There was a day when flight simulators came with manuals as thick as a dictionary and were just as complicated to play. While the genre has faded over the years, we have seen a few companies keep it alive for its hardcore fan base. Last year we saw IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey from developer Gaijin Entertainment - a somewhat true flightsim on consoles and PC focusing on World War II aerial combat. This year Gaijin have followed up with Apache: Air Assault for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (a PC version is coming too) which brings our piloting skills into the modern era of war controlling Apache helicopters.
Apache: Air Assault puts players in the pilot seatl of a few different models of helicopters: the Apache AH-64D Longbow, Apache AH-1, Apache AH-64X Experimental Prototype, MQ-8B Fire Scout and the Mi-35 Hind. Each model varies in size, features and depending on your control settings - maneuverability. You’ll can customize each aircraft with different paint jobs and decals that you unlock from playing the game’s 16 missions.
The missions themselves offer a nice variety of objectives and feature plenty of detail all around - in fact, the graphical detail in the missions surprised me. The graphics in Apache: Air Assault are gorgeous with large lush environments filled with trees, buildings, rolling hills, oceans and rivers. But what I didn’t expect with objects like trees, buldings and bridges is that they are all destroyable - a nice addition to the aforementioned detail making the world a little bit more alive. When flying from 1500 feet in the air everything might look like a model below, but Gaijin has managed to give it life with these little touches. Further adding to this concept is that during the missions you aren’t just fighting other helicopters, tanks, or larger objects on the ground. You’ll see soldiers driving jeeps, on foot, and firing RPGs at you like little toy army men. The sense of scale is really well done and it truly made me feel like there was a bigger war going on around me.
I was also impressed with the depth and variety of the missions themselves. One mission was a bit like Blackhawk Down, as friendly AI helicopter got shot down towards the end of a mission in a shanty town and we were tasked with providing cover fire from the incoming rebels trying to take the pilots. Switching into the gunner view that looks much like that from Modern Warfare 2’s DC130 missions, you can see the heat signatures of enemies and the flashing beacons of friendlies. It was a tense few minutes as we waited for the rescue chopper. Another mission we had to protect an oil rig from pirates in speed boats while another had us blowing up tunnels to stop an advancing tank column from getting to their objective. There’s really a nice variety here other than your standard “go blow up this target” and I never felt like the missions were recycling themselves.
One of the gunner's views
If you didn’t know, Apache helicopters actually require two pilots; one is in charge of controlling the aircraft while the other is in charge of the weapon systems, thus making it perfect for co-op. Apache: Air Assault offers local co-op where these roles are played out. Sadly, it’s a bit weird because instead of offering split screen play with independent views, players much share the view of the screen. So while the pilot’s view is perfect for flying around, the gunner only has a green cursor to control during this time. You can press a button and switch to the gunner’s seat or gunner’s view - and the pilot still has control - but again, it makes it a bit difficult for one of the players to see. It would have been nice to offer this method of co-op play online, but sadly, it’s not.
The good news is there is four player online co-op through a bunch of missions where each player controls their own chopper. These missions are similar to their single player counter-parts and offer some really good co-op strategy, requiring both teamwork and communication to complete. In one mission a player was assigned a drone helicopter that has to assign targets for the other player’s whose radars are damaged and can’t target on their own. Others had us escorting a boat while enemies attacked from four separate directions.
The online co-op is an absolute blast. If you can get a good group of players together, the experience is top notch as you both work as a team and communicatel. There were many times we’d call out enemy helicopter positions in our allies blind spot saving their neck.
Once you finish the single player and multiplayer campaigns you can try tackling different difficulty levels - which not only make the AI harder, but make the controls more realistic. And for the truly hardcore there’s a variety of USB based flightsticks that will work with the game as well.
Finally, the game offers a “Free roam” mode that is basically a mission generator for the game’s numerous campaign locales. You can fly around these endlessly until your you get bored of blowing up guys shooting RPGs out of the back of pickup trucks.
Apache: Air Assault was a pleasant surprise for me. I honestly did not expect to enjoy the game as much as I did. Everything felt really polished, the missions were fun, and the graphics were good. That’s almost everything you can ask for in a game. While the local co-op is a bit of a disappointment, the online co-op mode is truly excellent. Stacked in all of this is plenty of content and replayability which ends up being a solid value for your $50. We may be a long way from the days of the hardcore flight simulators on the PC, but if more games like Apache: Air Assault come around, we may end up seeing a resurgence of the genre.