The game's developer, Gaijin Entertainment (not to be confused with Gaijin Games, developers of the WiiWare BIT.TRIP series), proved its talent for making flight sims work on consoles with the well-received IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey. Nevertheless, many potential problems stand in the way of making such a technical game accessible for a broad audience. One of the more difficult ones to avoid trips up Apache: Air Assault. The difficult to master controls mean the hardest part of the game isn't trying to take down rogue helicopters; it's making sure you don't barrel into a mountain.
Gaijin does everything right as far as trying to reach out to newer players. The main Campaign mode has three different difficulty settings, including a Training mode specifically crafted for new players. There is also a Free Flight mode which allows players the opportunity to refine their flight skills in an open world. All of that, however, isn't enough to overcome the punishing flight mechanic.
Basic flight controls for the helicopter fall on the left and right analog sticks. Getting airborne may be the easiest part of the game, but once there, things spiral out of control quickly. Trying to aim the helicopter can be a messy affair. The gunner is controlled by AI, but it's still up to the player to aim missiles at incoming hostiles. A lot of times, attempting to aim will affect the helicopter's angle and altitude, leaving you spinning around as you try to take out enemy vehicles below.
I faced this problem throughout the game, starting all the way back with the introductory tutorial level. Trying to get the hang of the controls in a neutered tutorial setting was hard in itself, but it got much worse once the actual missions began. Eventually, a tactical helicopter run turned into a button-mashing affair, as I fired missiles frantically to try and keep the enemy at bay. At least the enemies didn't turn out to be much of a threat; they were dispatched easily without putting my helicopter in any real danger. The only real peril came in trying to reach the waypoints, as I struggled to keep the helicopter airborne and away from the mountains.
One of the more enjoyable experiences of the game would come in trying to pick off enemy infantry. With the helicopter (blessedly) placed on auto-hover, it was time to switch pilot views and zoom-in on the invading soldiers closing on allied positions. The view would shift into thermal view, with enemies given away by their heat signatures. I had to take manual control of my gunner and pick them off one-by-one. The mechanic felt intuitive and fun. However, later instances of these events bring an added sense of pressure, as they involve keeping your ground-based squad covered against incoming enemies for a set period of time.
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Campaign levels require a series of objectives be completed such as protecting an area, intercepting a convoy, protecting ground-level infantry, and so on. While playing on the Training and Realistic difficulty levels, the player is granted four retry attempts. Blow up your helicopter and you can keep going from where you left off. But if you fail an objective, you return to the last save point, leaving it a good chance you'll have to start the entire mission from scratch. Imagine my displeasure when I completed three objectives and failed to protect a group of ground troops, only to find myself having to start the whole thing over again.
In addition to the single-player mode, Apache: Air Assault also offers opportunities for co-op, both local and online. Local co-op allows players to control a single helicopter, with one player as the pilot and the other as the gunner. These two players can either tackle the main Campaign or play individual missions in Squad Operations mode. Squad Operations mode also gives the opportunity for online co-op, which puts up to four players side-by-side in different helicopters in an effort to get through each of the game's missions. There's something to be said about having other would-be pilots along for the ride and taking on the various missions with more than one helicopter is a pleasantly fun, if not chaotic, experience.
Gaijin Entertainment has made a capable helicopter combat simulator, but the experience can't overcome the aggravation of simply trying to fly your helicopter. Hardcore flight simulator fans, though, will likely stick around long enough to complete this game in a few hours and they'll get a lot of mileage out of the Squad Operations mode's online co-op. While I can admire Gaijin's effort to bring an accessible flight simulator to a greater audience of gamers, Apache: Air Assault misses that mark.
Apache: Air Assault released for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on November 16, 2010. Review based on a retail box version of the game for Xbox 360.