Radio kills the video game.
Like most of you reading this, I’m not a pilot. My only experience behind the controls a of plane took place about a decade ago at an E3 event for the old PC game Red Baron II
, in which a real pilot took me up in a classic Stearman
biplane. It was an old Navy trainer, so it had two sets of controls, and once we were in the air he turned the yoke and throttle over to me. With my foolish head sticking out of the top of a plane made of wood and canvas, I buzzed downtown Atlanta like Snoopy on his Sopwith Camel.
So when Blazing Angels: Squadrons of World War II began my training in the cockpit of a Gladiator biplane, it was not an entirely unfamiliar pleasure. Of course, I never shot at anything in my Snoopy plane, so I wasn’t prepared for the “war” part. I also wasn’t prepared for the exciting multiplayer, bland campaign and absolutely maddening chatter.
The game obviously takes place during WWII. As one of the first American pilots assigned to help the British, you’ll fly your way through Europe, North Africa and the Pacific in a long series of missions, including many of the historic air conflicts of WWII, like Dunkirk, the London Blitz, Pearl Harbor, and Guadalcanal.
Blazing Angels falls somewhere between a hardcore flying sim like the classic Jane’s WWII Fighters and the arcade experience of Crimson Skies. Both the planes and the backdrop are fairly authentic, but your fighter has unlimited fuel and ammo. In a nod to realism, you’ll start to blackout (literally, the screen begins to go black) if you pull too many G’s, but the realm of pure fantasy returns when you can signal your wingman, Joe, and repeatedly repair your plane in midair by following a series of button presses.
The main campaign mode takes you through 18 fairly lengthy battles. Most of them follow the same basic patterns: either shoot down waves of targets or bomb ground and sea targets. A wide variety of planes keeps it a bit more interesting, and the occasional mission has you taking reconnaissance photos instead of blazing away with your guns.
However, the absence of any real story or plot makes the battles feel quite disconnected, and your magical wingmen make them too easy. Aside from repairing your plane, wingman Frank can lay the smackdown on a particular enemy group, while wingman Tom’s taunting ability effectively distracts enemies away from you. Get in trouble? Just taunt everyone away and then repair in peace.
The game’s difficulty lies more in learning to fly the planes well while dealing with the camera system. The default camera hangs behind the plane to make for easy flying, but you’ll have to frequently use the targeting camera (left trigger) to show you your enemy. This rotates the camera around your plane, but the controls remain absolute. While very cinematic, it definitely takes some getting used to.
But even if you repeatedly nosedive, you’ll look pretty damn good doing it. With a minimalist interface, the planes, ground and especially the radiant skies take center stage while those movie-like camera pans swing around to show you war in all its glory. The game really has its moments: swooping through the smoke trail of a recently gunned-down German Messerschmitt looks and feels awesome. It's not all peachy, though. Things can stutter when the explosions get fierce and some maps look much, much better than others. Also, the subtitles and objectives are all displayed in a cheap Comic Sans font that smacks of bored, lazy work. But by and large, the graphics are solid.
Too bad the sound doesn’t match up. It’s not all bad - the engines rumble throatily, the guns chatter fiercely and the orchestral score carries the epic flair of the History Channel. The voices, however, might be the most offensive ever heard in a video game, and they will not shut up. Your wingmen are a bit annoying and often say things of no help or relevance whatsoever, but the real problem is the enemy. Inexplicably, enemy pilots come in on your radio, smack-talking like a bunch of badly-accented 14 year olds…in English. They only say about a dozen different things, and they say them over and over and over again. Some are even accusing them of being racist; truth be told, after the fiftieth time a heavily accented Japanese pilot called me a “foreign deviru” I was ready to strafe Ubisoft’s offices myself. By the way, apparently I also “fry like a woman.” Where’s Jesse Jackson when you need him?
There are a few other single-player modes as well. The unlockable Mini-Campaign mode offers another dozen missions, while the difficult Arcade mode is essentially like the Time Battle mode in a fighting game. Ace Duels are a little more interesting, putting you up against a single, highly-skilled enemy fighter to earn your wings. But even that dude will not shut up, even for a second. Never have I been so happy to switch over to the multiplayer and listen to some real-life whiny jerks question my sexuality and invent new and improbable suffixes for “noob.”
And the multiplayer game is where Blazing Angels really shines. A multitude of well thought out combative and cooperative modes are available right from the start. Dogfight is your classic Deathmatch, while Seek and Destroy awards victory to the first person to shoot down every other pilot once. My favorite is Aces High, where only the designated “ace” scores points for getting kills, but whoever kills him becomes the new ace. It’s like air tag.
On top of that, there are five different cooperative game types that let you run missions with real-life wingmen. Play through the campaign missions, fight off waves of fighters, or join your group on a bombing run over enemy territory. Your magical ability to heal is still here, but now you need an actual human to help out. When you call for help, one of your teammates must accept the call, and then it’s he who must complete the button sequence in order to repair your plane. It still makes the game a little too easy, but it really adds to the feeling of being a team.
Speaking of which, there are four different team games as well, including the ubiquitous Capture the Base, the direct team vs. team Dogfight, and the vaguely disturbing Kamikaze game. The best one is the straightforward Bombing Run, where the first team to destroy the other’s base wins. Now that feels like war.
And so long as you’re playing with other people, so does Blazing Angels. The unimaginative single-player experience and that awful, awful chatter almost leaves this plane in full retreat. Despite some snazzy graphics, it’s really the terrific multiplayer that manages to snatch a mild victory from the jaws of this near-defeat. Whatever you do, just don’t go up without a co-pilot.