Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sid Meier's Ace Patrol - A dogfighting experience review.

There was a time in my life, after finishing my degree in aeronautical engineering, where i became a true fanatic of aerial combat. Inspired by Wings of War and Dawn of WWII boardgames i started to look after books, tv series and games that would instruct me in the noble art of dogfighting without ever entering a cockpit.
Air simulators were too complicated and couldn't easily represent cooperative maneuvers unless you played online, boardgames were too slow-paced and couldn't handle big fights easily, arcade fighters were too light on representing g forces and the difficulty of certain maneuvers... Today i want you to meet the game that at last gets the best of the dogfighting experience in a small priced tag package, courtesy of one of the biggest game designers in the business: Mr. Sid Meier.

The game

Ace Patrol is set during WWI: during the dawn of combat aviation. In the game you will start as a rookie pilot in a certain squadron of one of the 4 nations in the conflict (British, French, American or German) and will be taking a series of missions through 4 campains were you will have to shift the tide of battle in favor of your country by performing attack and defense missions across the front.
Your pilots will progressively evolve as the war goes on and they score downed planes, learning new maneuver sets like drifts and rolls to enhance their moveset or ace maneuvers like the Immelman turn or the Wingover to outwit their enemies... But the enemy will also evolve so it's important to keep your rookies safe and out of the enemy ace sights.
Show me your moves!!
Defining the mission you will take on is also part of the strategy of the game. Some missions will require more pilots than others, require faster or sturdier planes, some may give more points or be set in enemy territory... Missions in enemy territory will cause your pilot to be captured if he is downed or crash lands, so sometimes you'll need to gauge the risk of keep fighting or risk to lose a squad member for several battles. 
Remember, a hero is the man who survives to claim revenge, and there is no shame to flee from the battlefield if the odds are against you. One of my favourite missions so far pits one single pilot of yours trying to deliver a lethal payload to an enemy base, against 3 sturdy german planes. Fighting is not a sane option, so you will have to take your best ace and make severe use of the clouds and erratic maneuvers to evade and outwit your pursuers and the antiaerial fire until you strike the base, and then make it safely back home.
Choosing your mission is your first concern. As choosing wrong and losing may start a chain of losses due to unavailable pilots.

The action

Action in the game is turn based but still fast as it's cleanly and cleverly implemented. Your planes always act in the same order and will show you their available moves on the hex grid that makes the battlefield. Selecting any of the movement arrows will show you a card with a visual representation of the maneuver and a series of icons stating the properties of your move (climbing, diving, evading, high speed, rolling, etc...). The game will also present you in a different color the moves where you have clean shots on enemy planes and a green cross will mark the point where you can do maximum damage.
The grey arrow indicates an unavailable move due to orientation or speed of the plane.

One of the things that I like the most about this game is that the available moves shown to you correspond to the plane reality, so if you banked hard left on the previous turn, you wont be able to make any turn right but you will instead be able to skid left as your plane is slightly rolled. On the same way, you wont be able to loop if you are not flying straight at high speed or wont be able to force a stall at high speeds... So basically this is not like one of those arcade aviation games where you are free to move wherever you are pleased, whenever you are pleased.
By the way, as i said on the intro, the fact that you control all the squad makes possible and really fun to pull classic cooperative combat maneuvers like the Scissors on the enemies, or use your more mobile and evasive pilots as baits to trick the enemy into offering their six for a heavy damaging shot.
How to guarantee your enemy has nowhere to run 101
The battlefield features areas of cloud, where planes are invisible and can't be fired into, as well as areas protected by AA fire where you wont like to enter or you'll want to lure your pursuers into. This only two terrain features are enough to turn the tides of many battles and play an important part of the dogfighting mindgames. 
And if strategy fails... dive into the fuzzball!!

Replayability and other cool features

Replayability is one of the main selling point of this game. Even if you don't buy the other nations packs, you will have 4 different starting pilots with various abilities at start, and all your pilots will be upgraded differently from time to time... Missions available are varied enough to not feel repetitive and to add an increased variety, the enemy squads rotate randomly so the enemies in each mission are always determined randomly from an available set.
Also, the pilots portraits evolve as they are promoted and their kill count increases, but also they change when they are downed, injured or captured by the enemy.
Thank god Immelman is not flying today. 
Another cool feature is the possibility of watching the battle replay without pause after the battle ends, displaying as a continuous movie you will get to feel more of the awesomeness of the maneuvers you just managed to pull. It's a real pity though that this replays can't be saved or shared, which would be nice in an update. Also, fixing the camera in the replay would be cool as it sometimes it jumps too fast between places and you lose sight of the action.

Replays are a cool way to check your mission faster and in a cinematic point of view.
The game also offers 5 difficulty settings that you can choose at your base after the tutorial missions. Each will upgrade the enemy AI and give you a bonus multiplier on your missions. Currently i´m playing in Ace difficulty (medium) and the game starts to get challenging from campaign 2 onwards. Not only because of the difficulty of the game per se, but because having a downed or severely damaged plane will leave your pilots out of the next battles. If you have 2 consecutive losses you might see yourself out of pilots and unable to challenge the enemy on the next missions. 
This is cool because it makes you think more about your pilots safety so you won´t be taking excessive risks, and many a time you will prefer to skid or roll away from a chase in order to save you from a wingman targeting your 6. 


The game is free to download and play for the first campaign. From there on, you will have to decide. If you want to keep playing as the brits, you will just have to make Mr Meier 1$ happier. Surely though, once you have cleared the first campaign and seen what the game has to offer you will probably be buying all nationsa in the 5$ pack. If you are a true fanatic of WWI dogfighting, you might even want to buy the aces. At a dollar each, they are special skins for some of the planes, featuring the ace pilot with a special ability or set of maneuvers from the start. So for example you can buy Max Immelmann and start the game with a rookie Immelmann that already knows how to pull his trademark Immelmann turn!

Additionaly, there are 3 one time 1$ upgrades that buy you field hospitals and heal all your downed pilots, reducing future injuries in 1 battle each. This means, buying the 3 will reduce the time of healing from 5 to 2 battles. After losing some pilots you might see yourself considering this ones too.

The various planes of every nation have different performance.
You will like it:
- If you love dogfighting and combat aviation. If you are a Wings of War or Dawn of WWII player, this game is a must have for you.
- If you are looking for a turn based strategy game different of what you've played before.
You wont like it:
- If you are looking for a campaign with a lot of storytelling involved.
- You need the feel of the cockpit view to savour the kill.


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