Apache: Air Assault isn't a game that you'll want to approach lightly. It can be tough as nails, even if you're playing on the easiest setting — which I did — and if you start to bump it up to Realistic or Veteran mode, well, good luck, fine gamer. Apache isn't difficult because it's unfair; I can't even say that I suffered cheap deaths. Instead, it's such a unique console simulation title that it'll take a lot of time to wrap your head around it. I can't even remember the last time I touched a game that focused on helicopter-based missions outside of the classic EA series, Jungle Strike and the subsequent Strike games, so Apache: Air Assault certainly stands alone among other air combat titles. Most air combat games on consoles are strictly arcade affairs, so the controls aren't nearly as difficult to wrap your head and hands around, and they tend to be pretty forgiving. Apache is neither of those things; it's hard to play well, and it's even harder to finish.
The helicopter sim aspect is probably going to put off a great deal of people from even trying Apache. I struggled with the review for a while because I'd make some progress in the missions only to encounter a particular level that was unrelenting in its difficulty and precision. At that point, I'd toss the controller on the couch and switch to something else for a breather. I certainly hurled a fair share of expletives at the screen over the course of the main campaign, and I came dangerously close to cracking the TV screen a couple of times. However, once you get a handle on the controls and piloting, and you figure out which view best suits you, it can be quite fun. After all, you are taking the reins of a powerful piece of weaponry, and there's a lot of stuff you can lay waste to throughout the lengthy campaign.
As you delve into Apache: Air Assault, you're given a few modes to check out. Campaign mode is divided into 17 missions, most of which take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes to complete. This might not sound like a huge amount of time, but as I mentioned, you'll end up retrying quite often, so the campaign becomes more of a time sink than you might expect. On the flip side, even if the difficulty can be brutal, the missions are short enough to make them tantalizing to try over and over again without much frustration, so you don't hesitate to jump in for another round since you haven't lost a lot of time.
Free Flight mode allows you to pick a number of options for a unique scenario setup. You can pick the arena in which the flight will take place, using a number of locales found in the campaign. Then you can choose whether there will be ground units for either side, so you'll need to watch out for friendly units or shoot indiscriminately. You can also specify the weather, which doesn't have a great impact on how you play aside from your view. Then you can pick your starting altitude, which basically means whether you want to manually lift off from the ground or begin in mid-flight. Finally, you can choose a number of AI-controlled teammates, the aircraft type, weapon loadout, skins for your craft (a number of which are unlockable), the skill of your AI partners, the enemy craft, and their weapons. There are a lot of variables tossed into this mode, so that you can really put a new aircraft through its paces, and it is a fun way to sample the gameplay without being tied down by the campaign and its plot.
Squad Operations is the next mode you'll come across, and it serves as the primary multiplayer mode in Apache. You'll choose an available mission, and then you're matched up with Xbox Live players to tackle that mission as a team. A word of warning: I didn't find a great number of people to play with online, and that's disappointing. There was a community presence from dedicated players, but it was rare to get a full group together. Also, these missions are as hard, if not harder, than a lot of the campaign missions, so in order to have some fun with this mode, you really need a group of microphone-using players who can coordinate some teamwork. It's going to be very difficult to approach this mode from a casual online standpoint, and while I'm glad it's included, I certainly wouldn't suggest starting with this mode.
That's it for the main modes, but all three offer quite a bit of playtime for anyone who picks up this title. Also worth noting is that Apache has some support for flight sticks; the game lists the Ace-Edge , Cyborg F.L.Y. 9 and Saitek AV8R-02. You could also opt to use the regular controller, which worked fine for me, and you can change options like the axis inversion, roll, pitch and yaw sensitivity.
As I mentioned earlier, the controls feel spot-on. You'll use the two analog sticks to control height and speed. Pressing up on the right analog stick raises your craft into the air, and pressing forward or back on the left stick controls your movement. Pushing both sticks forward gives you more speed, allowing to whiz along the countryside or ocean, so it won't take much time to reach faraway targets. You have an AI gunner aboard your aircraft throughout most of the game that will hunt down targets while you're busy evading missile locks, firing rockets and doing some basic piloting. However, you can take control of the gun and fly at the same time if you choose, and that's usually advisable because the gunner AI is a tad sloppy. It focuses on targets that are farther away and less of a threat, and it doesn't seem to have the ability to follow orders. Similarly, I wish I could issue basic commands to friendly AI when it accompanies me on missions, especially the escort segments, which are needlessly difficult because the AI often marches headfirst into danger.
Aside from the punishing difficulty and the admittedly niche nature of the flight sim, I can't find much worth complaining about with Apache: Air Assault. I'm not complaining about the difficulty so much as I am giving people fair warning in case they get easily discouraged. It's a well put-together title, but it's certainly not for everyone, and you should try before you buy. The game won't win any awards for graphics, but I found the mission variety offered a few different locales that were distinctive and really stood out from the crowd. The terrain has enough detail so you can pinpoint targets and enemy units. Likewise, the soundtrack doesn't stand out as being particularly grand, and I sometimes felt that it mimicked the generic military theme music that's prevalent in many first-person shooters, but it certainly wasn't anything that needed to be muted.
I applaud Apache: Air Assault for offering a unique and enjoyable experience within the sim genre of air combat games, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity to play it. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but you might be surprised by how much you enjoy this one.
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