Saturday, 11 May 2013

Not-Quite-Review Corner: Sid Meier's Ace Patrol

This is a review of 2K Games' iOS free-to-play turn based strategy title, Sid Meier's Ace Patrol, a Great War air combat game. First, a disclaimer: although I write for the Escapist - in fact, I wrote this news post about the game - this review has nothing to do with the Escapist. It's completely my own thing. I'm drawn to this game in particular because I wrote this RPG scenario for Pelgrane and, as luck would have it, was tweaking the air combat rules not so long ago for the collected Great War Trail of Cthulhu setting.

Sid Meier is someone you should all have heard of by now, but on the off-chance you haven't, he's the guiding mind behind the Civilization game franchise, the man who took us to the stars in Alpha Centurai, the man who made Pirates! - also out for iPad, incidentally - and a host of other strategy titles. This latest effort fits right in with Meier's strategy aesthetic, being easy enough to get to grips with, but tricky enough to test your brain. It boasts 120 different scenarios and asynchronous multiplayer, all set in the hostile skies above the Western Front. You play as one of four nationalities - French. British, American and German - commanding a squadron of four eager pilots. Your job is to wage a successful campaign against the enemy, which means you need to fight the enemy four times in a series of scenarios, and then fight the concluding battle. Once that's over, the next campaign begins. Best of four campaigns wins the match.

Sounds simple? Well, it is ... except you can't just beat the enemy. You need to prevail while at the same time preserving your squadron. Each time a plane gets too badly damaged, its pilot has to sit out the next one or two missions. If a pilot gets shot down, they're injured for five missions, if this happened on your side of the lines. If this happened on the enemy's side, they're captured, which means they're out for the rest of the campaign, until they get handed over in the Christmas prisoner exchange. Remember, you only have four pilots. Most missions require only two, some insist on one, so you can afford to be a pilot down for a mission or two. But the concluding scenario of the campaign requires all four, so if something's gone very badly wrong and you only have one or two healthy pilots left, you're going to get trounced.

Aesthetically, this is a very pleasing title. Visuals are clean and fit the period very well. The sound and music are (mostly) spot on, though I'm prepared to swear on a stack of Sopwiths that someone borrowed a musical sting from Pirates! It just sounds too familiar. Strategic minds may be reminded of games like Avalon Hill's Knights of the Air, or Wings of War, as this title has a very similar aesthetic. Your pilots start off with the basic maneuvers and bags of optimism, but later on will be pulling off Immelmanns like seasoned professionals. Which is just as well, since their flying coffins are never very sturdy at the best of times. No single scenario takes much longer than ten minutes to play through, before the fallen are scattered across the landscape like crispy pigeons. Moreover the AI knows its business well enough to pose a significant challenge. If one of your pilots manages to get caught in a one-on-one against an AI ace, be prepared for pain, unless your man has as many tricks up his sleeve as the AI does.

Don't expect complete historical fidelity. The aircraft are well designed and in period. The pilots' continual survival is a bit odd; despite being shot down, shot up, set on fire, or imprisoned on the enemy's side of the lines, each lives on to fight another day. I'm torn. I'd almost rather there was permadeath, and have the dead pilot replaced by a rookie. Not only would that be historically valid, it would add a new layer of complexity, particularly late game. The presence of female pilots on the battlefield may upset some purists. The title gives you some customization options - you can change the pilot's name, and add some color trim to the pilot's plane - but ultimately you're stuck with a more or less interchangeable, and unchangeable, smiling face, male or female, to take into battle. Female pilots I don't mind, but I do find it slightly odd that - though there are one or two non-Caucasian faces - there don't seem to be any black pilots. After all, there were at least two black warbirds, one American, one Turkish, who actually fought, one of them on the Western Front. Why not have them in the game?

The 120 different missions boast is a bit of a misnomer. Mathematically, there may be that many, spread across the British, French, American and German campaigns, but in practical terms there are perhaps twelve different mission types in all. The Germans have one less than everyone else, since they have a zeppelin for the Allies to blow up, whereas the Allies don't have anything quite as cool for the Germans to shoot at. Some missions are essentially copycats; there isn't a substantial difference between blowing up a train, and blowing up some trucks. Most of the time you'll be playing through the same handful of missions, with the only difference between one campaign and the next being the relative difficulty of the enemy pilots. You may get bored quickly, given the level of repetition. Multiplayer is, I strongly suspect, where this title expects to enjoy longevity.

Whether or not that appeals to you is down to personal preference, but be warned: you may need to spend some cash. Though the title is technically free-to-play, only the tutorial missions in the British campaign are free; if you want anything else, you'll be spending money. It's $1.99 per campaign, or $0.99 for the rest of the British campaign. If you want your pilots back from hospital or the prison camp soon after they get shot down, that'll be cash on the barrel head, presumably each time you do it. I haven't been mad enough to spend money on that, at least not yet, though I wonder if that might not be the only way to successfully complete the game at its highest difficulty levels. There are also aces for purchase, special pilots who start the game with their own unique abilities, either bought singly or as part of the 'ace pack.' I do not know if the aces are allowed in multiplayer matches, but if they are, I pity the poor sod who goes toe-to-toe with the Germans. The special bonus for von Richtofen is 'inflicts more critical hits' and Immelmann 'starts with one ace maneuver', both of which abilities are ever so slightly savage. Pride of place has to go to Frenchman Rene Fonck's chance of a single-shot kill, though his companion Guynemer's ability is a bit naff, and anyone who spends good money on the American aces wants their head examining. I wouldn't take balloon-buster Luke on a bet, and Rickenbacker's ability to avoid critical hits isn't that wonderful, not when you consider that it's your ability to shoot down other people, not avoid getting shot down yourself, that will ultimately win the match.

Ultimately this title does tick all the necessary boxes: it has clever strategic play, and a compelling just-one-more turn single player campaign. Game play itself is smooth and swift, and while you may be tempted to go in bull-headed at first, it's clever strategy that will win the day. You do need to think one or two moves ahead, and if necessary take a few losses on the chin. It's the campaign that matters, not the skirmish, and it does you no good to win a match only to lose half your squadron doing it. Where it falls down is in its limited mission options, and a fairly aggressive monetization model that seems determined to wring pennies out of the player. It's not as aggressive as it could be; technically you could get by with just the British campaign, at $0.99, thus getting a pretty addictive strategy title for cheapsies. However it's unlikely that most players will stop there, and I've no doubt 2K Games knows it.

Recommended for: strategy nuts, Great War enthusiasts, those who remember the old Avalon Hill games fondly.

Not recommended for: people looking for a 100% authentic Great War experience, people who can't stand microtransactions.

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