Turn-based tactical depictions of aerial combat have long been a mainstay of miniature wargamers’ tabletops for decades. Armed with millimeter rulers and protractors, armchair air commanders have fussed over tiny miniature planes on fiddly adjustable bases for decades. Strangely, this form of gaming has never garnered much attention in the digital space, and all but vanished since Windows stopped sporting double digits on it’s splash screen. Enter legendary game designer Sid Meier, whose past credits include some of the most loved flight simulators of the DOS era like F-15 Strike Eagle and F-19 Stealth Fighter, with this latest mobile title that brings the high-flying heroics of World War I aces to a touchscreen near you.
Sid Meier's Ace Patrol (SMAP!) gives you command of a squadron of pilots during the first War to End All Wars tasked with a variety of missions including bomber escort, blowing up supply trains, gunning down observation balloons, and generally furballing it up with opposing aircraft. Ace Patrol takes a number of cues from Firaxis’ recent rebooting of the vaunted Xcom franchise and features both the engrossing tactical action of the air duels themselves and a strategic metagame that sees your best pilots and planes improving while your worst ones sit grounded for healing and repairs.
The majority of your time Ace Patrolling will be spent in the tactical view. Normally you’ll be in control of two aircraft, four for the ‘boss’ style mission at the end of each of the game’s four operations, and even a rare solo flight. A few missions also include an AI controlled bomber or recon plane needing escort. You’ll move all of your planes at once, in any order you choose, before the enemy has a chance to do the same. A zoomable, rotatable hex map shows the countryside dotted with outlined areas covered by anti-air guns to avoid, home fronts to retreat to, and cloud banks to hide in. The elevation of each aircraft is easily identifiable by the number of cones beneath a plane. Damage is depicted as a green circle that turns red. Upon selecting a pilot, an array of arrows will be displayed on the map indicating which maneuvers that unit is capable of performing based on pilot skill, plane ability, and current orientation. Blue arrows show movement while green ones indicate that you’re pilot will take a shot during the maneuver. A pulsating green crosshair identifies which maneuver will deal the most damage. Tapping a maneuver arrow displays an animated preview of exactly how your plane will move. Tapping again sends the fighter on its way, frequently dropping to a close-up chase camera view of the action when gunplay occurs. This cinematic move looks fairly lo-fi and planes occasionally move awkwardly to keep their guns on target, but it still provides a giddy thrill as you fire and are fired upon.
It is a wonderfully elegant system executed perfectly. The arrows on the map explain at a glance exactly where an aircraft will move to, what direction it will be facing, and any change in altitude. Hexes can get a little crowded with experienced pilots possessing a wide variety of maneuvers, so those with small screens or large fingers should plan on lot of zooming or resorting to a stylus. Planes move in a realistic fashion and each maneuver is clearly identified with a number of indicators such as which banked state a move can be performed from. Maneuvers are limited to basic turns, climbs, and dives at the beginning of the war but your pilots will gradually expand their repertoire with loops, rolls, and “ace maneuvers” like the famed Immelmann turn as they level up, RPG-style, with every kill. Attacks display factors affecting each shot like firing angle, enemy aspect angle, and distance to target. While these details are sure to delight dedicated pocket aviators looking to chain a particular set of maneuvers together for the perfect attack run, the more casual player need only tap away at the colored arrows to dogfight through the game’s easiest of five selectable difficulty levels. At the conclusion of each mission players have the option of watching the past 15 minutes of scheming and swearing strung together in a 30 second continuous replay movie; A thrilling and satisfying experience. Deep yet easy to play. It is a goal few titles execute as perfectly, and with as much flair, as Ace Patrol.
As high as the tactical game flies, it is very nearly shot down by the brutal, almost unfair, difficulty at the strategic level. Ace Patrol’s campaign consists of four operations of 6 missions each. Aside from the final ‘boss’ encounter of the op, players have their pick of three missions to fly at any given time. These missions are randomly determined from a pool of a dozen or so tasks such as convoy defense or clearing the skies of an enemy squadron. The ideal goal of each operation is to achieve 7 victories (the final ‘boss’ encounter counts as three) for a decisive victory. Gradients of victory are scaled down from there based on player performance. At then end of the war, victory conditions from all four operations are averaged together to score your campaign. Victory ratings range from a decisive victory all the way down to, strangely, a stalemate. There is also a point scoring mechanic, but this is only usefully for comparing high scores with friends via Apple’s constantly hacked Game Center leaderboards. A list of your own local scores is, unfortunately, not recorded.
