Changing Arma 3's helicopters is Bohemia's first step toward a deeper simulation

Ian Birnbaum at

Arma 3 is good at many things. Bohemia Interactive’s military sim is a huge, open-world playground where action dramas unfold, but its greatest strengths show when it dwarfs you with scale. Being a lone sniper in three miles of sprawling mountain wilderness or driving with a vanguard of advancing tanks will strike awe into the heart of the most jaded gamer. Whatever it’s doing, Arma paints these experiences in broad strokes you can’t find anywhere else in gaming.

On the other hand, Take On Helicopters, Bohemia’s 2011 helicopter simulator, was great at a single, specific thing: modeling helicopter flight physics. Beyond the high-definition cockpit, its world was a blocky and lifeless version of Seattle. Seattle wasn’t the point, though: the inside of that cockpit was the point. All the love in that game went straight into those dials.

It’s kind of wonderful, then, that Arma’s next update will be a free DLC focused on bringing the high-definition flight controls of Take On Helicopters to Arma’s vast, rolling landscape. It’s a long overdue chocolate-and-peanut-butter proposal, one that will change the way pilots interact with their vehicles. Plus, ground troops will get new ways to fight alongside their airborne taxis. To nail down the details, I tried to relearn my helicopter piloting chops with the new, more advanced flight model in Arma 3. Here’s what happened.

Ah, jeez. You ok, guys? Guys? You'll be ok.

The Rookie

Let’s get this out of the way first: the new flight mechanics have a steep learning curve. Anyone who takes passengers on board with the advanced flight model engaged had better have done their homework, or they’ll end up with a dozen corpses and a lot of angry friends. The new model replicates wind, weight, momentum, acceleration, and G-forces. Arma’s standard helicopter controls could hardly be accused of being arcadey, but now the helicopters feel like they’re punching the air to keep you from falling.

Engaging the advanced flight model, which can be turned on or off at any time through the settings menu, adds five dial readouts to the pilot’s HUD. They are, from left to right, speed, altitude, horizon, vertical speed, and wind direction. Alarm lights for torque and engine RPMs are there to flash yellow and red as you gracefully spiral through the sky toward an imminent, fiery death. Though overwhelming at first, with practice these inputs create an interactive map of every force acting on your vehicle.

“With our approach to DLC, we had an opportunity to focus in upon a particular aspect of the sandbox and find ways to bring about more gameplay,” Bohemia creative director Jay Crowe told me when I asked him about why these options were being introduced to the Arma 3 ecosystem. “Of course, for the helicopter enthusiasts out there, the advanced [flight model] offers a more authentic experience than our 'basic' stock one—more precise control and a greater variety of simulation inputs—which has been talked about on our forums and feedback tracker for some time.”

No matter how fancy the physics get, sometimes you still feel like a giant taxi.

In Take On Helicopters, slamming too hard on the accelerator would cause undue stress on the engine and lead to a bumpy, choppy ride as the machine deteriorated. Failing to heed engine light warnings would cause the troubled components to groan, complain, and then fall right off. Though the advanced flight model replicates these warning lights, the parts can’t fall off. To test this I flew like a demon, throttle wide open and collective swinging around, and never had a rotor come spinning off. Small mercies, I guess.

Just because the parts won’t be falling off, though, doesn’t mean you can fly recklessly. The new flight model includes a more realistic take on stalling and losing lift, so making a hard turn at high speeds will always end in a ball of fire.

“[H]elicopters are a big part of everyone's experience on the combined-arms battlefield, not just pilots,” Crowe said. “Expanding gameplay for a variety of players is definitely a big goal.” Crowe also hopes that the advanced model will give dedicated pilots a deeper way to dive into the simulation. “We hope flying helicopters will become more fun to master for our players,” he says. Strangely, Crowe thinks that the new advanced model might actually be easier for pilots to grok. “[I]n some ways—and as long as you have assists like Auto-Trim switched on—handling the helicopter becomes less difficult and more logical/intuitive. It moves a bit more like you'd expect in real life, so we hope it might open things up to a few new pilots, too.”

