Gran Turismo 5 isn’t the only simulator that arrives this month. The other is the under-the-radar yet still worthy of attention Apache: Air Assault . Developed by Gaijin Entertainment and specifically catering towards flight aficionados, this is a game that boasts a steep learning curve, a few disappointing environments, and a lot of “oh what the hell did I do wrong now ?!” moments. But then again, such complaints – with the exception of the lackluster backdrops just mentioned – are often associated with simulators, and really aren’t drawbacks for the fans. In fact, they’re big-time pluses and exactly what they desire. The most surprising part of Apache is the featured realism, which is both demanding and satisfying. We also get a co-op mode that greatly adds to the experience as well as a campaign that, while almost entirely devoid of story, delivers on depth and intricacy.
The graphics are sort of an odd mix. On the one hand, the helicopters are meticulously defined and even refined in presentation, and some of the special effects are both authentic and fulfilling. On the other hand, what we see on the ground often fails to impress and the drab, washed-out landscape can’t really be called “eye candy.” This dichotomy confused me at first, but then I realized that despite the rather bland backdrops and environments, you don’t think much about it when playing. The view from either inside or outside your complicated war machine is actually quite fitting – visibility is appropriately limited from inside the cockpit – and while the animations of the ground soldiers and the cut-and-pasted grass from 1995 might be jarring, the good stuff comes to the forefront. The effects, almost everything about the helicopters, and the attention paid to realism is most appreciated.
As you might expect, the sound effects go stride for stride with the graphics in terms of authenticity, with a few minor stumbles. I’m not certain that a 30mm cannon sounds quite so tinny and some of the impact effects sounded a tad underwhelming but for the most part, the combat effects hit the mark throughout. When battling for air supremacy with enemy fliers, the sound really takes the necessary steps to immerse the player: for instance, getting nailed with a missile is a very unpleasant experience, and much of that is due to the sickening crash. The classical soundtrack fits the action but is a touch too repetitive in all modes, and the voices over the radio are hit or miss. These last two issues are my biggest complaints just because they tend to detract from the overall experience, which is indeed enjoyable. Still, the balance is decent – and it can be tough to balance the music with the effects in such a game – and each helicopter sounds exactly as it should. That’s what matters most.
When you first start, it’s very much recommended to try the Free Flight mode, which allows you to get accustomed to the tricky controls. It’s not “free” in the literal sense of the term; you will have objectives to fulfill but at the same time, it’s not part of the campaign. You can also fiddle around with different helicopters, see various maps, and try to satisfy diverse objectives. Also, if you wish to switch the controls to Realistic after completing the first mission (where your only option is Training difficulty), I suggest returning to Free Flight to familiarize yourself once more. The Realistic setting, as you might expect, alters the controls and doesn’t make things quite so easy, which means you need an even defter touch on the stick to succeed. Herein lies Apache ’s main appeal: the quality simulation elements that require skill, attention and above all else, patience.
There are 16 scenarios in the single-player campaign, and you also have the option of co-op, which is great if you know someone hardcore enough to accompany you. You’ll have both primary and secondary objectives and if it’s your first time through, and you’re not such a whiz at flight simulators, I wouldn’t touch the difficulty. Keep it on Training. But if you love these types of games because of the exhibited authenticity, then you have no choice but to ramp it up to Realistic or Veteran, which admittedly is where this simulator shines. You can choose to invert any of the given controls (throttle, camera, gunner camera, etc.), alter the sensitivity of your pitch and yaw, and toy around with your helicopter’s healthy array of deadly possibilities. For instance, there are the manual gun views- hitting R3 puts the chopper in an auto-hover, and you can switch to either Direct View Optics (DVR) and take control of the 30mm cannon, or try the Forward Looking Infrared camera (FLIR), which shows the enemy’s emitted heat signals, which is most helpful.
Both of these options come in very handy and more importantly, they give you a break. Handling that beast can get pretty taxing and while it’s more invigorating to pinpoint targets from afar with Hellfire Missiles, sometimes it’s best to hit that auto-hover and shift to one of those manual gun options. Of course, it’s probably not a good idea if enemy aircraft are circling but that’s the point, isn’t it? This is a simulator so strategy always has to play a significant role. For instance, you don’t just take regular ol’ damage when getting struck by incoming fire; it really does affect the machine’s ability in the air. Just try completing tough objectives when one of your engines is out on either Realistic or Veteran difficulty. If you like, you sometimes have the chance to land at helipads where they can refill your ammunition and repair your armor. However, doing so can be iffy and landing felt like too much of a chore; you’re always this close to crashing.
Also, there are checkpoints – of a sort – but you only have 4 chances to finish a mission on either Training or Realistic difficulty (on Veteran, you’ve got one shot and that’s it). Along with the multiple helicopters offered, different campaign objectives, and fairly intense co-op (online or offline), sim fans could really lose some time to this one. But there are a few issues, I believe- firstly, although I’m not the greatest at flying games, I’m convinced the controls aren’t always spot-on. There were numerous times when the earth seemed to be a giant magnet, and my chopper was going to go down regardless of what I did. Sometimes, I would just release the controls entirely and even that didn’t seem to help; down it went. Secondly, the AI felt erratic; occasionally, they’d pelt the snot out of me and other times, they’d miss at point-blank range many times in a row. It was a little weird, to say the least.
Thirdly and lastly, without a compelling story or even a few interesting characters, the campaign lacks a good deal of punch. It does put the focus squarely on the gameplay, which may have been Gaijin’s intention, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling a little blasé. That being said, Apache: Air Assault is designed for a very specific group of gamers and if you’re in that group, you’ll likely be happy with the result. Having authentic control over one of the most complex flying machines on earth requires a particular mentality but if you’ve got it, the rewarding gameplay is here. It really is quite satisfying to complete a particular mission, knowing you’ve learned a great deal; your patience and observation paid off and you felt it. That’s what a good simulator imparts. Still, that learning curve is bound to chase some people away, as will some of the lackluster backgrounds and non-existent story.
It’s simple, really- if you want a focused, in-depth flying simulator that puts most all emphasis on intricate gameplay, your game is right here. If it sounds too daunting…well, it probably is.
The Good: Realistic controls are well implemented. Attention to helicopter detail is great. Patience and skill is sufficiently rewarded. Multiple difficulty modes allow for both authenticity and accessibility. Different objectives add variety. Co-op is a big plus.
The Bad: Bland, washed-out environments. Steep learning curve. Controls don’t always feel exactly right. Thin storyline component.
The Ugly: The uninitiated who sits down and thinks it’ll play like Warhawk. …the result is oh so ugly.