Title: Blazing Angels
System: Xbox 360 (also on Xbox, PC)
Last summer Ubisoft made its way into the arcade flight game market with Heroes of the Pacific, a fairly solid title that needed just a few upgrades to be considered among the best in the genre. I reviewed that game, gave it a 6.5, and I mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing a Heroes of the Atlantic with the hoped for improvements. Well imagine my surprise when I found out there was another Ubisoft WW2 flying game coming, and in short order too. Not a Heroes game, this one is titled Blazing Angels. Shall we see how they did?
In a step back from the fairly solid story of HOP, Blazing Angels has little or no story whatsoever. Your character isn’t even given a name; instead you are referred to as “Yank”, “Somebody” etc. Instead you are given 3 wingmen to fly with throughout the campaign, and during that campaign you will find yourself all over the world with no reason given, other than hey that’s where things happened in the war. Unlike HOP, which at least tried to make up reasons for you to be where you were, Angels just has you in France for the evacuation at Dunkirk, in England for the Blitz on London, at Pearl Harbor to once again save the day from the Japanese, etc.
First thing I should point out is while I’m reviewing a 360 game here, I don’t have an HDTV, so its very possible that your TV will make this game look far better than the score I’m going to give it. Now, having said that you’re probably thinking I’m going to hammer the game because it looks ugly, or not that much better than the Xbox version, or whatever. You would, in fact be wrong.
While I’m not immediately blown away by the graphics in Angels, they certainly aren’t a steaming pile. Actually while playing the game the graphics are going by too quickly for you to really appreciate them. It’s really only when you are not an active participant, instead merely an observer, when you notice just how much detail has been put into the game. The best example of the level of detail would the cities, London, Paris and Berlin. In each you see large sections of the cities, usually their downtown areas, in various states of repair from pristine to cratered, whole city blocks, with landmarks like the river Thames in London and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. All of these would be immediately recognizable to a resident of those cities.
On the other hand, while the cities look great and the planes look fantastic, enemy trucks and tanks might as well be blocks from an Atari 2600 for all the detail they get. I don’t know if the designers went for scale when creating the land vehicles, but tiny would be the word. The only way I knew I was firing on enemy vehicles was the red arrow hovering above them. Enemy ships suffer the same fate, though not as bad. You can at least SEE them when you’re flying around. Having said that, what you see are ships that don’t get the attention to detail that they received in prior games, like HotP.
The designers went for realism when they did the graphics. Planes and bombs that crash into the ground will billow black smoke after their initial explosion, interfering with your view of the area. As well, when dog fighting or just making extreme maneuvers you will find your screen going darker and darker. This is simulating the g-forces pulling at your body, causing you to black out. While this is a nice touch, I don’t recall ever once having to let go of the stick while this was happening to allow the blood to get back to my brain in game. Well ok, that’s not true. There was one time while I was inverted and very low to the ground, but really, you can basically ignore the entire effect and continue on with your shooting down targets which is pretty disappointing. If you are going to make me suffer through the darkened visuals, at least make them count.
I’m guessing somebody at Ubisoft just refuses to believe that using cultural stereotypes when casting voice actors is a bad thing. Just as in Heroes of the Pacific, you can hear enemy pilots talking, either to you or about you, and once again they sound atrocious. Only now not only is it the Japanese that get the treatment, it’s the Germans too. At least this time the game is equal opportunity insulting, as both the British and the American pilots are just as annoying. I am eager to find out in their next game if every Italian pilot sounds like Mario and Luigi when I shoot them down. Really god awful stuff. If this is the best they can come up with, I don’t know what to say. I’m not supposed to be able to hear the enemy anyway, why not turn up the music and keep it that way?
Speaking of the music, it’s not too bad, and the sound effects are decent. Yeah, that’s really all I can muster when I think of it. I’d like to heap praise on it, honest, but I’ve got my pride.
I had hoped when I heard that Heroes of the Pacific was getting a pseudo sequel in Blazing Angels that they would do me the one small favor of allowing me to control the planes how I wanted. Sadly Ubisoft did not get the memo. The controls were really the only thing keeping Heroes from being a very solid gameplay experience. Everything else could be ignored. So what did Ubisoft do? Did they allow you to customize the controls? No, not even close. Even worse, they actually eliminated more of the control scheme options.
This was done for a reason, I’m guessing, but the only one I can think of isn’t all that good. You see when you are damaged one of your wingmen can tell you what to do to fix the problem and make the smoke go away. Basically you press your wingman command button and he’ll give you the World War 2 equivalent of Trek-Speak (Re-route warp power to the phasers!!), and then you have to play Dance Dance Revolution for a bit to make the changes suggested. This of course occupies plenty of good joystick mapping space, and that leaves out any chance of flying the planes at anything resembling normally. When you add in a target lock on camera button and the four wingmen commands, I’m amazed the plane can fly at all.
