Sid himself has been taking less of an active role in making Firaxis’ larger games these days (I think the last one he was credited in any significant way on was either Railroads! or the ill-fated Civilization Revolution), instead preferring to spend his time trolling would-be game developers and coming with prototypes that never see the light of day as fully-fledged games. Ace Patrol is the first title in half a decade that’s he’s properly responsible for, and I think it proves two things:
1) Sid Meier can still design excellent gameplay systems.
2) Sid Meier’s curious malaise which affects turning those gameplay systems into actual coherent games is also still a thing.
The writing was on the wall seven years ago with Railroads!, to be honest with you, and it’s repeated here with Ace Patrol: it’s a very elegant piece of design that hasn’t been pushed through the last few development steps required for it to be anything more than an interesting curio. Playing Ace Patrol is interesting and challenging, and yet at the same time oddly unsatisfying; it feels like the sort of game where I want more detail that it just isn’t willing to provide. And so, like Railroads!, what could have been yet another five-star game from Sid ends up being a rather cartoony and superficial experience.
Feh. Let’s talk about what Ace Patrol does right. Ace Patrol is a turn-based game about World War 1 fighter combat in the skies over northern France, and I have to say I’m deeply impressed at how well it makes its tactical combat mechanic fit what at first glance would seem to be a deeply unsuitable theme. Dogfighting is about outthinking the other guy, sure, and so there’s certainly enough strategic meat there to make a nourishing meal, but it’s still surprising how weirdly appropriate the turn-based system feels. Battles do play out like genuine air-to-air combat, sliced down into individual seconds of activity which can then be stitched together at the end of the scenario into a pseudo-real time replay that shows the entire engagement from start to finish. This replay looks like a real dogfight, as aircraft turn and weave and roll to avoid enemy guns while getting a bead on the opposing fighters themselves, which is quite the achievement considering that each of your pilots can perform a grand total of one action per turn.
What that action is is going to depend heavily on what the pilot’s skills are and what aircraft they’re flying. The difference between an experienced veteran and a rookie pilot is rather stark; the rookie will only be able to fly forwards quickly and will have to turn by banking their aircraft to the left or right, resulting in a loss of speed and an increase in vulnerability. As pilots get more kills they gain access to increasingly advanced sets of maneuvers that allow them more options in dogfights. Half-loops allow a quick reversal of direction, for example, while dive turns allow a plane to pursue a banking enemy without any loss of speed. There’s even super-advanced Ace maneuvers that can turn the tide of a battle all on their own; I learned to live in fear of the American loop-on-the-spot-while-firing triplane ace, while the one that could do odd drifting turns lasted a surprisingly long time against my twenty-one victory squadron commander.
More aerial agility means it’s easier to stay on an opponent’s tail and out of their gunsights, which is important because Ace Patrol also has a complex system for determining how much damage one fighter will do to another. There are no dedicated attack orders in the game; instead your fighters will automatically open fire on the enemy if they can and the damage they inflict will be a function of relative speed, relative heading, relative altitude and the aspect the target is presenting to you (a plane that’s banked towards you is like shooting a barn door). High-speed head-on diving passes are safe, since the enemy will not be able to turn and retaliate if you zoom in past them, but they’re unlikely to inflict significant damage. What you want to do is get in behind an enemy fighter and stay there, since the most damage is inflicted when one fighter is pursuing another in level flight and even if they try and shake you off you can gradually wear them down so long as your plane and pilot is better at maneuvering than they are.
That is, unless they have wingmen helping them out. They will always have wingmen helping them out, but then so do you; combats therefore become the aforementioned furball of bucking, weaving fighters trying to get the drop on the other side. The AI in Ace Patrol is reasonably competent and its effectiveness will largely be determined by the difficulty level (and thus how good its pilots are), so no matter your tactical genius it’ll always be able to present you with some sort of challenge and some memorable dogfights. It’s good at using cloud cover (fighters hiding in cloud cover are invisible, although they can only do basic maneuvers) and good at making use of whatever special abilities it has access to; while I’ve won most of my battles there have been occasions where it’s managed to inflict significant damage by isolating and worrying individual planes down to the point where I’ve had to withdraw them from the map. It’s less good at making use of friendly flak and avoiding your flak, happily charging over hostile flak zones that inflict damage every turn they finish inside of it, but otherwise I have no complaints about the AI, or the underlying systems governing tactical combat. Even the control system works far better than it did on iPad 1 despite being pretty much a direct port. The problems lie in, well, everything else, or rather the startling lack of anything else.
For starters the dynamic campaigns are just about as shallow as it’s possible for anything to be. Each time you want to take to the skies you get a selection of three randomly selected missions from a list of about a dozen; these further boil down to “destroy a thing”, “protect a thing” or “destroy all the things”. Since you can automatically win by shooting down all the enemy fighters and get more points and experience for doing so this becomes the default win condition, which will often be accomplished well before the AI bombers/recon planes/whatever have even reached their targets and means the mission variety is narrowed even further. About the only things you pay attention to during mission selection are how many opponents there are and how many planes you can take into it, since being at a numerical disadvantage is kind of a big deal thanks to the wingmen thing. Sure, some missions are worth more or less points, and you get more points if you’re playing on a higher difficulty level, but as far as I can tell this points value doesn’t actually do anything aside from fulfil a basic scoring function.
The campaigns themselves are split up into eight-mission offensives, but all that means is that every eight missions you’ll get a prisoner exchange and your wounded pilots will heal free of charge. They are functionally identical to one another with no sense of progression, simply existing because sticking thirty-two random missions together and calling it a campaign would probably have been too much even for this game. The issue with this is that without that sense of context, that sense of purpose that drives other tactical strategy games such as XCOM or Jagged Alliance, you start to wonder why you’re bothering with it in the first place. The tactical battles are diverting enough to begin with, but after you level up your pilots a few times and they’re still flying the exact same missions they were twenty levels ago it becomes apparent that Ace Patrol isn’t going anywhere; it just wants you to keep playing that tactical segment over and over in the hope that you won’t get bored of it too quickly. And as elegantly designed as it is, I don’t think it’s anywhere near strong enough to carry Ace Patrol all on its lonesome.
It’s funny, really, because Sid used to be the master of precisely this sort of contextualision. Pirates, Covert Action, Railroad Tycoon, even the lesser known games he worked on like Red Storm Rising and Sword of the Samurai, and even some of his later titles like the Gettysburg games – all of them traded on their ability to fix otherwise repetitive actions and minigames into a wider frame of reference that made them far more compelling than they would have been otherwise. Ace Patrol could have joined that list if someone had just said “Nice combat mechanics, Sid, now all we need is an actual game to embed them into.” Instead it goes on the other list; the one with Railroads and Civilization Revolution already chiselled into it, where a good idea has clearly been had but hasn’t been allowed to properly mature. Ace Patrol’s budget price means I’m not complaining too much, but I would have happily paid twice as much if they’d given just a bit more thought to their inter-mission gameplay. As it is I feel curiously unsatisfied and a little bit cheated, and since I’m firmly in Ace Patrol’s target market (history buff and Sid Meier fan) I suspect you will too. I can’t recommend it.
- Ace Patrol was originally released as a free app on iPad that garnered plenty of critical acclaim but monetised horribly, hence the sudden Steam release. ↩