For anyone who plays a large number of videogames, there reaches a point where every genre has not only been explored, but each slight variation on it exhausted. When attempting to deride something they don't like, people will often say a variation of the phrase 'If you've played one (for example) first-person shooter (FPS), you've played them all.' While this isn't true, the slightly paraphrased version "If you've played twenty FPSs, you've played them all" actually kinda is.
Blazing Angels: Squadrons of World War 2, is an arcade flight simulator. This means that the player never has to worry about anything more complicated than shooting at targets and not flying into anything larger than themselves. Having played both Rogue Squadron and Secret Weapons over Normandy, the game offered me absolutely no surprises. In fact, the only new thing the game brings to table is a visual effect that gives everything a slight glowing haze. So there's no new ground being covered. How are the fundamentals handled?
Pretty well, actually. Controls are the key factor here, and the game handles spectacularly. There are dozens of planes to fly (although precious few are available in the game's skimpy campaign mode), and each one controls like a dream. Using both control sticks to cover all aspects of movement is completely intuitive, and even novice flyers should be able to pull off more complicated aerial tricks without too much trouble. Of course, they'd have to know what they were first. In a questionable move, the game's otherwise decent training mode (which lets players try out a biplane) doesn't teach the player any advanced dogfighting maneuvers—so rather than pulling an Immelmann and jumping onto a passing plane's tail, players might find themselves making one of the slow circular turns that can make aerial combat titles so frustratingly slow and repetitive.
At least everything looks fantastic. The planes are all wonderfully detailed and the explosive effects are suitably massive, but the real standout is the level design. Too often in flight simulators the ground players fly above is completely ignored by the developers, resulting in drab flights over unremarkable country. Blazing Angels features extremely detailed and elaborate level design, and while it might not be visible in the ocean or desert levels, whenever the player is soaring over London, Paris, or Berlin the effect is staggering. Individual buildings have been modeled and famous landmarks are visible, allowing players to amuse themselves by zooming over London Bridge or under the Eiffel tower. The feel of flying over realistic, almost tangible land helps the game immeasurably, and it made me wish more of the game were set in urban areas.
In an interesting decision, Blazing Angels' developers decided to go completely minimalist with the onscreen indicators—perhaps to avoid obscuring the graphics. With the plane at the center of the screen, the player only has to worry about getting enemy planes or ground units into the middle of their crosshairs. There isn't a health meter to worry about, or an artificial horizon, or even a radar. While the lack of informational clutter is jarring at first, it actually succeeds in making the game more visceral and immersive—generally all there is to worry about is where to find the next target. The vibration helps quite a bit as well. I can't remember the last game I played that made such good use of force feedback—every time I pulled the trigger and my six linked guns started firing the controller would jump and kick in my hands. Quite effective.
This minimalism isn't without its downside, though, as it makes the game more difficult than it needed to be in a couple of ways, both realistic and un-. Trying to follow a targeted plane as it zooms by can be a challenge at the best of times, and Blazing Angels doesn't offer players the standard onscreen marker telling them which way the plane went. Instead the game uses a 'targeting camera' allowing the player to spin the view from behind their plane to a relative position looking at their target. It's handy for getting a quick glance, but it's often hard to figure out exactly which way to turn based on that brief look, and it's nearly impossible to safely pilot a plane without looking through the front window.
The game also manages to be very player-friendly in the difficulty level as well, sometimes to the point of oversimplifying things. Each mission averages ten minutes in length, and there are checkpoints every time an objective is completed. This means that even on the hardest missions, the player will never have to repeat more than a couple of minutes of gameplay. That repetition will mostly likely be caused by missing timed objectives as opposed to death, since, so long as the plane doesn't crash, it's almost impossible to die in the game. Enemy aircraft and ground fire aren't that accurate, and when the player's plane is damaged they can enter a simple four-button code to fully repair it. This code is given by one of the members of the player's squadron, one of the other elements that cranks the difficulty level down. In most of the missions, the player has three helper planes following them at all times. These wingmen are indestructible, pretty good at shooting down planes, and act as constantly-recharging bonus items for the player. One immediately destroys a targeted foe, another automatically pulls fighters off the player's tail, and the third provides the complete healing codes mentioned above.
Would Blazing Angels seem like a better game if I'd never played another arcade-y aerial combat game? Would the quick action and tight controls seem revelatory, as opposed to the standard for the genre? Blazing Angels would be a perfect place for someone who's never played a dogfighting game to start. For someone who's played a dozen, though, it's just more of the same. It's extremely well-executed sameness, but sameness nonetheless.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.