Fine and good. The real problem lies in the recovery time for your men and materials. Planes taking major damage are grounded for the next three missions, pilots injured from a crash are out for five missions (the length of an entire operation), and the poor sods downed behind enemy lines will only be returned at “Christmastime,” an event that only occurs following the final battle of the first and third operation. Considering that players only ever have access to the same four pilots, the effects of a mission gone bad are crippling. Neither replacements nor recruits are ever made available. Instead the lengthy recovery time makes players to skip a number of missions on more than one occasion throughout a campaign or, worse, force them to fly undermanned against impossible odds. Further putting players at a disadvantage, the enemy is consistently upgraded with new maneuvers and upgrades while your pilots recover. Cunning players may elect to take a single survivor on more recon oriented missions, zipping in, photographing a target, and evading enemy interceptors on the way back home, only to find out that mission success doesn’t actually contribute to pilot progression. In a baffling decision, only kills contribute to ranking up pilots.
A triumvirate of microtransactions casts a dubious shadow over these proceedings. These three ‘medical facilities,’ available for $1 each, will automagically heal all your pilots, repair all your planes, and returned captured POWs immediately when bought. They then become a permanent part of your base that decreases all future repair and hospital times by one mission per purchased upgrade. It feels as though two of these real-money upgrades are practically mandatory to bring the strategic game back in balance, leaving only the “shot down behind enemy lines” as a fate to be avoided at all costs. Being able to change the game difficulty at any time can take some of the sting out of the enemy’s upgrade curve, but feels like the developer threw up his hands and admitted you’d sometimes be screwed rather than trying to balance the later stages of the campaign.
Speaking of in-app purchases, Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol comes with several squadrons of ‘em. Fortunately, aside from the afore mentioned medical upgrades need to, ya know, fix the game, the rest are much more understandable. While marketed as a free game, the cashless version of Ace Patrol will only allow players to partake in the first operation of the campaign flying the earliest two British planes against the Germans. In other words, it’s a demo. A beyond reasonable $0.99 opens up the full campaign for play as the British without restriction. The ability to fly planes from America, France, and Germany are available for $2 a pop, or $4 for all three. These optional “Campaigns” don’t actually change any of the missions, but rather allow the same game to be played with planes of other nationalities. The developers were even so kind as to include appropriate uniforms for pilot illustrations, additional voice acting, and change the names of medals (if not ranks) to match each country.
Another batch of DLC is available in the form of “Aces.” These pose as legendary airmen from WWI like Max Immelmann, Edward Mannock, and Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron, and grant the player a new skin for use on their planes and an additional skill added to the random pool of those available for squadron leaders and veteran pilots. Two aces are available for each nationality for $1 each or $5 for the whole bundle. Players concerned with aesthetics may feel their wrist twisted slightly as the default skin forced upon veteran pilots is a horribly garish rainbow affair that resembles a graphics glitch more than an actual paint job.
So, how much does Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol actually cost if I like the demo? Figure two to four bucks. One to unlock the full game as the British and a few more to fix the grueling campaign timeouts to your comfort level. All of the other items available are entirely optional and feel like a justifiable add-on purchase in this modern, DLC laden world. Even if you decide to pimp SMAP out with all the additional goodies, it justifies the cost by looking, playing, and entertaining like a premium $10-15 iOS game.
Except for the multiplayer. Multiplayer is technically included in Ace Patrol, but merely as an afterthought. The delightfully titled “Hot Pad” mode allows two players to pass a single device back and forth on alternating turns. Sadly, players have no choice as to the planes, pilots, or mission they’ll be playing. Owners of the optional campaign DLC packs will be able to pick a nationality, but that’s the only decision to be made. Once engaged in a game, it can be hard to tell when one player’s turn ends and another begins, especially if AI controlled objective aircraft are in the mix. Careless players can easily end up moving their opponents aircraft in a clustered furball. This could have been alleviated by simply replacing the brief “Player # Turn” fly-by text with a simple pop-up prompt and OK button. Adding to the confusion, there is no replay option for the off-player to see where or how they got hit. This means both players must be watching the same screen at all times for optimal awareness. “Networked” play for two players is also apparently a feature, but was wholesale inoperable during the several days we played SMAP for review. Questions regarding the capabilities of this mode were left unanswered on 2K’s message forums. While this will surely be fixed in an upcoming patch (Update: Fixed a week later in v.1.2), I would expect the same random setup featured in the Hot Pad mode utilizing Apple’s barely adequate Game Center (Update: Yep. Spot on). Start to finish, multiplayer is a mess and better left forgotten.
In spite of the woefully lacking multiplayer and darkest of The Dark Side free-to-play schemes, Ace Patrol soars as an exceptional strategy game in a romantic setting largely neglected by digital games. While grognards will gripe about the lack of ammunition tracking or how half your squadron is female, this latest title bearing the Sid Meier name lives up to the tradition of his other strategy titles. Much like Railroad Tycoon, Antietam, and Civilization, Ace Patrol boils down traditionally complicated mechanics to a form playable by everyone without sacrificing depth. Also keeping with tradition, Meier’s latest offering is a must play for strategy fans and the perfect entry point for anyone curious about the genre.
Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol is available now for free from iTunes for iPhone 4 or iPad 2 and newer devices running iOS 5.1 or later. Tested on iPad 2 running iOS 5.1.1.
Reviewer Rating : 4/5 – Aces