Archived Pages from 20th Century!!
Jane's Combat Simulations
|Reviewed by: Orchun Kolcu|
|Author:||Andy Hollis||Price:||Retail:$59.95 US, Street: $50 US|
|Category:||Helicopter flight simulation||Released:||June 1996|
|Graphic modes:||640x480x256, 320x200x256|
|Controls:||Thrustmaster, CH, Suncom, MS Sidewinder and other sticks, throttle, rudder pedals|
|Sound devices:||SB, SB Pro, SB 16, AWE 32, PAS, RAP10, Ensoniq Soundscape|
|Computer||Memory||HD space||CD speed||Other reqs/options|
|Minimum||486-66||8M||36M||x2||Mouse required, throttle almost necessary.|
Reviewer's Hardware: Thrustmaster WCS Throttle
AH-64 Apache (and its successor, AH-64D Longbow) are the best military attack helicopters in today's world, and currently there are two simulators on the market that attempt to bring the excitement of flying one of those babies home, AH-64D Longbow from Jane's Combat Simulations being the more recent one we'll be looking at here..
Apache simulations (earlier Gunship & Gunship 2000 , Digital Integration's Apache, and this latest installment) are a very different breed compared to most other flight simulators. The craft is inherently more difficult to fly and handle, and the mission description calls for slow, very (VERY) low level flight and strategic hit-and-run tactics, as opposed to high speed bombing runs and/or dogfights. Stealth, rather than pure brute force is the name of the game. Consequently, the simulations play at a slow but very high tension pace that calls for complete control and situational awareness in an enemy infested environment, yet give you lots of opportunity to pause and carefully plan your attack patterns.
Gameplay involves proceeding at NOE (nap-of-earth, below 50 feet, around 20 feet) levels to your designated target, using a path that will minimize exposure and give you the best approach to inflict most damage in the shortest possible time. This basic recipe remains unchanged with Longbow - what we need to judge is how successfully the simulator implements the various factors of helicopter combat.
Right from the start, Longbow has a very polished, professional look. The manual is a beaut: covering all the basic aspects of gameplay and a lot of background info, the only thing this spiral bound, ~250 page volume lacks is an in-depth discussion of combat tactics. However you cannot really fault Jane's for trying to cash in on the current fad of "Official Guides" - all the good info you'd like to get your hands on is a few more bucks away.
The game comes on two CDs - most of the extra data seems to be the terrain maps and mini-movies. Longbow fires up with an impressive demo of two choppers completely decimating an armor convoy, but unfortunately the overall quality of the movies is slightly downhill from there - nowhere near as bad as those of DI's Apache, though. Frankly, who cares?
From the main menu, you can go through the training tutorial, fly random single missions, go into the hypothetical Ukraine campaign (where Russia has invaded Ukraine on her way to Poland) or try a single mission from the two theaters Apache has been used in so far: Panama (Just Cause) and Iraq (Desert Storm). There are 12 single missions in these two (not counting random ones) and a lot more within the Ukraine theater - the overall claimed number of missions is 250.
The tutorial is very well done. Your flight instructor talks to you and walks you through exercises designed to give you a feel for the chopper and teach you how to complete basic operations. By the end of the tutorial, you are truly ready to fly on your own (and start gaining those skills that will make you into a real combat pilot). I have a few ideas here and there that could be used to improve the tutorial but frankly, the only thing that can beat it on the market is Flight Unlimited's tutorial, which is brilliant in implementation and Longbow's comes very close indeed.
After you select a mission, the game first loads/decompresses the required terrain from the CD. This takes about a couple of minutes on my system with a 2X-CD ROM, faster CD-ROM drives might fare better. It is only annoying if you keep switching between terrains (of which there are three: Panama (jungle), Iraq (Desert) and Ukraine (Forest), though Ukraine is further divided into other areas that need to be loaded separately). This has been done to avoid requiring a tremendous amount of hard drive space, considering even the current requirements are hefty. It's worth the wait though, as Longbow features detailed, non-repeating terrain covering many squares.
To Saddam, with love
A bonus is that you can actually choose to fly either the old AH-64 or the new AH-64D Longbow, which truly makes you appreciate the advantages of the newer craft. The old one has only one CRT screen and no radar, which makes unexposed firing and keeping track of what's going around you doubly more difficult. You can also consult an online database of various units in the game, all with photos and rotatable/zoomable 3D models.
