Up Until Now, There Has Been nothing on the market that could really claim to be a real helicopter simulator. Sure, there were plenty who tried, but when it all boils down to it, even the better ones were lacking, although at least one looked superb, but was aerodynamically challenged, to put it mildly. So people like me were forced to get our fixes in the wilderness of fixed wing flight, where our needs were pandered to far more effectively. Alternatively, we had to do the unthinkable and get a life. But now something wonderful has happened. A company has noticed our plight and taken pity on us. A real helicopter simulator is here at last. But is it as good as it claims, or will it prove to be another pale pretender?
So what’s the score?
First impressions are pretty good. I’ve just picked myself up, rung a couple of mates and got them to come round and look at the intro sequence. If the rest looks half this good, it’ll be a winner. Jump into the game in true PC tradition, ignoring all the manuals and the dire warnings therein. Hey, I can fly a real helicopter – this should be a piece of piss, right? Well, not exactly. After a few exploratory crashes, it’s time to rtfm (that’s: Read The Effing Manual) and go back to basics.
First things first, Apache Longbow is a pretty high-end simulator. For sure, some liberties have been taken here and there in an attempt to make it more player friendly, but ultimately we are talking a walkover in the realism versus playability rating. The manual wouldn’t make much of a coffee table, but it is supplemented by an on-line back up, which you can reach at any point. The flight model is excellent means that it is, well, a bit of a bitch to fly. It floats around all over the shop in the hover; it maintains momentum in the wrong direction in the turn; it fights you in the roll (and worse still, in the recovery); and it goes all peculiar as it builds up speed and moves into transitional lift. In other words, it is a home from home for me and any other rotor head.
We want some background
Gee, I thought you’d never ask. Well, the original Apache was hailed as the ultimate helicopter gunship when it first hit the skies in the mid ’70s. By the time Uncle Sam had got around to buying the thing, it had got far heavier, more complex and budget that even the Channel Tunnel consortium would’ve been embarrassed. But, at last, it came into service just in time to see the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the real threat it was designed to counter. But the Americans are an inventive bunch after all, and they soon managed to whistle up a little scrap in the Gulf to prove the value of their new toys.
Among the things that the Gulf War showed was the fact that, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to provide some excellent news footage for your friendly neighbourhood cnn team usinj the on-board video equipment. Very shortly after the Apache er service, the brass in the Pentagor sussed the fact that Europe had crappy weather most of the timej that a blind firing facility might in handy. The fact that there longer a real threat in Europe matter, of course. Thus, the Apache Longbow came into being.! Fundamentally, all that was done to the original Apache was a ma system upgrade to for the millimetre wave radar on top of the rotor mast. This increased weight further, of course, so an engine upgrade became necessary. The result is a helicopter which is capable of fighting day or night, in any kind of weather, in any terrain you like. Now there’s no doubt that the Apache Longbow is a very nice piece of kit, and, in fact. Her Majesty’s Government thinks so highly of it that they’ve just ordered a load for the new Army attack helicopter programme.
When do I get to kill?
Soon, very soon. Of course, this is a highbrow sort of flight simulator, and as such, there is a clear and distinct learning curve along which you, the eager student, must travel in order to achieve your rotary nirvana. Or something like that. Anyway, there are a load of training flights in which the only thing that’s trying to kill you is your helicopter. I’d earnestly recommend that you follow the training programme before “going live”, otherwise you’re gonna get fed-up with being offered the option to retry a failed mission again and again and again… But when you do reach an operational squadron, a veritable blastfest awaits you… Your Apache is a heavily-armed beast, and there seem to be precious few rules of engagement to hold you back. So its out there and kill, kill, kill. Well, maybe not. You see, like I said before, this is a simulator. That means judicious use of brain as well as trigger finger is needed to even survive a mission, let alone achieve your goals. That means looking at the map, and really thinking ahead. Of course, it also means blowing seven ! bells out of the opposition.
What about the weapons?
Anyone who has played any helicopter simulator, anywhere, will be familiar with the weapons provided on the Apache. You got your standard Hellfire laser-guided anti tank (or anything else) missiles. You got Stinger air-to-air missiles. You got 70mm rockets (two different types). And, of course, you have the 30mm chain gun as well. But here there is a difference – you also get another version of the Hellfire; this one being radar guided, fire and forget, with a range of about seven miles. I don’t know what it’s like in reality, but it’s pretty bloody effective here, I’ll tell you. Of course, lighting the bad guys up with radar like a Christmas tree does tend to let them know you’re around and that can be more than a little bad for your health, but as missiles go this is certainly a pretty damned handy sucker to have around.
Tell us about the missions
There are three fundamental types of single-player game here: single mission, instant action and campaign. The instant action missions axe arcade-style shoot ’em ups with no tactics other than staying alive. You have infinite weapons and get a score for everything you kill. This is the least challenging part of the game, but is still quite good for a cheap thrill.
