Review: If nothing else, the one reason to play Blazing Angels is to hear your wingman/mechanic Joe say, "HAAAALLLLPPP!!!"
The Xbox 360 certainly has plenty of games in the action and shooting categories, but none of them fall into the subcategory of flight combat ? Blazing Angels stands as the first. The WWII-themed title comes from Ubisoft and it is also available on Xbox and PC; the fact that it exists across the original Xbox up to the Xbox 360 and PC can be noted quite easily in the Xbox 360 version, for both right and wrong reasons. That is to say, the game uses some graphical touches on the Xbox 360 version that are impressive, but also displays some pretty mediocre presentation in other areas that is obviously catering to the lower-powered Xbox. Blazing Angels is well featured and contains some reasonable action, but there's just something missing to really make the title a mainstay for the average gaming rotation.
The modes of play are fairly robust, with plentiful options available for both single and multiplayer arenas. On the solo side of the ledger, there is a lengthy 18-mission campaign mode, some unlockable mini-campaigns, and an ?ace duel? that lets you fly against some of Blazing Agnels' most formidable opponents ? well? formidable in theory, anyway. The multiplayer offerings are quite good on paper as well, with 16-player deathmatch and CTF variants being available, as well as some inspired game types such as Kamikaze which charges you with ramming your plane(s) into the opposition's base. There are also four-player co-operative modes that allow you and three buddies to go through the single player component of the game, but in slightly harder circumstances (mainly because of human teammates over AI drones).
The meat of the single player portion comes from the campaign, and you'll find yourself ? as an American flyboy ? being instantly transported to various locales throughout Europe and elsewhere, including scout missions in North Africa, blowing up the Japanese fleet over the Midway, and parrying the German onslaught over Britain. Most of the variety in the action missions comes from dogfigting with various enemy squadrons and bombing certain ground targets. This can be fun in certain instances, but many of the adversaries you face aren't very powerful or tactical. The usual strategy of taking out most enemies is just to get behind them by turning very sharply or just straight up shooting down a bunch of them when they're flying at you in formation. Bombing runs and scouting missions (where you have to photograph fleets and identify targets, visually) diversify the action, but these only manage to break the rhythm, somewhat. In fact, some ?alternate? missions end up taking Blazing Angels in the complete wrong direction, as the scouting missions in Africa prove to do. It's not very fun to fly around in a ?sandstorm? that basically makes it impossible to see; it ends up just being frustrating to play, and it's very lazy from a development standpoint, as well.
There are some memorable moments throughout the campaign, though, including some bridge bombing and escorting at Dunkirk, as well as some damage control at Pearl Harbor. While none of these instances are particularly riveting, it is cool to have to jump in a plane very quickly and then rapidly engage an oncoming armada of Japanese fighters or even some rolling German tank convoys.
The game benefits ? in most missions ? with the inclusion of three squad members who assist you in battle. Joe acts as a mechanic of sorts, as he can call out the damaged part o on your plane and then allow you to punch several buttons (think MechAssault 2's mech-jacking minigame) and fix the part. This repair system doesn't really make any sense, and it actually makes the game pretty easy, but hey, dying all the time isn't the best solution, either. Tom is your squad's ace pilot, and he'll usually be the one who is getting pesky fighters off your back. Frank acts as the heavy gunner of the group, and he can be deployed to quickly take out enemy targets with a sort of blitzkrieg attack. The wingmen can be controlled via the d-pad, and it's fairly easy to get them to form up in various combat postures, and you can also use each their special ability (which works on a recharge meter for each). You won't ever really need these guys and their chatter can get pretty hammy, but it would be quite a bit drier during the missions without them.
Once your team is fully involved, the missions end up requiring some level of timing and accuracy, but the Joe repair ability really makes things easy since you get so many replays. Most dogfights end up being fairly easy as well, especially since Tom can get most anybody off your back and Frank just generally dominates. To raise the gameplay above the average level it occupies would've required a more tactical approach to the combat ? at the very least, more than the ?point and shoot? style that the game uses. The lack of dynamic gameplay can also be underscored by the average abilities of your adversaries and the stock ways in which they attack you. Most battles just end up with you getting behind people to waste the majority of their squad, and even the so-called aces of each group end up being fairly weak if you stick on them long enough. Great AI can go a long way in making a game fun to replay, but unfortunately Blazing Angels has pilots who fire back but don't really think a lot while doing so.
