Tencent’s newest first-person shooter game Ace Force is basically Overwatch lite for mobile. But on closer inspection, it’s also reminiscent of both Apex Legends and Borderlands. And it might be as good as a hero shooter gets on a smartphone.

Before the game was even released this week, Ace Force racked up more than 13 million pre-registrations in China. Once released, it jumped to the top of the iOS download chart, and it’s already one of the country’s top 25 highest-grossing games on Apple devices.

Even after several rounds of beta testing, the game from Tencent’s MoreFun Studio Group isn’t quite finished yet. The game will eventually feature four different modes, but only two are playable right now: Deathmatch and King of the Hill. The two upcoming modes are battle royale and bomb defusal.

As an anime-style mobile game, it’s a visually appealing and enjoyable bite-sized version of Overwatch on the go. But the game lacks depth and interaction between characters, so it can sometimes feel flat and often left me wanting for more.

This “Genius Kid” from Ace Force is essentially a clone of Overwatch’s Torbjörn. (Picture: Tencent)

The similarities with Overwatch are not subtle. The game’s starting character is effectively Soldier 76 with a male Tracer skin; a no-frills, all-around shooter who can launch small rocket shots from his assault rifle... with goggles perched on his forehead. Characters are unlocked as you progress, and you quickly get a female sniper similar to Widowmaker and a short turret builder just like Torbjörn before reaching level 5.

Top row: Soldier 76, Widowmaker, Torbjörn. Bottom row: Dragon, Commander, Genius Kid.

So initially it felt like deja vu to me, especially in King of the Hill mode -- where you and your team try to occupy a location on the map for a set amount of time. But it didn’t take long to recognize that character design actually seems to borrow a lot more from Apex Legends.

Unlike the four sets of skills for each character in Overwatch, the characters in Ace Force only have three, just like in Apex Legends. And unlike ultimate abilities in Overwatch, which can be so powerful that they can wipe out the entire opposing team in an instant, ultimates in Ace Force are much more contained. That, too, is more similar to Apex Legends.

These choices make sense for a mini hero shooter like Ace Force, in which a game might finish in just five to ten minutes.

The maps in Ace Force also feel a lot smaller than those in Overwatch. So if Ace Force had ultimates as powerful as Hanzo’s Dragonstrike, there would be no escaping for any of the players, which is no fun.

Out of all 15 characters that are available in Ace Force, some are also reminiscent of Legends from Kings Canyon. For instance, Spark is more or less a Gibraltar clone. She wields a minigun, can put up a shield and call for an airstrike.

But what about the actual gunplay? Well, it’s a mobile FPS, so Ace Force relies heavily on aim assist. This means if your crosshair is close enough to an enemy, it immediately snaps and locks on.

The aim assist is real in this game. (Picture: Tencent)

This can be unsatisfying playing as a sniper because it becomes too easy to hit a target. While the game has other ways of offsetting damage from sniping, it doesn’t make up for the fact that the game feels too simple when playing as a sniper.

If you don’t mind the aim assist, though, the gunplay itself is competent for a mobile FPS. The assist doesn’t really help with aiming problems that many mobile FPS games have, though. Aiming using two thumbs still feels hard, uncomfortable and restrictive.

I also tried playing a couple of games with a friend and self-proclaimed Chinese mobile gaming expert, ChinaEconTalk podcast host Jordan Schneider. (I beat him, so who’s the real gaming expert?) Both of us like the game, but he shared my complaints about the controls.

He also raised another issue: Ace Force lacks interaction and teamwork among the characters.

“The limited controls hamstring two of the best parts of Overwatch: Class interaction and movement mechanics,” Schneider said, “We don’t see enough synergies between the characters of different classes like Mercy and Pharah in Overwatch… It just feels like five characters playing an FPS.”

Most of the healing comes from health packs because we don’t really have a healer. (Picture: Tencent)

This analysis feels particularly true when considering the current character roster. Out of 15 characters, there’s only one healer. In other words, the game really prioritizes combat and de-emphasizes support, diluting the element of collaboration.

So after playing Ace Force, I want to jump back into Overwatch for a better team-oriented experience.

But one area where Ace Force really shines? The art style. Even amid a flood of anime-style mobile games -- NetEase alone has a dozen of them -- Ace Force’s cel-shaded characters look cleaner and more compelling than most.

UI, cutscenes and loading screens are all well done. (Picture: Tencent)

As a cel-shaded FPS game, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the console game Borderlands. Even though Ace Force’s anime-inspired art style is distinct from the American comic-style art of Borderlands, both games have engrossing cel-shaded worlds.

As of right now, Ace Force is limited to China, so it’s not clear if it’ll be a breakout hit for Tencent. But even if you have qualms with Tencent copying yet another game and porting it onto mobile, Ace Force remains a strong entry into the mobile hero shooter genre.