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Sid Meier's Ace Patrol: When free is worth paying for

Freemium is a dirty word, but Sid Meier's Ace Patrol reminds us why we love demos.

I've been tricked. Well, tricked isn't the right word; let's go with "successfully marketed to" instead.Sid Meier's Ace Patrol launched on iOS today, and while slapping "Sid Meier" onto just about anything is a sure-fire way to get my wallet open I was a bit chagrined to see "Free" where a dollar sign and some numbers should be. It's a strange feeling to be terrified of getting something for, ostensibly, nothing. But we've been down this road many times: game development is expensive, and those costs need to be recouped somehow--in 2013, that means a whole mess of in-app purchases.

Ace Patrol is a curious case. To start: it's fabulous. As leader of a squadron of World War I pilots, you're tasked with helping your nation win military victories by provide crucial air support, which might mean intercepting reconnaissance planes, taking out the occasional war zeppelin, or defending convoys from enemy pilots. It's also a combat flight simulator at a glacial pace: you'll be rolling your planes to evade enemy fire or climbing and diving to win altitude superiority or scoot out of a tricky situation, but it's all turn-based.

The battlefield is divided up by a hexagonal grid, and a plane's altitude is represented by a few notches above or below them. Icons represent potential movement points, which are limited by a pilot's ability. They'll start with the ability to fly slowly or cover a few more hexes with a quick burst, and make rudimentary banking turns. As they earn experience by taking out enemies and completing objectives, they'll be promoted and learn groups of maneuvers (rolls and loops, for examples) or complex "Ace" abilities like the acrobatic Immelman turn.

The game doesn't hesitate to drag you in. Each mission doubles as a sort of tutorial, easing you in to the action with an intuitive interface and terse instructions--no heady expositions or endless "training missions" here. While turn-based, the frenetic pace means battles can be a calculated affair or (in my case) a haphazard dogfight that hinges on fighters that are a bit more maneuverable, and getting to the right hex at the right time. In short, I blitzed through the first leg of the British World War I campaign in short order (on a fairly low difficulty level, admittedly) before I'd reached the first paywall and realized I was in fact only playing a demo. The rest of the campaign would set me back $0.99, while the others (French, American, and German) can be had for $1.99 a piece, or in a bundle for $3.99.

That's five bucks for the whole shebang--I'm not sure why anyone would pay more to buy the campaigns individually--and frankly, it's a steal. But it also got me thinking: my heart sank when I first saw that Free label, with memories of Gameloft's Dungeon Hunter 4 and EA's Real Racing 3 still bumbling in my head. And my heart sank again when I saw I'd need to fork over cash to keep leading my squadron to victory--but why?

I spent $60 on Battlefield 3, a title I'm sure is excellent but have yet to actually install. My Wii U gamepad's layer of dust rivals the dust on my long-abandoned Wii, and the stack of games in my Steam library that sit untouched are sure signs of my willingness to support developers (or take advantage of sales). So what's the deal with free?

I don't buy the argument that it's a value proposition--some might say that if you're giving it away, it can't be worth very much. But I grew up playing shareware versions of Commander Keen, Jill of the Jungle and Doom, and certainly know the value of a good demo. Maybe it's that latent feeling that we're being hoodwinked? If there were a $5 pricetag right up front I wouldn't have thought twice about spending a bit of cash. And while there are opportunities to browse the in-app purchase store or buy new pilots for $0.99, I tend to treat these options like billboards on the side of buses; they're invisible, to my eyes.

Here's why Ace Patrol got my money, and is worth yours: demos get the job done. The freemium model typically relies on slapping advertising everywhere, or hampering your progress unless you're willing to juggle in-game currencies. Download Ace Patrol and you'll get a sample of the full experience, without artificial barriers or cynical attempts at getting you to reel your friends in on social networks. It's an old-fashioned approach that works, and works well. There's even a multiplayer mode that doesn't require you to spend a dime--you'll be limited to a few planes, but it's a great way to get your friends in on the action without harassing them over Facebook. Hey developers? More of this, please.

Sid Meier's Ace Patrol will set you back $5. I mean, it's free to download, but you'll see what I mean when you grab it from Apple's App store.


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