IGN Review of Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII
There's been plenty of good air-combat games on the Xbox, most notably Heroes of the Pacific and Crimson Skies. So how does Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII compare? Well, for every one thing Ubisoft's flyer does well, it does another thing not so well, which in the end results in a decent game with strong multiplayer and online play and a weak single-player experience.
Blazing Angels tells the story of an "elite" group of pilots known as the, well, the Blazing Angels, as they blast through a single-player campaign composed of historic air battles of the second world war. As an American volunteer pilot in England, you start out the game aiding the RAF's defense against blitzkrieg assault by the German Luftwaffe. Along the way you'll meet up with other American volunteers: Joe, the rookie, backwoods mechanic with a Southern drawl; Tom, the cool, voice of reason in the air; and Frank, the gruff, abrasive wild card that thrives on destruction. After the escape from Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, you'll move on to North Africa, then Pearl Harbor, then Midway, then Paris, then Berlin and then that big boat home. How the Angels managed to be transferred more times than Ricky Henderson is a mystery, but it's a treat to be able to fly in the most important missions in the European and Pacific campaigns.
Visually, Blazing Angels is, at times, stunning. Landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben look amazing, as does water, sky and smoke, in particular. You can actually fly under the Eiffel Tower, which may or may not be physically possible, but the sensation you get when strafing enemy gun emplacements beneath the tower as you soar under the iron struts is simply amazing. At low altitudes, the sense of speed is done perfectly and you'll get a bit nervous as you zip under the tower or on the banks of the River Thames. In the Battle of Britain, pitch-black smoke billows into the sky from the ruins of bombed-out buildings. The smoke clouds your vision and casts the entire London skyline in an eerie light.
At other times, the game doesn't look so hot. Enemy planes seem small from afar. Up close, everything looks great, especially as enemy fighters go head to head with you and zip past at blazing speeds. But because enemy planes are highlighted by red brackets, all you see is a sky of red brackets when planes are far away. Enemies on the ground look poor, in general, especially tanks and anti-aircraft guns, both of which look like cardboard boxes with the ability to shoot. For every good-looking landmark in a city, regular buildings look like something out of a game released ten years ago. While explosion look great, there are no sinking ships and bombs don't even leave a mark on the ground when you're taking out bases. When you shoot down a plane, they simply catch on fire and float toward the ground. It would have been nice to see some cool midair explosions or something when you take out a fuel tank. Also, Ubi scrapped a cockpit cam that would have added another layer of gritty realism, so we're stuck with the basic, behind-the-plane cam. In general, the visuals are solid and the good definitely outweighs the bad.
Ubisoft implemented a basic squad combat system. You can assign the three other Angels to attack, defend or regroup, and each Angel has a special ability. This is where things get a little wacky. When your plane bursts into flames and is about to go down, you can call on the mechanic Joe for advice. Joe will reach into the glove box, pull out the owner's manual and tell you something like the main fuel line is busted and you should switch to the secondary line. Then a series of four button prompts will appear, and by pressing X, X, B, Y, or something like that, your plane is magically repaired. That's all fine and dandy, but you can call on Joe countless times during a battle and after the third time you've switched to your secondary fuel line, things seem a bit fishy. For one, you only have one secondary fuel line. Two, you are basically invincible as you can always call on Joe to heal you. All you have to do is wait a minute for his "special move" meter to refill and he's ready to assist again. It would have been a great idea to cap Joe at perhaps two repairs per level because the game is already too easy, it would have added a dash of realism and you would have had to actually think about the best time to use Joe.
At the same time, planes on fire perform at the same level as a full-strength plane. Wouldn't it have been a good idea if there was area specific damage? Imagine taking too much fire on the left side and your left engine goes out and you have to steer to the right to compensate. Better yet, imagine you've used up Joe's magic repairs and have to land your beat-up plane on a carrier. With the current setup, you never feel like you're in any real danger. Also, you only land your plane like twice throughout the entire single player campaign, which is a shame because landing is fun.
Moving on to your other squad mates. Tom has the uncanny special ability to taunt enemy fighters that are putting bullets in your hull. These fighters are so enraged by whatever Tom is doing (he doesn't insult them over the radio and there are no cutscenes of Tom flipping the bird), that they disengage to focus on Tom. Supposedly, you should be careful about ordering Tom to taunt because he will take extra fire, but not once in the single-player campaign have any of the other Angels been shot down, in our experience. This further throws off the balance of the gameplay because there is no risk to ordering Tom about; the only real effect is that enemies stop shooting you.
