Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge meets Peanuts in Snoopy Flying Ace, an Xbox Live Arcade game from developer Smart Bomb Interactive, which mashes Charles Schultz's legendary comic strip into an arcade flight sim. For just 800 points, you get a full-featured game loaded with ways to take Snoopy's famed Sopwith Camel into the skies, courtesy of a solo campaign, co-op missions, and a range of multiplayer modes. Dogfighting can be a bit on the shallow side in the single-player assignments and some of the multiplayer may be too chaotic to enjoy in the early hours, but you still get a lot of beagle-on-biplanes action for a very reasonable price.
Gameplay has clearly been modeled on Crimson Skies. The feel of the game is actually closer to this 2003 cult hit for the original Xbox than Smart Bomb's previous Snoopy flyer, Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, which came out for the PC, PlayStation 2, and PSP in 2006. This is more of a straightforward steampunk arcade shooter, with lots of odd futuristic weapons grafted onto century-old technology, than a Beagle's dream of being a WWI air ace. Still, the flight sim model here is loose and forgiving. All of the various plane models are easy to handle because they vary only in a few basic categories, like speed and turning. Plane movement is done courtesy of the left stick, rolls and loops are called up with the right stick, and shooting is mapped to the triggers. Special weapons like a shotgun, missiles, and even an EMP blast can be changed on the fly with the B button. You can get a look behind you with the right shoulder button. The intuitive control scheme is so friendly that you can settle in and start blowing up enemy planes right away.
However, it might have been nice if more were done with the Snoopy theme. Once you get past the basic concept of the delusional beagle flying into battle with the Red Baron in a World War I-era biplane, few references are made to the Peanuts cast. Charlie Brown drops in for a couple of appearances as a fellow flying ace you follow through races. You shoot down Lucy and Linus, along with lesser lights from the strip, such as Rerun and Pigpen, but they're identified only by text under their planes so they could just as well be anybody. Not a lot else has been taken from Schultz's comic aside from Snoopy's high-pitched laughing barks when sending bad guys down in flames and great piano tunes recalling the Vince Guaraldi scores from Peanuts cartoons (which are also augmented by some fantastical martial fight music during battles). So you end up forgetting all about the Peanuts subject matter and concentrating on just shooting stuff.
The focus here is on nonstop action, and thankfully, shooting is what Snoopy Flying Ace does best. Missions throughout the single-player campaign (which can also be played co-op over Live as one-off missions) are tightly structured. There are just a handful of types, though, so you're always taking on waves of the Red Baron's goons, defending bases with gun turrets, escorting recon balloons into enemy territory, attacking a zeppelin and its defense fighters before it can bomb your headquarters, and the like. Regardless of the main objective, you spend just about all of your time blasting away at streams of enemy planes that can spin and turn well enough to give you a bit of a challenge. Only a handful of races break the pattern, as in those missions where you fly through hoops, follow Charlie Brown through acrobatics, and rescue Woodstock and his pals from floating mines. Missions generally move along quickly, with you reaching the end of each in no more than a few minutes. The whole campaign can be wrapped up in just a couple of hours. Only the two zeppelin assignments drag a bit, as you can easily spend 20 minutes in each one of these showdowns before getting a final shot at perforating the balloon boss.
Competitive multiplayer has more long-term appeal. There are four basic game types on offer. Dogfight is a straight-up free-for-all mode that can be played mano a mano or with teams. Capture the Flag is exactly what it sounds like. Dog Pile is a battle to hold onto a bone. And Pigskin sees teams trying to fly a football into an end zone. All are fast and frenzied, as well as a real blast to get into due to all the pell-mell mayhem. More work was obviously put into the multiplayer, too, as it holds the lion's share of the achievements and even some cool Peanuts frills like your biplane morphing into Snoopy's doghouse if you clock nine kills without being taken out yourself. That said, it can be frustrating in the beginning because the congested maps result in your getting killed constantly while figuring out the lay of the land. Get some seasoning and the chaotic fun of the multiplayer modes--particularly the deceptively strategic Pigskin--evolve into a great time.
Graphics can be a bit of an issue in multiplayer. While the game generally looks great, with a range of distinct battlegrounds like a Snoopy-headed desert sphinx and the dusky skies above besieged Paris, the backdrops are occasionally so detailed and dark that you can't immediately identify enemy ships. This isn't that big of a deal when playing solo, but the problem is more serious when taking on cutthroat human opposition. Multiplayer seems to be a hit right now over Live, too, with dozens of players online, so you can get into a game instantly. This success might be a bit too much, however, because lag can be an issue in some matches, particularly when you're shooting it out at around the 16-player maximum.
Even though Snoopy Flying Ace might not be the deepest combat flight sim out there, you can't argue with how much game it gives you for the $10 asking price. Peanuts fans have grounds for complaint due to the strange lack of Snoopy-centric story and atmosphere, although there enough cameo appearances from the round-headed kid and his pals to remind you that this is a licensed game. Regardless of what you think of the story and setting, all of the solo, co-op, and multiplayer modes provide many hours of dogfighting action.