The Air Cavalry are a pretty recent newcomer to humanity's battlefields. It was only as late as 1956 that the humble helicopter saw its first use in military operations – dropping off British Commandos during the disastrous Suez Canal crisis. These days the whirly bird is ubiquitous. In today’s age of modern warfare, Helicopters and military action go together like Smith and Wesson.
So it wasn’t wholly surprising to open my letterbox and see Gajin Entertainment’s latest sim: Apache Air Assault. Gamers like simulated war, and real wars have helicopters. It seemed like a natural fit.
But while the ghetto bird might seem to be big, expensive, shiny, and everywhere, they are not all created equal. In the Helicopter world there are some serious tier one players. The brutal Blackhawk, the monstrous MIG and last but not least, the awesome Apache.
These great hunks of metal and electronics represent the state of the art for things-that-kill-people, and they do it with a mechanical grace that is both fascinating and disturbing. So it was with curious interest that I hopped into the cockpit to see how successful Gaijin Entertainment has been in bringing the Apache to life.
And the answer is... moderately successful. Apache Air Assault is a competent Helicopter simulator, but a lacklustre game. Which is a bit of a shame because there is the spark of an intense tactical simulator lurking underneath this chopper’s hood.
There is not much of a story to speak of, but the title follows the various aerial adventures of two chopper pilots. Each unlockable mission presents the duo with a new challenge or missions to complete. The breadth and scope of these missions is limited somewhat by the mechanics on offer, but there is an ample mix of chase, attack, defend and secure. What gives these missions their special flavour is their geographical locations and political context. It’s kind of exciting to be pursuing pirates in a country very-similar-to-but-not-quite-the-same-as Somalia. Or barrelling through deep snow filled canyons killing faceless ground troops and armoured vehicles in a ubiquitous region sound like “something-stan”. If real world parallels aren't your thing and you’d rather just fly a really expensive machine around, there’s a free roam option available to you as well (complete with a wider array of choppers), which is a nice touch by Gajin.
The game’s combat is reasonably fun to play through – if at times a little repetitive – and it will give true helicopter fans some moments of joy. The classic (and realistic) helicopter tool box is there, from lock-on Hellfire missiles, to sidewinders to flares. In an obvious nod to its simulation core there is also the ability to switch to ground attack cannons – complete with grainy black and white infrared viewing screens. This lets you zoom in and get up close and personal with your flightless prey, and with lots of tiny dots wielding rocket propelled grenades all wanting you dead, cannons are usually your best option. Apache Air Assault does provide a pretty complete combat package, and it’s a credit to Gajin that you get a taste of the experience of having the whole gamut of this vicious beast’s arsenal at your finger tips.
And your finger tips will be working pretty hard throughout the game. The flying mechanic is realistic, if a little frustrating. The last time the everyday gamer got their hands on a chopper was probably to escape from a Bank Job in Grand Theft Auto – thankfully Apache Air Assault’s rotor blades are a little more nuanced than that. And that’s a good thing – while it takes a little bit of practice and patience to full grasp how Helicopters actually work, once you’ve mastered it you’re pretty much untouchable. But, a word of warning – don’t get too cocky with the controls (especially in the death-is-guaranteed realistic difficulty mode). Even though there is an auto-hover option, that’s handy for those times when you just need to lay down the pain with the 30mm death-cannon, if you don’t keep a watchful eye on the altitude meter, you’re going down Mogadishu style.
In a quirky realistic twist Gajin has also cleverly given you the ability to experience the frustration of the American taxpayer. Success or failure, each end mission screen displays the total cost of your mission. Who’d have known that just flying around popping Amazonian drug smugglers was that expensive. Like... millions and millions of dollars expensive.
There are, however, a few problems. The first and most obvious is the huge graphical disparity on display in front of you. As a visual experience, Apache Air Assault is sitting in two worlds, the first one characterised by magnificent detail, the second one stained by unfortunate laziness. Thankfully it’s the chopper’s themselves that fall into the first camp. They are elegant creations, and Gajin has done an excellent job of replicating their real world counterparts onto your screens. They look great, they sound great and the feel great to play with.
But it’s where you are directing them that sends your suspension of disbelief plummeting back to earth. The title's background environments are poorly created and deficiently used. The world is rendered crudely and appears bleak and stark (and not in a cool meta-narrative kinda way). The environments aren’t outrageously badly designed or animated (Gran Turismo’s racetrack designers, I’m looking at you) but the difference in detail is enough to make you wonder what could have been. With a little bit more effort (and probably a little more development time) Gajin could have almost certainly come up with a total graphical package that was more coherent. In addition, the peripheral visual experience – your HUD, your menu screens and your loading screens – all pale in comparison to the attention given to those nice looking whirly birds. Perhaps that’s half the problem: because the choppers look so nice everything else doesn't. But even half a problem is still a problem.
The second is a lack of progression. The missions are loosely tied together but not in a way that makes you want to keep playing because you have to. Good games are like good books, you never want to put them down. And it’s not because you are having such a great time being mesmerised by decals and polygons, it’s because the title is bringing you into its world and you don’t really want to leave. Apache Air Assault doesn’t do a very good job of this. That sense of progression is only really incentivised by the promise of more things to do. For some gamers, particularly those with a hardon for military realism and aerial simulation, this will probably be enough to keep you going. For other gamers, who need a little bit of dramatic denouement in their stylised warfare, Apache Air Assault probably isn’t going to have the goods.
At the end of the day when everything’s landed and back in the hanger you can’t be too harsh on the poor title. Apache Air Assault is definitely a competent helicopter simulator. It will most certainly push some gamer’s buttons and become a well loved addition to their military combat collection. But I’m not sure how large that market is. Because when you take away the military-tech goggles, Apache Air Assault has a few niggling flaws which detract from the title as a worthwhile experience. It’s a solid title for the dogged, but for the majority of gamers, going for a spin in the horses of the sky is probably an experience that we won’t mind missing.