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 It has been replaced by an asymmetric battle of armored helicopters against ground-borne men and machines.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.
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