Aerial combat is a common genre of gaming, but it’s often so realistic and hardcore that casual players can get turned off. Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol took the action-packed dogfighting of WWII and adapted it into a turn-based system where players commanded a small squadron of fighter planes using tactical RPG style mechanics. The new installment Pacific Skies brings the series to the Pacific Theater of war, and includes a handful of gameplay refinements.
Rather than directly control a fighter plane in real-time, the Ace Patrol series has players move their planes around the map one at a time, taking turns. Each pilot has a set of maneuvers that they can perform and those options are based on the plane’s altitude, its proximity to other planes on the map, and what it was doing on its last turn. Some maneuvers require a high altitude to perform, and players will need to sacrifice the distance they can move in order to change altitude. G-Force also determines how many fancy moves a pilot can perform in a row before having to lay off the showboating.
Most of the aircraft are fighters with their guns mounted on the front. This generally means that players have to strafe targets, or engage in tricky dogfighting where each pilot tries to get behind their enemy. Most missions will have players controlling more than one vehicle, so group tactics can be used, such as luring an enemy to follow one plane, then having another fighter attack from behind. Other missions will require players to use bombers and transports, often in escort missions where a particular plane has to survive the encounter. Some of the bombers are equipped to defend themselves against attackers from all directions, but the gameplay focuses mainly on the dogfighting.
True to its origins as a mobile game, the missions tend to be very short and only take a couple of minutes or to complete. There are 180 of them altogether, so that still amounts to several hours of play time (For a budget price). The designers make sure to shake things up a bit by varying the mission objectives; aside from the occasional escort job players will also need to attack or defend stationary targets on the ground, and are often given the option of defeating all of the enemies or simply making it out of enemy territory alive.
Planes will usually carry over the damage they suffer in one mission to the next, so this can cause players to factor in a risk/reward ratio when determining how bloodthirsty they want to be. Go after that last kill for some extra XP, or head back home and be fresh for the next mission?
Players create their own squadron of pilots and can pick from different branches of the military, as well as from the Japanese or Americans. Every faction has a slightly different set of missions, planes and pilots. Each pilot levels up as they make kills and complete missions, and they acquire new maneuvers that they can use in combat. Players will eventually be able to loop and roll about the skies using each pilot’s special abilities to get the jump on enemies. Each plane gets a set of upgrades as well, but loosing a plane in a mission will also lose its special upgrades.
Games get adapted back and forth between mobile platforms and PC, and often the designer’s fail to see how a game can be suited to one platform, but not the other. The simple missions in Ace Combat are perfectly sized for a game intended to be played on a phone, but that sort of brevity can feel repetitive and unsatisfying for players who are sitting in front of a desktop PC for longer stretches of time.
Early levels can be particularly unimpressive as they are designed for players who haven’t upgraded their pilots yet, and tend to involve flying straight at the enemy and blasting away. Eventually the missions become more difficult, but it is likely to make PC strategy fans feel like they’re in an excessively long tutorial. As the missions become more deadly, players will need to make use of terrain, like taking cover in clouds or trying to force enemies to fly over places on the map that have anti-aircraft guns. Yet at first the missions only require players to plod along and open fire at the earliest opportunity.
With tablet computers running the same OS as their desktop tower cousins, it’s starting to blur the lines between mobile games and “PC” games. Ace Patrol Pacific Skies isn’t substantial enough to hold the attention of strategy enthusiasts who are used to playing more elaborate games on their desktop towers (Including older games by Sid Meier). However it will give players on-the-go a tactical challenge, especially if they’re intrigued by the idea of piloting a fighter plane, but want something with a slower pace.