One of the first computer games I ever played was Sopwith, way back in 1989. It was a side-scrolling biplane game where my job was simple: blow other pilots out of the sky while dropping bombs on targets like enemy factories and bases. The controls were simple, yet difficult to master, and scoring high was quite a challenge. Nevertheless, 11 year old me loved it and countless hours were spent dogfighting the simple AI, dropping bombs on buildings and trying to avoid the ground.
Red Dot Lab’s Blazin’ Aces for iPad and Windows Phone reminded me a bit of Sopwith, as it’s also a two-dimensional side-scroller featuring aerial dogfighting action. The difference is, everything about it has been ramped up to modern standards, complete with gorgeous HD graphics and an orchestral score that could accompany a dramatic war movie. The action is far more frantic, too, with far faster planes offering a much tougher challenge and some serious hand-eye co-ordination required to get the hang of things.
The controls are relatively simple with only six buttons to manage – left, right, fire, special ability, eject and flip – making wrapping your head around the basic idea fairly easy. Mastering them to the point where you’re good enough to not only hit enemy planes with weapon fire but to out-score them, though, that’s a different story – you will need to work for your victories.
There are two modes to play, Campaign and Skirmish. Campaign pits you against various AI enemies, sometimes with AI friendlies on your side and sometimes not and advances the back-story of The Ace, a World War II pilot of immense skill that unfolds over four chapters. Skirmish lets you set the AI’s skill level, the victory conditions, the level to play on and other details but the way it plays is pretty much the same as in the campaign.
In both modes it’s up to you to reach a pre-set score before the enemy does, and points are awarded for hits and kills. Should you die, you’ll respawn in a launcher that throws you back into the action. There are no “lives” in Blazin’ Aces so you can die as often as you’d like, but since that gives points to the enemy you’ll quickly find yourself on the losing side.
Eject for the win
Fortunately, avoiding death can be done with clever use of the Eject button. Ejecting throws your pilot from the plane and delivers him to Earth via parachute. Once touched down, he must run to the nearest friendly building where he can re-launch himself in a brand-new, undamaged plane. Doing this when your plane is heavily damaged robs the enemy of the points killing you would earn them, and is a handy tactic for when scores are close.
Killing enemies is a simple matter of lining them up with your machine guns and scoring hits until they explode, and that’s what takes practice and a good eye. You’ll know you’re hitting your foes because debris flies off their planes when damaged and smoke pours out their stricken vehicles. Naturally, more smoke means they’re closer to death; ditto with your plane.
You can’t just keep Fire pressed, either – your plane’s machine gun overheats after a few seconds, requiring a cooldown period. It’s up to you to manage your firing patterns lest your gun stops firing just as you get enemies lined up in your sights, as often happened to me at first.
I liked the addition of the “flip” manoeuvre – in addition to looking really cool, flipping your plane lets you dodge a lot of enemy fire, a handy move for when you have an enemy plane on your tail or you’d just like to avoid a bunch of enemy gunfire. Flipping a lot got me through some of the tougher levels where I was fighting multiple enemies on my own, or there were simply tons of planes on both sides firing merrily at each other and filling the screen with bullets.
The power-ups that drop will also help you win, if used properly. They float to Earth on parachutes and must be collected before you can use them. They range from homing missiles to bombs to poisonous projectiles (great for dropping on tail-gating enemies) to electricity fields and more, and if deployed at just the right time can do some awesome damage to your foes’ planes. It’s pretty tough getting everything just right, but when you do it’s very satisfying indeed.
Red Dot Labs has done a great job of making this a mobile-friendly game, too, as it’s possible to resize the buttons to your liking. Me, I liked big buttons as I tended to press those more accurately than the smaller ones, even though they got in the way a bit.
Blazin’ Aces is a decent-looking game too, thanks to its HD overhaul, and it has a rather epic-sounding main track to boot. Or should I say, only track. While the orchestral music swells with appropriate drama and is pleasant to listen to, there seems to be only one track (or if there are more than one they’re all pretty similar). As such the game’s music gets a little much after a while; by the time you’re good at dogfighting, you’ve heard it many times over.
A few minor gripes
Which brings me to a few other criticisms. Firstly, the action takes place in what feels like a very confined space, which may add to the challenge but the limitation feels a little artificial; I found myself yearning for wider and higher levels in which to engage the enemy. Secondly, the planes fly a little too fast for my liking.
Sure, fast planes and confined levels add to the challenge but it also makes things a little too cramped, chaotic and frantic at times. Personally, I’d have preferred slightly slower planes so I could play a little more deliberately rather than in a mild state of button-mashing panic that I found myself in much of the time. Or at the very least an option to slow things down to my liking which, sadly, is not present.
The very last criticism is that while Blazin’ Aces starts off well enough, it’s ultimately quite repetitive, with scenery changes and the number of enemies the only things that vary with every level. The story of The Ace, while a nice touch, isn’t compelling enough that I felt I absolutely had to get to the end of each chapter to see what happened next, either.
Worth the cash
Still, none of these are deal-breakers, especially as Blazin’ Aces is so cheap. You’ll find it for just R20 on the Windows Phone Store and the equivalent of $2 (less than R21) on the iTunes store, so ultimately it’s worth the money and a very good buy if it you have an iPad, iPhone or Windows Phone.
Plus, you’ll be supporting a South African game studio, so your money will be especially well-spent.