Video game helicopters are usually difficult to control and not half as enjoyable to fly as they look in real life (or in the movies!). So I want to give a special shout-out to Far Cry 5, which for the first time I can think of in the 3D era has made flying a helicopter fun as hell.
Before we begin this admiration: I don’t want to get too down on other games here (I really do love you, Battlefield). The reason being that helicopters are strange and difficult things to represent in a video game. Cars, they’re easy, they go forwards and backwards. Planes are a bit more complicated, but joysticks (and later thumbsticks) have managed.
Helicopters are tough. Their ability to go forwards, backwards, up, down and rotate on the spot means the act of controlling one (in the real world) is split between multiple control mechanisms (illustrated below), which results in a kind of “rub belly + pat head” juggling act.
Outside of hardcore military sims with custom controllers, you just can’t take that control scheme, stick it on an Xbox controller and expect it to work. So for a few decades now, developers have been trying to cram as much as they could of a helicopter’s complex flight systems and get them working on a control pad that only has two sticks and a handful of buttons.
The results have been...well.
Think about car handling and video games and you might think of great examples, like Gran Turismo, or Project Gotham. Examples of a game either replicating the real thing to a terrifying degree, or faithfully representing how we wish it felt to drive a fast car.
When I think of helicopter controls in 3D video games, the first thing I think of is one of the most frustrating missions in GTA history:
Vice City may have been released nearly 15 years ago, but it’s not like things have got much better. From later Grand Theft Auto games to Battlefield, piloting a helicopter around a large open world has been a difficult ask, as developers have struggled to cram all of the aircraft’s movements and capabilities into something you can play using a control pad.
And then in 2018, along comes Far Cry 5 and practically nails it. I’ve had some good times with this game, but none as good as terrorising the backwoods of Montana in a zippy armed helicopter.
Ubisoft’s new shooter doesn’t do anything revolutionary. Indeed it’s simply applying the same principle for helicopter controls as any other game has: move a chopper’s axis and throttle controls to various bumpers and sticks and buttons in the hope that if it doesn’t at least work, then it’s not as bad as Vice City.
But Far Cry 5's juggling hits the jackpot. Having buttons control the altitude (A is up, B is down) while freeing up the thumbsticks to control your movement (left) and facing (right) is a dream. The game’s helicopters, which you can handle competently almost instantly, feel fast, nimble and versatile. They fly in this game like they look in a good action movie.
I’ve probably spent 70% of my time in Far Cry 5 looking down on “Montana” from this view.
A lot of games relegate both altitude and yaw to the left thumbstick, which is probably the main reason you see a lot of helicopter pilots in games struggling to even face their chopper in the right direction as they cope with two different movements being present on the one thumbstick.
Sure, you can eventually master this—people have made kills with helicopters in Battlefield, after all—but there’s something wrong if there’s an entire cottage industry of YouTube instructional videos teaching people how to fly a helicopter in your game. As rewarding as it may ultimately be, unless you’re dedicated to the cause, flying a helicopter in Battlefield is hard, and I don’t have time for hard. Flying a helicopter in Far Cry 5 is fun.
It also helps that Far Cry 5 is doing its own thing with respects to how a helicopter moves through the air. Games like Battlefield have attempted to bend the controller to the physics of a chopper, hence the convoluted control schemes in service of simulation, or authenticity. What Far Cry 5 does so well is—and it does this with its planes as well—bend the mechanics of a chopper to match our established habits with a controller.
Flying a helicopter in Far Cry 5 uses roughly the same setup on a pad as we’re used to controlling a human being in a first-person title. The left stick controls the movement of the helicopter itself; left and right strafe left and right, while up and down move the chopper forwards and backwards. The right stick controls the direction the helicopter is facing. Again, just like a person. Instead of asking the player to master a bizarre and compromised control scheme, it’s falling back on habits and learned systems we’ve perfected over decades playing Quake, Half-Life, Halo and Crysis.
This is so much more fun than if I’d strafed in an aircraft. You feel like a murderous, invincible bird of prey.
Is it realistic? No! Does it make things quick and easy to pickup, and then provide the sensation we’re swooshing a helicopter around the mountains like an angry bumblebee? Hell yes, and unless you’re a hardcore sim enthusiast, that’s what counts.
Interestingly, the control scheme in question isn’t new to Far Cry 5. While this is the first time we’ve been able to fly proper helicopters in the series, the basic principle made its debut in Far Cry 4 with the Buzzer, the tiny light aircraft you could use to jet around the mountains of Nepal. It was neat to fly, but its speed, vulnerability and lack of armaments (some of Far Cry 5's helicopters are packing cannons and rocket launchers) meant it simply wasn’t as important, or memorable, as Far Cry 5's helicopters.
Indeed this marks the first time we’ve ever been able to fly a helicopter in a Far Cry game at all, despite the fact they’ve featured prominently as both a narrative crutch and enemy in older entries. It’s almost as if Ubisoft had actually been waiting until they got chopper controls right before they put them in the series.
The result of this hybrid flight/FPS control scheme is wonderful. From the second you take-off Far Cry 5's helicopters are fluid and responsive, but the real joy comes from how quickly you’re able to start pulling off real chopper moves like dropping down to almost-ground level, weaving through trees and strafing cult members as you circle an outpost.
I’d still be practising—and crashing into the roof—if this was Battlefield.
Far Cry 5 wants you to use all kinds of different vehicles, from trucks to boats to planes, but I’ve barely even used a car since I got hold of a decent helicopter. They’re just so enjoyable to fly that it’s like...why bother? Attack choppers are this game’s spirit animal: gaudy to behold, but also irresistible to just fire up and race around doing dumb, explosive shit.