Just when you thought Apache from I-Magic was the best thing going for military helicopter simulations. Origin & Jane's Information Group, together with veteran simulation producer Andy Hollis and his Origin Skunkworks crew has developed AH-64D Longbow! This baby has been in the making for some time now, and what's come about is just about the best thing to happen to the simulations market since the early days of Microprose!
On January 16th 1991, four US ARMY AH-64A helicopters went into Iraq to take out key early warning radar sites, to pave the way for the coalition airstrikes to come. This marked the end of Operation Desert Shield and the beginning of Operation Desert Storm. In 1989, AH-64A helicopters took out APCs in Panama in what was the beginning of Operation Just Cause. The US ARMY AH-64 attack Chopper has proven itself time and again as a precise piece of modern tactical importance in most any operation and environment. Ruling the night like few other machines of modern warfare can, the Apache is a machine to be respected and feared by those who have reason.
Even after I-Magic's fabulous simulation of the Apache, there is still room for an even more realistic and complete Apache simulation. Origin, Jane's Combat Simulations' label, Andy Hollis, his Skunkworks crew and the many other people involved with the development of this title have brought the best ever simulation of the AH-64 Apache helicopter to the PC!
When I look at Longbow, the first thing that comes to mind (graphically) is Silent Thunder: A10 Tank Killer II. Looking at the flowing terrain as you fly over it NOE, 50ft above the ground, and at 75 knots is something else! Silent Thunder looked fabulous, and still does, but when you put it next to Longbow, it starts to look quite hand-drawn. AH-64D Longbow just looks more realistic all together. Longbow uses an all-new graphics engine built just for this simulation.
There has never been a helicopter sim that looked this good and had this much fabulous flowing terrain. This makes the sim that much better than all the previous attack chopper simulations. Hundreds of hillsides and places to hover & pop up from behind let you take out threats totally un-noticed! Without all of this terrain to mask you, this would not be possible. Sand dunes in Iraq, hillsides covered with jungle in Panama, and mountainous terrain in the Baltics... you get to fly the AH-64 in the environments it was designed for. What's a submarine sim without water? Flowing hillsides, rolling terrain, and many structures to hide behind make the AH-64 feel right at home, where it can be most lethal. Dropping the AH-64 in the environment that Origin's Skunkworks has created, is like putting a Piranha in water!
Little troops that shoot at you with small arms, all kinds of SAM & AAA threats from mobile to stationary, radar installations of many different makes, and enemy choppers like the Mi24 HIND & Mi28 HAVOK come to life in vibrant SVGA. All of Longbow's objects look similar to those in Silent Thunder, only much more detailed and authentic. If you choose the target view with the F7 key, you can even watch a SAM site track you, getting ready to let lose with its lethal ordinance. You'll even see soldiers running into battle as they get dropped off by allied Blackhawk helicopters. This sim is alive with the atmosphere and substance that all other simulations aim for. I don't think all that many people who aren't Andy Hollis could have put this one together.
Aside from all the gameplay graphics, there are magnificent video sequences of the real AH-64A & D in action. These can be viewed from the training grounds area. The Apache and what it is capable of at night, how the Longbow radar works, and the specs of the cockpit are just a few of the topics covered in Longbow's mini-video library. To add to the already great atmosphere, there are some video sequences depicting news reports and war coverage between the action. These sequences help set the mood, because they unfold as you progress through the campaign missions.
These sequences will unfold differently as you succeed or fail you mission objectives. If you fail too many missions, you'll see that reflected in the war reports. If you succeed and overcome the CIS forces, this also will be reflected in news casts. The outcome is directly affected by your abilities, making this one of the best uses of video in a simulation ever! All that top-notch video technology from Wing Commander IV looks to have finally found its place in a simulation. What really makes this better than WCIV is that the simulation is NOT based around the video (as the WC series of titles are). The video is ONLY used to accent the gameplay, set the mood, and help immerse the pilot into the simulation, and it succeeds!
