Reviewed: July 12, 2002
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: June 18, 2002
It’s interesting how one’s preconceived notions of a game differ from the actual gameplay experience. Prior to actually laying my hands on Fireblade I was under the impression that this game was going to be a chopper sim along the lines of the PlayStation classic, Warhawk or at least something resembling Eidos’ Thunderstrike.
But after a dozen hours of delivering fiery death from my stealth chopper I realized this game falls into a genre all its own. If you need another game comparison for a point of reference then I would have to say this game most closely looks and plays like the old Strike series from Electronic Arts.
In fact, Nuclear Strike is the last chopper game I’d played like this and that was back in 1997, so Fireblade was a refreshing retro-visit to my former piloting days with some updated graphics and gameplay that while good, fell disappointingly short of the capabilities of the PS2.
Fireblade puts you in the role of a hotshot pilot and part of an elite anti-terrorist task force created by the Western nations to strike down terrorist uprisings around the world. Go rent the Nicholas Cage movie, Firebirds to see a similar concept complete with Hollywood special effects.
Despite the elaborate setup, the story is never fully realized throughout the rest of the game. There are 18 complex missions that vary in objectives, flying modes, and environments, and while each is prefaced with a thorough briefing, there are no true story-telling cinematics, and none of the missions seem tied together.
Fireblade plays more like an action/arcade game than a true flight simulation. You carry an excessive amount of ammo and you can rearm and repair by hovering over any of the numerous pick-ups scattered about the battlefield. Of course, you have to destroy targets to reveal these pick-ups creating a careful balance of combat versus personal status.
You can opt for a first-person view but without a HUD, this view offers little benefit and actually reduces your overall visual assessment of any given situation. The interface is simple with only the most basic information taking up your screen real estate. The angle of the radar display was too shallow making objects difficult to locate.
Controlling Fireblade proved to be almost more challenging than the game itself. There is a substantial learning curve involved when learning how to manipulate the twin sticks of the Dual Shock, and you only have one training/tutorial mission to learn the basics before you are thrust into the main game. You can replay the tutorial (or any mission for that matter) over and over until you are satisfied with your score and piloting skills.
Fireblade mixes up the gameplay by varying the types of aircraft you fly as well as unique and exciting mission types including assault, defense, escort, and my personal favorite, the stealth missions. These missions require low level, silent flight where one wrong turn or one alerted solider can end your mission.
You will get to pilot two distinct classes of chopper – a transport bird for cargo, rescue, and insertion missions, or the Vendetta stealth/attack helicopter. Outfitted with a deadly arsenal of Swarm Missiles, EMP Weapons, Rail Guns, Rockets, and Laser-Guide Homing Missiles, half the fun (and challenge) is deciding how to dispatch the enemy. Fireblade mixes up these craft along with mission assignments to always keep you on the edge of your seat.
Missions take place at day and night and you have some high-tech visual aids such as a thermal sniper scope that would make the Predator envious. The 18 missions are divided into four campaigns that take place all around the globe including such locations as the Swiss Alps, Amazon Jungle, Arctic Circle, and the Arizona Desert.
I have very few complaints with the gameplay in Fireblade aside from the super-human foot soldiers that can withstand multiple direct hits with rockets before dying. Each soldier has multiple hit-sensitive damage locations, but you have no ability to independently target them and since each soldier is only a dot on the landscape (unless you scope him) you simply fire multiple bursts to kill each one. The only saving grace of this feature is that your first shot always takes out the backpack, which in the case of communication soldiers destroys their radio and ensures your continued stealth mission status.
Another issue that is extremely annoying is that during the escort missions the people/craft you are supposed to protect will charge recklessly into hostile territory then whine for you to rescue them when they start getting all shot up. I would have preferred to clear a safe path for them but noooooo….
And my final gameplay gripe is the total inability to cycle through available targets. Targeting is totally dependent on whatever happens to be in your aiming crosshair, and lining up shots can often prove difficult since to tilt your crosshair toward the ground requires forward motion. This virtually eliminates your ability to hover and strafe with cannon fire. Guided missiles are a bit more forgiving and will lock on if you are facing in the target's general direction.
Fireblade is a difficult game on many levels. The controls require a certain finesse that will constantly have you improving your piloting skills even during the final missions. The enemy AI is relentless and the missions themselves are fairly expansive and multiple objectives of increasing difficulty. This may look like an arcade but it features all the complexity and difficulty of a hardcore simulation.
Fireblade features some above-average visuals but nothing on par with what we’ve been seeing in the current crop of PS2 titles. Having just come off a recent tour of duty with Dropship, that game had set the visual bar pretty high.
The terrain is nicely modeled with smooth rolling hills and the buildings and various structures are adequately detailed. Textures seemed a little bit on the low-res side, but there is so much going on in just about every scene that this was probably necessary to maintain the smooth frame rate Fireblade manages to achieve and maintain through the entire game.
Enemies tend to blend into the background giving you ample opportunity to use the thermal vision mode of your attack chopper. This lights up ground targets like a Christmas tree allowing you to either target or avoid enemy encounters.
Special effects such as explosions, rocket trails, and EMP effects are all done very well and there are some realistic weather effects that add to the overall ambience of some of the mission environments. Buildings and vehicles are all modeled and detailed very nicely, which allows them to blow apart and burn in a most convincing and pleasing way.
My biggest and actually only complaint with the visuals is simply the fact that everything is so tiny. More often than not you will be firing at enemies that are mere pixels on the screen surrounded by a targeting crosshair. Was that a jeep or a tank? Does it really matter? Probably not, but it seems such a waste, as the vehicle and building detail is clearly there (as shown in the sniper view).
The sound is easily the weakest part of Fireblade. The music is your typical military tunes you would expect from such a title – nothing noteworthy and all easily forgettable. The sound effects are disappointing and simplistic. Sound effects seem to be taken right from the standard sound effects library of the 80’s and 90’s with generic explosions and machine gun sounds. The choppers have no distinctive sounds and are equally as generic. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the designers were going for a retro sound experience.
There is plenty of speech in Fireblade including fully narrated mission briefings and plenty of radio chatter during the missions. Most of the voices are stereotypical military voices ranging from the Asian flight instructor to the crackly voice of the commanding officer who’s smoked one too many cigars.
Fireblade is a relatively short gaming experience if you are just trying to get through the 18 missions. Expect to blow through the campaign in 8-10 hours. Much of the longevity of this title comes from fact that you can replay any finished mission over and over until you get a score that you are happy with. Unfortunately, there are no benefits for getting higher scores in the missions – no new weapons, aircraft, or levels to unlock. There is nothing to compel you to play these missions again other than that warm fuzzy feeling you get with seeing the 100% on the mission summary screen.
There is a nice bonus movie on the DVD called “The Roar of War”. This is a documentary-style movie showing off all the latest declassified military choppers with actual battle (or more likely test video) footage. It’s nothing as extensive as what you might see on an A&E documentary – in fact, it almost looks more like a promotional video that might be shown in your local recruiting center. It’s still very cool and unlocked so you can watch the movie before you even play the game.
Fireblade is a fun and challenging game that offers a considerable learning curve to get you up to speed. The overall campaign is a bit on the short side unless you are a dedicated perfectionist. The intense action and suspenseful stealth gameplay is mixed with great special effects that help to conceal some bland textures and an awkward visual perspective.
If you enjoyed the classic games from the Strike series or even ancient classics like Choplifter then this game will probably find a comfortable home in your PS2 library.