Don't you just love it when a plan comes together? You've studied the battlefield, marked your targets, and in one explosive pass the enemy convoy you just engaged is reduced to a pile of ash. Air Assault is filled with these moments, and since simply piloting an AH-64 Apache is no easy feat, each one feels like a small victory. Developer Gaijin Entertainment has done a great job of crafting a helicopter combat simulator--a genre typically restricted to the PC--for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Thankfully, this is still a game flexible enough to reward strategic, well-executed tactics or reckless abandon, depending on which mode you play.
The game provides two modes of difficulty--Training and Realistic--to accommodate your level of helicopter expertise. Designed for the player who doesn't know his pitch from his yaw, Training mode applies several movement assists to make flying a more manageable process. This allows new players to focus on the combat and lends an arcade feel to the action. Should you get shot down as you litter the battlefield with bullet holes and rocket blasts, you'll be respawned right where you left off so you can continue with the carnage.
What Training mode grants in stability, however, it detracts in mobility. With only limited control over your aircraft, the helicopters feel slow and sluggish compared with the freedom allowed in Realistic mode. Sometimes even the simplest of tasks, such as gaining altitude or moving forward, takes the effort of moving mountains--especially when it comes to air-to-air combat. In the skies above, both enemies and allies whiz past, exchanging volleys of fire while you slowly climb to reach their heights.
Realistic mode does a good job of re-creating what it must be like to maneuver a giant steel box through the air. Naturally, it's a bit unwieldy at first. In this mode the entire pace of the game changes. Now, you're fighting not only your enemies, but also working to keep your craft aloft. If you turn too sharply, you might find yourself barrel rolling into the side of a mountain. Thankfully, a handy auto-hover function can help straighten you out in a pinch. And once you get the swing of things, you'll be able to perform winding corkscrews and other nimble maneuvers you can't pull off in Training mode.
Combat is also a more calculated challenge in Realistic mode. Reading the battlefield and planning out which units you'll hit with your limited heat-seeking missiles while not burning though all of your rockets on the first volley is a must. Enemy combatants, especially helicopters, will be more spot-on with their projectiles, so you need to develop a few evasive tricks to stay in the air. Once you've blasted your way through the campaign on Realistic mode, you're awarded with Veteran mode. Assuming you're a glutton for punishment, Veteran mode stacks on some additional restrictions, which includes limiting your lives (to just one) and your ammunition.
Mastering both the Realistic and Veteran modes is a feat that will take more time and practice than many players will give. This is compounded by the game's too brief tutorial, which neglects to mention a few key points about helicopter warfare. Chief among these is the fact that you can land at various helipads, marked with a blue H on your radar, to repair and rearm your helicopter. An in-game encyclopedia helps fill in some of the gaps, but crucial information--such as the fact that your flares will deploy automatically to redirect incoming enemy missiles--is not something you should have to hunt to find.
In addition to re-creating the feel, Apache: Air Assault puts a lot of effort into capturing the look of these war birds. Each of the helicopters has been lovingly modeled to include the finer details of its real-life counterparts. Even the instruments inside the cockpit are designed after the real thing (they can even help you fly, provided you can read them). But while the helicopters all look, feel, and even sound great, the world they inhabit falls flat. Speeding past beneath your blades are some of the most uninspired forests, mountains, and deserts you'll encounter. And while these natural arenas serve their function, before long, you'll feel a sense of deja vu as you revisit the same areas again and again.
The plot is sadly resigned to the back burner as well and does nothing more than provide a thin framework for the destruction. It jumps around among three sets of helicopter pilots caught in a tailspin of drug cartels, narco-terrorists, and maybe something about the end of the world. While this all sounds fun and exciting, the game does a poor job of establishing who's who. So while the different voices prattle on about dictators and enemy forces, you're left trying to decipher which one is Hallows, which one is Riker, and what in the world a Trident-6 is.
Luckily, a cooperative mode helps alleviate some of the tedium, but it should be reserved for only the most dedicated of friends. Here two players fill the roles of pilot and copilot gunner both operating the same aircraft. It helps if both players are familiar with the other's role so that they understand and appreciate the limitations of each. While the gunner is in control of the helicopter's weapon systems, his field of fire is restricted by where the pilot is pointing the helicopter. Having an actual human in the gunner's seat is a plus, however, because the AI-controlled gunner will often develop a digital soft spot for a particular transportation truck or mobile missile platform as it's trying to shoot you out of the sky. At other times, the AI gunner will simply withhold fire altogether until you're right on top of the enemy. In single-player, you can wrench away control from the AI at any time, but that just adds another layer of complexity.
Once you and a friend have your coordination down, you can take your Apache skills online or to the game's highly customizable Mission mode (or you can hit them solo). These modes inject a little more variety into the simple go-here, kill-this formula found throughout the campaign. High-flying helicopter races and a mission where you scout ahead to paint targets for your Apache allies in a tiny scout helicopter help to mix things up. You can also create a custom skirmish match and modify the details down to the ground forces and weapon loadouts on either side. Ultimately, Apache: Air Assault delivers on just about everything for which an enthusiast could ask. While it may not convert many new players into pilots, a keen attention to detail and a good number of customization options help keep things feeling fresh.