Secret Weapons Over Normandy
If There Are any true auteurs left in the games business, Larry Holland would have to rank among them. Creator of space combat gems like X-Wing and Tie Fighter, not to mention classic WWII flyer Secret Weapons Of The Luftwaffe, Larry and his team have an envious reputation for marrying depth of gameplay with a jolly good bit of high-flying biffo, and all that.
As you'll know if you've been paying attention, Larry's new game takes him back to his old playground, World War II, reprising some familiar themes with Secret Weapons Over Normandy. E3 gave us our first look at the game in action, and it's coming together rather nicely, blending the storytelling aspects of the likes of TIE Fighter with the simple pleasures of blowing stuff up, using an increasingly powerful and bizarre selection of aircraft.
"We're trying to build a very accessible, fun flight game here," boasts Peter Hirschmann, producer on the game. "Larry's games have always been very easy to get into, and we're not trying to make a hardcore sim that scares anyone off." Indeed, as Larry's first game to head to a console as well as PC, SWON is a thoroughly action-oriented affair. It's not quite arcade twitchy, but think Rogue Squadron's thrills more so than Combat Flight Sim's realism.
The control system is very simple and intuitive, using a system called padlock camera to help temper the chaos of dogfighting (allowing you to always look at your target no matter which way you're flying). You can also slow down the game at any time if things get too hectic, or press a key to highlight every live target on screen. "We want to focus on the player's experience," explains Peter. "On the tactical relationship between you and the bad guys."
Your character in the game is crack American pilot James Chase, who joins up with the RAF to work with the Special Operations Executive. Over the course of 30 missions, you'll fly in all the major theatres of war (culminating in Normandy), snatching a bunch of Axis R&D in the process. This includes fun stuff like the Messerschmidt 262 - the first jet ever used in combat - and the experimental Wasserfall guided rocket that you can pilot to its target in first-person. As you complete missions your hangar gradually fills up with more than 20 secret and not-so-secret aircraft of both German and Allied design. Liberties have been taken with history, so you also get things like the XF5U Flying Pancake, an American prototype that never saw combat. Strangely, the multiplayer options in the console versions will be absent on PC, though by way of compensation we get the mission builder, the same editing tool used by the designers, and we're told the game has an open architecture to encourage tinkering.
So, aside from the unfortunate coincidence that the new Battlefield 1942 add-on is based on a very similar premise, things are looking good for SWON. As an entertaining alternative to serious flight simmery, it should be most welcome.
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It's The global military conflict that just keeps on giving. If there's an area of World War II that has yet to be covered by the all-encompassing medium that is gaming, then I'll be extremely surprised. Okay, the old Home Guard has never featured that much, nor those plucky gals working in the Spitfire and parachute factories while their menfolk were holding back the Jerry army. Keep those spirits high, ladies. The war will be over by Christmas, thanks to you.
So it's quite a mystery exactly what secret weapons LucasArts is referring to in the title of this long-awaited return to the war-torn skies. It's not like Adolf had a futuristic death ray pointed at Dover or anything. Even if he did, it would probably have been taken care of by Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton or Telly Savalas, wouldn't it?
There's nothing that surreptitious about the weapons seen in SWON - the rickety Me163 and 262 rocket planes being about as exotic as it really gets. However, what LucasArts lacks in ground-breaking historical research, it more than makes up for in refined game design and engageability (if I may be so bold as to reinvent the English language for a moment).
Secret Weapons Over Normandy hasn't been designed to get the piston and propeller crowd whooping and dancing and giving each other mistimed high fives. If you saw Matrix Revolutions and came out thinking, cool battle scenes, I want a big robot thing, rather than banging your fists against your temples and shrieking but that made no sensei, then you're SWON's target audience.
Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not for a moment suggesting that this is a game for morons. This is a game for those that put adrenalin thrills above cerebral pondering. Those that thrive on action, adventure and really wild things. As opposed to those that prefer every bolt to be the right way up, every switch to be correctly flickable and every gaping plot hole about emotionless machine Al blithely making a pointless deal with human survivors to be logical. Sorry, SWON. Back to Secret Weapons Over Normandy. Planes and that.
In this game, you are James Chase, the dashing all-American heeroo. Initially, you take on the dastardly looftwaffer, but rapidly progress to almost every major battle of the entire war -Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Midway, D-Day. By the end of it all, you've amassed enough air miles to qualify for every free gift on offer.
Talking of which, the thing that stands out above all else is how much of a console feel this all has - but in a good way, for once. Progression through the campaign unlocks all manner of bonuses, from aircraft upgrades to special challenges, right through to bonus planes (including a real surprise should you make it towards the end of the game). There's also behind the scenes' video clips available in this flight sim.
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It's so refreshing to see that someone has finally realised that a structured reward system is what keeps people coming back to games, and is the reason that every house in the world has a PS2 or an Xbox nestled next to the widescreen digital hi-def NICAM stereo idiot lantern. Why it's taken PC developers quite this long to cotton on is anyone's guess, but here, finally, someone is doing it right. SWON's rewards keep you coming back time and again, no matter how frustratingly hard the missions become.
On the negative side, the game is all a bit simplistic. If you try to do anything that strays outside of each mission's carefully laid narrative structure, you start to see some cracks in the seams. In filmic terms, there are times when SWON is badly edited too: out of sequence radio messages, obvious enemy spawn points, things like that. Mostly it does a solid job, just so long as long as you don't try to break it too much.
