You’ve seen them. The evening news broadcast reports on some disaster or accident and moments later, looming in the sky above, hovers a rescue copter with a highly skilled crew ready to render aid. Have you ever wondered what a career as one of these air rescue personal would be like? Well Search and Rescue 3 (SAR3) is the game for you.
At the moment SAR3 is the only search and rescue helicopter simulation on the market that I know about. Being in a class of its own doesn’t mean this is a bad game. It’s quite decent. It has positive aspects and of course it has negatives.
Generally most flight simulations contain a keyboard reference card. Unfortunately SAR3’s keyboard reference is in the middle of the manual. Unless you remove this center page from the manual, referencing controls can become a tad cumbersome — especially if you’re flying around trying to locate the target. Though the game doesn’t offer a traditional training mission you can still learn how to start the copter by pressing the O key. Once you ascend into the air, the controls kick in and that’s a different story.
Graphics are a mish-mash of good and bad. For example the models for the helicopter’s interior and exteriors, though plain, do look solid and good. However the terrain varies in texture quality. Even at 1024 by 768 with 32-bit screen resolution textures were gritty, blotchy and there wasn’t really that much too look at. Imagine if the entire world was a desert. Well this is what the game’s terrain looked like. There was even areas where I landed on what looked like "gray" land. I did appreciate how Interactive Vision sporadically added car animations to the roads throughout the landscape. Unfortunately because you’re flying high overhead you don’t really notice them all that much.
On those missions where you rescue someone in a town the graphics on your approach to that town are muddled in clarity until you get close. Ironically, larger cities and metropolitan areas (like the one you’re stationed at) are full of large building textures that are visible from a good distance away. If you fly close to these larger cities the enormous amount of building structure geometry causes game play movement to become intermittently choppy. Of course the severity of this choppiness depends on your system’s specifications.
Like all heavily textured 3D terrain games SAR3 isn’t without its share of graphical bugs. For example if you land the copter without the gears down, as it’s bouncing around, parts of the copter will actually fall below the ground’s horizon without the copter exploding. Also textures on a few landscapes did not align properly (e.g. there was a shift in placement where one road ends and another begins). Like the ground, the sky has its share of downsides. Clouds are static and never move. In other games clouds move. Here’s another quirky thing I noted; when you quickly turn you’ll notice the sky actually has a slight rotational curvature. This curvature makes the sky look like it’s folding into itself. It’s sort of hard to explain in words what it looks like, but it’s there nonetheless. About the only realistic sky element is the sun’s glare. Of course the sun itself didn’t have any animation. Keep in mind all these oddities didn’t subtract from the game play, but they are there nonetheless.
The lack of high landscape, sky, and town/cities textures quality probably meant developer Interactive Vision wanted to spend their committed time and resources on the helicopter’s psychics and behavior. Unlike the two previous games, SAR3 features three different helicopter classes. The returning HH-65A "Dolphin" Short Range Recovery Helicopter used by the U.S. Coast Guard is the medium of the three and has a carry capacity for two pilots and eleven passengers and crew. One of newest additions includes a small Eurocopter BK117 C / C-1. This is the standard copter you would probably see on the News or at the scene of a bad highway accident. The BK’s carry capacity includes room enough for one pilot and up to seven passengers and crew. The final newest addition is the behemoth SH-3 Sea King used by the Navy. There are accommodations for two pilots with passengers and crew room for up to fifteen.
Physics were handled decently in each helicopter. I liked how each copter has to be flown carefully, especially during take offs and landings. Taking off to fast can throw your copter into a tailspin and cause it to fall fast. Likewise landing too fast will cause your copter to either explode or one or both gears will sheer off in addition to a few other materials. They could’ve enhanced the physics even more by making hard landings (not the exploding kinds) cause some of your crew and passengers to fall out of the copter and become injured. This would have upped the ante on your missions.
