Even the most casual observer has seen a change in the nature of war themed video games over the past couple of years as the stranglehold that World War II had over the entire genre begins to loosen. Even the venerable Call of Duty series has shifted to a more modern type of warfare in the eponymously named Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. A sea change like this alters more than mere geography, or course. As the wide open battlefields of the past shift to urban and mountainous terrain, and the idea of total, all out war shifts to a far more restrictive set of rules of engagement designed to prevent the loss of innocent civilian life at all costs, the weaponry used has also changed, particularly when it comes to the air war. Gone are the iconic waves of heavy bombers chaperoned by hordes of protective fighters. Gone are the dogfights that pitted man against man, thousands of feet above the earth. Gone, in fact, is any kind of parity in the air at all. It has been replaced by an asymmetric battle of armored helicopters against ground-borne men and machines.
The predominant force in this new type of battle is the Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter. Armed with a 30mm chain gun similar to the immensely powerful gun that adds incredible destructive power to the Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II (better known by its sobriquet “Warthog”), the Apache carries the same destructive force as its fixed-wing cousin but enhances that capability with unique abilities that could only be realized by the vastly different flying qualities of a helicopter. Not only can a helicopter utilize its hovering and slow flight capabilities to loiter behind low cover and quickly emerge to take a shot when needed, it also acts as a far more stable aiming platform. And without having to be overly burdened with thoughts of aerodynamic efficiency, designers can do interesting things like putting the gun on a swivel and adding an extra seat to carry a dedicated gunner. The addition of a suite of low-light and poor weather sensors enables flight in night and adverse weather conditions as well.
The sum of all of those capabilities manifests itself in the ultimate fighting capability: eye-tracker aiming. While it’s certainly more complicated in the event, the upshot is that if the pilot or gunner can see it, all he has to do is pull the trigger to kill it. For the inevitable cases where the target is too armored or too distant for the gun, the Apache also carries a gaggle of “fire-and-forget” Hellfire missiles. Once the target is locked on, the missile will lock onto that target once it’s fired and will autonomously track it until impact. Meanwhile, the Apache can lock onto more targets and send a missile heading towards each. Finally, for those events where the enemy invites along plenty of soft, unarmored friends, the Apache can make sure that there’s enough stopping power to share with them all with its Hydra unguided missiles.
The ground forces games like Call of Duty have the shift to tight, urban warfare and fighting in the hostile hills of the Middle East covered, but there has long been a gap in the coverage of the new type of air war. That niche has now been filled with Activision’s Apache Air Assault. I recently had an opportunity to sit down with it and see if it captured the complex challenges presented by both the complexity of flying a helicopter and the tension of fighting in an arena where even the lowliest ground troop packing a shoulder-launched missile can ruin your entire day.
First, the helicopter: there is no more difficult to fly apparatus that a rotary-winged collection of mechanical parts flying in loose formation. The normal unassisted flying mode of a helicopter is what is commonly called “falling.” Without constant attention from the pilot, a helicopter will do everything in its power to return to its natural state which is, unfortunately, a pile of burning metal. As least with regards to the “Realistic” flight model and your intrepid reviewer at the controls, Activision got that part right. While I could fly the Apache around the local area more or less in control, the least level of distraction would quickly cause me to lose control. And let’s be honest: a hornet’s nest of guys shooting RPGs at you can most certainly qualify as a distraction! I didn’t keep an accurate count, but during my first few missions I would bet that the ratio of crashes due to ground collisions compared to those caused by actual enemy actions ran at least three to one. This could have been easily remedied by using the thoughtfully provided training mode, but the vision of R. Lee Ermey reading this review and throwing a box of Kleenex at his monitor kept me honest.
