Sid Meiers Ace Patrol30 Jul 2013 0
Playing the usual flight simulations on an iPad can be like a circus act: one hand moving the tablet to climb, dive and bank while using the other at the same time to skid, throttle and fire. Less coordinated players may find this frustrating. Fortunately, Sid Meier, a father of flight simulators, and his team has come up with an elegant and ingenious turn-based solution for their World War I iPad game, Sid Meier?s Ace Patrol.
Coloring the Sky over No-Man?s Land
If graphics were food, Ace Patrol would be a banana split with whipped cream and cherries. The primary menu screen is an airbase with planes flying about and taxiing. Permanent and game-sensitive buttons are nicely superimposed over it. Terrain features on the hex-grid battle map include trenches, woods, roads, rail lines, and bases for both sides shown with the different colors of the seasons. Detail is good on the expandable battle screen, showing vehicles, anti-aircraft guns and buildings. A very nice feature is clouds that can provide cover for aircraft. The area of play is shown by red hexes, representing enemy lines and blue ones for friendly lines.
Back at the base, available pilots are shown on cards. Each card has a colored picture of the pilot - changing as they are promoted, decorated, captured or injured - their kills, the type of maneuvers they can perform, special capabilities such as scoring more critical hits, any upgrades and their aircraft. Players can change pilots? names and upload their own pics instead of the standard images. These cards are greyed out if the pilots are unavailable due to injury, capture or damaged aircraft.
Naturally, the most striking graphics are those of the twenty different aircraft, five each for the Americans, French, British and Germans. Each plane, from the Fokker E. III to the latest Spad, is lovingly detailed in 3D. Along with national insignia, struts, cowling and some wires are displayed. Stretching, squeezing and rotating the screen shows off everything from tail to undercarriage. Players can customize craft by picking colored markings. The same attention to detail can be seen in bombers and reconnaissance craft that can now be controlled by players in Version 1.4. Observation balloons and zeppelins are also meticulously done. Most interesting are the early 1916 aircraft carried over from the previous year such as the Fokker Eindekker and the British Arco ?pusher? fighter. Two-seater fighters with rear gunners are also represented.
Animation is another bright spot. Normal view shows planes diving, climbing and turning with clear detail. Zipping into clouds allows planes to disappear. Damaged aircraft trail black smoke as the flashes of machine guns light up the sky. When significant damage is inflicted by a player?s machine, a zoom-in shot appears with a view of guns firing and bullets hitting their target. A kill has the victim spiral in with a satisfying, crater-making crash. Should a plane stray over an enemy base, anti-aircraft guns, ?Archie?, fill the shy with shell bursts. Strafing missions include dust spurts.
Sound effects are great with machine guns chattering and engine droning. Engine sound changes with the type of maneuver; climbs have deep-throated groans while dives are marked with whines. Damaged planes sputter their way to safety or the ground. The voice acting is excellent with accents being clear and distinct without being hammy.
Knights in the Air, Arrows on the Ground
Perhaps drawing on TSR?s old card/board game Dawn Patrol - aka ?Dice Patrol?, the Meier team has made movement and combat transparent and simple. Altitude is depicted by a series of small arrows under the plane. All moves available to players? aircraft are marked by large blue symbolic arrows on hex grids. For example, climbs are shown as 3D arrows curving up. Selected arrows blink and craft do dry runs before a double tap confirms the move. The results of these maneuvers are explained within a bottom-edge ribbon in five languages. The arrows are determined by aerodynamic abilities of the craft using speed, altitude and angle of bank. Rookie pilots are limited to basic straight flight, banks, climbs and dives but can learn more sophisticated turns with victories. High G-force maneuvers can only be performed in limited consecutive turns. Opportunities to climb are infrequent as craft must gain kinetic power before going up.
