The "Air Assault” suffix in the title of Activation’s latest foray into the modern combat genre, Apache: Air Assault, clears up any confusion that we may have as to whether we will be wielding tomahawks or piloting helicopters. What it doesn’t clear up is whether Activision has set out to create a helicopter-combat simulator or a helicopter arcade game. In actual fact the truth is somewhere in the middle, which is good and bad all rolled into one.
On one hand, the default over-the-shoulder view suggests an arcade experience. On the other hand, the hard-to-master cyclic and collective controls give the game a more simulator-style feel. Flying a helicopter is an art in itself and Apache is no different in this regard; the realistically sluggish controls make the helicopter hard to fly, and this may put off casual players. If you stick with it, Apache provides a rare treat for console gamers in almost being a bona fide helicopter combat flight simulator.
The game is packed to the rafters with content. This, topped with the inherent learning curve, means that Apache will fill your time, if nothing else. The game has three difficulty settings: Training, Realistic and finally Veteran, which is only available after completing the campaign, and so increases the replay value. The game’s title is also a bit misleading, as players can pilot not only the AH-64D, but also the AH-1, the AH-64X, the MI-35 Hind and the MQ-8B Firescout UAV.
The single-player campaign is set over 16 missions across various flashpoints around the world. Players will find themselves piloting their way thought scenarios ranging from patrolling pirate-infested waters off the coast of Africa, hunting terrorists in the mountains of Asia, and high-octane air-to-air in the skies above Central America. It was great to see international chopper crews taking part in the campaign rather than the usual exclusively American war machine. At the end of each mission, players can user the replay system, which provides an entertaining and dynamic review of the last battle, enabling heart rates to settle.
The local co-op mode allows two players to play through the campaign missions together, flying in the same helicopter gunship, as pilot and gunner. The game can also be taken online in the Squad Operations mode, pitting players in a co-operative battle against AI protagonists in one of 13 specially designed multiplayer missions.
There is also the Free Flight mode, which allows player to create custom scenarios, choosing the location, time, weather, allies and enemies. The difficulty can range from a quiet fight in friendly airspace learning the intricacies of helicopter flying, to dodging fire over an impossibly challenging all-out battleground.
Apache isn’t a very nice looking game. The aircraft models are passable, with fairly unrefined textures. The landscape could also have been a lot tidier to look at, considering just how up-close-and-personal you need to fly the helicopters. It’s not that the game simply needs polish, as it can be hard to determine what is firing at you when all you can see is a shifting black blob on the horizon.
In the end, Apache: Air Assault leaves us with one question: are consoles a suitable platform for an all-out simulator? The answer is, "probably not”. In trying to be something for everyone, Apache ends up being an unsatisfying arcade experience and a rather unfulfilling combat simulator. At a time when money is tight and developers continue to throw a multitude of great new titles upon us, Apache is best saved for when it’s on special in the bargain bin.