Heroes of the Pacific

Action film inspired FPS titles have taken the WW2 by storm, covering many of the most historically significant battles of the era by putting players in the shoes of its soldiers as they fought their way against a relentless enemy. And now Ubisoft and Australian dev house IR Gurus Interactive bring out Heroes of the Pacific offering one of the few action titles set in the skies of WW2 as pilots battle for survival over the Pacific Theater. Forget the heat seekers. This is dogfighting.

Heroes of the Pacific was flown on a PC. It is also available for the Xbox and the PS2.

No Love Triangles Here

Heroes places you in the shoes of William Crowe, a farm boy who happens to be good at dusting crops in a broken down biplane. William and his brother eventually join the United States Navy to make something of themselves. William trains as a pilot in the Navy while his brother becomes a sailor. The two of are eventually posted at Pearl Harbor. William heads off to the hangars at Hickham Field while his brother receives a posting as a sailor…on the Arizona.

December 7th, 1941 throws you into the midst of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl as William Crowe is called to scramble his plane before it is destroyed by the Japanese raid. Losing his brother to the attack, William vows revenge as he takes part in the most important battles of the Pacific Theater as WW2 pulls the United States into conflict.

Get A War Job

The first thing I have to say is that if you are expecting the kind of realistic experience that an IL-2 Sturmovik will bring you, you might be disappointed. If anything, Heroes of the Pacific owes more to Crimson Skies and Secret Weapons Over Normandy than anything else in both it’s approach to action and the presentation of the story.

The story of William Crowe is told through WW2 propaganda inspired animations and clips from black and white newsreels. The whole presentation also extends into the menus and the verbiage of the system options that you can fool with, immersing the player in the flavor of the period, especially in between the campaign missions as events are recapped and new ones introduced. Even the briefings have the kind of line scratches that you’d see on old film. Some might not like the serial ‘feel’ of the propaganda look of Heroes, but given it’s action oriented focus, I thought it worked out. As for historical accuracy, though, it only uses the framework of the Pacific Theater battles for its missions as the game throws Crowe into the pivotal battles. Quite a bit of liberty is taken here to make Crowe a one man flight group as you can score more kills in one battle than most US aces combined during the war. Despite that, the newsreel footage and the historical asides that Crowe narrates make you feel as if you were watching the History Channel.

On the PC, you can fly using the mouse and keyboard, but since I had a Sidewinder, I opted to fly using that instead. In fact, the manual strongly suggests using a flight stick to play the game with. Rudders are also supported for the hardcore out there that might have them and you can change the assignment keys. Then it’s off to the wild blue yonder with some flight training. Or if you want, you can just jump right into the other modes and start shooting. Options include the Campaign, Missions mode for replaying the ones that you’ve unlocked from Campaign, Instant Action, Multiplayer, Historical Missions (that need to be unlocked in Campaign), and the aforementioned Flight Training to dust off your skills.

The core of the game centers on the Campaign that follows William Crowe across the Pacific. Early on, you only get to fly one kind of plane but as you progress, more planes will become available, each with their own characteristics in terms of such things as armor and handling. When you start the campaign, you will need to choose what difficulty level you want to play the game at. This is pretty important especially if you want to unlock as many planes as you want for use in the title’s other modes or in earning upgrade points to improve what you’ve got to fight with during the campaign itself. Whenever you upgrade your plane, though, it does it by giving you an enhanced model instead of allowing you to focus points or improvements in certain areas which would have been nice to see in a title like this.

When you go into battle with your plane, you’ll also need to pick whether or not you want “Arcade” controls which offer a simplified flight control scheme, tying together your ailerons and rudders for simple left-right up-down movement, or “Professional”. “Professional” will give you the sim controls that allow you to control rudders and ailerons separately much like in a real plane.

After selecting your control scheme, you’re brought into the Workshop where you can do a variety of things depending on what your plane is capable of doing. All planes can have their gun ‘harmonization’ altered. What this means is that you can set the guns to fire ‘wide’ allowing you to hit targets more often but with a slight decrease to damage, ‘normal’, or ‘tight’ which narrows the cone of fire you have resulting in more damage per shot if you can hit your targets. Bomb load and rockets can also be changed to some degree. Fans of Crimson Skies might chafe at how limited these options are, but they still do the job and can make the difference between destroying your objective or watching the enemy get away.