Single missions offer a bit more of a challenge, but the real core of this simulator, like Tornado before it, is in the campaigns. Here, the difficulty of each mission is directly affected by your performance on earlier flights. If you failed to take out the mobile SAMs three missions ago, they’ll be there to hassle you now. Similarly, if you do really well on an early flight, you’ll have a sudden lack of opposition later on during the campaign. You have the facility to change as much of your pre-generated mission plans as you wish – change weapon loads, move waypoints, anything, in fact, other than changing the mission objective or enemy activity. You may think that this means the mission planner from hell is lurking inside your pc. Well, you’re at least partly wrong.
It isn’t exactly intuitive, but once you get used to it it’s Okay. The really good news is that you don’t have to do this at all; you can just accept the default weapon load and follow the pre-set way-points, do the target and return. It’s really up to you. You will be flying with any number of friendly helos of almost any type, and it really is worth reading up on the theatre notes to make sure you don’t take the simulation too far and start icing your own troops as well in the heat of the moment. As far as your fellow aviators go, by the way, don’t expect too much from them in the way of brains. They won’t deviate a hundred yards to trash that aaa site, waiting for you to come limping back. In fact, they won’t engage anything other than the designated target unless it fires at them.
How does it look and feel?
Let’s be honest – Apache Longbow is not going to compete with Comanche or Ka50 Hokum on the graphics front. But then, neither of those games can compete on Apache’s realism, so it isn’t that one sided. The graphics are aT right in a slightly dated sort of way. That’s not to say they’re no good, simply that they are slightly old hat. Everything is quite clear and crisp, and the light sourcing seems to be pretty good. But shadows are distinctly weak, and the whole picture seems a bit too angular for reality. Having said that, you can get as close to an object as you wish, and there is no sign of it becoming even a little bit blocky and distorted, so maybe there is some sense here. And the sounds give you bags of atmosphere as well.
As a counter to the less than perfect graphics, control is wonderful. There is no other way to describe it. This is reallj very good indeed. All the systems seem to function just like the real thing, and weapons have their limitations, again just like in reality (although the guys from McDonnell Douglas will try to tell you different). Your gunner says useful things (except in some network games, which I’ll come to later), and even air traffic control seems accurate.
By the way, if you’re cleared to land, have a good look around before going in. There is nothing more frustrating than completing a tough mission only to crash and burn back at base when you go for the same spot as another chopper. Rotor to head – checkmate.
Now, the Apache is a two seater, and as a single player, that means it’s the nightmare interface from hell – like Tornado and Fleet Defender, right? Well, no, actually. A gunship helicopter can be flown and fought from both positions. Okay, so the gunner gets all the fancy aiming equipment and the pilot gets all the decent navigation gear, but basically you can work from either cockpit and still stay alive. D1 has cheated a little in single-player mode and made some systems accessible from the pilot’s seat, which should really be the sole domain of the gunner, but I certainly ain’t going to complain.
Digital Integration – Shock, Horror, Probe – actually seem to have listened to its customers. One of the big gripes about Tornado was that, frankly, its multi-player facilities were pretty shite. All you could do was go head to head against another Tornado using a serial link – dog slow and about as exciting as watching concrete set. Apache Longbow certainly addresses that and then some. As well as the normal serial/modem (yawn) links, you can also connect up to 16 of you in a head-to-head helifest. But best of all are the co-operative modes. Yes, I know it’s dull if you’re like Macca and feel that the only good network player is a dead network player, but the whole thing works so much better if you have a wingman who actually thinks like a human. So far on offer are leader/wingman, an old favourite which still stands the test; and pilot/gunner, a new twist on the arrangement first seen in Strike Eagle III but miles better.
Although it is true that the aircraft can be flown and fought from either seat, having two of you in the same cab makes for a more realistic and intense experience. What it means is that one can concentrate on avoiding the ground while the other deals with the nitty gritty of servicing the target. Now, sadly, DI has elected not to offer the chance of an eight-ship, 16-player network game, as it only supports this in two-player mode right now. But here’s hoping.
So in a nutshell
This is probably the best helicopter sim that will come on the market for a long time. It is the rotary equivalent of Flight Unlimited, and that is praise indeed. There are things on the market which look far better – Comanche for example -but nothing can match the mixture of spot on handling, tactics, networking, atmosphere and just all round goodness. This is really bloody good, but the emphasis is on simulation. If you’re after an arcadey action game with a helicopter in it, this is not for you. Even in arcade mode, the flight model is still the canine’s cluster, and the systems still work like the real thing. But if you have the slightest interest in helicopters and want to get an insight into what goes on inside the twisted mind of a combat chopper pilot, buy this. In fact, buy two, a couple of NE2000 cards and some thin wire and get networked with your mate. Then crank everything up to maximum realism, take on the world as pilot and gunner to understand why helicopter pilots think jets are simple.
