Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol: flying strategy to new heights

By Dave Cook, Friday, 24 May 2013 14:13 GMT

Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol developer Firaxis has taken an accessible yet challenging approach to flight combat. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks with lead producer Lena Brenk to discuss its development.

Ace Patrol

Developed by Firaxis, Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol is available on iPad and iPhone now. You can download it for free here.

You can play the first six missions of the British campaign for free, and then pay for additional pilots, skins and missions after that.

It’s a turn-based hex strategy game that places importance on movement, with many real pilot manoeuvres from the first World War. Flanking, passing and turning are all crucial.

Although you control a squad of four pilots, there is no perma-death. Sorry XCOM fans.

Last year, Firaxis showed the world with XCOM: Enemy Unknown that it had the chops to create a deep strategy game using console-based UI and control methods.

Historically the realm of the mouse and keyboard, the hardcore strategy genre is both enticing yet intimidating for those who fear being bogged down in myriad mechanics and reams of data.

I for one can’t fathom playing a game like Civilization V. I get stressed when trying to ignore side missions in GTA games for goodness sake. But even though XCOM’s base management frazzled my mind at the outset, I endured and it became less scary with each turn.

Now, Firaxis has turned its hand to the iOS strategy market once more in Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol, a flight combat game that uses a simple touch control system to create something intuitive and accessible, but no less tactical than its forebears.

I spoke with the game’s lead producer Lena Brenk just before Ace Patrol launched, to discuss the challenge of broadening the strategy genre’s appeal without alienating hardcore fans. Brenk stressed that the concept came from Sid Meier’s interest in bringing the Firaxis strategy format to a small, contained but deep strategic experience.

“It was a learning experience”, Brenk suggested, “because we know how to do fun gameplay in the strategy genre. Doing this for a different format was a learning curve, but also a very exciting one.

“Many of the guys working at Firaxis obviously play on mobile devices, but the timeframe it takes to develop mobile titles is much smaller, so communication structures need to be different – more direct – to cope with that. Everything’s a bit more condensed and intense”.

While the Ace Patrol team was separate to the same group that developed XCOM: Enemy Unknown, there are stark differences between how both teams work. Brenk felt that having a smaller team working on the game led to an open hierarchy, with more room for quick discussion and brainstorming.

The end result is a turn-based game that absolutely does offer a wide range of strategic tenets, from grid-based movement, special high-flying manoeuvres and management over your pilots. Yet it doesn’t get mired down in complex control functions. I asked Brenk about the complexities of Ace Patrol’s movement mechanic.

“It’s hex and turn-based,” Brenk replied. “So you move all your planes in each turn then your opponent takes their turn. It’s a lot to do with getting in the right position and anticipating where the enemy will go so you end up behind them, or to flank them.

“Different aircraft can do different manoeuvres, they might turn in a smaller radius – which is important when trying to turn around as fast as possible. So it’s about using those manoeuvres to get into position so that you don’t get shot at, but can still fire at the enemy”.

It’s maybe just me but by this point in our conversation my feeble, non-strategic mind was already racing at the intricacies of Ace Patrol’s movement alone. But it’s certainly interesting, and coupled with individual pilots capable of pulling off different stunts and skills, the formula simply grew deeper.

“You start with one ace that you pick out of a selection of four, and they all have different special skills,” Brenk explained. “For example you can use clouds to hide in battle, but then you can’t do any of the really intricate manoeuvres like loops, the Immelmann turn or other high-end moves. But one special skill is that you can do those moves while in clouds. I like that one a lot.

“Others help you in between missions. So when you crash, your plane gets repaired quicker, meaning you can return to missions faster as that pilot. It’s a bit different depending on your approach – how offensive or defensive you usually play”.

Don’t worry about pilots being downed however, there’s no perma-death like in XCOM. The lightest penalty is they have to sit on the bench for a while as their plane is being repaired, but if shot down over enemy territory they may wind up in a prisoner of war camp, or hospitalised if on friendly soil. The length of penalties depends on your difficulty level.

It’s clear Ace Patrol is a game brimming with strategic elements, and given the critically success of XCOM last year, I asked Brenk if both her team and the XCOM mobile teams had much in the way of overlap or knowledge sharing during the game’s development.

“I don’t think anyone ever switched teams aside from one UI engineer,” Brenk recalled, “but at Firaxis we do communicate quite a bit between teams, just because it was a learning experience for us to take the mobile approach, and to find out what works and what doesn’t. The games aren’t so different, but in the end we took different approaches”.

“They’re different beasts, so I think the challenges the XCOM team had were very different. Because we were making a new IP we didn’t have to respect any old game that was already there and already revered by players. As it was new, the challenges were in the user interface, and communicating that to the player.

“If you look at Civilization, and how many tools we have – that’s not an option on mobile because you don’t have a mouse. Because you can’t ‘mouse over’ elements, how do you communicate all the information?”

Regardless of logistical and design challenges between mouse and keyboard strategy games, when compared to console games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Civilization Revolution, there does seem to be a growing resurgence in the turn-based strategy genre. I closed our chat by asking Brenk if the feeling around Firaxis was the same.

“We’ve done a lot of turn-based games,” Brenk concluded. “We love those games, and we never quite felt they were dead anyway. So for us it’s exciting at the moment to see that it can be more accessible than it was a few years ago.

“For us it feels natural in mobile – the way you just take your turn and then send it over to friends to take their turn. That’s a natural thing that works very well, so for us it’s exciting to look at all those opportunities, and to see how fun gameplay can be had in a new medium.”

Although Ace Patrol is free, you will hit a pay-wall after completing the first six missions of the British campaign, but it should still give you a flavour of what to expect. Check out the game’s iTunes page here to try it.

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