Flight simulators have died a death during this console generation... as has the role of the once-mighty helicopter. These deadly war machines only tend to show up as gimmicky gameplay sections or bosses in shooters these days, a far cry from the likes of Commanche and Desert Strike. However, they've been making a slight resurgence recently in Black Ops and Medal of Honor- and Activision has realised the gap in the market for a decent helicopter sim.
Apache Air Assault puts players in the pilot seat of a range of Apache helicopters and lets them loose in sixteen multi-stage missions. Rather than reconnaissance runs or sneaky hit and run shenanigans, you'll hover menacingly over enemy bases and helpless infantry whilst raining high explosive ordnance down on anything that moves. Every mission is a variation of take off, blow up vehicles/massive enemy base, destroy something else and return home; but it feels exciting and unique on home consoles. Each helicopter packs a range of guided missiles, devastating rockets and a 30 millimetre turret that can be independently targeted, making you feel like the angel of death rather than a simple pilot as you bring the rain!
The weaponry can be deployed from the pilot's seat, but a quick button jab moves you into the gunner's position. The FLIR mode allows the 30 mil cannon and guided missiles to be independently operated; using infrared and a powerful zoom to see terrified footsoldiers and cunning AA batteries beneath the forest canopy. Coupled with a nifty auto-hover function, this mode is extremely satisfying as well as tactically useful. Watching your cannon mince up waves of panicking troopers and chewing up buildings with surgical precision is... well, it's just fantastic. Multiple viewing modes and a surprisingly useful satellite surveillance mode provide a fair few ways to enjoy the action, and replays let you sit back and watch the carnage afterwards.
Sixteen levels and thirteen cooperative stages (that can also be completed in singleplayer) provide a significant amount of content, along with up to four player online cooperative missions. Most excitingly, however, a Free Flight skirmish mode lets players tailor any mission to their specifications. Anything from the number and types of enemy combatants to the strength of allies (and even starting altitude!) can be tweaked, bringing a serious amount of replayability to the table. This may sound fairly standard, but you'd be surprised at the number of console sims that have omitted a skirmish mode in recent years.
Split-screen cooperative is another innovative little addition. Rather than controlling separate helicopters, the two players act as pilot and gunner- with the pilot controlling movement and designating targets whilst the gunner cleans up with the turret. Good communication and teamwork is absolutely vital for success in this mode... though there'll be a fair few bitter arguments on the harder difficulties!
Gaijin deserve to be congratulated for their clarity of vision. The experience simply revolves around flying helicopters and blowing stuff up- and hasn't been diluted with disparate gameplay elements. The forgettable storyline is tucked away in loading screens and the occasional (short and skippable) mid-mission cutscene. Sure, you won't relate to the characters; but if you're looking for strong character development and sweeping story arcs, you've come to the wrong genre.
I've only ever sat in a helicopter rather than actually flown one... but let me assure you, they're a real bugger to control. The lift created by the rotor blades provides horizontal motion when the helicopter tilts, meaning that they handle like no other aircraft on the planet. Even the Training difficulty mode provides a stiff challenge, and the harder settings let you directly control the cyclic and collective. This isn't a fault with the simulation- and I'm glad that Gaijin didn't sacrifice authenticity by dumbing down the control scheme- but be aware that you'll need to endure a significant amount of patience, practice and unbridled frustration to learn (let alone master) the ropes. Finally being able to pop up from behind hills and strafe past incoming fire is well worth the aggravation, mind.
Unfortunately Air Assault's presentation is fairly patchy [shouldn't that be A-patchy? - Ed]. The landscape looks reasonable at high altitude, but textures are bland and polygons are fairly sparse when viewed closely. Copy/pasted enemy units are also extremely noticeable in the few mid-mission cutscenes. Most vexingly, missile explosions are extremely limp and pathetic- which is extremely disappointing when blowing things up is the main objective of every mission. Shame. Sound design is equally inconsistent, with several repeated stock phrases cropping up far too often to be taken seriously. What's more, the loading screens and menus are all incredibly uninspiring, especially since they could have been used to deliver mission briefings etc. in a coherent style.
- Brings the rain!
- Loads of missions and skirmish mode
- Feels authentic without dumbing down
- Controls are a serious barrier to entry
- Inconsistent presentation, weak explosions (?!)
- Lack of mission variety
The Short Version: Apache: Air Assault does exactly what it says on the box. You'll fly helicopters, blow stuff up and... if you need anything else, this simply isn't the game for you. If you do want to blow stuff up with an awesome helicopter to the exclusion of all else, your prayers have finally been answered.