Before the genre-leading beast that is Ace Combat arrives on the Xbox 360 later this year, another aeronautical sequel has landed in the form of Blazing Angels 2: Secret Missions of World War II.
The game's predecessor was a fairly mediocre release, which was dogged by its own choice of theme. In opting to focuses on military technology that was cutting edge sometime before rock 'n' roll hit the charts, the first Blazing Angels felt a little sluggish and unwieldy.
Perhaps in response to this, one of the most noteworthy additions to the second release in the series is the option to unlock, upgrade and fly a fairly substantial list of prototype aircraft loosely themed on unrealised designs of the era, with super-responsive handling and agility. Most are also fitted with semi-fictitious WWII weaponry, such as homing missiles, which clearly weren't in everyday use in the famous dogfights of WWII.
The artistic take on the grim reality of the Second World War also extends into some of the 18 sizable single-player missions that make up Blazing Angels' main content. Over the skies of Egypt, with the Pyramids resplendent below you, you will face a huge zeppelin foe, armed to the hilt with machine gun turrets and spewing forth waves of enemy fighters in a scene more reminiscent of a boss battle in classic shoot-'em-up 1945 than a typical arcade flight-sim.
Do not be mislead though, as Blazing Angels 2 is certainly not an outright 'alternate-reality' WWII release like the forthcoming Turning Point: Fall from Liberty. In fact the vast majority of the emphasis of Secret Missions of WWII is on more realistic content. Again, the controls are wonderfully responsive and simple, keeping things instinctive, and for those looking for something of a challenge, perhaps a little easy.
The thumb sticks and shoulder buttons handle all of your aerial manoeuvres, firepower and targeting, meaning most of your effort is spent not on struggling to keep your plane in the sky, but instead on keeping your targeting reticule on a foe's tail. Before unlocking the prototype planes, none of your weapons seek out their target automatically, though in the case of most rockets the leeway with regard to your accuracy is fairly generous in your favour. Ammunition also comes in liberal quantities, and throughout this is very much an arcade game, comparable in many ways with all kinds of action-shooters over and above more traditional flying games. If you've played Ace Combat you'll understand the kind of thrills on offer here.
Staying with the controls for the moment, there is also no way of locking your crosshair on to you rivals. Instead the camera can be locked-on by holding the left shoulder buttons. At first this is particularly difficult to get used to, as aircraft sweep behind you causing the camera to pan right round to your plane's nose, but soon you'll be wondering why this excellent feature doesn't appear in more flying games.
Along with the number of unlockable extra planes, the most substantial improvement to Blazing Angels is the visuals, which really do impress. The first game on the Xbox 360 felt very much like a direct port of the Xbox version, with very little extra attention put into graphical quality.
This time around Blazing Angels looks superb. The planes lack the polish of their contemporaries in Ace Combat 6, but the ground below you is incredibly detailed and well developed. Sweeping over Paris, famous landmarks are numerous, positioned with some accuracy and realised in fabulous detail. Around them hundreds of streets lined with 3D houses and rows of trees twist and wind, parks are alive with people and boats bob on the gentle ebb and flow of the water. Blazing Angels 2 really does boast one of the best landscapes seen in a game set in the skies, and at times its enchanting detail and varied layout can draw you in a little too close.
Hidden stunt tokens and other secondary targets that unlock extra content are also tucked between buildings and below bridges, encouraging replays and tempting you to clip your wings on the ground while exploring hard-to-reach areas. As well as the physical intricacies and stylistic flair of each level, the skies are also very pretty indeed. Clouds look very realistic, and change in colour and texture throughout the game, dependent on the sun's position in the sky. As the air fills with planes, things begin to look immense. A fog does hang heavy in the distance, hiding distant detail, but otherwise there is very little to complain about in terms of Blazing Angels 2's appearance - aside from a bit of screen tearing here and there. The sound is closer to average and, though of decent quality, it regularly falls back on the tired old stereotypes of jolly, posh Brits and the kind of score we've heard all too often in Medal of Honor games.
Sadly, when it comes to gameplay, the missions begin to feel slightly repetitive and occasionally are drawn out. Most see you destroying waves of incoming planes before moving on to a larger target, and all too often feel very pedestrian Those that ask you to perform more unusual tasks such as stealth kills feel somewhat awkward and unworkable within the genre's setting. The multiplayer is great however, and filled with opportunities to tussle in the skies above beautifully realised versions of Rome and the Himalayas.
While Blazing Angels 2 has its faults, it is still a decent title and a marked improvement on the first instalment from Ubisoft's Romania studio. If you're looking for a complex, challenging flying game then you're better off spending your cash elsewhere, but if you fancy some light-hearted arcade action and know you'll make use of the multiplayer mode, or just have some leftover enthusiasm for WWII games, this could be the one for you.