Friday, February 27, 2009

Blazing Angels

Imagine, if you will, that you're playing Star Fox. You have an anti-gravity ship with truly stupendous acrobatic abilities and neato weaponry. Now imagine that all of your wingmen are Slippy, endlessly screaming "Get them off me, Fox!" over and over again.

That's pretty much Blazing Angels, a WWII flight sim that I pulled out of the bargain rack. I made the mistake of assuming it was on that rack because it was more than a few months old, not because it was terrible.

I'll start with the good stuff: sharp graphics; nicely detailed terrain and buildings; a wide selection of iconic and forgotten WWII fighters and dive-bombers, with relatively different capabilities; varied missions in varied combat theaters. And the dogfighting itself is engaging enough, I suppose, in the same way that pinball or tetris is engaging--although not anywhere near the same degree.

But where shall I start with the bad? How about the physics?

I understand that Blazing Angels is supposed to be an "arcade style" flight simulator. But, it was my understanding that "arcade style" in this situation meant primarily that I didn't have to futz about with flaps or worry about the local wind speed. It's supposed to indicate that you needn't have received your FAA flight rating to enjoy the game. I didn't realize that it meant my WWII airplane would handle like an X-Wing.

In a real fighter plane, the standard way of accomplishing a sharp turn is to roll your plane in that direction and then pull up on the stick. While your plane is rolled over on its side, the amount of upward lift generated is fairly low. So, you lose altitude. Not in Blazing Angels, you don't... instead, you can cruise along on All American Anti Gravity in whatever orientation you might like for as long as you might like.

Likewise, "stall" refers to a concept whereby you lose lift from the wings as the airplane attempts to climb too quickly. It's actually a really complex phenomenon, and has a number of really unpleasant effects on an airplane. However, in Blazing Angels, "stall" means "you've reached the level's ceiling". This means all of your missions take place at an altitude of about 1000 feet. It gets pretty difficult to enjoy a complex dogfight when you're constantly worried about hitting the ground.

Furthermore, I know of no plane where standard operating procedure for pulling a sharp turn is to slow down to apparent bicycle speeds. Seriously. At the low speeds you can achieve, you should be falling out of the sky like a rock, not turning that much more effectively.

The planes also handle in other subtly incorrect and annoying ways. After playing a large number of high fidelity flight simulators in my lifetime, I found myself constantly fighting with the controls as my plane did something totally counterintuitive and inexplicable. I imagine you wouldn't have these issues if you expect a P-51 Mustang to handle like a Starfury, though.

Physics aside, the dogfighting is decent enough. Lots of twists and turns, split second where the bogie's in your crosshairs, getting your leading just right (indicated by the crosshairs lighting up), papapapapapapap, flames and smoke. It's a shame you spend all your damn time flying close air support for ground and naval units.

In an effort, I guess, to add realism, you almost never fly simple missions consisting of destroying other fighters. Instead, you're invariably tasked with supporting either ground or naval targets as they perform some unseen objective. To achieve this task, your plane is equipped with bombs, rockets, torpedoes, or a camera. We'll get to the camera in a minute.

Flying close air support is boring. You make endless dives through AA, dropping bombs or launching rockets, as you blow up unending numbers of unmoving machine gun emplacements and battleships. It's made more aggravating when it never ends, because, of course, your bombs and rockets regenerate. Launch all eight rockets, or drop both your bombs, wait about five seconds, and do the same thing again. Over and over. It's made even more ridiculous when one remembers that while dive bombing was a widely-used tactic for destroying ships and dug-in infantry positions, they actually had these planes called "bombers" whose primary purpose was to bomb things. The primary purpose of fighters was to protect the bombers.

There are, I believe, two bomber-escort missions in the game.

And one mission where your objective is to take some pictures with a camera. A camera which, apparently, has its shutter time set for about 2 seconds, based on how long you hold down the button to charge the "camera bar" before the picture is taken.

I don't think most people buying a WWII fighter sim want to either bomb or photograph things. Mainly I think they, as do I, want to engage other fighters in aerial combat. If you'd like me to protect some bombers, I'm down; but, don't make me personally drop more bombs in one mission than that entire bomber wing carried during the war.

Your wingmen are also totally and completely obnoxious. While not quite as useless and feeble as Slippy (they occasionally destroy enemy targets), they talk constantly and only have a couple dozen lines available. This means that you'll be subjected to the same corn-pone bullshit over and over again. I wanted to shoot them down myself.

Each of your wingmen provides a unique ability. One has the ability to draw off any aircraft attacking you. Another will attack your designated target (and its formation) with pretty effective results. And the last one will activate a quicktime event that repairs your plane in mid flight. That's right: you can have half your tail shot off and flame spewing from your fuel tank, and hitting XXOX will instantly put the flames out and mold a new tail out of Bondo while you speed along at 150mph. These abilities have a very long recharge time. A recharge time which seems to interact very badly with the death/checkpoint system--and not in your favor.

I also want to admit that I cheated. I cheated because one level is pretty goddamn fundamentally broken.

As a scripted event, you're hit with a burst of flak. This burst of flak supposedly destroys your controls or the control surfaces. You're instructed to land the airplane on a convenient airstrip and come back up in a new one. That's fine. Kind of a neat idea, even.

However, I don't know of any plane or any accident that makes your airplane buck and shift uncontrollably to the right every three and a half seconds. It's my impression that control failures tend to result in either a complete loss of that axis of control (and stability in that axis), or a steady drag in one direction or another. This was on a timer... every 3.5 seconds, push the aircraft 5 meters to the right and 2 meters down. Combine this with the fact that you can only land on approved "airstrip" material--touching wheels on grass means instant death--and I cheated to get past the agony. It wasn't fun, immersive, interesting, or challenging. It was stupid and frustrating. If the cheats hadn't been available, Blazing Angels would have gotten an even worse review than it's getting now.

Also, there's a mission where you have to fly through a 10 meter wide valley with all manner of stalactites and stalagmites in your path. Because god forbid you follow the valley to Hitler's Secret Weapon Base by climbing up above the valley and following it visually. You can't do that! Don't you know that airplanes will stall if you fly them outside of valleys? Idiot.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that if I'd written Blazing Angels in my third-year games programming course, I would have been totally proud.

As a professional cross-platform title, Blazing Angels is crap. The dogfighting doesn't suck too badly. But, you never get to do any of that.

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