Shooting Down the Red Baron
The concept is “super cute,” according to the wife: as Snoopy and other Charlie Brown characters, you take to the skies in classic World War I fighter aircraft, gunning for the Red Baron and pretty much any other plane in the sky.
Sure enough, there’s cuteness aplenty here. The cutscenes feature hand-drawn art and Pixar-esque animation with the Charlie Brown cast we all know and love, and it’s hard to take seriously a game in which anthropomorphic cartoon animals and morose children fly planes and shoot at each other. This is no cheap attempt to cash in on the Charlie Brown license, though; Snoopy Flying Ace is an incredibly polished, detailed, and well-made arcade dogfighting game that’s a steal at $10 via XBLA. It comes out of left field, given that we haven’t heard much about the Charlie Brown license or arcade-style dogfighting in years, but it’s a pleasant surprise.
From the very first play, it’s clear that the developers took a lot of care with how Snoopy Flying Ace looks and feels. The game runs smoothly, and each aspect of the presentation strikes a perfect balance between the various goals the developers sought to achieve. Regarding the graphics, the balance is between gritty realism, an artful color palette, and the game’s comic and cartoon roots. With the music, meanwhile, the balance is between traditional Charlie Brown tunes and dramatic war orchestration. With the sound effects, the balance is between intense battle and cartoonish noises. Flying through the fictional world feels at once genuine and a little surreal. The effect is not unlike a classic Charlie Brown strip or cartoon: innocent, childlike, and fun, but also a little sad.
The basic controls are handled well, also. You steer with the left joystick, perform basic tricks (barrel rolls, 180-degree Immelman turns) with the right joystick, fire with the trigger buttons, and change weapons, boost your speed, and slow down to take tight curves with the face buttons. Those looking for a deep, immersive, realistic experience will be disappointed; this plays more like the original Xbox’s Crimson Skies than like a flight simulator. But those looking for responsive mechanics for some hectic flying and shooting will be thrilled.
Despite the controls’ being simple and intuitive, piloting your aircraft can take some getting used to, so we recommend playing through the brief (a couple hours or so) single-player campaign before trying out the game’s multiplayer modes. There are several different mission types, most of which are a lot of fun, and after completing the campaign, you can re-play the stages to earn a higher ranking (or on a higher difficulty). In one, you try to take an enemy zeppelin out of the air, battling waves of fighters whenever the big balloon puts its shields up. In others, you have to escort friendly vehicles, man turrets, kill off waves of bad guys, and even follow Charlie Brown as he navigates a maze of twists and turns. The only mission type we dislike requires you to rescue Woodstock’s bird friends from captivity. They’re surrounded by swarms of hovering bombs, and as the planes can be hard to maneuver in such tight situations, it’s more frustrating than fun to try to fit in the available openings without getting blown up.
As you clear stages, you unlock more and more planes; there’s a huge variety of World War I-style fighters. It’s nice to have so many customization options, but aside from being in light, medium, and heavy weight classes, they’re mainly just graphical replacements for each other. There’s a much greater variety of function when it comes to weapons (one of which is like the sticky grenade from Halo, except you can detonate it remotely). Most of the single-player missions limit you to just a few weapons, but multiplayer gives you free reign to outfit your ship as you choose.
Speaking of multiplayer, it really is the highlight of the game. It’s cooperative and competitive, local and online — pretty much anything you could want out of a dogfighting game to play with your friends, Snoopy Flying Ace provides. The local multiplayer ran smoothly for us, and we found no shortage of opponents on Xbox LIVE, though we experienced some slowdown online.
The various modes provide the template for hours of fun. All the basics are here: free-for-all deathmatch, team deatchmatch, co-op missions from the single-player game (zeppelin, escorts, and more), capture the flag, etc. Others are more innovative: pigskin, in which you play a rugby-like form of football, for example. The online fights can be a little daunting for beginners as more experienced players blast them out of the air repeatedly, but after beating the single-player mode and spending an hour or two online, most pilots will find themselves killing other players at least as often as they’re killed. For those who prefer to play locally, Snoopy Flying Ace provides an excellent chance to learn a new game with friends, customize a character, and shoot the ones you love repeatedly.
If all this doesn’t impress you, the game is only going to get bigger. The developers promise more multiplayer modes, more costumes, more planes, and more levels via DLC. We’ll definitely be checking out what they put up for sale.
Now, once again, Snoopy Flying Ace is not a deep game, and it is not a flight simulator. Frankly, if you’re looking for deep, realistic flight gameplay in a game called Snoopy Flying Ace, you should get your head examined. What this title is, however, is fun, and lots of it. We played through the entire single-player campaign in one sitting, and we spent several hours enjoying the various multiplayer challenges. This is a game that friends and strangers alike will enjoy experiencing together for the sheer thrill of shooting planes out of the air. As far as arcade-style XBLA games go, Snoopy Flying Ace is a classic.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.7 Graphics
Simply amazing for an XBLA game, both on a technical level and regarding how much care was put into how everything looks. 4.5 Control
They take a little getting used to, but not a lot, and it’s a lot easier to learn than a flight sim. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music strikes a balance between war orchestration and classic Charlie Brown tunes, and the sound effects sound realistic and cartoonish at the same time. 4.1 Play Value
The single-player game isn’t very long, but the core of this title is the multiplayer, anyway, and you can play it for hours. 4.4 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.