The arcade-style WWII aerial combat game isn't exactly one of the most common, but you can pretty much guarantee that a few of them will arrive each year. Ubisoft has released Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII for the Xbox 360, Xbox and PC, and it ticks most of the boxes when it comes to dogfighting: large scale aerial battles, squad control, missions based on actual events, online play and more. Sounds good, but is it actually any fun to play?
Blazing Angels' attempt at storytelling is weak at best, with a brief pre-mission voiceover being about all you get. You do receive updates mid-mission, but the game feels rather disjointed, with missions coming one after another, but never really feeling like you got there based on events in the previous level. So, it's down to the action to carry the game, and while there's certainly lots of it, it's all rather samey.
Set over 18 single-player levels, each encompassing numerous objectives, you'll fly over many locations in Western Europe and the Pacific. Levels set over cities, such as when you must stop key buildings in London from being destroyed by bombers, look quite spectacular, but the actual action doesn't change much. You'll either be taking down enemy planes with your machine guns, bombing targets or taking photos. There's not much more you can really do from within a WWII plane, but some more exciting set pieces would have livened things up no end.
While in the sky the planes are remarkably simple to fly, which while great for anyone not well schooled in flight controls, might be a tad too simple for veteran players. Weapons obviously can't be locked onto enemies, but you can target an enemy and follow their position with a handy camera angle that always keeps the target and your plane in view. The nature of the weapons means that you'll be getting quite up close and personal with enemy planes, but bombs can be launched from a safer distance, with bombing runs being about the most fun you can have in the campaign.
As the name of the game suggests, it's not just you against the world: you have a squadron to help you out. You don't get any direct control over any of your three comrades, but each of them can be asked to do certain things: Frank can do some real damage if he's let out of the squad formation; Joe helps you repair your plane, with you having to press a series of buttons in order; and Tom can pull enemies off your tail if you're in a tight spot. They'll often talk to you via the radio, and while it's not Oscar quality acting, the voice work is perfectly acceptable.
With the ability to repair your plane while in the air (even though the ability needs time to recharge) Blazing Angels is a pretty simple game, with failure rarely coming as a result of your planed being shot out of the sky. The only tricky missions are those that have time limits, but they too prove pretty simple once you've worked out the best way to go about things. Once the main campaign is over you unlock a few extra game modes, and a number of quick game modes are available from the start, but they're nothing to get too excited about.
Multiplayer modes add a great deal of longevity to the title, with support for two players on a single system, and up to sixteen players online. As well as standard aerial dogfighting, lone players have the Aces High and Seek and Destroy game types to play with. In Aces High one player is the Ace and must try to take down as many planes as possible before being shot down, with the eventual shooter becoming the next Ace. Seek and Destroy requires each player to shoot down every other player in the game, with the winner being the person to down all the others first. A few team-based modes are also included and revolve around capturing bases, bombing bases and protecting ground troops. Four players can even get together and tackle versions of the single-player missions in co-op, making the multiplayer offering far more impressive than the single-player portion of the game.
Relatively speaking Blazing Angels looks most impressive on the Xbox, but is inferior to the PC and Xbox 360 versions. The Xbox 360 version looks the best, with some improved lighting and a greater draw distance, but on the whole it's little more than a slight lick of paint. Plane models are great and explosions can look impressive, but the frame rate bogs down in all versions of the game if too much action is on screen. The musical score is pretty standard for a WWII game and the voiceovers by anyone other than squad mates border on the ridiculous. If the fact that the Xbox 360 version being a simple port isn't obvious enough, the measly seven achievements available show a complete lack of effort to tailor the game to Microsoft's new console.
Even though the controls are nice enough and there are moments of beauty as the sky is filled with planes, it's impossible to overlook the many awful missions. Take the desert mission where you can't see a thing and must take pictures of enemy locations. With no map or radar, you simply fly around until you happen to come across the target. Without any truly brilliant missions to balance things out, the single-player campaign never really gets off the ground. Multiplayer games are a lot more fun, but if you have no interest in taking to the skies with other people, this isn't a squadron that you want to be part of.