Reviewed: November 10, 2005
Released: September 30, 2005
The PlayStation 2 library is fairly light in the air combat genre – off the top of my head, I can think of only one big player, and a handful of forgettable also-rans. Ubisoft has thrown their hat in the ring with Heroes of the Pacific, which sports a WWII Pacific theater theme.
We don’t often find prop-driven flight games landing on the Game Chronicles desk, so we thought we would take it for a spin. And what we found was a pretty darn good time.
Heroes of the Pacific follows the story of two young Navy recruits, the brothers William and Charlie Crowe. William and Charlie had been raised by their father, who was once a top Air Force pilot, but had been severely injured while helping save a fellow pilot during a training exercise accident. The boys grew up on a family farm, where they taught themselves to fly using their father’s old barnstormer airplane.
When the boys entered the Navy just prior to the US involvement in WWII, they were shipped to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where they took up service; William as a fighter pilot, Charlie as a sailor on the USS Arizona. When the air raid alarms sound, signaling the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, William is quickly called to the skies, where he witnesses his brother’s ship being sunk by the Japanese. William vows to avenge his brother’s death, and from that declaration we get Heroes of the Pacific.
Heroes of the Pacific is not too far a stretch from any other combat fighter you will find on the market – over the course of a loosely-tied story, you will strike a variety of air and land-based aggressors and targets from the cockpit of a number of interesting aircraft.
Where Heroes of the Pacific differs from the others – like Namco’s popular Ace Combat series – is the relatively realistic early 1940’s World War II themed settings and locations. That means no high-tech targeting systems, no high-speed jet engines – Heroes of the Pacific is raw, propeller-driven dogfighting and bombing, which loosely follows the timeline of events within the Pacific theater. Ultimately, this means is that the physics are completely different from what we have come to expect from our flying games, so even the seasoned Ace Combat veteran will need to reevaluate his training and adjust to the new relatively low-altitude, dogfighting physics models.
Throughout the course of the story, Heroes of the Pacific puts players in the cockpits and gunner seats of a number of different aircraft styles – fighter planes, torpedo bombers, dive bombers, even large-scale bombers. Obviously, each of these planes has its own role to play in the battle, and therefore some are better suited for certain missions than others. The game allows players to choose from their cache of unlocked allied planes prior to the start of each campaign mission, so carefully examining mission objectives is a must.
The missions themselves are quite exciting – often featuring as many as 50 to 100 planes, boats, and warships onscreen at one time. Each mission will find you hanging by the edge of your seat, trying to pick out the zeroes from the heroes, amidst the rain of gunfire and concussion charges.
To help things out, Heroes of the Pacific employs a unique system of visual indicators, which not only highlight enemy targets, but also point out the proper targeting areas leading the enemy aircraft. By this, I mean that initially a hollow red reticle will appear over enemy target, but if you nudge your aim slightly ahead and above the fast moving target the reticle becomes solid indicating the “sweet spot” based upon all of the factors (aircraft speed and direction, gravity, bullet velocity) that come into play. It works surprisingly well, although it took me a while to get away from the mindset of shooting directly at a target.
The only real problem I have with the mission structure is that it is often nebulous as to what is actually being required of the player. You will be asked to “save” or “protect” a specific number of objects – be it hangers, warships, fellow pilots…whatever – without any instruction telling you what exactly you need to do to accomplish the feat. Generally, it just boils down to shooting enemy targets over and over until suddenly the game congratulates you on completing the objective – but if that’s the case, why didn’t they just say “keep splashing zeroes until further notice” rather than leave us guessing?
Each campaign mission has a progression of main and secondary objectives, with a few scattered checkpoints to restart should you be shot down or crash. On the default difficulty level, the only real reason you will ever find the need to restart will be because you ran yourself into the ground – nebulous or not, the missions afford enough time and your plane takes enough gunfire, that pretty much every mission can be nailed down in a single attempt. Only those missions that require you to fly close to the ground will pose any real threat, and only if you try to turn too tight and end up clipping a wing or roll too far. The entire campaign portion of the game can easily be completed over the course of a weekend.
But the campaign only acts as an introduction to a fairly engaging set of multiplayer modes – which can be played via either splitscreen, LAN or Online with up to seven players on the GameSpy network. At the time of this review, the online community was still very small – but with the variety of single-player and team-based games, and play using the planes unlocked during the campaign mode, the online offering is very solid.
Heroes of the Pacific is the proverbial mixed bag when it comes to the visuals – certain items are top-shelf, and others are downright dreary.
Top-shelf items would include the gamer’s controlled plane, certain effects like smoke and clouds, and especially the menu and loading screens – which are cleverly modeled to resemble pro-war propaganda posters from the 40’s. In fact, these are probably some of the best looking menu screens that I have seen – then again, I used to be an amateur collector of 40’s memorabilia, so this kind of stuff appeals to me.
The gamer’s plane is sharp and bright, and little details like articulating flaps on the wings, and neat effects like screen cracking add to the overall effect. Clouds are tangible, three-dimensional objects floating in the environment, and have a realistic vapory texture. And enemy planes – when shot down – explode and dive to the ground in a realistic fashion.
The rest of the visuals, however, are fairly lackluster; enemy targets lack the definition and shading of the gamer’s plane, and the ground is a muted mess of colors that look passable from the sky, but downright ugly from up close. This all can be forgiven considering the impressive amount of items onscreen at any given time, but it does make some objects difficult to differentiate from the rest.
I am always a sucker for an orchestral soundtrack, and Heroes of the Pacific is one of the better examples of how to do thing right. Taking notes from the Medal of Honor series, Heroes of the Pacific features period-appropriate arrangements and themes that really help set the right mood.
In order to be realistic, air combat games are generally a bit sparse on sound effects; other than the constant drone of your own engine and the rat-tat-tat of your own guns, you aren’t really going hear much from enemy planes – ant least not until it is too late. That being said, the cockpit sound effects are average, or slightly above, what we see from the genre.
Now, as for the voice acting – that was really, really strange in its seeming duality. Within the cutscenes, the voice acting was superb; with proper emotion and inflection to appropriately convey the excellent, albeit predictable, scriptwriting. But the in-game voiceovers were downright horrible; the same actors now emotionlessly reciting poorly written lines like “My brother was on the Arizona! I’m going to hunt down the people responsible and make them pay!”.
For all of the action, Heroes of the Pacific is a relatively short game – it can easily be finished over the course of an evening or two. There is a respectable online mode that adds some longevity to the title – but the online community for this game is fairly thin at this time, so it is difficult to judge whether or not this will even be a factor in a few month’ time. I expect not.
Considering Ubisoft’s recent fumbles – 187 Ride or Die, Rainbow Six Lockdown – Heroes of the Pacific is definitely one of the better Ubi releases in 2005.
While not the most impressive air combat game, Heroes of the Pacific takes a very respectable stab at the genre. The superb visual styling definitely makes up for the otherwise uninspiring visuals, and the low level of difficulty at least helps keep the game moving without forcing you replay missions over and over.
With that said, Heroes of the Pacific is definitely tailored to the online gamer, and Ubisoft’s attempt to create the same wave of excitement that the Xboxers had with the similarly themed online blockbuster Crimson Skies. The verdict? Close, real close, but no cigar.
Still, with the short length and easy difficulty, Heroes of the Pacific makes a respectable weekend rental for any gamer.