When landing or crashing, you will also be treated to some top-notch video sequences. If you fail a mission, your pilot walks away from his chopper and shakes his head, or your CO will come out and start pointing his finger in your face giving you hell. When you come back successful, you get the high fives from your ground grew. Then, if you crash or land in enemy or allied territory, you will see a video sequence of your pilot waving his hands overhead as allied forces fly above, or your hands once again being raised over your head, only at gun point with CIS troops behind you (if you happen to land or crash and live in enemy occupied territory). ;)
As I was writing this review, I asked a friend of mine, CW2 Rex Swetnam, for some input. Rex has flown AH-64A Apaches for the US ARMY, and he currently flies UH-60 Blackhawks for the Virginia National Guard. As far as I'm concerned, that makes him qualified enough to give me some feedback on the realism aspects of Longbow. He also helped us out last September with our review of I-Magic's Apache: The Combat Helicopter Simulation, and he did an interview with PC Gamer last year for their Strategy Guide issue which was released around December (also on the subject of I-Magic's Apache simulation).
Visually, Rex was very impressed with the surroundings offered in Longbow. Everything from the outside views of the AH-64A to the TADS display and how it was implemented was pretty much on the money according to him. We also discussed the opening video sequence, and the tactics used in it. As the opening sequence unfolds, you will see the Apaches taking out the armor in the lead first, and then the armor at the end of the single file posture which the armored column was in.
He comments that this is, without a doubt, an Apache tactic. By taking out the lead, and the rear, you trap the others in the middle, making your job of destroying the remaining threats much easier. After all, where are the ones in the middle gonna go with the lead blocking the front, and a smoking hulk at the rear blocking them from backing out of there? There's not much left for them except to take their medicine. ;)
In any other situation where there'd be a number of tanks or armor spread out, instead of in a single file, an AH-64 pilot would take out the threats to the rear first. This way the armor up front would not even be aware that their comrades behind them were taken out until it's too late. When the enemy is unaware of immediate danger, they are most vulnerable. If they knew about their column's rear being taken our, they may start to make a run for it, which means you've lost the element of surprise altogether. This makes perfect sense, because the AH-64 is never supposed to be seen anyhow.
After all was said and done Rex made the following comments: "I found the attention to detail concerning the weapons to be very realistic. I also found the Hellfire missiles to be dead-on accurate, along with the correct sound of firing the weapons to be nearly identical to that of the actual aircraft!". I have had access to some fantastic video of actual Flir footage, and some McDonnell Douglas videos of the AH-64A in action. Heck, I've even had some of the videos that can be found in the training grounds of Longbow! From what I saw in the videos, Longbow is dead-on accurate in many ways. I watched the Hellfire being launched from actual AH-64A's in action, and they take the same trajectory in Longbow. Even their coming down on targets was right on the money.
SFX & MUSIC
There isn't all that much music in Longbow - only on-base and during the credits (there's an awesome Texas roundhouse song which rolls along as they fly by). There's usually no FM stations worth listening too from the cockpit of an AH-64 anyhow, because very few missions are flown over home turf, and the AH-64 don't have nifty car stereos anyhow! The opening sequence also has a great intro tune which sounds a lot like the on-base background music, and that played before missions in the field.
As for the SFX offered, most are pretty much on the money. What is apparently not accurate is the sound of the rotor blades. The AH-64 is a multi-bladed chopper, and Rex tells me the SFX for the AH-64A & D in Longbow sound like a single-bladed chopper, similar to the Cobra helicopter. Most people will not know the difference, but I asked him for input and he gave it to me. One thing's for certain, it does sound great. The rotor system SFX is the only thing I-Magic's sim has over Longbow. Unleashing Hellfire missiles, Hyra rockets, and holding down the trigger on the 30mm chaingun, all produce some awesome SFX. Another great feature is the voices you hear in the cockpit. On the base, in the training grounds, your instructor sounds just like an a down-home Texan ready to spit some tobacco (Rex, originally from Texas, confirmed this).
This brings up another issue. The training grounds in Longbow are fantastic. All throughout the training grounds, your instructor will lead you through everything from simple explanations of how the cyclic, collective, and rudder systems work, to how a Hellfire is to be launched while you're hovering behind a hillside! This simulation takes advantage of audio like no other sim. The funny thing about the instructor's voice is once you've been playing the simulation too much (as I have been known to do), at around 3am, with Beavis & Butthead on the TV in the background, you'll swear the instructor sounds just like Mr. Anderson from B&B. ;)
Maybe I just need more sleep. Aside from the instructor, your CGP also calls out information as he spots targets and helps in dropping chaffs and flares for you. Audibly, Longbow is top notch.