The mission briefing consists of the usual text plus a digitized map on which you can observe the known enemy locations, waypoints and friendly units. The waypoints can be adjusted to your liking (an absolute must) - this is the place to plan out your mission strategy and approach to target. The briefing text is very well written and includes the campaign background and status as well as objectives and comments on the current mission on hand. When you are all set, it's onto the mission itself.
At this point let's talk about the graphics a bit: They are all pretty good and the external views of the various models used (esp. the Apache) are absolutely gorgeous. The terrain is heavily textured in stark contrast to DI 's Apache, which results in a more cluttered view but improves visual identification of ground proximity. The various special effects, such as weapon trails, explosions etc. are very well done. There is no foliage (trees) around you can use for cover, which is a pity as it would have added a lot to the game. The main problem though is the frame rate - the game looks crappy at regular VGA (320x200) mainly due to decreased readability of instrumentation and very messy looking terrain. Yet, decent frame rates at 640x480 are impossible with a P90 unless you turn the detail settings way down - if you take the time to tweak, however, the end results are quite playable. With a P133, the game truly feels comfortable. The sound is also very good with speech and authentic effects. A major letdown is lack of GUS support: GUS owners, don't buy this game if you don't have an SB compatible card and if you will not be able to return it. Emulation works but I experienced interruptions and static and as usual you lose the stereo - be careful.
So onto the game. The game is indeed very detailed, starting with a detailed implementation of the AH-64D's fire control radar: selecting fire zones, trading targets with your wingman, the radar sweep, detailed threat display, target prioritization etc are all there and in comparison with the included on-CD video of the radar systems of a real Longbow, it all looks & feels very real. Unfortunately, the gunner/co-pilot position has not been simulated, so the targeting systems are not there in all their glory. The TADS viewing system is rather limited with only x16 magnification, making the whole thing quite useless and forcing you to rely on a built-in cheat (instant identification of enemy targets - friendly fire? what friendly fire?). The weapons are the usual load of rockets (only one type of FFAR rocket has been implemented), laser and radar guided anti-armor hellfire missiles, air-to-air stingers and the 30mm cannon. The way missions are designed (and because there's no resource management involved), you usually take off with a full load of hellfires and 4 stingers. The weapons' behavior seems to be realistic; the hellfire appropriately responds to target alterations in mid-flight, the vertical movement of rocket pods have been simulated, the cannon has a realistic recoil and thankfully much less lethal than the "destroyer of worlds" gun of DI 's Apache.
In, out, down, left, up, right, CRASH!.. welcome to Panama.
One "feature" I could live without is the computer simulated co-pilot/gunner calling out every single contact "target left" "friendly front etc." - now I couldn't care less about buildings, friendly armor etc. It gets real old after a while. I truly wish there was an option to disable the announcement of neutral/friendly targets but unfortunately that's not the case. There also seems to be no support for poor weather conditions such as rain/snow (although reduced visibility is there).
The actual handling of the craft is almost perfect. Familiar concepts of helicopter flight such as ground effect, transitional lift, sideslip, the use of anti-torque rotor at low and moderate speeds are there and the performance characteristics of the chopper feel 'right' (of course, not having flown a chopper, let alone an Apache, this doesn't say much, except that the craft behaves as I expect it to be, given what I know about it). In comparison, DI 's Apache flies like a toned-down jet fighter. Longbow ain't sluggish, but has a harder time pulling loops and rolls and bleeds speed & altitude like crazy in turns if not handled right. The collective/height control is still a bit too hard for my liking - not that I can suggest any way to assist th eplayer without sacrificing realism. In fact getting to control the craft effectively (i.e. so that it all becomes second nature in combat) is going to take a looong time: I have over 15 hours of campaign flight under my belt and I'm still a long way from it. Better be prepared to put lots of time into learning how to control this thing.
