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Air Mail for iPhone and iPad

It’s rare to find entertainment-for-all-ages titles in the iOS App Store. Typically, there’s little room between the throngs of uber-casual titles and the hardcore ports to find a game that has both the depth and breadth to be truly recommendable to all types of gamers. But Air Mail, a new flight simulator published by Chillingo (who discovers mobile studio talent better than anyone), might be just such a standout.

You play as an upstart delivery pilot stationed on an island chain who must use his pilot skills to deliver cargo, fish, put out fires, and eventually freedom fight over several wide open worlds. While lacking in polish, this flight simulator is a charming and original ride.

The initial training missions will get you acquainted with Air Mail’s basic controls. But discovering whether you prefer tilt or button controls, how to successfully execute hairpin turns, and how to use the various camera angles to your advantage are all things that you’ll learn how to do over the several hour campaign.

The campaign does a good job of mixing up the level selection, with visually diverse worlds, and different characters move in and out of the story. My frustration with Air Mail is that many of its missions are similar: Collect X number of Y object or pick up Z object before landing. The war-themed missions require you to fly through enemy fire—adding some much needed excitement—but this is a flight delivery simulator, so don’t expect dogfights or loop-de-loops.

In between the cute artwork and aww-shucks attitude of Air Mail is a surprisingly dark story of a civilian airmail pilot who challenges a rival nation’s resource-gathering. That ignites a war, forcing the pilot to defend his adopted home from annihilation. And when I say “annihilation,” I don’t mean you’re flying some abstract mission to get a message to the front lines. I mean you’re flying through flak, around zeppelins, and over a city in flames. Air Mail packs a surprising emotional impact to see the town you flew over only missions before now in flames as bombs are dropped on it—and here you are, without a weapon.

The core gameplay is built around simple aviation, and while its physics are more on the cartoonish side, they’re forgiving enough to allow you to avoid most obstacles. Meanwhile, the sound effects do the job, but you’ll quickly get exasperated by the ethnically stereotyped narration, which can be mildly annoying at times to downright insulting at others. The art style is equally hit or miss—the actual game graphics are quite impressive, reminiscent of the golden age of Rare entertainment environments on the N64 platform. The mission briefings, however, speak to the game’s low budget. The character designs are seemingly for a cuter, different game and the haphazard animation style and ill-timed attempts at humor make you itch to get back into the action.

The game’s three modes—Mission Mode, Express Delivery, and Explore Mode—provide several hours of quality gameplay, though how much you’ll really want to challenge the clock or find items will ultimately determine how much you’ll play any other mode than the core campaign missions.

Chillingo specializes in finding quality studios with quirky, deep games and then gives them a much wider audience. Air Mail is a fun, light game that is easy to enjoy for ten minute bursts, but its appeal may wear thin for longer gaming sessions. While it shoots for a Disney-like touch, Air Mail’s humor and strange story ultimately makes it a bit rougher around the edges—and perhaps more memorable as a result.

Former associate editor Chris Holt remains a frequent contributor to Macworld.

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