Developer: Ubisoft Romania
Release Date: December 12, 2006
Aside from the venerable Ace Combat series, flight simulators have never really taken off (pun absolutely intended) on modern console systems. On the PC side, they’re a dime a dozen, but the console releases rarely find major success or spawn notable sequels. Why such a difference? Some may point to the distinct audiences that back each platform, but I think it has as much to do with hardware as anything else.
PC joysticks come in all shapes and sizes (not to mention prices), and with most users still manning desktops, there’s usually a sturdy spot to mount such a joystick. With consoles, not only are your joystick options limited, but playing on a couch and sitting at a distance fails to provide the kind of solid surface necessary for optimal usage.
But now, with the advent of motion controls in two of the three next-generation console platforms, it seems worthwhile to give the genre another chance. Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII made its debut on the Xbox 360, Xbox, and PC platforms last spring, but has been updated and enhanced to make use of the motion-sensing SixAxis controller. Is it enough to make the genre more accessible for casual users, or is it just the same decent combat sim that launched last year?
As its subtitle implies, Blazing Angels takes place in perhaps the least-original setting in all of gaming: World War II. As an unnamed American pilot, you find your way over to Europe to help fight the good fight against Axis forces until the attack of Pearl Harbor thrusts your country into the war. Over the course of 20 missions (including two not found in previous versions), you work with a three-man squad to take down planes, tanks, and everything in between in an attempt to help the Allied forces rid the world of tyranny.
Outside of the overarching historical storyline that you may already know, Blazing Angels doesn’t do a whole lot to endear you to the fictional characters that populate it. Any knowledge you glean of the characters typically comes from the radio chatter at the beginning and end of each mission, as the between-mission cut scenes don’t bother to elaborate on the details. Instead, each cut scene merely shows a 3D-rendered map screen with little planes and vehicles moving around to indicate progress or major events. I would have been happy with some half-hearted CG clips, but nothing of the like emerged, leaving me largely clueless as to who was watching my back (or why I should even care).
Each mission typically consists of multiple objectives, and you will take on a number of roles during the campaign. While you will often be tasked with taking out a series of faceless enemies, you also will protect comrades, gather recon, and take the occasional scenic flight. Though certainly exciting at the start (especially during the Battle of Britain and other missions over major cities), the repetition and sometimes immense challenge may wear you down long before you get to Berlin. Blazing Angels tiptoes the line between fun and frustration, and the overabundance of timed and protection objectives often puts it too far on the side of frustration and annoyance for my tastes.
So how does it feel to fly around with motion controls? Initially, pretty great; but a handful of issues had me switching back to the analog sticks after a few missions. In the training level, the movements felt fantastic. Though racing games typically limit you to left and right movements, Blazing Angels gives you full, unrestricted control – well, almost. See, one of the benefits of an analog stick is that you eventually hit a barrier. Once the stick hits the edge, you will just keep turning in that direction and the stick will snap back to place when you let go.
The SixAxis lacks both of those aspects. Blazing Angels recognizes your movements to a point, but there’s no barrier – if you keep moving beyond that invisible barrier, the plane will not advance any further. Perhaps a slight rumble could tell you when you exit the acceptable range, but as we all are painfully aware, the SixAxis also lacks that ability.
On top of these confounding issues, aiming just doesn’t feel as precise as it does on the analog sticks. Experience may be the greatest factor here – after all, we have been using analog sticks for a decade, while motion controls hit the market barely ten weeks ago. But when I’m tasked with taking out a squadron of fighters in a limited amount of time, I have to choose the control scheme that works best for me right now.
Blazing Angels can be a disjointed game when it comes to the visual presentation. While there are a couple of noteworthy highs, there are many more significant lows that drag the game down. The landscapes are wonderful, especially when flying over a body of water or a large city. Hundreds of buildings and houses are visible at once, and though the buildings are not immensely detailed, quantity easily bests quality from the air. Additionally, it is quite a sight to see dozens of planes tussling in midair, as trails of smoke separate the living from the soon-to-be-dead.
However, Blazing Angels is a videogame, and form can only succeed if it does not impede function. Have you ever played a combat flight simulator that featured a graphics engine that just couldn’t handle smoke or fire? Blazing Angels is that game, and at times, the frame rate was among the worst I have ever seen. In hectic situations, the frame rate drops into single digits, often making me wonder if the game was going to crash or if my PlayStation 3 might just spit the disc out in protest. Fortunately, neither happened, but the regular choppiness really puts a chokehold on the game, keeping it from being the smooth, polished experience I expect from a $60 game on a $600 console.
Polish is lacking from other aspects in the game, including the sometimes-mangled subtitles and the staggeringly ugly menu screens. Luckily, the aural presentation seemed right on, with the sound of planes buzzing all around my room (thanks to surround sound) and an orchestral score that, while never really highlighted, served as a sturdy source of background noise. Blazing Angels contains a fair amount of additional content outside of the campaign, including the arcade and Ace Duel modes, as well as two mini-campaigns that are unlocked after completing the main one.
Blazing Angels also features an enjoyable online multiplayer mode, but like most PlayStation 3 games not named Resistance: Fall of Man or Ridge Racer 7, it can be damn near impossible to get a large match going at any time of day. A quick look at the leaderboards reveals that just over 2000 people have even tried the online mode, and some of the gamers ranked in the top 100 may have played just 10 matches to get to that point. Look forward to dogfights against just a handful of competitors, as it seems unlikely that you’ll be able to find a full 16-player match at this time.
Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII is the best flight game available for the PlayStation 3, but that is a given – there literally is no competition at this point. The addition of motion controls is an interesting experiment, but the actual execution leaves a bit to be desired when you find yourself with a couple bogeys on your tail. Blazing Angels might drop your jaw a few times, but the chugging frame rate and sometimes monotonous campaign will likely just make casual players drop their controllers and look elsewhere for thrills.
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