Team Apache was originally the brainchild of Bryan Walker, an ex-Apache pilot turned sim designer. Bryan had expressed an interest in creating a game that captured the human side of helicopter warfare. This "human aspect" sets the tone throughout the game. Because of this, hard-core sim grognards are very likely to be disappointed if they buy the game expecting to be on familiar ground. Team Apache is a very different kind of ballgame.
The single most striking part of this approach is that managing your team is a kind of simulation in itself - in fact, it's a whole lot like the role-playing "simulations" that are popular with Japanese console gamers. Each member has a series of aptitudes and weaknesses. The challenge is to pair pilots and gunners with complimentary skills and personalities, use them to their maximum potential, make sure that you can get them enough sack time, deal with the occasional crisis, and still be able to field enough able men and machines to accomplish your mission and hopefully win the war.
Unlike role-playing games, though - there are no sheets of statistics to tell you what each man is capable of or how they're feeling. You must infer that from their personal file, how they respond to you, and how well they perform in battle. Balancing all these needs is tricky but offers a unique attitude towards combat simulations.
If a workstation falls, does it make a sound?
One spot where Team Apache shines without question is in the graphics department. While the standard non-accelerated graphics are rather unimpressive (Longbow 2 has a much nicer software rendering mode) it's the 3D accelerated version that really brings the house down.
It would be difficult to find just the right superlatives to use to properly describe the graphics engine used in Team Apache. So, foregoing the usual phrases and descriptions, the best term to describe the game engine is simply "workstation-class". Mindscape/Simis have reached a new plateau with their graphics engine, and frankly if you have a reasonably fast PC (say 200 MHz or higher and a very fast 3D card) you will be treated to the kind of graphics that would shame some professional simulators and Silicon Graphics computer workstations.
Old time sim fans may remember catching a glimpse of the exquisite military-grade simulators on TV once every so often - only to be frustrated over their inability to toy with such dream machines. Team Apache's highly polished graphics engine can actually fulfill those dreams. Very smooth frame rates, good texturing, and excellent attention to detail all mark the TA graphics engine.
Some aspects of that detail merit special attention. For example, when you hover just above the ground, rings of "dust" are blown across the ground. From an external view, when the cockpit isn't reflecting light back at you, you can see the Apache crew inside looking around for targets. The rotors, chain gun, and optics suite are all nicely animated.
There is a scattering of individual trees that you need to avoid, although they are more for show than for tactics. Entire downtown cities are modeled where you can play chicken between the skyscrapers, stalk down city streets, or land on the roof of a building and take a breather. (Fortunately, the collision detection is accurate enough that you can fly right in between buildings, lampposts, houses, and trees - as long as you don't actually hit anything)
The rocket motor glow in the back of a FFAR, Hellfire, or Stinger is a nice touch. Enemy tracer fire glows brightly, streams well, and looks positively dangerous. The infrared sights are also very impressive - not only do you get the "image halo" as in Longbow 2, but you get a very believable "washout" when an explosion blinds your sights temporarily. The effect is very similar to looking a little too close to a camera flash. One notable problem with the view system is that parts of helicopters disappear as they fly into the distance - frequently the entire helicopter disappears except for the rotors, making it difficult to keep an eye out for allied and unspotted enemy helos.
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Does this mean the graphics are superior to Longbow 2? Yes and no. It's really apples and oranges. Team Apache boasts a much smoother framerate, has some nicer special effects, very impressive urban areas, and has that "workstation" look to it, but Longbow 2 has better 3D models of the Apache, much better terrain texturing, and certainly more interesting terrain (at least in Azerbaijan). The terrain in Team Apache is little more than a series of green rolling hills - regardless of whether you're going through Columbia or Latvia, the terrain feels almost the same.
Views and sighting
The options for views are about half-and-half. Really the most useful view is the "no-cockpit" view. This view can be panned around easily, gives the best field of view, and has the important instruments. The bitmapped cockpit has the advantage of adding the more instruments in your field of view, but it suffers for not supporting side or oblique views at all - a very curious omission.
The virtual cockpit tries to combine the benefits of both of the other cockpits and nearly succeeds, but it has two other problems that hold it back. First, it has an unnerving tendency to stretch and twist under manuevers as if your gunship was made of taffy. The effect is fairly subtle, but it's just enough to be distracting.
Second, the reflections off of the canopy windscreen make an admirable attempt to create a more realistic cockpit, but in practice, it tends to give the windscreen a frosted look that is sometimes annoying. Also a factor in the slewable views it that there is no padlock option, and no way to turn your head more than 90 degrees in either direction. Having been in the seat of an Apache before, I would argue that the pilot should have a little more rearward visibility (at least 120 degrees either way) although this is admittedly a relatively minor point.
One of the concepts originally conceived for Flying Nightmares 2 obviously made it into Team Apache, and that is simulated sighting. In most helo sims, once you establish a line-of-sight with a target, it immediately pops up on all your avionics and targeting equipment, ripe for the plucking. This doesn't happen in Team Apache. Most likely in fact, you'll see absolutely nothing more than the terrain.
Back at the 1997 E3 expo, Bryan explained the sighting system to us. The way that it works is that whether or not you can spot something depends on a variety of factors: Are you looking in the right direction, how long are you looking at the same area, what size is the quarry, what terrain is it hiding in, is it firing, moving, or laying still?. The result is that - just like real life - if you zoom at 200' over the jungle at 130 knots, you might fly over an entire company and never see a thing. Fly at 10' over the jungle canopy at 15 knots and you'll be extremely vulnerable to attack, but you'll spot just about anything moving within 400 meters.
Side note: Hunting for ground troops in Vietnam, a tactic evolved that combined a "white" scout element (that flew low and slow looking for targets) with a "red" gunship element (that would stay high up and keep sight of the scout). This evolved into what became known as the hunter/killer "pink" team. The logic behind such a tactic becomes very clear after putting in some hours in Team Apache. The corollary is that the new sighting methods (combined with a little creativity to create a better jungle) could very easily be made into a remarkable Vietnam-era helo sim.
I experienced a particularly stunning example of how this really works in an earlier mission. This mission.called to provide close air support to wipe out enemy positions laying siege to a town. Upon arriving, I saw the battle already heavily in progress - tracers flying back and forth and the occasional mortar shell detonating. Spotting a few jeeps and AAA emplacements, I nailed them all from a safe range with Hellfires, then flew in close to mop up. An enemy soldier started popping off rounds from the outskirts of town, so I "stomped on the brakes" and turned around to take care of him.
However, in all the reckless flying, I failed to spot a large group of soldiers who were quietly lying in wait nearby. Just a moment after I stopped, the whole field I halted in erupted in small-arms tracer fire, and my Apache was taking hits from all sides. After only a few seconds of being used for target practice, I had no choice but to limp back to base with one really beat up helicopter. In conventional gunship games, such a trap could never be sprung - you'd see the enemy long before they had the chance to do any damage. However, with Team Apache, taking the "Rambo" attitude can get you up to your neck in trouble before you realize it.
Go to Part II