Review: Ace Patrol

By Owen Faraday 13 May 2013 0
Rules to live by. "If your opponent dives on you, do not try to get around his attack, but fly to meet it."

Ace Patrol is a small revelation. It's not just the quality of the game itself (excellent, as a matter of fact) but that it's a fine production from a triple-A console/PC outfit. After stumbles great (Borderlands Legends) and small (Might & Magic Clash of Heroes) one might wonder if major publishers were ever going to deliver an iOS game they could be truly proud of. With Ace Patrol, that's exactly what Firaxis and 2K have done. It's not without its faults, but Ace Patrol is the finest game on iOS from a major publisher to date.

How cynical have I become? I'm sorry to admit that when Sid Meier's name was suddenly appended to Ace Patrol's title a few weeks after the soft launch in Canada, I grew skeptical. I presumed that Sid had become something of a figurehead for Civilization and XCOM developer Firaxis, and been attached to the product as a marketing gimmick. But not only is Ace Patrol an excellent game, it's also one that has Sid Meier's fingerprints all over it: easily digestible gameplay that disguises surprising depth and replayability.

Ace Patrol puts you in command of a four-man "squadron" of World War I fighter pilots, choreographing their dogfighting manoeuvres in turn-based combat. Like any good Sid Meier game, there's plenty of randomness to ensure that the gameplay remains fresh: your pilots start with a different selection of special abilities each time, and maps and missions are semi-randomly generated each time you play. In a fairly unique setup for an aerial warfare game, the hex map features terrain you must consider: AAA installations you must avoid (or lead opponents into), cloud banks you can dive into to hide, margins where you can usher a damaged aircraft out of the fight.

No need to hide in the clouds. Aside from some lacklustre menus and a couple of problematic animations, the presentation in Ace Patrol is first-rate.

The combat is joyfully kinetic. Because your aircraft are always in motion, you can't just sit in one tile and wait for enemies to come to you -- you must be constantly planning three or four moves into the future to fight effectively. The clever AI -- especially at the higher end of the five-rank scale -- seems to have learned its Dicta Boelke and knows how to employ multiple aircraft as a wolfpack operating with a shared purpose.

As your pilots score aerial victories, they increase in rank, learn new manoeuvres, and gain access to upgraded technology. A veteran pilot in your outfit may be able to fly higher and shoot more accurately than a rookie, and perform hair-raising (and tactically indispensable) moves like the Immelman turn or the wingover. Taking on long odds with a skilled pilot is tense and exhilarating and learning to make the most of the acrobatics at your disposal is satisfying in a way that few games have been in recent years.

The game's campaign plays out over four years with six missions (there's a shorter campaign, too) undertaken each year. New aircraft become available over time and your conduct in the war will influence its outcome. You can afford to fail a fair few missions, but the war cannot be won without consistent contribution from you and your pilots.

Ace Patrol is visually a treat. It looks like a tabletop miniatures game, with your bi-planes dolled up in the custom paint jobs you've selected and the portraits of your pilots displaying their Croixes de Guerre and Flying Crosses. The game's menus are a bit bare-bones but the battle UI is great, ably communicating a huge amount of information whilst mostly staying out of your way -- but this great UI also betrays one of the game's biggest weaknesses: the documentation. The pilot portraits quickly tell you if a pilot is too close to blacking out to pull a high-G manoeuvre, but this is a lesson you have to learn on your own, as the game never bothers to tell you. Similarly, you can learn a lot about how the game's rules work with regard to damage output by watching the boxes that pop-up when you've selected an attack -- details that the brief tutorial campaign never deign to explain.

Another glaring deficiency is the total absence of multiplayer. It seems odd to knock such a top-shelf single-player experience for that, but there's a big button marked "Multiplayer" in the main menu that currently does nothing at all. The game also eats battery power like there's no tomorrow. That's a bit sloppy, especially for a game that enjoyed a long Canadian beta.

Wars not make one great. The game makes you feel like a major player in the war.

The biggest gripe about Ace Patrol is one that is difficult to lay exclusively at the game's feet, given the direction in which the industry is moving: the way you pay for it. Ace Patrol is free to download but then sells you content piecemeal: a dollar for the rest of the British campaign after the six-mission demo ends, two dollars for each other countries'. Confusingly-named "Ace" packs which don't deliver any set-in-stone characters, but paint jobs and pilot attributes. Worst of all, the game offers an in-app purchase that lessens the amount of time that injured pilots spend on the sidelines.

With only four aviators on your roster, losing one to injury (no one ever dies in cheerful, colourful Ace Patrol -- they only go to the hospital following crashes or are temporarily enemy POWs when downed behind enemy lines) is a serious setback. Having multiple pilots on the disabled list is devastating, condemning you to forfeit missions, which means that you'll have to work harder to maintain an advantage in the wider war.

If it weren't for the presence of the IAPs, I would point this out only to illustrate that Ace Patrol is, like XCOM and Civilization, a game that encourages you to accept the consequences of failure. This conviction is somewhat hobbled by the presence of IAPs that let you pay to get pilots out of the hospital -- something that invalidates the Game Center-enabled high score leaderboards and undermines the game's design. I'm sure that the presence of these IAPs is a financial win for Firaxis and 2K -- but they are unequivocally a creative loss.

The prevailing winds in mobile (and even console) gaming are shifting towards freemium-style monetizing. Ace Patrol's implementation isn't as egregious as many, but Firaxis' decision to lock away a balance-altering feature behind a paywall is surprising -- alarming even. Naive, perhaps, but I had hoped that an old guard developer like Firaxis would have been willing to stand athwart history yelling "stop!" and stick to the old tried-and-true "pay once, get a game" model that seems to be dying a slow death. The presence of IAPs and their constant begging for money sours your emotional connection to a game. I hope that the bean-counters at 2K have factored in the long-term alienation of their fans when they consider the short-term profit boost that in-app purchases provide.

As only a TBS can be. Getting into a proper furball in Ace Patrol is dramatic and exciting.

The decision to give the 6-mission taster away for free is an undeniably intelligent one (more people will try the game that way) but the confusing array of IAPs and the absence of a "buy all the content" IAP option is disappointing. I hope that the forthcoming iOS port of XCOM will be entirely free of such foolishness.

Unfortunate monetization schemes aside, Ace Patrol is an outstanding game -- one that will be a staple on my devices for a long time to come. I've completed a number of campaigns but its variety is such that I don't see myself getting bored anytime soon: the combination of maps, missions, and pilot abilities presents the player with a fresh tactical challenge every time you fire it up.

Welcome back, Sid -- make us another great iOS game. Give us an easier way to pay you for it next time.

Review: Ace Patrol

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