend v1.0 but v1.5 certainly solves some of the problems found in the initial release. People expecting PC-style one on one dogfights will be disappointed because this is an arcade title at heart. You will eventually down far more aircraft than they are able to get you. Although travel time in the missions is sometimes a little long, especially since you might want to be quitting the game real soon at the next subway stop, the maps do not feel as empty as before and I did not find too many aircraft running circles around certain waypoints.
In order to fix the speed problem you can switch between landscape and portrait modes. Plus, a handy interlaced mode helps reduce CPU overhead. Still, make no mistake about it, this is a technological tour de force in showing what Pocket PC technology is made of. It will start draining batteries and the lack of any backlight will make it tough to discern targets at a distance. This title even lets you manipulate draw distance in order to reduce overhead. Certainly on a slower Pocket PC platform, this will be extremely useful.
There is no admitting that a lot of the appeal attributed to Chopper Alley seems to be eye candy. If this is what the Pocket PC can deliver, I can't imagine what games will look like when the proposed NEC PowerVR chips are attached to ARM processors. Chopper Alley was also announced around the time PocketQuake started catching on. 3D technology seems to be heading to the PDA platforms much faster than anyone thought and no doubt, Chopper Alley and PocketQuake played a large role in ushering a new era in Pocket PC gaming; at least graphics wise. Still, sim enthusiasts and those looking for a deep game might want to avoid expending their precious CPU or battery life on this; especially if you are running out of swap space or even just plain free space to install this large title. No amount of criticism however, will drive those who want to show off their Pocket PCs from buying this game and gloating over their graphically challenged PDA brethren. When Quake came out, it illustrated the power of 3D graphics and made 3D a household name by ushering a new era of 3D accelerators. Soon after Quake though, more sophisticated titles emerged building around 3D or sometimes on top of existing 3D technology to bring quality gameplay back into the 3D world. Let us hope such an evolution also takes place in the Pocket PC arena.
[ 07/10 ] Addictiveness
[ 13/20 ] Gameplay
[ 15/15 ] Graphics
[ 09/10 ] Interface/controls
[ 06/10 ] Program size
[ 05/05 ] Sound
[ N/A ] Multiplayer
[ 02/05 ] Discreetness
[ 10/15 ] Learning Curve