A return to classical ideas

This game seemed to land with a splash and it flew right over my radar (so to speak).  Suddenly, everyone was talking about how Snoopy Flying Ace was a multiplayer experience that trumped the competition.  The idea of a Peanuts theme is certainly an interesting one, so do Charlie Brown and the other Peanuts fly successfully?  Let’s take a look!

Developer:
Smart Bomb Interactive
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Arcade flight
Console(s):
Xbox Live Arcade

The verdict: Snoopy Flying Ace is beautifully designed and a fantastic social experience.

Snoopy Flying Ace is one of those games that shows the potential of popular licenses when adapted properly to video games rather than using a cardboard action-adventure formula.  As with Left 4 Dead, Snoopy Flying Ace opts to focus on multiplayer-driven social environment which it pulls off excellently.  Provided you and your friends have Xbox 360 consoles, this is a bargain game that anyone should have even if you aren’t much of an aerial combat enthusiast.

You’re a pilot, Charlie Brown!

As the title might suggest, Snoopy Flying Ace is an aerial flight combat game in the vein of Crimson Skies, with the grizzled military pilots replaced by the Peanuts ensemble.  The setting is a colorful imagining of World War I, where you get to select pilots including Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, and so on.  Part of the charm of the game is that Snoopy Flying Ace actually uses Peanuts as the real setting, as opposed to making it interchangeable with any other license.  You see this in elements like gameplay rewards: Multiple deaths get you the “Blockhead” award, a four-kill streak awards you with Woodstock as a tail gunner, and nine kills gives you a Kennel plane.  Everything from the colorful art direction to the endearing music bring out the Peanuts theme, and it’s nostalgic for people who remember Charles M. Schulz (he died when I was in sixth grade).

What makes Snoopy Flying Ace such a wonderfully designed title is that it’s challenging for the hardcore aerial combat veterans, but incredibly easy to pick up for newcomers to the genre or casual gamers.  You have a primary weapon, a boost, an airbrake, and can do stunts including somersaults and U-turns.  You have access to some deadly secondary weapons such as cluster rockets or a close range shotgun blast.  Controls are tight and intuitive whether you’re engaged in a pitched dogfight, combing the area for elusive enemies, or smoothly racing through checkpoint rings in a race.

Cleared for takeoff

The game makes a reasonable effort to provide a solid single player.  There are 18 missions that vary between Assault, Defense, and Navigation types.  Sometimes you’ll be defending a giant sphinx from oncoming attackers, other times you’ll need to shoot planes down by alternating between the traditional aerial combat and use of ground turrets, and so on.  The formula does tend to repeat itself, but I can’t really fault the game for this.

If anything, it’s gratifying to see a developer not try to make the game into something it isn’t and pad single player out with endless repetitive missions. They’re still a lot of fun, especially since they generally don’t last more than five minutes.  If you need to kill some time or are just waiting for your friends to sign on, they’re a great way to get introduced to the gameplay mechanics.  Besides, you get to shoot down Lucy with cluster rockets.  Don’t tell me you never wanted to teach that brat some manners.  More importantly, it makes the same great use of the license that I mentioned earlier.

If there is a complaint I can make about the single player, it’s that enemy AI resorts to some annoying tactics.  Chief among these is constantly pulling U-turns if you so much as go near them.  I appreciate that it’s reasonable to want to evade oncoming gunfire, but it’s dizzying to the player and it’s almost all they do in certain situations.  Standard enemies thankfully don’t resort to this, and you can still generally handle bosses with awesome attacks like the close range shotgun.

Online dogfights

Multiplayer brings one of the best social experiences of the year to your 360.  As with single player, it’s very easy to pick up.  There’s very little in the way of a difficulty curve and the lack of a large leveling system ala Modern Warfare 2 means certain gamers won’t have game-tipping advantages over others.  There are the usual classics for multiplayer games, like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, but some more creative modes are applied to aerial combat as well.  There’s a football-type game that’s a blast with a large group of friends as well as a mode reminiscent of the Oddball game type found in Halo.  What makes the multiplayer so creative is that it doesn’t stop at the usual suspects like CTF, as fun as those are.  It takes popular modes from other genres and applies them smartly to aerial combat.

What really brings out the multiplayer is how much emphasis is on having fun rather than winning if that makes any sense.  You have unlimited lives so it’s easy to jump back into the action and the game modes as a whole are generally accommodating to both casual and hardcore audiences.  Snoopy Flying Ace isn’t expensive either; for a scant 800 Microsoft points, you’re getting a ton of value for your hard-earned cash.  A lot of games market themselves as something everybody can play, but Snoopy Flying Ace is a rare example of a game that doesn’t have to qualify itself for that statement.

Conclusion

Snoopy Flying Ace easily tops the already substantial Xbox Live Arcade offerings for this year and is a standout on XBLA as a whole amid a lot of competitors.  The intuitive concept, charming presentation, and thrilling aerial combat will keep you coming back for more.  As a multiplayer experience it’s something I’ve seen appeal to both hardcore gamers and people who have barely touched a game in their lives.  Hats off to the developer for this fine-tuned, well-polished, extremely memorable experience.

Disclaimer: This Xbox Live Arcade code for Snoopy Flying Ace was provided by Microsoft Game Studios for review purposes.

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