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Game Name:  Heroes of the Pacific
Developer:  Transmission Games
Publisher:  Ubisoft
PC Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  December 1, 2015

Life’s unexpected twists seem to be gobbling up an autumn season that has traditionally been a time to recharge my batteries and work through an ever-expanding backlog of computer games.  Between a promotion at work, a last minute request to teach an economics class at my alma mater, my stepdad being diagnosed with cancer, and the happy news that my wife is pregnant with our first child, it has been all I could do to hang on until the long Thanksgiving weekend.  Amidst the hustle and bustle of preparing a nursery for the newest member of our family, I happened across my flight stick, which had been missing since our last housing move.  Between this chance finding and a year’s passage to dull the frustration from my retrospective on Wings of War, it seemed like the perfect moment for a return to gaming’s virtual skies.  This time, though, I would forego the biplanes and triplanes of the Great War for the sleek and fast monoplanes of World War II.  Back before Ubisoft became one of the industry’s biggest names, Heroes of the Pacific was their chance to bring an outside developer under their wing in order to experiment with the oft-neglected flight simulator genre.  While the publisher’s trademark sense of style and focus on intense action make pieces of this game truly memorable to this day, the experience is a little too monotonous and rough around the edges for a broad recommendation.

At least the first sign of trouble is not found hours into the campaign, after players have already invested too much time to throw in the towel.  No, Heroes of the Pacific lays bare its flaws as early as the first training mission, which takes place above Hickam Field shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Have fun getting airborne while a gruff flight instructor barks orders and slings insults in your general direction over the radio.  Sure thing, jerk; I will throttle up just as soon as you tell me what keyboard command does that!  In an effort to immerse gamers into the world of 1940s aerial combat, Transmission Games flubbed the single most important part of designing a tutorial, which is ensuring people actually learn how to use the interface and default control scheme. Resourceful players will immediately seek a workaround, popping open the gameplay options to teach themselves how to do things like switch between weapon systems, choose a new camera angle, and assign commands to fellow pilots. However, they will be shocked to discover that key bindings cannot be accessed or altered from within the flight mode, so the only solution is to exit entirely out of the mission and return to the main menu.  While far from game-breaking, this type of impediment is obnoxious and just goes to show that little touches like a period-specific instrumental soundtrack and snappy menus, designed to look like propaganda art, cannot cover over the basics of game design when they are poorly done.

Those who choose to slog past this disappointing introduction will find, in Heroes of the Pacific, an arcade style of flyer that greatly benefits from its unique perspective on the war.  How many times have gamers been asked to defend the cliffs of Dover in a Supermarine Spitfire, or escort a bomber group across the Rhine in a North American Mustang?  It is almost as if developers have forgotten that America’s island hopping campaign occurred, so when the opportunity is available to take a Vought Corsair or Grumman Hellcat out on a combat patrol above a vast, empty ocean, it is a new but not unwelcome change of scenery.  Of course, the emphasis on carrier-based aircraft also has novel implications for the gameplay and mission design, which at its absolute best, harkens back to the desperate space battles of the original Star Wars films.  Skimming low over the waves in a torpedo bomber to line up a shot on a mammoth battleship, I could almost hear Gold 5 ordering me to “stay on target” as I dodged anti-aircraft fire on my approach vector.  Then there is the absolute chaos of fleet engagements involving as many as 150 planes at once.  This kind of awesome and unexpected technological feat was enough to catch me off guard for a second, and I could almost hear Grey 2 yelling “there’s too many of them,” before coming to my senses and racing back to defend my home carrier from kamikazes.  Moments like these prove where George Lucas got his inspiration, and also affirm that game developers can make excellent use of his creative wellspring, assuming they can keep the experience tight and focused.

Perhaps an Australian headquarters and its proximity to this history compelled Transmission Games to take a wider view of the air war than was necessary, or maybe it was simply a prior focus on sports titles left them a little too inexperienced to tackle a new genre, but either way, Heroes of the Pacific has a frustrating tendency to oscillate from brilliant to absolutely boring gameplay.  Levels are typically broken down into a number of separate flights, and each has its own unique mission objectives.  So for every scenario where players lead a fighter wing against an enemy airbase, which is the highlight of a given campaign and entails a lot of exhilarating dogfights in planes that handle like sports cars, there is usually a recon mission that occurs beforehand and a ground support mission afterward.  These are inarguably the weakest portions of the game.  To understand why, one need only do a quick internet search for a PBY Catalina and B-26 Marauder, which are the scout and bomber of choice among American forces in this title.  Yes, the digital representations of these planes are as slow and relatively immobile as the pictures suggest, and while flight limitations create a sense of tension as enemy fighters swarm in close, players are best served by avoiding any type of evasive maneuvers in order to provide a stable platform for the gun crew. 

I get it, Heroes of the Pacific alternates its mission design as a way to help paint a complete picture of the war, provide context for the remaining missions in a level, pad the total playtime, and most important of all, give a break between fighter sorties so players do not get sick of this digital sugar.  With that said, a well-intentioned failure is still a failure, and historical limitations aside, there should have been a greater effort made to ensure that the gameplay is still enjoyable in the levels where the hunter becomes the hunted.  If the excellent fighter combat were not marred by its own peculiar problems, I would still consider a half-awesome game worthy of someone’s attention.  However, a number of timed missions that lack a visible countdown clock, and an autosave feature that will regularly record progress after the point where a mission can be salvaged, means there are way too many unneeded restarts.  Toss onto this the somewhat generic complaint that it is necessary to turn off the volume during periods of intense radio traffic, because the term ‘jap’ is used with such frequency that it bores into the brain, and the scale tips decidedly away from a recommendation.  Some of the best air combat in gaming can be found in Heroes of the Pacific, but it is simply not worth dealing with all of the baggage to experience it.

Verdict:  Not Recommended