Genre: Action/Arcade Flight
Release Date: September 18, 2007
Capitalizing on the almost unanimous yawn of critical response to Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII, about 18 months later, Ubisoft has issued a sequel, Blazing Angels 2: Secret Missions of WWII. Certainly Ubisoft's motivation in developing the first game was suspect. Was it inspired to reinvigorate the long-languishing console flight game genre, or leverage the saturated WWII-themed title market with a twist? (At the time, not only were Second World War games cliché, but referring to the genre as "saturated" was perhaps an even greater cliché.) In any event, the original Blazing Angels neither reinvented the WWII game nor popularized anew the waning interest in console semi-simulation flight games. The first title's campaign missions were either dull, overly difficult or both, and the various unlockable planes and upgrades did little to enhance the latter portions of the campaign experience.
I admit a long-lived weakness for flight games and Second World War titles. Although the WWII theme has finally worn thin even with me, I still look forward to the aerial acrobatics of a good flight game. Thus Ubisoft's original Blazing Angels came to me as an especially poignant disappointment: gorgeous environments, broad plane selection and excellent models thereof, set off by a lackluster single-player campaign coupled with spare multiplayer action. When one of the early missions in the first title turned out to be a weaponless, photographic reconnaissance expedition in a blinding dust storm under antiaircraft ground fire — complete with gruelingly strict criteria for snapping proper recon photos — I lost almost all enthusiasm for the game. The title was pretty, and it was briefly fun to barnstorm some of the town and city environments, but otherwise, well … yawn.
With Blazing Angels 2, Ubisoft gutted the works and promised replacement of the broken bits with substantial improvements in graphics — I never thought the original title's versions for HD consoles required a graphics upgrade — single-player missions, control scheme and general gameplay. The publisher has indeed well succeeded in a couple of these areas, yet not managed more than an ounce of improvement to the single-player aspect. The graphical experience, despite the high quality of the original, is notably improved. The plane models remain excellent. The scope and appearance of the environments is richer and deeper; explosions really explode, if you know what I mean; city environments come complete with some astounding street-level detail for a flight game; and the wild blue yonder is lustrous in its wildness and blueness.
Unfortunately, the addition of secret, experimental aircraft and weapons systems to go along with the secret missions does nothing to enhance the original game's single-player effort. The missions, be they eyes-only or public knowledge, remain dull, overly difficult and, once again, often both. Compounding the problems, some missions are short a few checkpoints, and checkpoint saves don't survive across gaming sessions; it's back to the beginning of the last mission save when you again pop the Blazing Angels 2 disc in your 360.
A fine example of poor level design is a two-part mission in the skies over Axis-controlled Paris; the first part of the mission is clean enough, yet the second half comes off as a pure grind. Forced to hit ground targets to help out a fleeing spy, logic dictates you follow the spy and clear a path, while the game itself is merely interested in the player racking up a certain point total before the spy is captured and killed. It takes a couple of runs at it to figure this out, but when you do, it doesn't help much. The ground targets blend in too much with their surroundings, almost imperceptibly highlighted with tiny red dots. The mission is soluble, but you'll repeat it numerous times, legitimately and sometimes rather suspiciously crashing into buildings while aiming for those ground emplacements and roadblocks. Ultimately, it's just not worth the effort. I'm certain in the real Second World War, a hundred more talented young pilots put their lives on the line in such near-suicide missions, but I want the experience of playing the role of a WWII fighter/bomber pilot, not a realistic simulation of repeatedly dying by crashing into Left Bank residential neighborhoods.
Audio effects are much the same as the original, good enough, but controls and other gameplay elements are, however, much improved. You can select arcade or simulation controls, and also, in simulation mode, you may choose a cockpit rather than chase perspective. While the simulation control mode is not wholly unacceptable, the arcade setting is a lot more fun, and a lot more manageable should you intend churning through the entire campaign. The cockpit perspective is just hideous. If our Allied pilots couldn't see out of their planes any better than represented in Blazing Angels 2, we lost that war, and I should get busy translating this review into German before I file it.
Sticking with the arcade control scheme and the chase perspective, rolling and diving over these luscious and diverse environments is consistently enjoyable. (Warning: the game's rumble feature burns through rechargeable and disposable batteries in wireless controllers faster than any Xbox 360 game I've ever played; WWII-era fighter planes rumble a lot.) If the missions were worth anything more than an exercise tantamount to do-it-yourself dental work, Ubisoft would have had something here.
Blazing Angels 2 also does a better job of making aircraft and weapons upgrades matter. Some missions still require you fly only one type of plane, but using what are called "prestige points" — earned based on mission performance, but even in barely passing missions you'll earn a reasonable level of spendable points — you can upgrade not only a variety of weapons and support system, but also plane armor and specific parts. These do make a difference in how your favorite aircraft handles, and in what you can shoot down and how fast you can do that. Unlike the original title's unlockable equipment, the revamped upgrade system doesn't feel like an entirely dead-end waste of time.
Obviously, the developers put a great deal of effort into making a very pretty game, with some excellent control response in the arcade mode. What a waste the level design applied to single-player missions is so frustrating and, in spots, near atrocious. What a saving grace for the development team that the improved and enhanced multiplayer component is so lively and enjoyable. Online and off, there are numerous solo and squad-based — read: team-based — game types, and even a multiplayer cooperative mode. Weapons load-outs, plane repair and various specialties are managed with pick-ups hanging in the air over the maps, eminently fair and a common, reasonable solution, but also throwing any semblance of reality out the window. Unless you just flat-out favor the simulation scheme, give it up, flight snob, and switch to the smooth-playing arcade controls for your online dogfights and capture-the-flag rounds. Plenty of maps, plenty of game types and a surprising number of players ready and waiting to shoot you down on Xbox Live make Blazing Angels 2 a very good multiplayer experience.
Uniquely, the game's musical score plays in the background throughout multiplayer matches, modes typically tone-deaf in other titles, lending a cinematic feel to online games. Indeed had Ubisoft determined to go multiplayer-only with their sequel, this review would strike an entirely different tone. Bear in mind this is not the venerable, oft-underrated Crimson Skies for the original Xbox, nor is it wild-winged chaos of PlayStation 3's Warhawk dogfights. It's a multiplayer game for people who enjoy flight games and are willing to invest a fair amount of time not only getting better but also in each individual match, as even with a good number of players, rounds tend to stretch out. This is not the land of the one-hit kill. Further, although I was truly surprised at the number of people playing Blazing Angels 2 online via Xbox Live, look mostly for prime-time opponents; you'll not readily find a wealth of all-day, all-night matches à la Xbox Live sensations Gears of War and Halo 3.
If you enjoy flight games, can still stomach WWII-themed titles and are willing to step away from the single-player campaign when the later missions make you start grinding the enamel off your molars — better yet, if you'll forego the campaign mode altogether — Blazing Angels 2: Secret Missions of WWII is well worth your time for a different sort of deeper, involved multiplayer flight game; although, fair warning, it's impossible to know how long even a cult-like online following will last. However, should you like a pick-up-and-play, blast-and-run airborne version of a first-person shooter, you'll probably turn up your nose at Blazing Angels 2.
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