Actually, let me get one thing straight: avoid this game (or DI's Apache for that matter) like plague if you don't have a throttle control. It is hard enough to stay in the air and stay low without a throttle - with the keyboard, it's impossible. Even if you have a controller, be prepared to spend some time with your controller settings - particularly tail rotor, all sorts of targetting and mode switching commands have to be at your fingertips for any chance of success - a throttle wheel on a joystick won't cut it. Rudder pedals are not so necessary as long as you can allocate two buttons on your throttle to rotor control.
taking it to downtown in Ukraine
The different types of terrain affect your gameplay greatly. Panama is very hilly and you can simply forget about NOE flight due to rapidly changing height levels - the main problem is locating on what sides of those hills the enemy has dug in. In contrast, Iraq is almost flat, so the idea is to stay *below* 20 feet and avoid being seen by the enemy (who are everywhere - it's incredible how Saddam has managed to accomplish zilch with that much stuff) on your way to the target. Fortunately, Ukraine strikes a happy balance between the two.
You have a wingman with you on all missions that you can direct at specific targets or just let loose with a "weapons free" command. He also happens to be an idiot. Tell him to attack a target that is not sitting around alone with no other hostilities around, and he'll get himself killed nine times out of ten. He boils down to an extra load of 16 hellfires, provided you didn't forget to load him with hellfires at the start of the mission. At least DI's wingmen were perfectly capable of fighting for themselves (although why they were called wingmen, given that they didn't care what you were up to and you had zero communication with them, is somewhat unclear.) Another negative aspect of Longbow is the lack of multiplayer gameplay - nothing is quite as much fun as linking two computers in the same room and flying a two-crew mission.
They were in coma, now they're dead.
One thing that really bothers me about Longbow (and the only problem that somewhat shatters the illusion of reality) is the "activity" of the enemy or rather the lack of it. Everything seems to be dug in, nothing seems to be moving around, there's no ground war going on, pretty much like the old Gunship. The only signs of life come from enemy AAA and SAM emplacements and aircraft. Armor is completely dead - the vehicles must be deserted. They don't fire at you, they don't move around, they don't shoot at each other, they don't even complain about taxes! Compare that with DI 's Apache , which provides you with a truly amazing and alive battleground with tracers, explosions, radio traffic etc.
The response times of enemy radar, the effectiveness of AAA (high! do NOT get close - jinxing as in DI's Apache WON'T work!), the threat level of SAMs are all well balanced to keep you on your toes, force you low and demand swift strikes - get them before they get you is the name of the game. You really have to learn how to deal with multiple targets as it is not always possible to stay at a distance and shoot away. Things get really hairy when you are forced into closer range combat and the overall feeling of action is very satisfying. Only if your wingman was a little more help..
Nite flite. See, US night vision eq. really works.
Notice the version of the game: 1.08 - the release version is 1.07. Andy Hollis, the games designer, happens to be very active on usenet and he listened to the initial comments and released a patch that improved a lot of things about the game, the most important being the rather slow (and probably unrealistic) deceleration rate of the craft. However, the patch incorporates another bug, which causes excessive drops in framerate after you exit a menu or get real close to a cluster of enemy units. The former is not really important and the latter should not happen if you are a good pilot, but it's still a bit annoying. By the way, the game runs pretty good under Win95, but make sure you have a lot of memory and at least a P133 - the performance does suffer a little bit, which is more pronounced on lesser machines.
Anyhow, that bug is fixed in the upcoming expansion pack called Flashpoint Korea which adds new cool features as well as new missions, including full co-pilot/gunner support. Yes it costs extra, but adds so much about the game that every Longbow enthusiast will want to get his hands on a copy.
Overall, it has to be said this is one hell of a simulator. It has no major failings and is a very accurate simulation.Hopefully, multiplayer support will be introduced in one form or another and if the enemy and wingmen AI are tweaked as promised in Flashpoint Korea to produce a more "alive" battleground, it will be very hard to produce an Apache simulator to beat this one. There's nothing to boost your adrenalin levels like a good hour long session of Longbow missions - rush out and buy this one if you are even slightly into this kind of thing (and have the hardware to run it).
|Appeal:||All sim and helicoter fans, the not-so-easily frustrated.|
|Originality & Storyline:||Another AH-64 simulation.|
|Graphics & Video:||Textures are a bit grainy but voerall impressive at SVGA resolution.|
|Audio:||Good, nothing too fancy.|
|Longevity:||Pretty good - at least 52 missions in three theaters and more random ones. Expansion module out soon.|
|Presentation:||Perfect. Videos, screenshots, background info from Jane's etc. The terrain decompression is a little annoying.|
|Packaging & Docs:||Very good manual. Pity tactical info was saved for "Official Guide"|
|Bugs & Problems:||Framerate slowdown at certain points.|