The Average Gamer

Hands-On Preview: Apache Air Assault

Have you been waiting for someone to do for combat helicopter sims what Gran Turismo did for racing games? Yeah, us neither but it looks like Gaijin Entertainment have done just that, with Apache Air Assault coming out next month.

I got my grubby paws into a hands-on preview earlier this week. You know what? It’s not half bad. When you play it on numpty-mode, that is. Gaijin have gone to great lengths to make this game a decent simulation of helicopter combat and if you trust Ed Macy’s word for it, they’ve done a cracking job. Okay, so maybe a real Apache helicopter cockpit has 227 switches where an Xbox controller has all of 13. And maybe going through the pre-flight checks to start a real helicopter from cold takes thirty minutes and more than a thousand button pushes.

Still, Macy is a former Apache pilot for the British military, designs the combat missions for the Boeing Apache simulator and has published a book called Apache about his time in Helmand, Afghanistan… I’m inclined to believe him when he says that this is as good as game simulation will get.

“I got contacted, asking would I like to support Apache Air Assault? And I had a look at it and my gut instinct was ‘There’s no way I’m gonna do this.'” Macy told us. “If you try to take that [flight sim level of detail] into a battlefield situation you’re going to need to do what Boeing did – put four great big computers together, wire it up so it all works and then falls over a few times loading because it’s so complex to try and do. The flip side is, you’ve then got games which are your Hollywood aircraft and your Hollywood pilot. And they can do anything… you just keep shooting or being hit and you keep flying. And they don’t really work neither.”

“To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be getting up here to support it. Then I had a look at it and actually.. it is a halfway house. But it’s more than that. It expands right and left. So when I looked at it, I found that actually it is like the Apache, it does fly like the Apache.”

However… it takes £3 million and 3 years of intensive training to turn a grunt into a combat-qualified Apache helicopter pilot. I spent £3.60 on Tube tickets and played the game for 20 minutes, so I am truly shit at piloting helicopters. Your left analogue stick controls the main rotor and your right does the elevation and the rear rotor, so flying takes a lot of concentration. Numpty mode, or “Training” mode – to use its proper title – is fine. You can jam those sticks forward to peg it for the enemy without too much worry yet still be at risk of crashing. We’re not talking child-friendly mode here, just… playable for a complete newbie. Other options are “Realistic” which I couldn’t keep in the air for more than 20 seconds at a stretch, and “Veteran”, the truly hardcore simulation where you have a single helicopter (i.e. life) per mission and must return to base if you need to refuel or resupply your ammo.

In true military fashion, everything you do during a mission is logged. When you’re successful, you get presented with a nice set of stats, one of which is the total mission cost. I managed to rack up a bill of £308,630 in just under 10 minutes. On the other hand, my mission efficiency was “Unbelievable” and post-mission evaluation “Perfect!” so can’t complain, right? Given that the game supposedly tracks every bullet fired, it would have been nice for the stats to be a little more detailed – perhaps that’s saved for the more difficult modes.

Call me stupid if you like but a key thing I hadn’t realised before playing this was that helicopter combat missions are very different from flight sims. You can hover, for a start. Where aeroplane combat games are basically aerial dogfights coupled with avoiding mountains, helicopter missions are much more about intimate support of the ground troops. You’ll dogfight other helicopters but you’ll also find yourself hovering alongside oil rigs helping infantry take out their opponents, or defending a base from waves of incoming vehicles. It makes for a good mix – with 16 missions in the single-player campaign, there should be plenty of variety to keep you entertained.

One nice touch is the post-mission replay. Gaijin Entertainment have painstakingly replicated each version of the Apache helicopter’s cockpit so that you can play in super-serious mode by only using the in-cockpit view, view-obstructing frames and all. It’s good fun to watch the mission replay and flip through the other camera angles to see how awesome (or terrible) your performance was from the outside. Could have done with a fast-forward option during replays but there is the option to save your action to disk as well. With any luck you can extract them from your console to watch or edit on a computer.

I was very happy to hear that the game will include a local co-op mode where you can play with a friend in the co-pilot’s seat acting as your gunner. There’s also an set of online co-op missons specifically designed for multiple players, as well as the option to customise certain battles.

If you have the slightest interest in warfare simulations or flying then have a look at Apache Air Assault when it comes out for PC and consoles in November.

PC Screenshots