Developer: Smart Bomb
In the 1960s, Snoopy started fantasizing about being a World War One fighter pilot. Sitting atop his kennel with flying goggles and red scarf billowing rakishly in the breeze, the beloved beagle lived a rich fantasy life where he dueled the Red Baron and won the war along with his trusty yellow copilot. It's an obscure basis for a videogame, but Smart Bomb have once again delved into the fictional delusions of a fictional character for their inspiration.
Using conventional videogame logic, this game should suck. Badly. It's a colourful arcade shooter that cashes in on a popular license- and I bet that most of you rolled your eyes far enough back into your skull to see your own optic nerves when you heard about it. Yep, Snoopy Flying Ace should suck balls by all rights... especially when you consider that its developers were responsible for the Bee Movie game and inexplicable Pac Man karting franchise. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that it delivers some of the finest online multiplayer XBLA has to offer!
Snoopy Flying Ace is an effective arcade dogfighter that mixes the simplicity of Freaky Fliers with the hardcore maneuvers and weaponry of Crimson Skies. The left stick controls pitch and roll, with the A and X buttons providing a burst of speed or a powerful airbrake to tighten your biplane's turning circle. Flicking the right stick engages a barrel roll or loop that can shake off projectiles or put you on an enemy's six. The controls are easy to master and soon become second nature, leaving us free to concentrate on gunning down our opponents. A range of machineguns, rockets, missiles and mines will suit any play style; with seven customisable planes providing a mix of heavy armour, speed and maneuverability. Oh, and seamless avatar support lets us meet our foes enemies face to face.
The online multiplayer is the main event; featuring nine game modes, solid netcode and an experience-based ranking system. The ten maps are very cleverly designed to encourage close range dogfights and hit & run tactics: with numerous caverns, valleys and obstacles to carefully pilot your way through. Gametypes range from standard deathmatches to bouts of frenetic airborne rugby: and I've genuinely had more fun in 24 hours than most full price Xbox Live titles offer me over several weeks. The mix of hardcore skill with arcade game mechanics guarantees everyone a kill or two, and Flying Ace provides a genuinely refreshing experience amongst all the FPS and sports titles.
The singleplayer campaign is, as you might expect, a glorified tutorial. Whilst there are a number of objectives, most missions boil down to you taking on swarms of enemy fighters...to be rewarded by the appearance of a larger swarm of more powerful foes. A couple of highlights revolve around taking down giant zeppelins in pitched battles- but the missions tend to be short, confusing affairs that rely on spamming homing missiles, retreating and hoping for the best. Local co-op bolsters the fun, but the campaign is nothing more than a brief distraction from the competitive online multiplayer. Oh, and I hope you like defence/escort missions...
Which is a shame, because virtually all XBLA online games share the same problem: after a few weeks, no one plays them anymore. Microsoft really ought to have allowed silver members to play Arcade titles on Xbox Live at least one day a week, because even the finest titles (such as Marathon: Durandal and Madballs: Babo Invasion) suffer from empty multiplayer lobbies within a month or two. Typically the PS3 version will garner increased online popularity... but without a decent singleplayer mode, there's very little to fall back on.
Whilst the Peanuts gang makes the odd cameo appearance, I was genuinely surprised by the lack of classic series references and characters throughout the game. If anything, I expected Shultz's beloved cast of squeaky clean preteens to crop up too much in mid-mission cutscenes and briefings, with the rich WW1 setting providing a perfect canvas to tell a hilarious story. Sadly, the franchise is simply used for the original inspiration and left at that, with only a couple of bland lines of text preceding each mission that display a distinct lack of character and imagination. Considering that Smart Bomb could have drawn on half a century's worth of charming cartoons, jokes, storylines and dialogue, it's a shame that they didn't capitalise on their source material.
- Accessible and addictive online multiplayer
- Simple, solid flight controls, one-stick manoeuvres and weaponry
- Snoopy shoots down Lucy Van Pelt. It's worth the price of admission.
- Peanuts' characters, humour and charm are tragically sidelined
- Unrewarding, grindy singleplayer campaign
- It's only a matter of time before the XBLA multiplayer community shrivels up and dies
The Short Version: Snoopy Flying Ace largely ignores its source material to deliver a simple yet surprisingly capable arcade dogfighter. The well-featured and undeniably brilliant online multiplayer will keep fans coming back for "just one last dogfight"; and its simple controls and powerful weapons open it up to casual gamers as well as the hardcore. However, the grindy campaign and disappointing storyline mean that lone wolves and (bizarrely) Peanuts fans should bug out.