Your plane is flown from a chase camera view or you can switch to a ‘zoomed in’ view with the plane onscreen. There’s no cockpit view available, nor does the game make use of a hat switch to allow you to pan and look around you for situational awareness. As a result, you get the feeling that you’re basically flying ‘straight ahead’ all the time. A radar icon shows the position of enemies and arrows onscreen point towards the direction of certain objectives that the current mission considers important. Little carats hover over above particularly important objectives such as ships or flack guns, but you’ll basically have to turn your entire plane everywhere you need to go in order to get a look at things since you really can’t move the camera around.

As mentioned before, don’t expect the kind of realism that is found in a title such as IL-2 Sturmovik as Heroes is more action arcade than simulation. Your plane never runs out of hot lead to throw at the enemy and if you’ve got other toys like bombs and rockets, they’ll automatically reload as long as you can stay in the air. Your plane can ricochet off of the ground (but not the water) and whatever you do, don’t ever stall. You never run out of fuel, either, and you can take enough bullets to build a second plane with. You’ll need all of these advantages, too, since the game’s difficulty can suddenly ramp up without warning.

And when you take to the skies, you also have one additional advantage called “war speed” that accelerates your plane well past it’s top speed to get out of sticky situations or to get to where you need to be in a hurry. You can’t use it forever, though, as it will overhead your engine but as it cools, you’ll be able to use it again. As for weapons, you’ll soon find yourself using a variety of bombs, dive bombs, and even torpedoes in various missions.

Manifold Pressure

The graphics of the game on the PC do a pretty decent job, although some of the ground and water textures can look a little bland. The planes look great overall, whether they’re flying or blowing apart. The ships on both sides have also gotten the royal treatment with quite a bit of poly detail given to them so that nearly every gun and cannon can be seen on their decks.

As for special effects, the thumping noise of flack, the explosions, and the clouds that obscure your vision above the flight deck, the burning muzzle flashes of flack fire from destroyers, pilots falling from the sky on parachutes, carriers, and battleships filling the skies overhead with black smoke and witnessing the death of a capital ship as it sinks into the ocean bleeding oil help create some of the most exciting…and sometimes the most frustrating…battles that you’ll be in. Physics round out the graphics, allowing you to dive screaming from the sky or watch as your bombs fly in the wrong direction when you suddenly turn and release at the wrong time.

The title boasts being able to send into the air 150 planes each with their own AI. From the battles I’ve played through in the game, it’s not an empty boast. Several of the later missions in the game have you heading out over the ocean alongside several squadrons that have already taken off from their carriers, filling the skies with planes. Throw in the massive waves of Imperial Japanese flyers that inevitably come knocking, and soon you’ll no longer wonder whether or not you can kill 100 planes personally as a secondary objective that’s given to you.

The AI is pretty competent and you’ll watch it as it is able to dodge, weave, and make the best use of the planes that it is flying at the time. Come in behind a Zero and watch it climb and turn to get the jump on you in your Warhawk as you try and match it. The AI for the Japanese aces that Crowe will run into is competently lethal enough to make any prospect of tangling with them something to be concerned about. The AI for your team mates, however, can vary from sharpshooting brilliance to not doing much of anything except fly in circles.

The missions you undertake run the gamut of scouting missions, diversion strikes, and attacks launched against entire fleets. And yes, escort missions are also here but they’re not back to the degree that every other mission is considered an escort job. Most of the time, you’ll be busy just trying to stay one step ahead of the IJN or in trying to survive the defenses of the next base that you are being sent against. The escort missions that are there, though, are still pretty challenging.

The voice acting is a mixed bag with some of the lines in the game sound as if they were just being read straight from the script, or where the actor simply didn’t know how to pronounce certain names or places such as “Taroa”. Some cries of desperation in the game don’t particularly sound…desperate…as someone cries for help or in defeat with all of the excitement of Ben Stein.

But something that I never expected to hear from the Marines that took Iwo Jima or from the American fleet in the middle of battle was the amount of whining that they lay into you as when supposedly hardened veterans start whining for you to save their asses. Not just requesting help, but actually whining that you’re not getting their message. Some will even start swearing at you to get back and help them out and while I’m all for colorful dialogue, a lot of it didn’t help the feeling like a flying nursemaid.

