What’s this, a game review on my glass eye? Well, I’ve been in a gaming mood lately so I haven’t been ‘making’ much and thought writing a quick review would keep my hand in on the writing front. Also, a fleeting review of this game at Wired has been getting a lot of criticism today but I found it touched on some salient points about the game that I wanted to talk about myself.

Pocket Planes (App Store link, free) comes from Nimblebit, whose last game, Tiny Towers, was set in a charming 8-bit style world and involved populating a skyscraper with shops and ‘bitizens’ to run them, then keeping them stocked and supplied with visitors. As appealing as the presentation was the gameplay boiled down to the busy-work of restocking shelves and delivering bitizens to their desired floor in order to grind coins and bux to buy more stock and increasingly expensive floors. There was barely any strategy or simulation and my interest waned quickly.

Pocket Planes has a lot more to it, although at first glance you might not notice as you’re still ferrying goods and bitizens to their destination, but this time aboard your very own airline.

Starting in your choice of territory you receive a small fleet of 1- and 2-seater planes and a handful of airports to despatch them to where they can pick up passengers, cargo, or both depending on the plane type. Each job’s fare is proportionate to how far away it is and larger airports have more jobs on offer; the list refreshes every few minutes, as does the marketplace where you can buy new planes either in whole or in part. The planes start small and get huge, with their own range, weight, speed and capacity stats, custom paint options and quirky nicknames inspired by their real-life counterparts.

Once you have your customised fleet up in the air and the cash starts to slowly roll in you’ll want to start expanding. There are two forms of currency to spend on expansion; coins, earned from the majority of flights; and bux, earned from occasional special deliveries and levelling up.

Coins are readily come by assuming your airline is running with even the slightest efficiency and will buy new cities to fly to, extra slots for new planes, airport size upgrades or airport advertising (a rush of jobs at that airport for 8 hours).

Bux are by far the rarer currency and are spent on new planes or the parts to build your own; hurrying a plane to it’s destination; upgrading a plane’s range, speed or weight; or giving your pilots fun costumes (fly with me and you better hope Elvis took flying lessons).

Finally, fill the Level meter by completing jobs and you get a handful of bux, an increase on the number of airports you can own, and better planes in the marketplace.

Online play is served by Global Events, Flight Crews, and the swapping of spare parts you don’t need (at the cost of one bux). Form or join a crew by entering it’s name on the Flight Crew screen and all jobs you do that are connected to a Global Event go towards a Crew score. The Crew with the highest score at the end of the Global Event period (usually several realtime days each) shares bux and coin rewards amongst them. The events, including the special Global Event that Crews take part in, can take place anywhere in the game world and can offer small bonuses or shut your airports down for period of time. If you haven’t got an airport in that part of the world, you can’t take part or be affected.

Where you go from here is completely down to you but what you’re supposed to do is buy better planes, make more money, and expand your airline across the globe, which brings me to the criticism Wired had, that there’s not much else beyond the ‘despatch planes, earn cash, upgrade, repeat’ cycle. This is not entirely true; in fact, Pocket Planes successfully hides a fair bit of depth and strategy away in the gameplay, but you have to find it for yourself.

For example: if you choose jobs so that everyone on board is going to the same place you get a 25% bonus on the fare; if you’re not careful with the jobs or flight plan the fuel can cost more than you’re earning, running the business into a money pit early on; with multiple destinations on board you can make the effort to stop at each leg and refill the empty seats, or do the whole thing as one journey which requires less attention at the expense of profits; you could run an inefficient but still-profitable airline flying stuff wherever it needs to go as you find it, or you could be more organised and allocate some 2-seaters to ferry longhaul passengers to a hub city to be picked up by dedicated jumbo jets, while the rest of your fleet make quick cash doing the shorthaul stuff.

Efficient flightpath planning is definitely where the depth lies in Pocket Planes. Your opening strategy will always be to pick up the most valuable cargo at every airport, drop it all off and get some more. However, as your web of destinations widens and the long-distance fares go up, so does fuel cost and the need to strategically balance longhaul with intermediate dropoffs to keep profits up, then evolving that strategy further as you thread your way across the globe.

(This game and Plague Inc. have improved my knowledge of global geography an embarrassing amount.)

But while it’s undoubtedly satisfying to have planned and executed such a strategy, without deeper flightpath management options like you find in such desktop management sims as Railroad Tycoon it can get tricky to keep track of just what you’ve tasked each plane with. This organisational effort is perhaps why a more casual player may never even consider evolving from their initial strategy, dooming themselves to low margins and slow expansion.

However you play it, your interaction with the game for 90% of the time consists of picking jobs and sending the planes up; there are no other gameplay distractions or money-spinners. For example, you can’t invest in businesses at the airports to earn money outside the jobs system, compete with other airlines in-game, research particular technologies to suit your style of play, or task your planes with anything more out of the ordinary than the global ‘Flight Crew’ jobs. And once you start to need 30+ bux per new plane or 50,000 coins for a decent airport the amount of work you need to do to earn it can start to feel more like joyless grinding unless you buy some bux with real money.

But this is critiquing on a high level; I didn’t expect a deep management simulation, especially after Tiny Tower, so to find any sort of emergent depth to the gameplay is an unexpected treat. Three days in and I’m still embarrassingly addicted to ferrying my bitizens around the world while I work towards my next planned expansion. In fact, I’ve enjoyed it so much that I think just on principle it’s worth the £2.99 they’re asking for a healthy 200 bux.

If you’ve skipped to the end, there’s plenty to enjoy in Pocket Planes for anyone that likes casual management and simulation games, but it will probably hold your attention longer if you invest some thought into an efficient strategy for your airline’s expansion. Otherwise, the basic grind might lose you after a few days.

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