Review: Ace Patrol Pacific Skies07 Nov 2013 0
What did I do to deserve Ace Patrol: Pacific Skies? I haven't made any grand achievement or even been particularly good lately -- as the howls of torment from the Pocket Tactics Writers' Sub-basement will attest. And yet here I sit, pushing Corsairs and Hellcats around the skies over Iwo Jima, just six months after the release of the first Ace Patrol.
Despite the short interval, Pacific Skies isn't just Sid Meier's Ace Patrol with a new coat of paint. Firaxis have made a few significant and entirely welcome changes to how the game plays and (importantly) how you pay for it.
Pacific Skies takes the aerial dogfighting gameplay from Ace Patrol and transplants it from the Great War into WWII. You command a (rather small) squadron of four pilots and lead them through turn-based missions where must choose their maneuvers for them. As pilots gain experience, they learn new moves, and as the campaign continues, you gain access to newer aircraft. The same goes for your AI opponents, of course. Compared to Ace Patrol, there's more of everything in Pacific Skies: more missions (32 missions across 8 battles, versus Ace Patrol's 24-mission campaign), more maneuvers for your aviators to learn, more variety amongst the aircraft, and more environments. There's new pilot abilities, too -- some of which are unlocked by winning a campaign.
Firaxis has given the campaign structure an overhaul. There are now two parallel campaigns: the navy campaign and the army campaign, each with its own environments and missions, which you can tackle from the American or Japanese side. You no longer get a choice of three random missions and you're simply assigned one, perhaps because each campaign segment is now themed around a particular battle from the war (Corregidor, Midway, etc.) and there's fewer thematically appropriate missions to offer you. The way damage works has also changed: you now have the option of taking pilots with damaged planes into battle, though their wounded birds will go down more easily.
These changes are all for the good, but the most interesting gameplay addition is optional permadeath for your pilots. With this box checked, crashed fliers don't come back and you're given fresh rookies, blissfully ignorant of any maneuvers, with which to replace them. Playing with permadeath on makes cheery Ace Patrol into a white-knuckle affair that's entirely possible to lose, and lose badly.
Another excellent improvement over its predecessor is the way that Pacific Skies handles aircraft upgrades -- parts that enhance a plane's stats which are doled out as rewards for well-executed missions. In Ace Patrol, upgrades were essentially assigned to the pilot, and when he moved to a new class of aircraft, the upgrades came with him. In Pacific Skies, upgrades are now tied to the aircraft, and each pilot has a "garage" of planes she can freely chose from between missions. Assigning upgrades was a no-brainer in Ace Patrol -- in Pacific Skies it's one of the most interesting decisions in the game. The new Corsairs have just arrived at your squadron -- but your ace of aces is still flying his fully kitted-out Brewster Buffalo. Is it time for him to change planes and get into a stock Corsair?
Interestingly, Sid & Co. have added the option to disable female fliers and stock your squadron exclusively with historically accurate males. Female pilots aren't now and weren't ever out of place in Ace Patrol. The grinning action figure pilots and the day-glo miniature planes evoke toys and comic books, not dusty gun camera footage.
Perhaps the most important change that Pacific Skies brings to Ace Patrol is the price. In my review of the first game, I extolled its virtues but lamented the convoluted system of in-app purchases required to see all of the game's content. For Pacific Skies, Firaxis has wisely abandoned all of that nonsense and are charging one single up-front price for the game, for which you receive all of its content. How refreshingly retro.
Despite the myriad improvements and extensions, Pacific Skies is not perfect. Choosing red for your pilot's color, for example, means you can't easily see how much damage her plane has taken in combat. There aren't separate leaderboards or score bonuses for those playing with permadeath switched on (and thus, playing a more difficult game). Some of the aircraft animations are a bit janky, and the multiplayer still feels tacked-on. These are tiny problems, and in a game made by a two-man indie shop I probably would have glossed over them. But Firaxis is a legendary studio and Sid Meier's picture sits in a tiny candle-lit shrine that I have made to him in my house -- we should expect perfection from game with both of those names stamped on it.
But as I said -- tiny problems. On the whole, Pacific Skies is a joy to play and the thoughtful improvements over Ace Patrol will cause it to displace the original game on my iPad. That's no small achievement, because I think Ace Patrol is my most-played game of the year so far. Pacific Skies only has a month and change to catch it up -- but it just might.