Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol (Firaxis) is a fun, light air tactics game for the iPad. You have a crew of WWI pilots that gather experience and skill as they shoot down enemy planes, escort bombers or protect/destroy important installations. It is turn based, it has nice art and interface and it manages to evoke WWI air combat better than I thought it would given the limitations of the platform. But then again, WWI air combat was a slow, plodding clash between rivals trying to get the perfect position – just like many great turn-based strategy games.
So I mostly like Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol. I liked the British campaign enough to shell out more money for the rest of the plane sets – French, German and American. Amusingly, the American campaign also start in 1916, and I suspect that Meier knows better than that. And, even though I do not hold to an anal attachment to historical timelines for a game like this, it does point to one of the great failings of selling different campaign packs for each nation.
All of the campaigns are, fundamentally, the same and there is nothing to really distinguish the British experience from the German experience. Why should we care that the Americans start the war a year early?
I am not just talking about the missions, even though their lockstep similarity is disappointing. In that case, at least, I can point to the fact that there really weren’t many things that fighter airplanes could do in WWI that would have been interesting. You would always be limited to dogfights, interceptions, escort missions and balloon busting. These aren’t the great air campaigns of WW2 where at least you have a hornet’s nest of planes around you.
Selling the campaigns as unique content requires a little more, of course. So an early June update to the game added special traits for each of the nations. The British get an extra high G maneuver, French pilots can crash land and avoid capture, Americans heal faster and Germans gain their first special pilot ability faster.
Turning history into a game is hard at the best of times. There is now a general expectation from gamers that each historical nation or faction has something to distinguish it, thereby ensuring greater replayability and variety of experiences. In ahistorical history games like Age of Empires or Civilization, faction design can easily default to general historical stereotypes or characteristics drawn from certain moments. (I did a whole essay series on this sort of thing.)
But when you are dealing with this player expectation in a small scale game on a small platform, you are sort of limited in what you can do. The various traits assigned to the four powers in Ace Patrol are modest, at best, with the French avoidance of POW camps easily the best one (though dependent on you crash landing and not just getting shot down.) The German power is one you’ll never notice after the first battles in the campaign, the British one assumes that a second high G maneuver is going to be a good thing for you and the American one, well, you get your aces back faster but you need them now. Given it was added in an update, the faction differentiation was possibly an afterthought and it, in any case, does little to transform the identical campaigns into anything more varied.
Of course, if you’re an old Red Baron hand, like I am, then you know that the real differentiation in the air war of WWI was in the planes themselves. I fondly remember the challenges of flying often inferior British planes against high powered Fokkers, counting on my plane’s agility or second machine gun to keep me out of harm’s way. Then the Sopwiths came along and I had more climbing speed, etc. The whole history of the air war and the differences in priorities for the Allied and German air engineers was played out in my career. I really should play a flight sim again.
Anyway, Ace Patrol does have different planes appear for each nation along the campaign histories, four for each country. You are given their stats and their hit points, etc but the only real sense of differentiation between the planes is which one of you is flying a piece of crap. Once you identify the poor sap in his Eindecker, you take him out and then gang up on the Fokker. All the numbers that Ace Patrol gives you about flight ceiling and horsepower become completely abstract in a game that asks you to move your plane a number of hexes in certain directions, maybe climbing, maybe diving, maybe turning. Flight ceiling is never so much an issue that you can just climb your way out of danger, and the game rewards aggressive play (or at the very least sucking your enemy into flak fire).
So while I have greatly enjoyed the hours I have put into Ace Patrol and don’t regret the purchase one bit, I do wonder if distinct historical faction design is possible on a game of this scale that is still true to history. In a Civil War game, you just boost experience or morale levels until the Union/Confederate balance “feels” right. You can’t quite do that when you are dealing with knight of the air going mano-a-mano. (Game designers should feel free to pitch into the comments).
I do hope there is more to come in Ace Patrol. It’s a great pleasure to see Meier make something new and of high-quality.