This is where the sim action heats up. If you want to play a challenging campaign, then warm up your stick, throttle and rudders, because you're going to be thrown into one of the most challenging and enjoyable campaigns ever created for the PC! The first mission is cake, and it will honestly give you absolutely no idea what's in store for you. The whole pace of the campaign is fabulous! The variety of missions and objectives are just as overwhelming as the gameplay. Recon, search & destroy, being told you CAN NOT fire upon troops unless they are a direct threat to your wingman and/or yourself, and many other objectives and orders can come about in a campaign.
This simulation just never stops pouring on the atmosphere. Reading through the mission briefings, you'd think they were done by actual Army Intel! These briefings tell you just where the enemy SHOULD be, what other allied troops are in the area, along with what they're doing, a weather report, and a few other interesting things which very few other simulations took the time to tell you before a mission! Also you have the ability to record your missions and replay them after, to see just where you screwed up or how well you kicked major ass.
If you goof up a mission real bad, you can re-fly it immediately. This way you don't screw up the campaign thread you're traveling. See, Longbow is similar to WCIV in one other way. The campaign's outcome is determined by how well you perform as a pilot. If I goof up too many missions, I'll find the war going bad for the US, and all of a sudden I might quite literally find myself getting nuked. If you do well, successfully completing the majority of your missions, this will also be reflected in the campaign's progression, and so on.
This approach is similar to WCIV's, but other than the branching campaign structure and the fantastic video sequences, there are no similarities between the titles. To say the least, the campaign missions in Longbow are extremely tough on the higher levels of difficulty. There are only three levels too choose from, and I played most of my campaign missions on CAT 2, which is the level between super-hard and easy, and it was pretty damned hard. Another thing Rex pointed out to me, that he missed was the ability to shut down each engine individually. In Longbow you can engage & disengage to rotor, with a keystroke, but you cannot turn on each engine separately.
This IMO is not a bad thing, but it is one more thing they could add to any future upgrades. Additionally the ability to set the burst rate of the 30mm cannon, is one more option that Rex was used to in the actual Ah-64, that was absent from Longbow. The actual AH-64 allows you to set the burst rates from 10,20 & 50 round bursts. This will also keep the cannon from overheating, as opposed to letting off the trigger every few seconds in Longbow. Yet keep in mind, if you lay on the trigger in Longbow, it will overheat after awhile. Take short bursts, with a few second intervals.
Another great thing about Longbow is how much freedom you have to customize the flight model, graphics options, sounds options, and general gameplay and keyboard preferences. Longbow will even allow you to re-map keyboard keys to other ones. This way you won't have the problem WCS MKII owners had early on with EF2000 because the WCS MKII could not use a certain few keys on the keyboard, making it impossible to deploy chaffs and flares using the throttle. You can even re-map and swap the joystick functions if you choose. Then there are the many graphics options to customize Longbow for your particular PC's abilities.
There are also the gameplay options where you can tweak the flight model, including such variables as wind. Just try setting down or taking off in the AH-64 with the wind coming at you full force. There were many missions where I was wondering why I was being pushed sideways while moving forward. You can even reverse the collective, so that when you pull backwards on your analog throttle, it will be + collective, and forward on the throttle will be - collective. It's really amazing how much stuff these guys shoved into this sim in terms of options alone.
Aside from the campaign structure, you can also play single missions which are randomly generated based on your choice of the mission objective, terrain, and enemy intelligence levels. I'm told there are about 200 possible missions in the single mission area of Longbow alone. Then there's a neat instant action choice that drops you into an almost never-ending barrage of heated action.
Of course, we can't forget the awesome historical missions which Longbow offers. Andy Hollis and company have recreated twelve actual missions which were flown by the US during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Just Cause, six from each operation. As pilot, you can take to the sands of Iraq to fly the first mission of Desert Storm which started it all, by taking out early warning radar sites.
Or jump right into the middle of Operation Just Cause and fly through Panamanian jungles, filled with breathtaking graphics and plenty of hillsides to hide behind, looking to find Noreaga's Learjet in a hangar at a heavily protected airbase crawling with mobile SAM & AAA sites! This is the kind of fun and excitement that the Historical Missions alone offer. Plus, don't forget about the fantastic training grounds where you are taken though a series of lessons which are explained to you step-by-step, and shown to you by voice and example, then by you taking the controls to complete each lesson.
