Thunderstrike: Operation Phoenix
After a series of intense and destructive terrorist strikes occurred concurrently across the globe, a new and powerful agency has been formed. This agency, called Project Phoenix, encompasses the world's nations as they merge their weapons and prepare for a war like the Earth has never seen. With the world in a state of emergency, you are one of the lucky pilots good enough to control the most advanced gun ship technology ever created. All that's left is to complete your main objective, to liberate the world by terminating the defective or unstable governments that bring havoc to those who disagree with them.
Thunderstrike: Operation Phoenix is one of the only helicopter simulators for the PlayStation 2. Usually more of a computer genre, Eidos has resurrected this series and is attempting to bring it to a new market. Although there is some success to be noted, they also create unnecessary frustrations and a chopper that's difficult to handle. As you'll see, the game walks a fine line between extremely challenging and extremely irritating.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Different from most mission oriented games, Thunderstrike opens by allowing you to choose between four different war zones: Eastern Europe, Alaska, Africa, and of course the Middle East. Each of these campaigns offers between three to six missions, all of which are extremely challenging. This isn't the type of game where you fly in with your guns blazing and enemies dropping all around you. If this approach is attempted, and it's not recommended, you'll quickly find your chopper crashing to the ground. The first thing you learn is how fragile the chopper is. Although it does have a certain amount of armor, it's quickly shot off, as you are generally an easy target. The only effective way to attack is more of a stealth approach requiring both patience and precision.
Before you can even put a strategy together, it might be wise to put some time into using the practice option. Here you'll get your first introduction to the control system; be prepared to spend some time before you're comfortable. One of the first things you may notice is where the firing buttons are located. Using the L2 to fire the machine gun and the R2 to fire the secondary weapon, it can take some time to get used to their location, as most games use the four primary buttons. When you start firing, there can also be some difficulty in seeing your targets on the ground. This is expected and there is a solution. All that's requiring is to press the R1 button and use the right analog stick to move your point of view while you're firing at the target. Keep in mind the chopper is still flying, so you need to be doing that as well. Another issue is the directional pad. Although it seems innocent enough and most games allow you to steer using either the d-pad or left analog stick, Thunderstrike doesn't, and it uses the up and down buttons for zoom functions. So as you're learning to pilot and you find yourself in over your head, what instinctively happens is, in an attempt to make a quick escape, the up button is accidentally pressed and now you're getting a close up of the enemy blowing you to bits.
Although the control system is complicated and breaks away from the norm, after some practice, it can be learned. The rest of the controls are more straightforward, but still challenging, as much is required while in combat. The left analog stick, for instance, moves the chopper forward and backward and strafes left and right while the right analog stick will ascend, descend, and turn left and right. The X button and circle have similar functions as the X switches lock to the next target and the circle switches lock to the previous target. When you need to change the secondary weapons, the L1 performs this function and the Square button activates the radio. There are also different views available while flying, which can be changed using the triangle button. Keeping all these controls straight can be difficult at first and may be overwhelming for younger players, it's this kind to control that appeals to fans of chopper sims and is part of the reason they excel on the PC.
After spending time on the practice range and selecting a campaign, you'll head off to the briefing room where your mission will be laid out. In addition to receiving the mission, a 3D map displaying the objectives and goals is also displayed, helping to locate the targets and avoid unnecessary trouble. Before the mission starts, there is also the opportunity to select the armament the chopper will be carrying during the mission. Anything from the size caliber machine gun to selection of missiles versus bombs, all is adjustable allowing for greater flexibility.
While engaging in combat during a mission, there are some issues with the gameplay that can cause general frustration. For instance, unguided weapons are particularly challenging to aim, often missing, and any time the chopper is shot down, you're sent all the way to the opening screen of the game. With those being the more serious offenses, the rest of the gameplay is solid, albeit requiring more skill and practice than other games on the market.
In addition to the gameplay, the interface is also fairly decent. There is a radar screen, target identifier, and compass along the top of the screen and other important bits of information like armor level, weapons status, speed, and mission objectives are shown on the rest of the screen. Overall, the interface makes up some ground adding a simple structure over of complexity of the controls.
Visually, the game holds its own and won't disappoint most gamers. The choppers and other vehicles have an acceptable level of detail and the environments are well drawn but are somewhat repetitive and bland. It's more of a hit or miss with certain aspects; for example, dust being blown from the choppers blades is there, but gun or missile imprints are noticeably absent. Looking at the whole, however, the graphics hold their own, falling somewhere in the slightly better than average range.
Audibly, the sound effects for Thunderstrike meet most expectations. The machines guns in particular sound realistic and even shake the controller. You'll also notice that the sound effects change depending on the view you select. When you're seated inside the chopper, the engine sounds are more prevalent and the machine gun and missiles launching are muffled. When you are in a third person view, the machine guns sound accurate and are impressive by themselves. The music playing during the missions, however, can be annoying, but it is easily turned down or off.
Overall, Thunderstrike: Operation Phoenix is a decent attempt to bring a new genre to the PlayStation 2. It is challenging and it can take some time to get comfortable with the controls, but it's also refreshing to see a simulator that doesn't throw away the first missions by giving simple goals or weak enemies. One issue that may be notable is that younger audiences will probably become frustrated due to the complex control system and other gamers not already interested in helicopter simulators won't enjoy it enough to buy it.