It has been a while since I last played a dedicated chopper simulation game on consoles, even on PC in fact. The last one I played was KA-50 Black Shark on PC, where it took me nearly 30minutes of clicking switches before my choppers rotors started spinning and I was being lifted off the ground. Most simulator games seem to appeal to a core gaming crowd and it is rarely something you see on a console, so it was a surprise to me to see a game like Apache: Air Assault come flying onto today’s machines.
My first fear was that this game would be a watered-down simulation experience. For me, I would like a simplified control system, fit for a joypad whilst keeping the overall ‘sim experience’ intact. Thankfully after playing through the pre-release demo I was reassured that its developers share the same vision and have built a rather compelling helicopter simulation that ticks the boxes for both the casual and core virtual pilots.
The core of Apache: Air Assault is in its single player campaign, which spans seventeen missions, across a variety of different locations. There are no gripping plots or storylines to follow here really, but lets be honest, you don’t really need one in a simulation such as this - many have tried and failed. It’s simple - you are an Apache pilot, thrown into various missions in different locations, facing a variety of ground and air targets. So simply kill all those and fly on home with a smile on your face in the knowledge of a job well done.
Setting up your chopper is made simple, as it is all pretty much done for you. There are no weapon load-outs to worry about and to configure. You are simply given a variant of the Apache aircraft for the set mission along with your pre-assigned load-out, which may consist of unguided rockets, Hellfires and air-to-air missiles. A choice of ‘Training’ or ‘Realistic’ (and later ‘Veteran’) flight difficulty modes can be selected before the mission begins - should you wish to make things easy or more difficult for yourself in the mission.
In Training mode your flight controls are simplified, to a point where unless you have one or both of your engines on fire it is very hard to ditch your chopper into the dirt below you. This flight model is ideal for any first-timers as well as the casual virtual pilot. In no time you'll be mastering the controls and you'll be circling enemies and strafing oncoming RPG rockets. By switching to Realistic mode your controls can take a little longer to master, unless you are a simulation veteran. Realistic mode is worth mastering if you want the most control out of your chopper as the Training mode can make you feel like you are being supported in some kind of helicopter baby walker. Each mode also brings their own relative on-screen HUD instruments, with Training being the most minimal information on screen, while in Realistic mode you have additional terrain and air speed meters, to name a few.
With the change of scenery between each sequential mission, the feeling of repetition doesn’t strike as often as you would think, however the type of missions you face does begin to grind after around halfway through the campaign. Each mission usually consists of taking off, flying to your target, facing a small number of ground troops, flying over to the next area, facing a number of bigger enemies, then flying home or facing the mission complete screen. It is rare to see any big events or a change in mission structure, but when this does happen it is a welcoming change; it is just a shame these events do not happen as often as you want them to.
An interesting feature to the single campaign is the ability for local co-op play. This is where you can be the pilot whilst your fellow Goose copilot becomes the gunner, or vice versa. Sadly I was expecting some kind of split screen in this mode, but instead you control the gunner cursor and target assigning reticule, whilst your buddy just controls the helicopter. Any form of zooming or switching to the gun camera is only allowed by the pilot and while doing so you can’t really manoeuvre around as much. Switching to this view isn’t going to happen often unless some good teamwork is involved. Local co-op play is a nice touch but it doesn’t really work all too well as you want it to.
The main online element to Apache: Air Assault is in the Squad Operations mode. This is where you can either fly solo or form a squad of up to four online players, all taking part in one of the thirteen single missions. Each mission contains a set of tasks that you and your team have to achieve, be it escort a convoy or boat, through to taking out all the bad guys along a set waypoint route within a set time period. Sadly with a game of this genre, the lobbies are mostly quiet, with not many, if any, games waiting or in progress, so you may find it may take a while to get a full game going. Once you do get into a mission with a bunch of online pilots it is good fun, and even more so if you know the people you are flying with.
Throughout each mission you visit leafy jungles, sunny beach islands, rocky mountains and snow capped rolling landscapes. Graphically this game serves up a simulator's wet dream, with detailed terrain, plenty of structures that crumble under heavy fire-power and your Apache is very well modelled, both inside and out, as are the non player vehicles. I did notice some pop-up here and there as well as some crazy polygons sticking out of mountains, but these didn’t appear so often to make me worried about the game’s graphical prowess.
Over in the audio department your ears a treated to some well crafted effects. From the rotating blades cutting through the air to the roaring of missiles and bullets hitting your bodywork - everything sounded authentic and well suited for the game. I did come across a bug at times where everything other than my cannon and radio chatter were silent, sadly only a restart of the game would fix this issue. I also found the in-game music far too over the top for my liking, so I was immediately running to the options screen to turn that off.
I am not sure there is enough replayability in Apache: Air Assault. After the single player campaign and Squad Operations are completed you are only really left with Free Play mode, where you can create your own mission types and have it out against the AI opposition; but as easy as it is to set this up I didn’t really find this part of the game that appealing. With that said though there are a fair few hours worth of gameplay to be found in the single player campaign and Squad Operations modes, more so if you decide to tackle them in Realistic and Veteran levels.
Overall, Apache: Air Assault is up there as one of the best simulations you can find on a console. Putting the graphical and sound glitches aside, and the slightly repetitive mission structure, I had more fun in this game than I have ever experienced in other simulation titles, like H.A.W.X. or Ace Combat. This game is probably on par with IL-2 Sturmovik, which is a game that is also created by the same developers. So if you like the thought of swooping meters above tree tops, whilst sending troops and vehicles flying into the sky with a blast of your rockets and 30mm cannons, then Apache: Air Assault is a game worthy of locking on to and checking out.
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