Genre : Arcade/Flight Sim
Developer : Totally Games
Publisher : LucasArts
Release Date : November 18, 2003
Buy 'SECRET WEAPONS OVER NORMANDY': PC
Secret Weapons Over Normandy is the latest creation of Larry Holland, the lead designer behind some of the best "arcade flight-sims" ever made, including the X-Wing and Tie Fighter series. With a long tradition of being able to pull off air combat convincingly I looked forward to Totally Games' newest effort. For the most part SWON delivers on everything it promises. But in a couple of key areas it falls short of the excellence you would expect from Holland and team.
So what does it promise? Following in the WW2 craze that has consumed computer and console gaming, SWON allows you to take to the skies in a number of top-secret planes, some of which disappeared into history while others were crucial to the outcome of the war. Understanding that I've never been a WW2 pilot I'll still say with some confidence that the action is not realistic. Talk to any military pilot and he'll tell you assignments are 99% flying in circles and 1% terror. That would be one dull game though. So the folks at Totally Games set out to make a game that was historically accurate but that played like an action film. Just as Call of Duty is an action game with historically accurate weapons, SWON uses real-life inventions and sets you down in real battles, but that's where the realism ends. If you're looking for a flight sim, look elsewhere.
SWON has you play the part of James Chase, an American, in 1940, who's up for an open spot in the Battlehawks, a legendary arm of the Royal Air Force. It's up to you to prove your mettle and tackle both European and Japanese targets, depending on where they want you. Similarly to Tie Fighter you get multiple goals per mission, of which you must complete the primary. If you are able to complete the others then you'll just prove yourself to your peers and you might even get a bonus. Bonuses in the game are well-done and give you a clear purpose to finish the levels. You can get armor or weapon upgrades for your current plane in the campaign mode, new planes for the Instant Action mode and a little blast from Larry Holland's past. More to come on this point.
The two modes of play are the standard Campaign and Instant Action modes. The campaign tells the story while the Instant Action lets you jump right in to fighting. I always head into the Instant Action first which ended up being a mistake here because the controls, while easy, have to be practiced. However, ultimately, Instant Action ended up being my favorite part of the game, especially as I unlocked more and more planes in the Campaign mode. You can set the number of wingmen, enemies, skill and plane extras before you head into battle. Since the dogfighting is the fun part of SWON I tend to spend most of my time there.
The 30 Campaign missions in the game are tied in with real historical events. You start your flights in Europe when your focus is on preventing the Germans from gaining control of Africa. But when Pearl Harbor happens you must shift your talents to the Japanese threat. As the war intensifies and the weapons on both sides become deadlier, time is of the essence and the Germans' special projects and maneuvers must be disrupted before they can turn the tide of the war. One of the most accomplished aspects of the game is the fictional story that interweaves with real-life events. You get black and white movies and photos that show you what's happening in the world and you really do get a sense of being part of a larger effort. The camaraderie that pilots experience has always fascinated me and SWON puts it front and center in the storyline. Some missions even have you trying to get more kills than your buds as a PRIMARY goal. Love it. In fact, the flow of the story and the dedication to your peers is reminiscent of the original Crimson Skies for the PC. This classic was a standard-setting example of how to set an immersive mood that made you feel like you were part of a fantastic but real world. SWON's cut scenes and constant radio chatter succeed in putting you right smack dab in the middle of the action. Add to that a distinct sense of 1940s music, dialogue and style and you get a satisfying experience. In the final analysis SWON has many touches that verify the developers love for the era (even the narrator's voice belongs to the same guy you hear on all those PBS documentaries!)
SWON contains 26 planes with their own strengths and weaknesses. Each one is lovingly crafted from historical documents and modeled as closely as possible on the real deal (though some planes never got very far past the blueprint stage). Marvels of design dot SWON, such as the XP-55 Ascender and the "Flying Pancake" which looks like a UFO. There's the gorgeous Me-262 which blasted the allies out of the water (luckily Hitler mistakenly thought they would be perfect as bombers instead of as fighters). The list is long and they each handle quite differently in the sky. You'll learn that each plane has a character to it -- some planes are great for dogfights while others are meant to just drop bombs and torpedoes. In the end, however, my favorite craft was the X-Wing. That's right. If you play through the whole game you get to unlock the ultimate easter egg, the X-Wing and Tie-Fighter. It's a real blast to swoop down on the Denmark landscape in an X-Wing, dodging your way through oncoming soldiers of the Sith. SWON racks up some points for this little detail.
The battles themselves can be a blast. Seen from a third-person perspective you're usually assigned to "blow up the bridge", "protect the target" or dogfight. Overall the missions aren't brilliant but they set up the action well enough and let the combat shine through. The controls on the game couldn't be easier. Borrowing heavily from the elegant control layout of their previous flight games Totally Games gives the newbie a much-appreciated break. Actually, they take it too far - but we'll get to that in a moment. As in the X-Wing series you can lock onto a target and never let go. It seems like its cheating a little but I learned to enjoy it in the more intense battles. There are a lot of planes flying around sometimes and the lock helps you keep track. I'm pretty sure the WW2 pilots didn't have this little trick but we're looking for fun here, not realism, right? You also get a flashing red crosshair when your enemy is within range. The final "cheat" the game designers give you is the ability to slow down time (to keep a bead on the pros) and speed it up (to fly greater distances in a shorter amount of time). I found these touches to be extreme and silly. Part of the fun of doing the mission battles is working your way across great distances toward inevitable battle. I don't want to speed it up. I want to have time to get some butterflies. And as far as slowing down time? No thanks. I'll leave that to Neo. The tricks you can use to keep track of the enemy are already sufficient without devices like this. I got through the whole game without it.
In fact, the primary problem with SWON seems to be a by-product of these cheats. You start the game strong and you almost always feel more powerful than your AI opponent. It's possible that the game was dumbed down a little too much (to be concurrently released on consoles probably). I can understand the need to give a kid some extra incentive to try one more level but I think the instant gratification crowd would have done just fine with some less technologically advanced tools.
These problems aside SWON has more going for it that against it. The graphics are far from cutting edge but they look good. Especially the planes. The terrain below you is pretty sweet, though the cities are plain vanilla and tend to slow the game down a little when they get too big (at least on my wimpy 3 Ghz Intel, Radeon 9700 rig). The sound is exceptional with excellent voice acting and specialized sound effects for each plane. It might have been my imagination but even the sound of bullets thrashing your plane sounded different from craft to craft. I can tell the sound would have been a blast to do on SWON. Oh and the music. What kind of Lucas game would it be without music? It's a sweeping orchestral score that adds to the gameplay. Kudos to the sound teams!
Look, anytime a big name comes out with a new game people sit on the sidelines and hope he can recreate the magic. SWON doesn't break barriers in the genre. It doesn't introduce anything new to the gaming scene and it won't change the world like some of Holland's previous works. Get over it. It's fun. The Totally Games team wanted to give players a game they could just pick up and play. They've certainly done that, almost to a fault. They also wanted to offer the depth of realism that would make a game like this special. It's a fine line to walk and though SWON can be a little linear and two-dimensional (in a console-kinda way), it succeeds in being fun and gives you an immersive (if romanticized) jaunt through the terrifying and fascinating world of flight during WW2.
Score : 8.2/10
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