The world of Peanuts is one that I know next to nothing about. The name Charles Schulz is one that I had to Google to ensure I had spelled it correctly (I hadn’t). An obsession with root beer flies over my head like the Red Baron, which I also had no idea Snoopy shared any connection with. So you can understand that when I see a game with Snoopy in the title, I’m not likely to put on a red scarf and jump on my doghouse.
But just one look at Snoopy Flying Ace at PAX East this year was enough to pique my interest, as its clear connections to the Crimson Skies series brought back memories of long multiplayer sessions and indiscriminate airplane chaos. If anything, experiencing a few moments of nostalgic air combat would make this a worthwhile $10 purchase.
Imagine my surprise when I found that the game is actually quite fantastic.
For those unfamiliar with the Crimson Skies series, it offers a fairly straightforward take on airplane combat. This is no different in Snoopy Flying Ace. Choose from one of a variety of planes (which admittedly fall into three strict categories), outfit your plane with two secondary weapons to complement your machine gun, and take to the skies, shooting down every aircraft in sight. Planes are able to pull off a few defensive tricks to avoid missiles and gunfire, which are easily executed using the right analog stick.
It’s a simple and addictive gameplay style that offers a surprising amount of depth. A great variety of weapons is included: long-range homing missiles suit the “fire and forget” player, while enormous chain guns can be quite effective for the player who prefers more strategic dogfighting. Each weapon is a perfectly viable choice, though some definite favorites have emerged online, including the “leech” missile, which tracks its target, attaches itself to the enemy plane, and detonates, usually for a one hit kill. It’s easy to consider this weapon overpowered (it’s responsible for most kills in multiplayer), but it can be shaken off the plane easily by performing an aerial stunt, meaning that if you’re paying attention, this weapon will never kill you.
Choices like these help to balance out the game and provide depth, though when playing online, some weapons certainly do feel more powerful than others. There are also kill streaks, which either grant you Woodstock as a tailgunner or allow you to fly Snoopy’s doghouse. This will invariably put a smile on your face, even if you don’t care about Snoopy at all.
Also providing depth are the nine multiplayer modes, which support up to sixteen players on each map. Many standard game modes are present, including a free-for-all dogfight, team dogfight, and capture the flag. Each mode is worth a try and offers a different gameplay style. Oddly enough, perhaps my favorite of the bunch is the “football” mode, which converts maps into football fields, inserts uprights and a football, and lets each team compete to score touchdowns. Planes of course can still attack one another, and the ball can be passed to other planes easily using the Y button. I was surprised at just how well this mode works; with two teams full of competent players, matches can be quite intense.
The game also offers a set of missions that can be played solo or cooperatively, either split screen or online. The missions follow some very standard styles: fight off waves of attacking planes, defend a zeppelin, and even some more relaxing ring races. The number of missions is quite small, making it easy to finish the missions in about two hours.
However, you’ll be given medals at the end of each mission, and achieving gold medals is really quite difficult. Thus, if you want to extend the life of the missions, you certainly can. Still, the mission types do become repetitive, and getting gold on each mission may not be high on your list of priorities.
There’s plenty of opportunity to glean replayability from multiplayer, which offers a now-standard series of ranks to unlock, though achieving higher ranks unlocks nothing other than a special leaderboard reserved for the most elite pilots. What it really comes down to is the fact that the game is just immensely fun to play. It’s fantastic to play with friends, and the game’s community is already strong enough that you never have to worry about not finding games.
The game’s biggest fault at this point is that its online play isn’t always completely stable. I’ve had my console freeze a few times as the game searched for a match, and the game’s framerate experiences some bizarre and massive slowdowns at random times. This lack of stability can be frustrating at times, but such incidents are relatively rare. Otherwise, the game’s presentation is quite nice, with crisp, colorful graphics complemented by great plane designs and plenty of explosive visual effects.
The game’s sound design is another surprising area in which this game shines. The music perfectly combines the epic feel of a World War I game with a sound appropriate for a Snoopy game, which sounds insane even as I write it. But the game pulls it off masterfully. In addition, the audio effects are quite impressive, with guns sounding realistic, and explosions even causing a deafening effect as in a FPS. Essentially, the game’s audio successfully puts you in the midst of a World War I-era aerial battle, which is precisely what it should do.
I’m confident in saying that Snoopy Flying Ace is one of the most enjoyable games on Xbox Live Arcade, and is the very best downloadable multiplayer experience available for XBLA. While there will indeed come a time when the game’s simplicity will cause players to grow tired of it, its tight, immensely entertaining gameplay will ensure that players get far more than just ten dollars of high-quality entertainment out of the package. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning to it one day even after that.
Some technical issues exist, but on the whole, the game looks great and perfectly represents Snoopy's World War I dream world.
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There's a surprising level of depth in this Crimson Skies-inspired aerial shooter, and its accessibility makes it appropriate for players of all types. The single player, however, doesn't manage to be nearly as fun as the multiplayer.
The sound design in the game is superb, from the appropriate and highly enjoyable music to the accurate and powerful sound effects.
Nine well-designed multiplayer modes remain fun after many, many sessions. Players that hope to achieve gold ranking in all missions will find themselves playing for even longer.
Snoopy Flying Aces is an absolute blast to play and offers one of the best experiences available on XBLA. Don't write it off just because of a certain famous beagle.