If you’ve had experience with plane simulations then SAR3 may be easy for you. However remember that this is a helicopter simulation. Though similar in style, controlling a helicopter and making is go where you want it to go is achieved differently than in an airplane. Since helicopters can move in just about any direction you will find that you can achieve varied movements based on the copter’s yaw, pitch and roll. Unfortunately because of this it took me about 45 minutes to get the hang of the controls. And after an hour I still had a tad difficulty with the controls. Of course it didn’t help that I reviewed this game with a Mouse. This game screams for a joystick. And though the retail box’s requirements don’t mention one I highly recommend that you do play SAR3 with a joystick, otherwise you’ll find yourself becoming completely frustrated.
SAR3 offers single player missions and a campaign. Sorry, no multiplayer. Single missions are great if you want to jump in and fly around or do a quick rescue mission. I really liked the huge assortment of single missions. For example there’s one where a truck is on fire, another might be a speedboat crash. How about a roller coaster accident? There are even natural disasters like a tornado. And of course you have a SOS and the occasional lost kid. The campaign starts you off as a rookie in the small BK117 C / C-1. As you gain points and ranks you eventually will be able to fly the Navy’s SH-3 Sea King in critically important missions. Missions happen at different times of the day and night and in different weather. Most though seem to fall under clear daylight. Which in itself isn’t exactly realistic but for this game it sure makes things easy.
One of the coolest features of the game is something called time jump. This totally helped take the boredom out of just flying the copter. I guess I didn’t have a steady hand because the darn thing kept swaying left and right. It truly drove me nuts. Having that time jump was a godsend.
Game play had a few things that I didn’t like. One gripe is you can’t change the angle to a full, front facing windshield view. SAR3 does offer a cockpit angle (keyboard button 1), but the game isn’t really playable in this view since the angle is slightly to the right of the pilot’s field of view. And since there is no way to look around you are locked to this view until you change to another. The only way to play this game is to change views from the primary chase angle to a top-down angle – for those times when you want to know if you are on top of or near the target. This in itself made flying missions a tad frustrating.
A pilot doesn’t fly his vehicle outside and behind in a kind of chase view. That’s not realistic. Another gripe I had was occasionally the game would crash to the desktop when I changed views too rapidly between the chase and top-down views. It’s probably a quick motion bug that I’m sure Interactive Vision will patch up after the game is released. Another gripe I had is mission targets in towns are really hard to locate even when you’re at the location.
For example in one mission I had to rescue someone who fell out of a rollercoaster. It took me five minutes to locate the group. And the final gripe, when you complete missions I didn’t see a "congratulations" screen. After I completed my first mission I sat there waiting for something to happen. I only realized after a few minutes that I had to press the escape (ESC) button to exit. I know it’s probably one of those obviously things but I come from a generation of gamers that expects to see some sort of "congratulations" screen for winning a mission.
One of the major bugs that I noted was the total lack of any music in the entire game. No music in the menu, during gameplay, even when you successfully completed a mission. I wouldn’t bring this up, except for the fact that there’s a volume bar to adjust the music in the options menu. I mean if there’s no music why would this even be available?
While I’m on the topic of audio let me tell you that I did find the sounds for the helicopter good, though there was no notable different between the three different copter classes. You would think that the sounds of the blade on a small BK117 C / C-1 would definitely sound more muffled than those on the larger Navy’s SH-3 Sea King, right? While the copters did contain a good amount of sounds such as warning beeps, crashes, bumps, rotator blades, etc, the surrounding landscape was void of anything. Even wind that wept through the terrain’s trees was absent. Interactive Vision’s budget may not have warranted the securing of these ambient sounds because it’s looks like a lot of resources went into vocal recordings of the pilots. Everything from a simple "door open" to "landing secured" is available. And, to my dismay, the pilots confirm every damn order. They even go as far as, and obnoxiously I might add, as repeating warnings like "gear damage" for the entire damn mission! This could drive you nuts if the mission is 10 minutes long.
Though not the best, SAR3 is a decent game that delivers if you’re in the mood for a helicopter rescue simulation. Just make sure you play it with a joystick otherwise the controls will drive you batty on anything else. And at a reasonably average price of $25 bucks, it’s a good value.