It’s on this final point that I just don’t agree. For all my hours in Arma’s helicopters, though, I still fly like a baby polar bear learning to walk. For a second opinion, I sought out another authority on flying in Arma.

It's dials within dials. It's dials all the way down.

The Veteran

Dslyecxi, aka Andrew Gluck, is one of the biggest names in the online Arma community. The group he founded, Shack Tactical, is known as one of the best-organized gaming groups in Arma—which is saying something for a community that prides itself on military simulation. He narrated a series of tutorial videos for Arma 3, but he first came to my attention when I was new to the game and trying desperately to suck less at flying helicopters.

Frankly: the guy’s a wizard. After he made a video on his first impressions with the new flight model, I tracked him down to get his feelings. Right now, he says, they’re pretty mixed.

“As an advanced flight model, I think it needs some tweaking and some additional functionality for it to really live up to the expectations one has when hearing ‘advanced flight model.’ Once you dip into the more intricate aspects of helo flight, there are a lot of aspects that all mix together to represent what it takes to control a helicopter.” He also doesn’t agree that the flight model will be a good way for new pilots to earn their wings.

What he was hoping for—and honestly, what I thought I was getting my hands on Dslyecxi pointed out all the things that were missing—is a true simulation experience. Notable details are missing from the Arma 3 flight model, including localized rotor damage and the horrifyingly named “vortex ring state.” VRS is a sickening quirk of physics where a helicopter descends into its own downwash, causing a loss of lift. (For context, one of the helicopters on the Osama bin Laden raid crashed due to VRS.) Pilots in Arma, though, can’t enter VRS, and it alters the ways in which helicopters can safely fly.

With these omissions, the new advanced flight model isn’t realistic enough to be considered a sim, but the new bells and whistles make it too finicky to be accessible to new players. For this reason, Dslyecxi says, he won’t be enabling the advanced flight model in ShackTac’s main game sessions. “One of the best parts of Arma's native flight model is the accessibility of it—it gets the basic themes of helicopter flight correct, but anyone can have a decent chance to fly with it even with just a mouse and keyboard. It's easy to pick up, but difficult to master.”

Dslyecxi isn’t entirely down on the DLC, though. For one thing, the new flight physics are completely optional, and adding in more native systems for players (and modders) to tinker with is always a good thing. For another, everyone at Bohemia has been open about the update being a work in progress. Just in the past week, changes have been made to improve control responsiveness.

Helicopters in Arma will eventually be able to carry sling loads, which will allow heavy choppers to, say, deliver tanks and jeeps to the battlefield rather than simply ferry infantry back and forth. Even better for the infantry troops relying on helicopters for battlefield transport, troops will soon be able to shoot their personal weapons from the passenger seats or running boards. Anyone who has ever dropped into a hot LZ will recognize how important this would be for virtual soldiers.

Bohemia isn’t talking about a release date for the Helicopters DLC yet, but they do hope to get both sling loading and firing from vehicles into beta testing during the next month. Taken together with the recent updates that added a training mode, a single-player campaign, and a player-directed “Zeus” multiplayer mode, Bohemia is continuing to add content and depth to satisfy their niche audience of simulator die-hards. And when you’re dealing with die-hards like Dslyecxi (who says he has about $1,000 worth of flight sticks, rudder pedals, and headset gear on his desk for flight sims), the best solution is always going to be: more. More content, more depth, more variables to tweak and play with.

“Ultimately it comes down to what any given person is looking for in the experience,” Dslyecxi says, “and whether having a more complex flight model helps or hinders that. Some people will benefit from it and enjoy it, others will find it to get in the way or unnecessarily complicate things.”

Note: I took all of the screenshots for this article while flying in Wibbler's Helicopter Training scenario. If you need practice landing in hot LZs, in the advanced flight model or not, I recommend you download it.