Sid Meier brings tactical WWI dogfights to the mobile screen.
When the man who created Civilization and a number of other notable computer games decides to devote his talent to designing a mobile game, it’s kind of a big deal. So it’s only right that Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol comes with some equally big expectations, and for the most part, the turn-based World War I aerial combat game delivers.
The change of platform doesn’t seem to have hampered Mr. Meier’s design sense at all. Ace Patrol is expertly constructed, from the cel-shaded look of the graphics to the fantastic sound effects and the way the hexagonal maps are laid out. Because of the way it’s put together, it doesn’t matter that it sends you on your way to battling enemy pilots after just a few brief tutorial missions. You figure out what you need to learn as you go.
As it turns out, WWI dogfights make really compelling tactical exercises. In each mission, you take control of one to four fighters with specific goals to carry out. These can be as simple as winning a one-on-one duel with an opposing ace, or as involved as escorting a spy plane to photograph a target and getting it back in one piece. Your score depends on your success or failure at meeting those goals, as well as how much damage you do to enemy planes compared to the amount your squadron receives.
The campaigns are divided into three years (1916 through 1918, for you non-history buffs) with six missions per year. There’s a choice of three different missions in each slot – some offensive, some defensive – giving you some say as to how each year plays out. You can play the first year of the British campaign for free but have to pay to unlock the rest. American, French and German campaigns can also be purchased a la carte or in a bundle, each with their own pilots and authentic aircraft.
Assuming they don’t get shot down, your pilots reap the rewards of their aerial heroics in-between missions. The most important of these is the ability to learn new maneuvers, giving you new options in battle. Aircrafts can get several nifty upgrades, and new planes get unlocked at various points in each campaign. If your aces do go down, their location at the time determines their fates: sitting out a few missions recuperating in the hospital if it’s on friendly soil, or becoming POWs if shot down behind enemy lines. For the latter, they return to your side during the annual Christmas prisoner exchange. (Side note: my wife thought I was joking when I told her the Christmas exchange was a real thing.)
If it seems like it would be complicated to turn plane-to-plane combat into a tactical game, Ace Patrol makes it look easy. Each plane acts in turn, with the interface displaying a separate button for every maneuver possible given its height, speed and facing. When you’re close enough to fire on an enemy, those buttons will be green instead of blue. It’s a simple but elegant system, and its only drawback – the fact you’ll accidentally tap the wrong buttons when they are clustered together – is lessened by needing to tap twice to perform the move and the fact that the map can be rotated and zoomed if necessary.
The maps aren’t big, but they still contain some strategic considerations. Cloud formations can hide planes to protect them from enemy fire, and both sides have anti-aircraft guns protecting certain zones. The AI planes can be lured into danger at times, though since you don’t know which moves the enemy planes know, the result is something like airborne chess where the other side’s pieces are a mystery. There are five difficulty settings in all, and Civ fans can probably imagine how rough the top one is.
It’s easy to get sucked into playing for longer than you planned, which is the quintessential quality of Meier’s best games. But there are some things that stick in the craw just a bit as well. At launch, the promised network multiplayer mode was a no-show, and selecting that mode confusingly sends you back to the App Store to download the latest version of the game. There’s also no difference between the campaigns for each country, so buying them is really a matter of whether you want the different planes to fly. The game also handles injured pilots in a cynical fashion, offering a real money purchase to speed up the healing process.
Of course we can forgive some of those things since this is that Meier guy’s first crack at a mobile game. Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol is good – really good – for a debut effort, and more than worth a spot in your iPhone or iPad’s library.