Some of the voice acting can also border on the repetitive side, especially when a lot of the same lines are used over and over again using the colorful language of the time. You’ll hear a lot of “Uh, oh, you’ve got Tojo trouble.” if someone is on your tail or “Take that, Tojo!” (if you’re wondering who Tojo is, he was Japan’s Prime Minister at the time). When you get pulled into a furball with fifty plus planes, expect everyone to start punching that radio dial.

The music overall was pretty good, being a mix of bombastic 1940’s inspired sounds along with one or two Japanese flavored pieces. The menu tunes give you that “Go get ’em” feeling that the propaganda inspired production values try and emphasize while in battle, the music also helped although some of it could become repetitive in extended dogfights.

Heroes also has multiplayer over LAN or Gamespy (this last one requires you to have a Gamespy account), supporting eight players per game. Game types include dogfights, capture the flag, “Fox and Hound” with one player as the fox and everyone else hounds as they try to take him out, and “Scratch One Flat Top” where each team of players have to defend their own carrier from being sunk. The Xbox has multiplayer over Live! and the PS2 version also has multiplayer gametypes. There are quite a few unlockable planes available at the higher difficulty levels if you crave even more action.

In addition to this, the game also offers historical missions based off of events that had happened in the war, placing you in the shoes of those that took part in those actions to see if you can accomplish what they did…or do it better. And when you finish the game, you can play through all of the missions with the Japanese planes that you’ve unlocked. And as for William Crowe’s story, while it wasn’t anything that will make Michael Bay green with envy, it wasn’t a bad piece of storytelling despite the sometimes sophomoric delivery and a few odd wrinkles. One such wrinkle was in seemingly switching between telling his story and his narration of the historical events as if he were talking to someone after the war was over. The characterizations of the rest of your squad is also pretty lacking, most of your interaction with them relegated to what you hear over the radio chatter during battle or from what Crowe relates in his recaps in between missions. The rewarding ending rounds off the rest of the presentation in top form.

Loose Lips Might Sink Ships

I like a good challenge and Heroes is chock full of the kind of challenges that will make you wish for more torpedo chasing in Starlancer or in stealing Imperial shuttles while being chased by Tie Fighters from X-Wing: Alliance. But the balance of the difficulty in Heroes either tips toward the pathetically easy five minute missions to brutal and grueling hour long marathon sessions of restarts as you try and survive the gauntlets of death that have been reserved for you alone. This can be aggravating, especially if you don’t want to repeat having to fight through waves of fighters again just to get to where you were at before you quit. If you were a fan of either Crimson Skies or Secret Weapons over Normandy and thought that they were in any way too difficult to play through, Heroes might not be what you want to get into.

Unlike CoD or Brothers in Arms which pushed the concept that you were never alone, you never shake that feeling as you progress and are asked to to take on one objective after another…some starting up before you are able to finish others. The checkmate save system can also put you in an awkward position, especially if it saves when your plane is battered after which the fleet asks you to destroy enemy troops on the ground covered by flak and machine gun fire.

Why an option to outfit your squadron was left out is a mystery but it certainly would have made them more effective especially when you have to do something as daring as sinking capital ships. Even if you upgrade your plane, your squadron continues to fly the same heaps in whatever class of plane they’ll be flying at the moment. And if you forget to carry something such as bombs powerful enough to deliver damage in a short amount of time and you find you need them later on in a mission, you may have to start the mission over again with the right ordinance. This can get aggravating especially if you’ve managed to clear a particularly difficult section of the same mission and now find that you have to do it again all again.

Technical issues included some weirdness of where a base reported back that they survived an attack…which is considered a victory condition…only to get killed by an enemy bomber that you didn’t kill. So, at one point you win but lose at the same time and the mission is failed. Another issue includes the invisible barriers around the play areas that automatically turn you around if you stray too far. Some games are nice enough to turn you around and put you back in the playing field while keeping the enemy away. Not Heroes. Not only do you have to watch as your plane is automatically turned, but if you had someone on your tail, you’re easy prey since your plane is out of your hands for those few seconds.

Hero of the Pacific

Casual pilots and weekend warriors might not like the brutal seesaw difficulty of the game and veterans might find the shortcomings in terms of controls or customization a step back from what some other titles have already done before. Despite that, it does have a lot of action packed dogfights that can literally fill the skies with flying lead, shattered steel, burning flak, and the withering fire of enemy pilots as they emerge from the clouds overhead. In the moments when it does all comes together, it can be a lot of fun. Heroes may not be what some pilots may be looking for, but it is a commission that is still worth a look.

– World 1-1