Frank has an all-out-attack that is more devastating than a Counter-Strike player hopped up on Mountain Dew. Usually he'll take out three or four enemies before returning to formation. But again, this throws off the balance of the game because Frank is never shot down although he so obviously sticking his neck out. In the end, the entire squad system of Blazing Angels, while an interesting concept, throws off the balance of the game and takes away from any realism the game is trying to convey -- the unlimited bullets, torpedoes, missiles, bombs and fuel don't help either.
The sound in Blazing Angels is easily one of the highlights of the game. The roar of a squadron of bombers, the pop-pop of machine gun fire, and the boom of giant explosions all sound great and help pull the player further into the game. The only real problem is the comical radio chatter from the Angels and the enemies themselves. Almost every comment is repeated a hundred times in the game, sometimes twice in a row. It becomes real tempting to hit up the audio options menu after a Japanese pilot continually screams, "You have no honor!" The Angels basically sound like flying clich?s out of a GI Joe rerun. There's Tom, the solemn leader. There's Joe, the green rookie. And there's Frank, the off-the-handle maniac.
It seems that Ubisoft is trying to get you to care about the other Angels, but never in the game do you develop an emotional interest in their well-beings, or for anything really. We never see the Angels' faces; we never learn where they are from or anything about them, so how are we supposed to care about them? If the Angels are such a tight-knit group, why aren't there any cutscenes in between missions that give us a reason to care? Heck, why not kill off one of the Angels if you fail to protect him. I remember feeling genuinely sad when I lost a wingman in the old Wing Commander games. I would even have settle for a cutscene of the Angels playing beach volleyball with Kenny Loggins music blaring in the background. All we have of the Angels is silly radio chatter and that makes any attempt at a sense of brotherhood fall flat. It's the same for the missions. There are cutscenes that explain the factual history of each battle, but that's it. In the end, you fly the missions for the sake of getting to the next level without any emotional investment.
Ubisoft really succeeds in the control department. You can pick up the controller and minutes later be an ace. The controls are intuitive; there is a handy follow camera that shifts in line with the next target, which is extremely helpful during dogfights. In the different missions, you'll use regular fighters, torpedo bombers and regular bombers, which help to add to the diversity of the game. It's especially cool to drop a torpedo in the water and see it zipping toward an enemy carrier. After a while, however, Blazing Angels regresses into a simple pattern of shoot plane, shoot plane, drop bomb, shoot plane, shoot plane. When you clear an area of enemy planes, more appear and you do it over again. In the meantime, you'll defend bomber wings and bases or attack carriers and enemy bases, but those are just diversions from shoot plane, shoot plane, shoot plane.
There are a number of unlockable planes, but you can't use them in the single-player campaign, not even on missions you've already passed. You can play through some arcade mini-campaigns that will improve the weaponry of the unlocked planes, but what's the point if you can't replay the campaign with kick-ass fighters?
The best aspect of Blazing Angels is easily Xbox Live. There are some solo missions that are basically aerial deathmatches. There's Dogfight, Seek and Destroy and Aces High. Dogfight is every man for himself. Seek and Destroy is a kind of last-man-standing mode in which you kill each enemy once. In Aces High everyone guns for the designated "ace." When you shoot him down, you become the ace, and the pilot with the longest time as the ace wins. There's also a co-op mode in which you play through the campaign with friends. All of these are more fun than playing the basic single-player campaign against the computer.
The squad modes are the most fun, however. In Kamikaze, you can either defend against speedy Japanese Zeroes and shoot them down before they dive bomb into your carrier, or you can pilot the Zero and weave through American defenses to try and sink their flagship. Both sides are equally outstanding. Capture the base is my personal favorite mode. There are a number of carriers or airstrips on the map and it's your job to lower the gear and land on these strategic objectives. After ten seconds, the base belongs to your team. The only problem is you're a sitting duck on the deck and it's up to your team to protect you. Ubisoft created an engaging online experience because you and your squad work together realistically, unlike in the single-player game.
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