This reminds me a lot of how Mechwarrior II handled the training missions that it offered. Only in Longbow, it goes one step beyond and gets into some massive detail going through the weapons & tactics lessons. Heck, someone who's never flown a helicopter simulaton can sit down, go through these training lessons, and come out as a pretty damn good pilot. The virtual instructor does an excellent job!
The guy who helped design these lessons was none other than the former head AH-64 instructor from FT Hood, Texas. Maybe that's why they are so very informative. I knew a lot about the Apache before playing Longbow, but now I know so much more due to the fantastic Training Grounds, and informative manual! This is another feature that Rex though was fantastic. He went through each and every one, and was very impressed with the way the virtual instructor handled describing the systems and functions of the AH-64.
Rex was even more impressed with the actual missions offered in the campaign, and he told me that those were, without a doubt, the kind of missions an actual AH-64 would be sent in to accomplish! Even watching how the Hellfire pops up into the air and comes down upon the target in LOAL mode, and how you can notice that the Hellfire will take a bit more of a direct approach when in LOBL shots, you'll see exactly how the actual weapons systems operate.
Here is something interesting to try in Longbow. Once you start up a mission, find a place where you are safe to hover, then start to cycle through the outside target views and actually look at how many other objects are in each mission all at one time. It's fascinating to sit back and look at how many other objects there are. Just as fascinating as it is watching how many other enemy and allied troops are out their doing their own thing, without your interaction!
The AI don't sit around and wait for you to reach a certain point before becoming active. They are doing their thing with or without your presence. Andy and the Longbow crew have finally created near-perfect electronic battlefield AI. Your wingmen aren't dummies like in other simulations. They will do as they are told, and you will learn to rely on them in a heated battle. Just remember, they will do what they are told like any good soldier, so don't order them to do something stupid, or you'll be the real dummy. ;)
Now is where you ask "Wow, can there actually be more to this simulation?". Yes, there most certainly is! The second CD in the box contains lots of actual footage of the AH64A & AH-64D in action. Little videos can be watched from the training grounds area by insterting the tape you click on with the mouse into the little on-screen VCR. There are about 4-5 videos in all which cover topics like the Longbow radar system, the Hellfire missile, and the Apache in general.
Overall, there is more actual data provided in Longbow than what I found in ATF. At the airbases, before you take off, you can open up the JANE'S book and get detailed data about the AH-64A & D, along with data on all the enemy and allied forces' weaponry. This also brings up another interesting thing about Longbow. You can actually fly the AH-64A or AH-64D Longbow model Apaches in any of the missions! Aside from loading your own ordinance in the ordinance loading screen, you can click at the top where it says APACHE, and it will choose the Longbow for the historical missions. You can even fly the AH-64A in the campaign missions if you like. The choice is yours.
Cockpits and systems are modeled after those in whichever version of the AH-64 you choose. The cosmetic differences are one less MFD in the cockpit of the AH-64A, and the absence of the round bulb above the rotor assembly on the AH-64A model Apache. The bulb is the Longbow radar system, which the AH-64A model (used in the Gulf War) does not have. Actually the real AH-64D Longbow won't come into service until sometime this year.
One thing is a given. This simulation offers the all time-best flight model of a helicopter to ever make its way to the PC. Origin based this flight model on the info from JANE'S & McDonnel Douglas (manufacturer of the real AH-64A & D helicopters!). Not only did they have the help of McDonnel Douglas, but they had actual active duty AH-64A pilots give them their opinions on just how it felt, compared to the real deal! Then, consider that Origin is based in Austin Texas, which is not all too far from FT Hood, where the actual Apache flight training takes place. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. ;)
Another thing this Apache sim has over the competition is that, in Longbow, you have control over your wingman, artillery strikes, and airstrikes! Trust me, you'll be thankful for your wingman when you're making your way through some of these missions. This is a simulation where your wingman is your right hand, and if you don't use him properly you will either fail your mission or be destroyed. I see my wingman as an extension of my arsenal. When I run out of ordinance, I always am glad to look over my shoulder and see him hovering there. Many commands are available to order your wingman to attack your target, give me your weapons, form on my wing, etc. There are even commands to call in artillery & air strikes! Once you call in the A10's, or when the shelling from ARTY begins, sit back and watch/listen to the fireworks!
