If one thing is clear by looking at the current market of financially successful games, it's that war is good business. With titles like Black Ops, Medal of Honor, and Battlefield getting constant press, a casual observer may think that every experience to be had in a military game is already available. Clearly Activision would disagree, since Apache: Air Assault aims to put the player not in the boots of a soldier on the battlefield, but flying high above it.
The difference here can not be understated, since many potential players of Apache will assume that they know how helicopter combat is and is not similar to controlling other machines of war. They will be in for a surprise. Gaijin Entertainment have brought their usual uncanny realism to the feel and function of helicopter combat and maneuvering.
The studio is well-known for its history in flight simulation, although Apache: Air Assault is their first foray into helicopter flight. You wouldn't know it from the game, as the team has managed to give the player an experience that will probably be the closest to actually flying a helicopter they will ever experience. This is an accomplishment in itself, but may also be one of the biggest hurdles to gamers who haven't already spent hundreds of hours mastering a variety of aircraft in previous flight sims.
To give an idea of how unforgiving the game is in its accuracy, players are initially given the choice between two difficulties - 'Training' and 'Realistic.' Those who have handled choppers in games like Just Cause 2 or Medal of Honor may think themselves capable of tackling 'Realistic,' but will find they are grossly unprepared for the standards of Air Assault. The marketing for the game promotes the 'Training' mode as closer to arcade flight and combat, and it is definitely an effective way of getting your feet wet.
Frustration may set in immediately since recent games have made it their goal to make players feel invincible, giving them the ability to rain down destruction when they take control of military aircraft. Many players may even feel vulnerable and confused at the outset, since the game's tutorials are not quite as in-depth as they should be for how realistic the aircraft behaves. The various weapons at your disposal are explained once, and trial-and-error may be the best way to learn how to use each in certain situations. A second trip through the tutorials may be required to gain your bearings, so players should prepare themselves for a degree of frustration from the beginning.
While the common tactic in war games is to dive into the melee head-first, guns blazing, Apache's commitment to realism means that doing so is a guaranteed way to end up a smoldering pile. The game does give a charitable amount of respawns throughout a given mission, which will definitely prove useful. It quickly becomes clear that realistic strategies are required to achieve goals: fire off long-range weapons onto artillery and vehicles first, use some rockets to clear out pockets of enemies, then switch to infrared to pick off the stragglers and RPG-wielders with the guns. Your comrades are quite important, as this game proves to be one instance where paying attention to your AI-controlled support pays off.
The game is not without its faults, though, and many who pick the game up expecting a cinematic story will soon be aware of them. The graphics are not consistently on par with other flight titles (at least on the PS3), or with what the early screenshots led to believe. While seeing trees cut down by machine gun- fire is impressive, seeing buildings shatter into collapsing squares sticks out like a sore thumb. In terms of difficulty, the enemy AI will give you a beating if you don't deal with them promptly, but it really breaks the immersion of the game when 'fleeing vehicles' circle around the battlefield until they are eliminated.
Any who pick up the game with hopes that it will attempt to put the player in the shoes of the pilots both in terms of function and character are sure to be disappointed. Piloting and weapons are the showcase for Apache, not storytelling. The game follows different teams through different stages of various military campaigns, with a paragraph or two in the loading screen explaining who the enemy is, and what the current mission entails. The story does develop over the course of the game, but paragraphs of text and radio chatter just aren't enough to transform a realistic simulation into a compelling story.
The fact is that storytelling is not Gaijin's main goal with Apache: Air Assault. The game seeks to give players the feeling of what operating a combat helicopter is really like, and it that sense it succeeds. Aside from the main campaign, the game features a free-flight mode that gives players the opportunity to take control of even more Apaches in various missions. Progressing through the game unlocks new skins and decals for customizing your rides, so there is the opportunity for some re-playability among the hardcore community.
As is the case with most games that require a great deal of commitment and coordination to master, playing alongside a friend makes the experience even richer. Planning and executing a coordinated attack with an ally may be even more frustrating than mastering the system yourself, but is a fantastic accomplishment when pulled off correctly. The game allows both local and online multiplayer, with various scenarios that will truly put your teamwork-and friendship-to the test.
For those looking for a military game that puts them into the action without requiring mastery of every detail, Apache: Air Assault probably isn't going to be enjoyable. On the other hand, if learning how to effectively maneuver a helicopter on the battlefield sounds like an achievement that you would find satisfying, then the game deserves a shot. Fans of flight simulators will no doubt find the game to be exactly what they want from Gaijin, and will most likely make the game look like a walk in the park.
If any previous Apache title or flight simulator has provided an experience that was anything but frustrating, a good amount of satisfaction and entertainment is present in Air Assault. But in case the miles of study and refinement it's buried beneath are too much for you, a rental may be the best idea. The one thing to keep in mind is that Apache: Air Assault will likely disappoint those who expect a full game experience. As a war game, a cohesive story and some serious characterization would have added a lot to the title. In terms of function, a more in-depth tutorial and explanation of skills and tactics would have kept the target-oriented gameplay from feeling repetitive after a few hours.
As a flight and combat simulator, the game is an unquestionable success. Know what you're buying when you pick up the game, because the truth is that it might just be the best helicopter simulator that money can buy. If you can convince a few similarly-minded friends to pick it up as well, then you're set.
Apache: Air Assault is available now for the Xbox 360 and PS3.