What you wind up with after all of this is a lot of commands mapped onto a select few input options. On the right analog stick alone you can start your propeller before taking off, roll your plane, throttle up and down, and fire your secondary weapons, be they rockets, bombs or torpedoes. The left stick obviously controls the rest of your flying controls, they being pitching, banking and even rudder controls if you’re gentle enough with the stick. The right trigger controls your guns, and the left shoulder button raises and lowers your landing gear. Amazingly they didn’t find a use for the right shoulder button for some reason. I guess it was just too convenient.
Again, Ubisoft seems to have taken a step back when this game is compared to its predecessor, Heroes of the Pacific. I’m not even going to talk about how badly this compares to Ace Combat 4 or even 5. In Heroes you moved through the campaign at a reasonable pace. You fought the battles that mattered, and the game felt very close to what I’d imagine those dogfights over places like Guadalcanal and Midway were like. Hundreds of planes fighting it out, wave after wave of bomber squadrons attacking; none of this is in Blazing Angels. There are moments when the feeling hits, like when you defend London from the Blitz, shooting down waves of bombers before they can destroy the Parliament buildings, then going after a squadron of Stukas trying to destroy a bridge across the river Thames, but then it’s gone again, and you’re stuck with completing standard missions. Evacuating Dunkirk, protecting B-17s, flying B-17s over Germany, attacking the Japanese at Rabul then immediately back in Europe to bomb Hitler’s Heavy Water factories. That last mission was a bit of a pain in the ass, as it was a timed flight through Norwegian Fjords. In fact I’d say I died more often on that one level than I did anywhere else in the game. Still, I don’t punish for missions being hard. I punish for them being boring and or derivative, and that one qualifies only because I’ve flown down every single Death Star Trench ever put to digital entertainment, and this felt VERY much like a trench run. All it was missing was Han shooting at Vader to give me a clear shot.
The game doesn’t exactly come with a steep learning curve, as you can learn everything you’ll need to finish the game in about 10 minutes. There are a couple of levels where you must fight enemy aces, but each of these is easily beaten once you learn how to effectively use your wingmen to your advantage. Aside from that, the levels don’t snowball from easy to hard; instead it’s a bit like a yo-yo, with certain levels proving to be harder than others, but none so difficult as to keep you from finishing the game in a weekend.
You do get a fairly robust multiplayer option with Blazing Angels. You can play in both ranked and unranked games, featuring 16 Player Co-op or 8v8 Squadron death-matches. I will say that while the options are nice, they aren’t worth the price of admission if nobody else can be found to play the game online with you, which I found to be the case.
You also get a few lesser modes for replay options, such as one on one fights versus aces in each of the fighter planes found in the game, and some mini campaigns which I’m guessing were just test levels that found their way into the game because content is always nice and they don’t play horribly, so why not? Also included is an arcade mode where it’s you fighting to survive as long as possibly.
Medals are awarded if you complete a level with an Ace rating, meaning you’ve killed enough and done it quickly enough to prove you know your stuff. Planes are also unlocked for multiplayer by completing objectives in the game in an effective manner, adding to the replay.
What it comes down to is if the game were anywhere near as good as even its predecessor, the replay value would be extraordinary. Instead the gameplay makes the options nice but fairly pointless.
If you decided to skip Heroes of the Pacific, put this down and go get it. Better yet, wait the extra month or two it’s going to take for Ace Combat Zero to hit the PS2. If on the other hand you’re desperate for a new 360 game, preferably one that lets you fly, then this here is for you. For a weekend at least. There is some fun and pleasure to be had in this game, but you have to dig farther for it than I like digging usually. The online isn’t bad, when you can find opponents.
WW2. Check. Americans saving the World. Check. Sequel to another game (in spirit if not in name). Check. Aside from one mission which requires you to fly through a sand storm following radio signals to find and photograph Nazi tank units and the superb city graphics, there’s nothing here where originality is concerned. The only other marks for originality I could possibly give this game come from the feature which clutters the controls, so can I really give it marks for originality if it kills the controls? I refer to the DDR repair jobs of course. And no, I can’t reward bad control design. Sorry. I applaud them for trying, but leave that crap at the arcade, or with the Alexs.
The game is about as addictive as Spam. It will satisfy only until something better comes along, then you’ll look at it with a grimace after you’ve had your steak.
The game would have benefited greatly if I was allowed to choose my own plane while flying. And at least this time the designers figured out what the proper end of an aircraft carrier to land on is. That’s a plus, right?
Short Attention Span Summary
I can’t say that I’m eagerly anticipating a Blazing Angels 2, but I am still waiting for a Heroes of Europe. Hopefully Ubisoft goes back to the team that made that one, and forgets it ever made a game called Blazing Angels.