Other features include the ability to add waypoints and alter them in the mission planner, all the different IHADSS modes are intact, multiple camera angles are offered, even setting up PFZs (Priority Fire Zones) is an option in the Longbow. There is so much to this simulation that I may unfortunately have missed something. If so, forgive me, but once you start playing you'll see how I could have. This is one of those simulations that comes along every few years and offers so much that just about every fifth or sixth time you play it, you find something you never knew was there before! Don't forget about the great manual either. Everything from how to setup PFZs, what each IDADSS mode offers, how to fire a Hellfire from LOAL & LOBL modes, how to make sense of all the information on the HUD at once. It's all stuffed in there, and it's all laid out nice and neat. There's no silly on-line manual here. We don't NEED no stinking on-line manual!
CONTROLLING THE AH-64
We tried many different sticks, throttles, and rudders with Longbow, as well as other devices and hardware. Here's what we tried Longbow on and with:
I also found the new Diamond Stealth 2000 3D (with the new ViRGE chipset) to be the quickest performer of all our cards, and Longbow benefits from it a lot. Aside from a twitch I got when I used my TQS, none of the controllers we used gave us any problems. It appears whenever I use the TQS, FLCS & RCS combo, I get a twich in the calibration screen. This did not keep me from playing it at all, it just bugged me a little. The CH Pro Throttle was tried with many combos. The most unlikely combo was the Thrustmaster FCS MKII, RCS & the Pro Throttle.
I actually flew many missions that way, because I was also testing out how well the Pro Throttle would work with the TM FCS stick at that time. The Combatstick, CH Pro, Suncom Eagle, and the other sticks we tried with it gave me no problems, together with the Pro Throttle or the plain CH Throttle. My favorite combos were the FLCS, TQS & RCS, along with the Combatstick, Pro Throttle, RCS, and he CH Flightstick Pro with the CH pedals.
The MS Sidewinder 3D Pro was not a bad all-in-one alternative, but I prefer my rudders, stick and throttle separately. To get the most from this simulation, I would HIGHLY suggest a good stick, separate throttle (or an analog throttle wheel like the FS Pro & Combatstick offer), and a set of rudder pedals. An analog throttle is a must to really control the AH-64A & D collective, because you are constantly adjusting it as you fly NOE.
Controlling the collective with the keyboard really sucks, especially when you need to move it ever so slightly to control the Apache's movements when around 50ft off the ground! So remember, a good analog throttle is a must! In all, Longbow is very compatible and flexible with a number of different sticks, throttles, and rudder pedals. Remember, a simulation is only as good as what you are flying it with! And this one benefits from rudders and programmable joysticks & throttles more than most, because of the many different commands used and needed during flight and battle. Don't forget, you can also re-map joystick functions just like you can with keyboard keys. The possibilities are almost endless with Longbow.
Man, this simulation is fantastic! From start to finish you will be sweating with your flightstick & throttle gripped tight in hand. Very few simulations come along that balance realism and fun as well as Longbow does. It can be as realistic and difficult as you choose, or as simplistic and easy as you like. The choice is yours.
Andy Hollis has once again put together an instant classic military simulation, which could only previously have been done by the Andy Hollis and Microprose of days gone by. The enthusiasm and drive of the classic Microprose is alive and well in Origin's Skunkworks down in Austin these days, only with huge leaps and bounds in technology and wisdom behind them. The only thing missing from this simulation is multi-player capabilities, which will be added at a later date.
And, unlike other companies who claim a multiplayer add-on and take forever for it to come out, I have faith in Andy Hollis & Origin to keep their promise. What makes me believe them is that Longbow was designed from the ground up to support this. Now it will only be a matter of time before we can play Longbow with a human in the front seat as the CPG, and in the backseat as the pilot! I really couldn't find anything bad to say about Longbow.
Loading the terrain can take some time, but that's really the only thing I dislike about this sim. Just be sure to load SmartDrive and you'll find the loading times will be considerably less painful. With that all said and done, I honestly feel AH-64D Longbow is the best simulation to take flight this year! This simulation has truly earned the JANE'S Combat Simulations label, and it's oozing with actual data. As a single player simulation, nothing I have played this year can compare to the fun I've had playing Longbow. My only advice to would-be Longbow drivers is to fly low & slow, and don't try flying this baby like a jet fighter, or you'll get a rude awakening, because the AI is pretty impressive. Keep yourself out of sight and stay masked, and you should do well.