The developers made a few concessions to the difficulty of flying a machine as inherently unstable as a helicopter using a console controller, though. Chief amongst them is the way the collective control works. The collective control acts kind of like a throttle, albeit only in the vertical flight axis. To lift the helicopter, a pilot lifts upward on the collective lever, typically located on his left side. This increases the pitch of the rotor blades and generates lift. To descend, the collective is pushed back down. Note that there are no moving controls on the typical console controller that don’t have a centering spring. That would cause problems with a control such as the collective since it would always want to return to some midpoint. Apache Air Assault solves this problem by transparently applying a type of cruise control. Left to its own devices, it seems to automatically set a collective level that will keep the helicopter at a constant altitude until such time as it is disturbed by the pilot adding pitch or bank.There is also an autohover capability available. I found this to be very useful. In fact, it was the only way that I could both fly and fight as a single player. While the computer operated gunner would automatically shoot at targets with the 30 mm chain gun while I flew the helicopter, it fell to me as the pilot to use any of the other more potent weapons. And being of the “if you want it done right, do it yourself” school of thought, I usually wanted to fire the machine gun too. The best tactic I came up with was to get in range of the targets and enter autohover mode, then take over for the gunner. Doing so allowed me to use the targeting optics, my favorite being the infrared system. The infrared made it much easier to pick targets out of urban or forest clutter, and the stronger zoom mode it offered helped me identify the type of target. If I ran up against an armored vehicle, it was a simple matter to pop back into the pilot’s seat and launch a Hellfire. Anything else was dispatched with a hail of lead.
It should come as no surprise that there was one glaring weakness to this tactic: a hovering helicopter is a sitting duck. The helicopter will autonomously launch flares as countermeasures to defensive missiles heading our way, but flares will not dissuade unguided projectiles such as RPGs. I found that I needed to hover, launch a bevy of missiles at hardened targets, then scoot off to a new location to clean up any remaining troops. Even that didn’t always work, but absent a real life co-pilot/gunner it was the best I could do.
Fortunately, the designers thought of that. In addition to an online co-op mode where two to four players can join up in a squadron, Apache Air Assault has a local co-op multiplayer mode whereby one player can act as the pilot while the other acts as the gunner. As you might expect, coordination between the two can be somewhat difficult since the two players may not necessarily be interested in looking at the same things and the same time. It becomes even more difficult for the pilot when he chooses to put the gunner in the Infrared mode - it is hard to fly the helicopter when the view is focused on an individual target off to one side or the other. That too was a great time to rely on autohover.
This mode presented an interesting shift in the area of tactical command. To some degree, the relationship of the pilot to the gunner became more a function of the pilot’s responsibility being limited to positioning the gun platform to a suitable location, then temporarily relinquishing decision-making authority to the gunner. Every now and then the pilot would have to re-assume command as the gunner became fixated on a target and a new threat emerged of to the side. The pilot would have to interrupt the gunner’s work to either evade or attack the new threat. The gunner has control over the selection and usage of the various weapons, but the pilot retains control of the targeting optics. A kind of tug-of-war can occur when the gunner wants the improved targeting capabilities offered by the sensors but the pilot needs the outside view to safely operate the aircraft. This co-op mode, while being somewhat limited by the sharing of a single screen view, offers a unique vision into how the pilot and gunner of an Apache helicopter act as a team.
The visual elements of the game are merely adequate, but the most compelling views are those of the targeting optics. Both the black & white camera and the infrared views are nearly identical to the types of real world captured views that can be seen on the nightly news or on YouTube. By far my favorite activity was using the zoomed infrared view to attack ground targets with the chain gun. While it seems like it might be quite easy, it is anything but. At greater distances, it gets difficult to correctly “lead” a moving target. The recoil of the gun also shakes the helicopter and knocks the aim off target. Finally, it is not uncommon for the target to get lost in a cloud of dust or smoke, only to emerge unscathed and firing a rocket or missile right back at you.
While the three theatres of operation in Apache Air Assault’s campaign mode don’t use real names for people or places, the themes will resonate with modern events. You will find yourself in heated battles with insurgents, pirates, and powerful drug cartels. In realty, the actual names used don’t matter much; all of the situations will ring true to life anyway. The missions were often difficult for two reasons: I was usually pitted against an overwhelming number of enemies, and many of the missions were based on escorting or destroying a moving target. I often failed a mission because I was pinned down by having to deal with a strong defensive force while the target (or escorted party) disappeared into the distance or a cloud of black smoke, as the case may be. Sometimes I found it useful to simply race past the defensive force in order to follow the actual target. That presented a risk, of course, because ignoring an enemy force provides no guarantee that an enemy force will ignore you.
As the scope of battles has compressed from continent-wide, multi-year battles to localized pockets of violence, both tactics and weapons have followed suit. To some degree, battles have become more personalized as fewer numbers of troops fight more flexible and harder-to-find enemies. The air war has also followed this trend to the point where the predominant airborne weapon offers scalpel-like precision combined with immense force to attack the enemy, but does so at a high cost in complexity and danger. Apache Air Assault does a very good job in presenting those aspects of this new type of war fighting to the gamer who is ready to move beyond the wars of yesteryear.