Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII
Looking back on games is a notoriously unreliable exercise, even for reviewers who've penned hundreds of critiques. If you love a game to bits, it's only natural to defend its faults and gloss over the problems you encountered. Those silly difficulty spikes, the glitchy graphics, the bits where it crashed. And it's just as bad the other way around, too. People always tend to deliver righteous bile, when the truth is generally somewhere in between. And that's the tormented, enjoyable, hateful, delightful topsy-turvy world of Blazing Angels in a nutshell.
It's hard to even start to address Ubi's World War II flight combat title with any real clarity, when it occurs to you that there are at least four out of the 18 campaign missions that are among the most intensely irritating of any game that we've come across since Driver 3 caused the destruction of two joypads almost two years ago. Missions that render your pleasant enjoyment of this generally above average game null and void at a stroke, and make you question whether any normal human beings tested the game - and why their feedback was so obviously ignored.
For the first few missions, Blazing Angels seems reasonably up to scratch; albeit with some instantly questionable design decisions (more of which in a moment). It follows the standard arcade-style flight-combat template in a way that fans of Crimson Skies and Secret Weapons Over Normandy will be familiar with. It's the same, solid mixture of intense dog-fighting and daring bombing raids that you'd expect, set over all the familiar theatres of war during WWII - but now with added High Dynamic Range.
As such, during your adventures you get to engage in some heady WWII tourism that covers London, Paris, Berlin, North Africa, Pearl Harbour, Normandy, Dunkirk and lets you do so in a wide variety of different real-life aircraft of varying abilities. You certainly can't fault the game for location variety.
Typically, you're the rookie Yank-made-good sent out to save those poor hapless Brits/French from the Nazi onslaught. Alongside you on most of your missions are your wingmen, comprised of guys who'll help fix your plane, defend your six, or go all-out to destroy. Perhaps the one major innovation of the game, these wingmen become more useful as the game goes on, affording you a degree of strategy to how you approach each mission.
Using the d-pad, you can cycle through a defensive, attacking or standard formation, and call on each of the three specialist wingmen whenever's appropriate, and when each has been fully charged up, rather like a series of temporary power-ups. For example, when your 'bird' is in dire need of repairs, hitting left calls up Joe to let you know what will solve your problem. Normally he suggests something improbable (like "switching to manual"), but as long as you match a 'Simon says'-style button sequence you'll be back up to full health. It's a fudge that makes much of the game incredibly easy (and unrealistic, to boot), but it certainly makes the game more fun.
Elsewhere, if you're struggling in a desperate dogfight, being able to get rid of the guy on your tail and one of the other enemies buzzing around is a real bonus. Relying on these 'power-ups' certainly limits your medal potential, but they get you through some of the tougher missions intact and less frustrated. Armed with these arcadey mechanics, unlimited fuel, infinite ammo and what amounts to endless, instant repairs, you'd imagine the game was quite forgivingly easy. To an extent, you'd be right, but that would be overlooking the Designers of Disaster behind the aforementioned quartet of entirely ridiculous missions that spoil any chance of recalling Blazing Angels with any lasting fondness.
But before we get to our tantalising anecdotes of awfulness, one of the first things that will alarm anyone with ears and hearing is the shockingly diabolical, offensively bad voiceovers that deliver the same grating, stereotypical, cheesy, unfunny one-liners during the battles, over and over and over again until you want to commit physical harm upon the people responsible. Long-term readers won't be at all surprised to hear of our displeasure about shoddy voice acting, but Blazing Angels has to scoop the prize for the Worst We've Ever Heard. If the annoying "I vill make you like the cheese zat is Sviss," German insults aren't terrifyingly eye-rolling (when heard 272 times), the strangulated Japanese phrases ("Bonzai", hilariously - no, really!) are a whisker away from being genuinely offensive. Factor in the redneck Americans (or just bad interpretations of what a 'normal' American sounds like - there are plenty of examples), the pathetic French voiceovers and the 'what-ho' Brits, and you've got a game that covers so many terrible stereotypes in such a cretinous manner that you wonder how a big publisher like Ubisoft could be responsible for such an aberration.
The game itself has barely been enhanced for the 360, either, coming across as a fairly standard port, complete with visuals that occasionally impress, but mostly look like the basic Xbox visuals in a higher resolution. Take away the delicious skies with oodles of HDR effects and you're left with a game that can, more often than not, look decidedly last gen. By that, we mean vicious slowdown during explosions and environments that can look genuinely awful at close proximity - giving all the sense of reality of a toytown scale model. While the London level looks quite impressive at first glance (from up high), like the other cities that have been replicated (Paris, Berlin) it scales really badly and little concession to reality has been made beyond some basic landmarks (Big Ben, Tower of London). You could forgive the lack of accuracy if the terrain wasn't completely flat, there was some attempt at lighting effects and all the buildings didn't look so flat and boring. It's not all bad, though, which makes it all the more frustrating. In fact, when you're just flying around normal countryside, the game's not bad at all. The planes are lovingly detailed, the explosions and deformation effects are good, the skies are excellent, and the terrain is nicely detailed. When you're locked in a life-or-death struggle up in the sky, it's actually a decent approximation - but the lack of consistency is jarring.
Another senseless decision is not giving the player a cockpit view, ruining the potential degree of immersion, and reducing the level of choice. As nice as it is to see the backside of a plane, we'd prefer to get the pilot's eye view, and it's baffling why a game like this would remove that option. The other slightly bizarre control mechanic is to force the camera to suicidally lock-on when you use the 'follow' option. Rather than use the (excellent) arrow system that has served so many other flight combat games so well, this never feels intuitive, and regularly gets you into trouble.
But nothing's quite as baffling as some of the missions you'll come across, some of which will make you question your own sanity to go through with completing them. First up, one of the desert missions tasks you with flying into a dust storm to locate three German camps. 'Fair enough,' you might think, only the chances of actually stumbling across them seem to rely more on sheer persistence than actual skill. Even when you do find them, it's far from an enjoyable exercise.
Nothing can prepare you for the sheer bone-headedness of the infamous Rabaul mission, where you must destroy an airfield while attempting to protect an incoming procession of bombers. But whether you take out the AA guns (as instructed) or the planes taking off on the runway (which magically spawn, annoyingly), or engage in air combat yourself, you'll probably have to endure 30 or more failed attempts before you'll do something right and squeak through the mission. Even if you think you know what you did, if you tried doing it again, you'd most likely fail. Daft.
Make the pain end
Then there's the stupid Fjord mission, where guiding your aircraft through a winding, glacial network is like playing buzz bar with a broken foot, and bombing the chimneys in time later in the same mission is another case of luck over judgement. But topping the lot is the final mission, Berlin. Kicking off with the most ridiculously exacting task of guiding your speeding craft along a snaking river without getting shot by the AA guns, you then realise you've also got to try and accurately shoot four radar stations. With that ruinous section out of the way, the game climaxes against hugely tough opponents that, again, require a huge degree of patience and persistence to see off. By the end you'll be glad to see the back of the whole thing - and you'll not net a single achievement point until you do, bizarrely.
You could prolong the agony with the unlockable Mini Campaign mode, but it's essentially more of the same dogfight/bombing shenanigans, except against strict time-limits (man this game loves time limits - especially ones that increase when you keep messing up, helpfully). Elsewhere you can also duke it out in a series of one-on-one battles against the 'Aces' (again, against the clock), or play the stripped-down 'Arcade' mode (where you, for example, must destroy a set number of planes/targets within a time limit). Whether you'll be motivated to is another matter, as all they offer is more of the same, albeit with less of a context.
You could, of course, take your battles online, and duke it out in a series of different modes for up to 16 players. Dogfight is basic (and fairly bland) deathmatch, and is playable solo or in teams, Seek and Destroy is about shooting the marked pilot before your opponents, Aces High is an 'all against one' mode, where the ace is the only one who can score until he is shot down. Exclusive to team modes is capture the base (land on your opponent's runway to score), kamikaze (protect/attack ground targets), as well as bombing run (bomb your opponent's base). Servers are currently not exactly busy (even though the game is already out in the US), so real-world multiplayer testing was challenging, but the matches we did manage to participate in were generally a lot of fun, without any lag issues to report, and a swift, slick interface that lets you get up and running with Player or Ranked matches easily.
There's also the potential for four-player co-op matches over System Link or Live, allowing you to play campaign levels with your friends. The difference is, you can't just rely on instant repairs and the like, making it a much bigger challenge, but one you can respawn in. Whether you'll want to play some of the campaign levels again is the bigger question; we'd rather saw off our own arms.
Admittedly, Blazing Angels isn't the worst game you'll ever play. In fact, at times you'll even feel like you're enjoying buzzing around in dogfights, and some of the bombing missions hit the mark in more ways than one. Despite our protestations, it even looks quite good on occasion, but when it gets things wrong, it does them so badly you'll want to wrench the joypad apart with your bare hands - if only to stop yourself from throwing it. With genuinely appalling voicework setting the tone for development incompetence, it's compounded by a few dreadful levels, camera issues and the feeling that the whole project was ported onto the 360 as an afterthought. All told, Blazing Angels is not a game you'll feel too happy about parting a lot of cash for.