Generally speaking, the controls of Blazing Angels do a pretty good job of keeping things relatively simple and they let you focus on the action. The left thumbstick dictates the plane's movement and the right thumbstick operates the throttle and also executes barrel rolls. The right trigger will fire your selected guns and clicking in the right thumbstick will drop bombs or shoot various missiles and torpedoes ? the torpedoes look pretty cool when being dropped into the water towards a Japanese destroyer. The left trigger executes what's called the ?follow camera,? and this is something Ubisoft touted quite heavily. On the whole, it works well and allows you to keep track of an enemy while viewing your plane from a rotating perspective. Not only does this look cinematic, but it also allows for tactical turning and pursuit. Still, the camera definitely takes some getting used to and you'll likely be quite disoriented the first few times you try it ? it still causes problems even when you think you've got it down later on.
Taking Blazing Angels online can ? on paper ? provide some added value, and there are quite a few features and modes to select from, as mentioned above. Many of the 16-player variants can be quite a bit of fun, and the squad tactics you can employ to take on a team of opposition pilots brings back fond (but laggy) memories of Crimson Skies on the original Xbox. With modes like CTF and Kamikaze the action can be varied, but unfortunately the multiplayer offerings of Blazing Angels are severely hindered by a real lack of any user base. The leaderboards show numbers of pilots in the hundreds, which is certainly a far cry from the copious amounts of players in GRAW, COD2, and even some Live Arcade titles. Fortunately, the co-operative elements remain playable, whatever the circumstance, and these campaign missions provide a good dose of fun, especially since you'll have human wingmen who must take on the responsibilities of AI; it doesn't seem like much, but it will change how the game plays. A lack of plane customization obviously hurts an experience like this, and you get the feeling that a lot of people want a bit more of a freeform experience like Crimson Skies rather than something that comes from the trodden and recycled WWII era.
The visuals of Blazing Angels do a good job of setting the scope of many of the battles, and some of the lighting and water effects are actually pretty good (look at the Battle of Britain for some great examples). The acceleration and speed of the planes are captured quite well, and you'll even see a Need for Speed: Most Wanted-type of screen shaking and blurring when the throttle is taxed. It's unfortunate that many levels go a little skimpy on the environmental detail, and some of the textures on the ground, buildings, and tanks look downright ugly. As said before, the lighting does a good job of setting the atmosphere for most of the levels, and there is quite a stark contrast between missions that take place during the day to those that are at sunset. Some variance in how the planes explode and blow apart would've been nice, and the explosions in general (including those on the ground, of the battleships, etc.) leave something to be desired.
The game's audio doesn't fare quite as well, with the music and sound effects being fairly average, and the voice acting hitting some all-time lows for lameness. The musical score does the job of creating some wartime feel; of note are some bombastic medleys in the menus and some elevated orchestral sounds when a situation becomes critical. The sound design for most of the planes, weapons, and ambience are serviceable, but many of them do end up sounding kind of muffled. The effects just don't end up being as gritty and intense as other action titles, and the sound of the plane engines often drowns the battles out. The voice acting in Blazing Angels really stinks out the joint, with the aforementioned Joe sounding totally clich? and ridiculous, and the other two not faring much better. Even worse is the voice work for the German and Japanese pilots. These guys not only speak in English with pathetic stereotype accents, but they deliver such memorable quotes as ?DIE, DIE, DIE!? and ?Just like at Pearl Harbor? HA, HA, HA!? I can see Ubisoft was going for a slight arcade edge for this title, but just doing the voiceover with a much more authentic presentation and dashing in a bit of humor might have gone a long way in making the story much more memorable, but that would've required some substantial script work, as well.
Blazing Angels could take you a good while if you truck through the campaign, complete the ace duels and mini-campaigns, and then go online. There are several achievements to unlock, and each of them is quite challenging (beating the ace duels, completing the game on the harder settings, etc). Those looking for some quick points on their Gamerscore will be disappointed, but the challenge is there for those who want it.
This first flight combat game for the Xbox 360 should be commended for its equally substantial single-player and online offerings, as well as for its feature set. Unfortunately, the game doesn't provide enough dynamic combat or challenge to really keep people playing ? as evidenced with the online player numbers. The presentation is also fairly average, with the voice acting bordering on insulting. This is a decent action game to pad the Xbox 360 library, but certainly not a keeper.