There's also a very deliberate cartoon-ish visual style at work that I'm not entirely convinced works. The mid-level cut scenes are a nice mix of archive photography and game engine animation, but it's the in-game stuff that feels a bit plain at times.
But that's more a personal taste thing than serious criticism. What this release has going for it is Fun, with a capital F - unlike recent flight sims that have taken a rather po-faced approach. Gaming is meant to be about entertainment as well as realism, and with this release, LucasArts seems to agree with this notion in every sense.
For This Mission, You're On Your Own Son...
Secret Weapons Over Normandy isn't exclusive to the world of PCs: both Xbox and PS2 versions are due to be released at more or less the same time, both of which have one thing that us computer jockeys do not - multiplayer. While console pilots get to enjoy all manner of Deathmatch and coop thrills, we PC owners are expected to make do with a custom mission builder instead. Not fair. Not bally fair at all. Voice your disapproval. Write to the developers. Inform your MPs. Take to the streets. Tut loudly in the direction of disaffected youths. This will not do, LucasArts. Get a patch underway now or feel our wrath. Your choice.
Coming from a long line of successful flight simulators such as Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, X-Wing, and Tie Fighter, Totally Games and LucasArts has shifted their strategy. Instead of creating a detailed first person flight sim that would probably only be successful on the PC, an arcade style of gameplay was designed that's easier to control and more popular on consoles. That may be disappointing for some but Secret Weapons Over Normandy puts together a solid experience by taking full advantage of its World War II setting and delivering engaging gameplay.
Secret Weapons Over Normandy takes you through the story of a gifted American pilot who joins an elite Royal Air Force multinational squad. Although the story line is on the thin side with most missions independent of each other, each mission is well designed with primary, secondary, and bonus objectives, including a diverse selection of objectives. The gameplay during those missions meets expectations with an easy to pick up control system and an AI that allows for challenging dogfights. In addition, once missions are finished upgrades become available allowing the ability to increase different aspects of the planes.
The graphics give a good portrayal of World War II battlefields with detailed planes and reasonable texturing. Other effects such as planes receiving damage with smoke trails and engine fires also help to enhance the overall experience. Even with these effects however, Secret Weapons Over Normandy isn't cutting edge visually but offers enough to keep them at least above average. The audio is a similar story to the graphics with realistic engine sounds and weapons fire. The music also fits the era appropriately and helps to immerse into the game.
Secret Weapons Over Normandy puts together a solid arcade flight sim. Although the story is slightly fragmented, the missions help pick up the slack with well balanced gameplay and easy to learn controls. Without competition like Crimson Skies on the Xbox, Secret Weapons Over Normandy has the ability to make a bigger impact on the Playstation 2 and flight sim fans will want to check it out.
Take EA's Medal of Honor-shooter series, bolt wings on it, and set it soaring high in the sky, and you have Secret Weapons Over Normandy. It has the same ultraslick presentation, with premission pseudohistorical footage, a rousing orchestrated score, and visuals as pretty as the wild blue yonder. And, for the most part, the gameplay here is just as thrilling. You'll barnstorm prisoner-of-war camps, sink Japanese carriers, and fly cover for ground-based friendlies--with lots of dogfighting in between, of course. Just don't expect to tangle with many crafty opponents; enemy squadrons rely on sheer numbers rather than ace pilotry to chew up your six. And if the bogeys get uppity, you can slip into slow-mo aerial bullet time and pepper them at your leisure--an ability that makes the game a bit of a cinch. Still, unlike Shawn, I never thought the sorties got blah, although the lack of targeting and view options makes for confusing moments. But ultimately, why must you wait so long to fly secret experimental planes in a game with the words "secret weapons" in its title?
Secret Weapons sacrifices authenticity for fun. Historians will scoff at the impossible payloads, and accomplished flyboys will wonder where gravity went, but I'd rather outmaneuver enemy aces and dive-bomb Axis depots than actually learn to fly. Vast environments and vibrant effects capture the magnitude of air combat, and, for the first half of the game, varied missions keep the action interesting. After a dozen sorties, however it gets old, and all but the most patient pilots will want to pop the canopy.
Secret's bullet-time clock manipulation is a marginally cool idea, but I still found myself using it primarily to speed up my flight, which only meant enemies were blowing up my allies several times faster than normal. This is definitely not one for hardcore flight fans--the graphics are subpar, the physics nonexistent, and the missions pretty pedestrian. I could see flight newbies glomming on to Secret's "lite" war-sim approach, but you'll find better dogfighting elsewhere.
Snapshots and Media
- Airfix Dogfighter
- ATF: Advanced Tactical Fighters
- B-17 Flying Fortress: The Mighty 8th
- Combat Air Patrol
- European Air War
- F-22: Air Dominance Fighter
- F/A-18 Hornet 3.0
- F/A-18E Super Hornet
- Blazing Angels 2: Secret Missions of WW2
- Echelon: Wind Warriors
- Evasive Action
- Fleet Defender
- Jane's Combat Simulations: WWII Fighters
- Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 3: Battle for Europe
- Microsoft Flight Simulator 5.0
- MiG-29M Super Fulcrum
- Pacific Strike
- Wings Of Honour