When strategy master Sid Meier takes the time to actively design a game, it’s time to sit up and take notice. His latest project is World War I dogfight strategy title Ace Patrol on iOS devices. In theory, the platform allows creative types the freedom to turn around concepts without all the pressure and mega-budgets of a PC or console release. It shouldn’t, however, be an excuse to release a half-finished product.
Ace Patrol is a free universal download for most i-devices (iPad offers the best viewing real estate, but the iPhone version is identical in every other way). You can play a small cluster of British campaign missions without paying a dime. The free section is long enough so that you can get a basic handle on the rules, see a variety of mission types, and get hooked. For $.99 more you can experience the entirety of the British war effort, a total of 24 missions. Even though there are American, French, and German campaigns as well, this is the most I’d advise players to invest at this time.
By the time you finish the first level pack, the same mission types are already being repeated. Attack or defend trucks, trains, bombers, or balloons. Fight two planes with two of your planes. Fight two rookies with one experienced pilot. This is practically all you get, over and over. Every six levels or so you get to take out all four of your pilots on a larger scale mission, but even that’s nearly the same every time.
I was already painfully bored with the missions by the end of British campaign, and the other campaigns are just more of the same with a different coat of paint (don’t expect any kind of story, either). The flags on the buildings change. The same pilots wear a different uniform and gain or lose a moustache. Each nation’s collection of planes differs only minutely in stats.
It’s a shame that Firaxis didn’t bother making a more complete game, because the battle system is excellent. Planes can’t stay in place, so the action is always moving. Each craft has a wide variety of moves it can make at any time. Factors like altitude, unlocked pilot skills, and plane orientation all figure in to what maneuver you can pull off next. Straight flights may allow you to move three hexes forward while banking to the left only hops one hex over. This free-flowing movement system means enemy actions can be much harder to predict than pieces on a chessboard. The fact that there are far fewer pieces on the board than what you’d see in chess balances this out and keeps matches from being overwhelming.
Cloud coverage offers a place to mask your movements while friendly bases shoot at any enemy that flies over. These areas of the map add elements of excitement and risk to the missions. More types of them might have helped with the lack of variety.
Five difficulty settings ensure you hit the challenge level you’re comfortable with. Don’t get excited by the point multiplier earned at higher difficulties, though. Points contribute nothing to plane upgrades and pilot promotions. For those, you have to shoot down enemies and avoid taking too much damage.
Multiplayer is in rough shape as of version 1.1 of Ace Patrol. Asynchronous multiplayer via Game Center never worked for me, and Firaxis confirmed the widespread problem in its official forums. Battling against real humans instead of the AI sounds promising, but we’ll have to wait until the problem’s sorted out. Local pass play works fine. Unfortunately, volleying your iPad back and forth constantly is tedious. Plus, seeing each other’s secret cloud movements is way too easy. Even if you’re trying to honorably look away, the other player’s turn pops up immediately before you can react.
Ace Patrol shines in its mechanics and may very well become a good game after a steady progression of updates. As it stands now, this one could use some more time in flight school.
This review is based off of Ace Patrol version: 1.1