Digital Integration is, in case you’d forgotten, the softie that who brought us the delights of Tornado. Tornado was a fine flight simulator, which managed to combine the flight model from heaven with the learning curve from hell, and threw in the sort of workload that made you wish you were back in the office. But, it was (and indeed still is) one of the best “real” simulators on the market, and stood up well against all comers.
There were two real limitations that Tornado brought along to the party, though. The first was a lack of multiplayer options, and the second was distinctly second generation graphics, complete with triangular hills and the like.
DI’s latest offering, Apache Longbow, appears to have addressed at least some of the criticisms that were aimed at its illustrious j predecessor. Although we have yet to get our sticky mitts on the whole thing (or even an interactive demo), what DI have uced so far is really bloody impressive.
It’s not Comanche, but…
Graphically, Apache Longbow is still no Comanche, but as you can see from the screen shots, there is really little to moan about. Although the Longbow is too sensitive to allow the likes of me anywhere near it, the cockpit graphics are satisfyingly close to the original Apache to convince me that DI has done its homework properly. Looking at the grabs, the level of detail in the cockpit displays (especially the FLIR) is excellent, without making it too unrealistic. The ground is sufficiently well done to make the it all pleasing to the eye. But 1 have to raise a question over how it will look when you get really low, which is when any weaknesses will show up. Having said that, so far I’ll give it a guarded thumbs up.
Networking, though, is a real strong point here. DI claim that up to 16 players will be able to be involved, although the exact details of this are yet to be confirmed. The ideal, of course, would be to have the capability of networking the pilot and gunner to have a real two-man crew. Especially if it will support a VR headset. Imagine the opportunities for selling dummy cockpit pods to really sad individuals with lots of space. Apart from that, though, just think how good it could be to have eight helos with 16 crew (pilot and gunner) working together on combined missions… Well, we can but hope.
Okay, let’s talk about flight. As I said earlier, we have yet to get hold of an interactive demo, and it’s difficult to tell how the cab flies from screen shots alone. But what I can say is that, as far as realistic flight goes, the best helicopter simulator currently available is a $3.99 special called “Merlin” by, guess who, Digital Integration. And Tornado was almost too realistic for its own good, so I don’t have too many worries on the realism front.
Needless to say, all this realism and flash graphics carries a penalty. You know what’s coming next, don’t you. DI reckon that this will run on a 486/25, but recommend a P90. What this means in reality is that you’ll get graphics from the original Apache (ie none) an
d more jerks than the Senate on a bad day. It will not be fun, folks, and you will hate it. So I would earnestly say that if you haven’t got at least a DX2/66 then this will be a deeply unrewarding experience which is probably best avoided. When we get the real one, I would be delighted to tell you that I am wrong. In print. And I’ll buy the folk at DI a pint to apologise. But I reckon that my wallet is safe.
Network pain – again
When it comes to networking, I hope that the game relies on some sort of dos extender like Doom and so on, because if you need huge chunks of base memory then network drivers start to become a real problem, particularly if you use some sound cards that come with humungous drivers of their own as well. Even old stagers, like Falcon 3, can be a problem, even on a standalone basis unless you use qemm or something similar because of their hunger for base memory.
As far as the real aircraft goes, the Longbow is a stretched and uprated Apache with a high-resolution radar unit mounted on top of the rotor mast. The result is an all-weather attack helicopter which can deal with armour and soft targets in fog, rain, snow, smoke and so on. At the moment, it is front runner in the contest to supply Her Majesty’s Government with a bunch of new anti tank choppers. Personally, I think the Ka-50 is a better aircraft and would save you, the taxpayer, about $2 million per unit, but I’m only a pilot so what do I know?
Anyway, Apache Longbow will give you the opportunity to check it out for yourself, and will certainly include the new radar-guided Hellfire missile (the earlier ones were laser guided) as well as all your old favourites. Watch out for Werewolves, though, because if DI have kept it realistic all the way through then you’re toast if you meet one.
Exciting or what?
To sum up, I reckon that Apache Longbow will be one of the most exciting sims on the market for dedicated wannabe pilots. I don’t think it will really appeal to the Comanche fan, because it will fly properly and probably won’t look as nice. It will probably fly just like the real thing, and despite the fact that DI have included a “quickstart” option it will have a learning curve like Mont Blanc and a manual that’d make a reasonable coffee table. It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.
I have reservations about some of the claims made because I am a cynical sort of chap, but if this is half as good as DI claim then it will be worth having. Hopefully, it will be compatible with the Hind simulator currently on the cards for release at the end of the year, so you will then be able to network the two together and have a real airborne blastfest (as the Doom-heads in the office would say). Watch this space for a full review as soon as we get the disk.