Apache: Air Assault is a decent blend of helicopter simulation and explosive combat. It's unfortunately built with big, empty levels, repetitive mission design, and doesn't have much dramatic imagination in its sim controls.
- Interesting controls
- Pretty visuals
- Missions are repetitive
- Levels can feel empty at times, despite detail
- Frequently unclear mission objectives
- No sense of drama
Apache: Air Assault:
The helicopter simulator hasn’t had a big presence in video games over the last several years, and Apache: Air Assault doesn’t make a good case for its revival. Developed by Gaijin Entertainment, the studio behind IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, Apache is an attempt to join meticulous flight controls with tense air-to-ground combat. It does a decent job of mapping precision flight controls to a traditional controller, but does a lousy job of designing a game to take advantage of those controls. It’s a piece of software masquerading as a dramatic video game, and it’s not convincing in either category.
It Takes Two Sticks to Move in One Direction
Apache’s controls are based on using the left and right analog stick to control your helicopter. The right stick raises and lowers the machine and also turns left of right. The left stick controls the angle of the helicopter. Push up and the ‘copter leans forward, while tilting it backward slows it down. It’s a nice way of adding nuance and tactical depth to simple movement, but there’s also a steep learning curve.
Steering relies on gradual momentum shifts and some mental math. Even on the easiest “Training” mode, it’s a process of combining two proportional forces, one that keeps you up and one that moves you in a specific direction. In “Realistic” mode the sensitivity of the sticks is upped, and the helicopter is susceptible to a more sensitive physics system that requires careful attention just to keep going straight.
The other major element of Apache is combat. Each of the Boeing-licensed helicopters is equipped with a machine gun and missiles. You can zoom in with the left trigger and fire the machine gun with the right trigger. Missiles are fired with the right bumper, but with Hellfire missiles you’ll need to tap A to lock onto a specific target before firing. If you tap the B button you can enter a secondary view called Manual Gun View where you’ll use either a black and white camera or an infrared camera to help pick out human targets on the huge maps.
The perspective adds a terrific sense of drama to shootouts. You’ll be cruising over the open maps firing at little red diamonds that show up on screen, but when you zoom into Manual Gun View you can see homes, warehouses, city streets, and individual soldiers pinned behind cover. It has the startling effect of reminding you the impersonal HUD icons actually connect to dire human combat a thousand feet below.
What works less well is the level design, which is generally constrained to flying across wide, empty spaces waiting for some detached verbal cues about enemies, and then hunkering down for a few minutes of shooting. There are differing reasons to move around the map (protect some ground troops, destroy a base, repel an offensive), but there’s little strategy or moral provocation. While levels are open arenas, all the moments of conflict occur at specific spots on the map and in a particular sequence.
While the initial detail and personal touches of Manual Gun View impress, the seams in the design show pretty quickly. There aren’t civilians running around, and though you’re sometimes told to avoid damaging civilian buildings, there’s rarely a penalty for doing so. Likewise, enemies often appear to drive around a preset route as if on a carousel or else squat passively and only spring to action when the reticule comes over them. The longer I played the more I felt like I was in an empty computerized box with a few miniaturized mobiles spinning in the far corners.
Can A Helicopter Make You Cry?
There is a sporadic story in Apache, but it’s mostly told in text during loading screens. There is some stoic but believable voice acting, but it’s also limited to commands about where to go and what to do when you get there. The villains are familiar bogeymen: pirates, rebels, and drug cartels. Each helicopter has two pilots and I imagine there might have been some possibility for drama or at least some personal connection to emerge in the lonely stretches, but none ever does.
There’s an interesting multiplayer component in Apache. You can play locally with a second person, splitting movement controls and gun controls, though things feel a little constrained because you’re forced to use the same screen. You can also play online with three other people, or two helicopters with two players each.
You won’t be trying to shoot each other down but instead go after co-op objectives together, trying to coordinate positioning and targets. This mode can be interesting in the same way a potato sack race can be interesting—you literally can’t progress without depending on your partner to play their part. But eventually the formulaic missions become as joyless as they are in single player.
Apache’s a good looking game with realistic and voluminous ground details, big levels, and a great mix of saturated lighting effects and a grim color scheme. There are also lots of nice small details, like the lingering smoke trails left by missiles and RPG’s, the streaking machine gun bullets, and extensive environmental destructibility. It’s a shame there isn’t more drama and emotional spectacle in the mission design because there are a lot of visual elements that could have been impressive with the right set piece.
Get to the Choppa?
Some genres aren’t meant to survive. In the same way that the musical mostly withered away from Hollywood’s vocabulary, the flight sim seems more and more out of place when considered against its contemporaries. Apache: Air Assault is a decent attempt to make the helicopter sim exciting again, but it’s a game without a point of view. It’s a waste of thoughtful visuals, meticulous controls, and some interesting camera shifts. These potentially dramatic elements are put together in levels that are open boxes without any attempt towards design showmanship.
Apache is a game that functions, has objectives, and can be beaten, but it doesn’t have anything to share with the player nor does it make a case for its sometimes opaque and erratic controls. It’s not a realistic enough simulation to exhilarate with simple accomplishments nor is it spectacular enough to feel like an entertainment. The longer I played the more I felt like I was working for the game rather but it was working for me.