Positions that allow fire are shown in green with the best positions pulsating. Effectiveness of fire is a function of angle, altitude, number of guns firing and enemy sturdiness. When on a mission not demanding the elimination of all enemy aircraft, players may want to fight fighter pilots? innate desire to kill other fighter pilots and choose a move more in line with their primary mission. Non-lethal damage is shown as percentages on the screen. These percentages accumulate as shown in a green and red circle around small portraits of the pilots. Before 100% is reached, though, a critical hit is usually scored. Critical hits can damage engines, wings and elevators hurting abilities to climb and skid. The worse is the engine fire that causes five percentage points of damage per turn. This pilot should run for home using fast dives or make a forced landing on hexes marked with blinking red circles. Pilots who crash behind enemy lines are captured but may escape. Pilots can also be sidelined for a few missions by injuries or having a severely damaged plane.
Beginning players may want advice in a dogfight. Tapping on the small question mark icon in the lower right brings up a screen showing all maneuvers as cards with a recommendation for the present turn. Maneuvers not available at the time are marked in red. Tapping a card once will make the appropriate on-map arrow pulse and a double tap executes the move automatically. More detailed information is in the Baronopedia back at the base. Playing on the easiest of the five difficulty levels and playing the tutorial missions also help players ease into the game.
Helping the ?Poor Blighters? in the Trenches
All this action comes during missions within campaigns with clear-cut goals such as bomber or recon escort and defending or attacking bases and transport. A map shows mission choices as red for defensive, blue for offensive and gold-ringed for the new high-risk category. The free download version of Ace Patrol has a handful of British missions but the full $4.99 USD version has a complete British campaign series including the Somme, Arras, Cambrai and the Marne. Individual aces and nations can be bought in-app for $0.99 USD each or in a comprehensive pack for $3.99 USD.
Campaigns have six missions and players? squadrons begin with the Somme in 1916. Nation selection yields national bonuses including more G-force maneuvers and quicker recovery from injuries. Players then pick a squadron leader who gets three free kills and two sets of advanced maneuvers such as power moves, loops, skids or ace maneuvers like the Immelmann turn or crack shot. The leader also gets an upgrade to his plane with more armor, high-performance carburetor or an additional machinegun. Other squadron members get these goodies when they achieve victories. New plane types are delivered as the game progresses.
Players then pick a mission type, usually from a randomized set of three types, although some offensives end with one major sortie. Each mission has a point award for completion of a goal. Squadrons earn points by accomplishing the goal, shooting down or damaging enemies while minimizing losses. The more difficult levels provide a point multiplier. Having a positive point balance equals a victory and a high accumulative score determines the campaign?s victory level. Most missions require two pilots to be assigned but some are squadron scrambles or lone wolf forays. Version 1.4 addresses the earlier problem of mission repetition by adding sixty missions.
Tactics in Ace Patrol require more thought than just getting the drop on an enemy. Accomplishing a mission may require using one craft as a sacrificial decoy so another can get to the target. Sometimes passing up a shot is preferable to having a damaged plane escape. The squadron as a whole requires consideration. Bring a rookie along with an ace and having the ace set up an enemy for the rookie?s easy kill gives the squadron necessary depth.
The development team has done a good job in creating a sense of community. Multi-play can be hot seat or by the ?Net via Apple?s Game Center. After each mission, the high scores of the community is shown, Achievements prompt players to better results.
This game has some odd features and omissions. The position of the sun is not considered in attacks. The Americans enter the war over a year early; the American uniforms shown are not those of the Lafayette Escadrille. Women are always included as pilots. A pilot whose plane is under repair still waits for repair when given a new type. Most significantly, in an era when a new pilot?s lifespan was measured in days, nobody dies! Injuries and repairs take a few missions to fix and captured pilots escape or are exchanged at Christmas. Even more gamey is the ability to pay $0.99 USD in-app for three kinds of packages to make a squadron whole. Players wanting more realism can forego this temptation.
Sid Meiers Ace Patrol may lack the intensity of a real-time simulation but makes up for it with clear thinking instead of reflexes. The AI is excellent and the flight model seems fine. Bringing a squadron along gives parts of the game an RPG flavor. With four nations, sixty missions, twenty aircraft and five difficulty levels, the replay value is worth the price. This game comes up aces!
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim,Wargamer, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad.