Genre: Flight Sim / Shooter
Release Date: March 23, 2006
Blazing Angels is dipping into the nigh-endless well of video game material that is World War II to try and resurrect a genre that you don't see much of these days: the flight sim. At one point flight sims, and particularly combat fight sims, were the games that sold high-end PCs and super-expensive joysticks, but the rise of the FPS has slowly put a stop to that. It makes a certain amount of sense that Ubisoft would push their new facelift of this old genre both on the XBox 360, which is already building up a system library heavy on PC-like titles. In Blazing Angels you can take a squadron of four hardy pilots on a tour of duty that spans all the hot spots of WWII, from London to Pearl Harbor, and go online with XBox Live to battle it out with rival squadrons in head-to-head or work together to beat the enemy in co-op play. The graphics and gameplay are a colorful blend of historical realism and action movie boilerplate, offering some beautiful scenery and breathlessly convincing flight effects. Right now the game is in a state that could be described as "early" at best: there are only six missions to be played and the difficulty level is such that beating them all takes several hours of effort. If the title is fully fleshed out and the gameplay rebalanced, though, Ubisoft could have a real winner on their hands.
Core gameplay in Blazing Angels takes quite a few cues from the ever-popular FPS. Gameplay is mission based and almost always revolves around shooting down a given group of enemies. You may have to shoot them down before they bomb something, within a time limit, or without losing any of your squadron's wingmen, but you can still expect to most of your time in the middle of intense dogfights. Your squadron's wingmen are the key to getting the job done quickly and safely. Each of the three men has a specialty: attack, defense, and repair. Their AI is also wonderfully intelligent. Even if you aren't giving them specific orders, they're perfectly capable of shooting down plenty of enemies on their own. Efficient use of orders is supposed to let you wrap up most missions in about ten minutes or so in the game's final build.
Right now Blazing Angels has a control scheme that can be described as "complicated" at best; hopefully there will be some streamlining before the final build. The left trigger stick controls your plane's vertical and horizontal orientation, while the right stick controls attitude. The right trigger fires your plane's guns, while the left trigger button controls the "follow cam" button. The idea of the follow cam is that hitting it will automatically point the camera toward your target, so you can get an idea of where it is relative to your plane. From there, you can maneuver as necessary to set up a clear shot at it.
Playing the current mission selection gives the impression that it's best to use follow cam to figure out where groups of targets are, moreso than as a way to chase down individual targets. It also needs to be used carefully, as it can position the camera at angles that dangerous if your plane is flying at high speeds. It's very easy to try to make a turn from a particular follow cam angle and end up sending your plane into a steep dive or climb instead. Follow cam is best used in conjunction with the A and B buttons, which let you manage which of the current available enemies are considered the target.
Orders to your squadron are given with the D-Pad, using a system that right now is frankly pretty clunky. Tap the D-Pad once to bring up the first command sub-menu, with each direction on the pad keyed to one of the four "targets" for your orders: Tom, Joe, Frank, or the entire squadron. After you've made a selection, there'll be a second sub-menu that appears, and that you select commands from in much the same way: attack your target, defend me, engage all enemies, or tap down to either regroup the squadron or have one of your wingmen use his special ability. Each wingman's special ability is sort of a "super move" that consumes an invisible meter when used, and can't be used again until the meter has refilled.
Tom as defender can use a Taunt to draw enemy fire away from you, useful for when there's an enemy you can't shake on your tail. Frank as attacker has an Attack command that sends him into a killing frenzy in which he can easily shoot down three or four enemies very quickly. Joe as repairer can, well, Repair, triggering a sort of healing rhythm mini-game where you have to enter button combinations quickly. If you enter them all, your plane suddenly bounces back from however much enemy fire it's soaked. Using squadron commands effectively is clearly supposed to be a key game mechanic, but it's hard to see how just yet in the current build. It's hard to keep track of what your wingmen are doing, aside from Tom, and it's often just as effective from an offensive point of view to just leave your wingmen doing as they please. The two D-Pad sub-menus also have to be navigated in real-time, which demands taking your thumb off of the all-important left analog stick. Even doing so for a brief period can be more disastrous than simply not trying to use your wingmen much.
Right now the preview build only contains the London missions, where you fight off German bombers, and the Pearl Harbor missions, where you try to minimize the damage done by the Japanese sneak attack. The final build of Blazing Angels promises to cover nearly the full breadth of World War II's conflicts, including Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk, the Battle of Midway, seizure of the Japanese fortress at Rabaul, the liberation of Paris from the Germans, and the final assault on Berlin that ended the war. There'll also be alternate play modes to occupy a player, such as Instant Action (where you go on quick dogfighting or bombing raids), an Arcade mode that play a bit like old-school arcade air shooters, and one-on-on Duels with enemy aces.
Where the game seems poised to really shine is on X-Box Live, where there'll be a variety of multiplayer gameplay modes available. There'll be a Solo mode where players vie to be the last man standing, a co-op mode where players work together as a squadron to defeat a computer-controlled enemy, and a Squadron mode where two four-man squadrons battle it out against each other. Solo can be played in a variety of different game types, something like FPS multiplayer, including Dogfight (deathmatch), Aces High (first player to kill someone becomes the Ace, whoever kills the Ace becomes the next Ace, whoever is final surviving Ace wins), and Seek and Destroy (kill all other players once).
Co-op play modes will include Dogfight (see how long your squad can survive against infinite enemies), Onslaught (kill as many enemies as you can in a time limit), Bombing Run (destroy an enemy base), Kamikaze (protect a base against endless kamikaze fighter waves), and Historical (go through the single-player campaign with friends). Squadron's game modes are entirely modeled after FPS team fights, including Dogfight (team deathmatch), Capture the Base (capture the flag), Bombing Run (destroy the other team's base), and Kamikaze (destroy the other team's base, but you can only do damage with kamikaze runs).
Although this is an early build, with little music and few voice clips, the graphics and particle physics on display are quite amazing. Smoke billows realistically as you fly through it, and the details you can see on the ground actually shrink and disappear properly as you soar higher and higher. The areas are a little small in this build, but there's no guarantee that'll stay the same in the final build. We're definitely looking forward to seeing the finished game when it hits in late March.
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