The PC has long been the exclusive domain of flight-sim games. The combination of complex controls and innumerable instruments which the player needs to keep track of creates a situation where in a keyboard and mouse is simply easier to use than a gamepad. However, in spite of this inherent difficulty in creating flying games for the console, fans of taking to the air in their videogames have seen a couple of quality releases on consoles over the years, with one of the more recent ones being Gaijin Entertainment’s IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey. A little more than one year after the WWII flight combat game’s successful launch, Gaijin is back with Apache: Air Assault, a title which is both deep enough to keep diehard flight sim fans satisfied but still arcadey enough to appeal to players who have never picked up a flight stick before in their life.
Right from the tutorial, you become a member of LastLine Defense Corporation, a company which, at least it appears, gets called in when governments need to get the job done using what might otherwise be considered extralegal means. I say it appears because the story in Apache: Air Assault makes Vanquish seem like fine literature, or, to put it another way, it is effectively non-existent. What shreds of story are shoehorned into the game are told through small text in between missions and brief voiceovers that come over your headset while in flight. These delivery methods make the narrative incredibly difficult to access should you want to. However, I will save you the effort and tell you don’t even bother reading the text and just use the loading screens as an excuse to grab a drink of water.
By contrast, the mission structure which the story carries you through gives a commendable amount of flexibility in exploring Air Assault’s 16 chapters. Although it is called the campaign mode, you aren’t strictly tied to following the missions in the order that they are given to you. Instead, there are three sets of loosely tied together levels, all of which must be completed in order to finish the campaign. Completing any one of these missions will almost always unlock a new mission (unless it is one of the last in a series) and other content such as decals or skins for your helicopter. This systems prevents you from being bogged down in one mission which could be causing you trouble and still allowing you to progress and improve your skills.
Unfortunately, in spite of the way chapters are presented, you end up doing a substantial amount of retrying missions just because of how they are structured. Since you are a helicopter pilot, you’ll be doing a lot of protecting of ground units and providing air cover.This makes many tasks just glorified escort missions, where in you’ll need to make sure a convoy gets to its destination safely or you’ll need to hold off enemy forces while they assault an oil derrick. It also means that you’ll fail, not because you got shot down (ample continues are provided should this happen, but instead because the allies in your care were destroyed. And rest assured, fail you will, as most missions will see you encountering either an obscene number of defenses or a group of attackers who initially overwhelm those under your care, resulting in you frequently not accomplishing your objectives on the earlier tries, especially on earlier levels. The frustration caused by this only mounts when you find out that there is no checkpoint system, meaning you’ll often times end up repeating the same 10-15 minutes of the level just to see your convoy or helicopter blown to shreds. The process gets repetitive, but it is blunted by the fact that the action remains intense and requires you to stay on your toes even when it has been completed multiple times.
Once you actually select a chapter, there isn’t a whole lot of choice in your load out. You’ll be put into one of three versions of the Apache: the AH-64D Longbow, AH-1, or the AH-64X Experimental Prototype. Although there are slight differences in how these different models perform, it isn’t anything that will affect your game experience massively. Similarly, your lead-out doesn’t vary all that much from one mission to the next, as you’ll pretty much always have some combination of unguided rockets, air to air rockets, guided missiles and a machine gun. The lack of weapon or helicopter variety doesn’t really become burdensome per se, but a little more variety (which is granted in multiplayer and free flight mode) would have been appreciated, if only to spice things up.
On the bright side, the lack of helicopter variety is in a way commendable because the controls are incredibly tight controls don’t vary from chopper to chopper. Right from the tutorial, you’ll be able to pull of strafing runs with unguided missiles, rake enemies with cannon fire at a distance, or wheel around to take out enemies behind on your six with ease. In order to satisfy both hardened flight-sim fans and players who have not ever played a game of this type before, Gaijin has included both a training and realistic control mode, both of which share a common control structure. The similar control schemes effectively makes training mode just that: a way to get comfortable in the Apache while still imposing some limitations on your flight. Then, once you feel like you’re the helicopter equivalent of Maverick when playing training mode, you can switch into Realistic mode for a more true-to-life flying experience. Not only does this allow gamers of all stripes to find a type of flight which appeals to them but also it provides for a real sense of accomplishment and freedom when the training wheels come off and you switch over to realistic mode.
No matter which type of flight you choose, the singe-player only of the fun to be had in Apache: Air Assault, as the game also boasts two very impressive multiplayer modes . Should you choose to play with a friend, you two will not be in your separate helicopters; instead, one of you will be responsible for the flight controls of the apache, including the camera, while the other will be in charge of operating the guns. As you may be able to guess, by separating the two functions of the helicopter, co-op requires an unparalleled level of communication between the pilot and the gunner, making you two truly feel like a pair of apache piloting badasses. In another welcome choice, any missions that you accomplish while playing in co-op will also be considered completed for purpose of unlocking new levels and decals, meaning that you won’t need to go back and replay missions you’ve already completed should you not be a fan of them.
The only part of the game which can overshadow the offline cooperative play is the online play that Gaijin has put together. Rather than just slap together some generic maps and tell people to duke it out, they created an entire new set of missions specifically designed for multiplayer. Each of these is designed for 2-4 players to play and is relatively similar to the campaign missions in style and objectives except for the fact that they are designed to force your squad to work together and there are fewer escort missions. Whereas a single player mission might task you with taking and holding one base, an online objective might be for you and the other players to take and hold three bases while all are getting attacked. Much like the offline play, combat over Xbox Live features the same tight controls while adding the extra element of having to coordinate well with your teammates, in the process giving you the impression of being a full blown squad commander within the LDC.
It is these solid gameplay mechanics which carry Apache: Air Assault and make it worth a look. To be sure, it won’t be winning any awards for technical achievements or the storytelling, however, that isn’t what makes a game. Instead, Gaijin Entratinment’s latest flight game shows that a combination of good controls, a variety of difficulties, and some game modes which embrace teamwork can overcome technical shortcomings. Apache: Air Assault isn’t a game for everyone, especially not those who become frustrated escort-esque missions, but it should provide flight fans an enjoyable and action packed experience for a budget price.