Genre : Arcade/Flight Sim
Developer : Totally Games
Publisher : LucasArts
Release Date : November 18, 2003
Buy 'SECRET WEAPONS OVER NORMANDY': PC
The team behind the classic PC franchises X-wing and Tie Fighter return to their roots in Secret Weapons over Normandy. While not a direct sequel to their 1991 game Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, some of the elements that made the first Secret Weapons title so popular make a reappearance in the latest installment, namely the chance to fly some of the more experimental planes of the WWII era. Unlike most WWII themed flight games SWON is not in any way a flight sim. Arcade is the name of the game this time around in what is a clear attempt to draw in the console crowd. While this will draw in a broader audience and allows for more accessible gameplay it makes the game incredibly easy which is a huge drawback.
In SWON, you will play as James Chase an American fighter pilot sent to fight in the British Royal Air Force. Upon arriving in Britain you will have to prove your skill before they will accept you into the ranks of the Blackhawks, the most elite fighters in the Allies arsenal. One of the perks of being the best is getting assigned the jobs that no other outfit would dare tackle. Chase keeps a journal of his harrowing encounters and his thoughts of the war and these are used as the main convention for telling the story. The cutscenes are comprised of Chase reading from his journal or some letter he has written while grainy black and white photos of current events scroll through the screen. This is also where you will see some of the historical inaccuracies come into play. He keeps a log of the experimental planes and weapons he uses and sometimes they end up in letter to his family. Seems like you might not want that kind of information spread around so frivolously, but hey Ma and Pa back home might be interested.
Speaking of planes and weaponry there are plenty to go around. With over 20 planes to choose from and more being released for download you are sure to find one to your liking. Initially you will be assigned a plane for each mission but after completing several missions you will be able to choose the craft you wish to administer death from above. The problem with so many planes though is the game practically forces you to continually change craft. You will unlock new planes fairly frequently so some of the inferior planes will get very little play time. In addition to this the downloadable planes are more powerful than most of the packaged planes so you may skip some altogether.
Once you have selected the right craft for the mission you will then be able to select its armament. You will choose from the type cannons, rockets, bombs and torpedoes to outfit your plane with, as well as the secret weapons you will unlock later in the game. The heavier weapons and usually the better ones can only be equipped in smaller quantities that than the lighter, less powerful ones. This might imply some strategy in selecting you weapons, but once you get into battle there are usually friendly airbases where you can land to rearm, taking most of the strategy out of the selection process.
Now that you have your plane and it's fully loaded you are ready for battle. There is a good variety of mission objectives in SWON from simple shoot everything that moves missions to support missions where you will have to ensure the safety of an ally. While dogfighting is a mainstay of the gameplay there is equal importance placed on destroying ground targets be they on land or sea. You will even find yourself out of the plane and placed in a turret on some missions. All of this variety keeps the game from getting too repetitive and helps the pacing of the missions. Where SWON begins to see its problems on these missions is the relatively low intelligence of the A.I. Getting the drop on the enemies is extremely easy and you will find yourself able to outmaneuver everyone in the game. Even when you are outnumbered greatly the enemy will almost never provide a challenge. They have little to no evasive maneuvers and sometimes will fly in a straight line even while you are peppering them with a barrage of bullets.
In addition to the shoddy A.I. enemy planes go down with relative ease. They aren't able to handle even a quarter the beating of your plane. There is also a feature in the game that allows you to slow down time in battle or speed it up if your objective is far away. There is no limit to how you use this ability so in combat you can keep time slowed and greatly improve your accuracy. This means enemies will go down like suckers even faster. Another problem is the mid-air collisions. They are incomprehensible even in an arcade style shooter. You are able to plow head on into an enemy plane at full speed and only suffer moderate damage and a slight change in direction. As a result you will die very infrequently and usually as a result of an accidentally slip up rather than being out piloted.
If that weren't enough you are also able to upgrade your plane in between missions. At then end of each mission you will be graded on several criteria including accuracy, time, and completion of secondary and bonus missions. Based on these scored you will be awarded upgrade tokens for use on any plane of your choosing. These can be spent on armor upgrades, speed upgrades, handling upgrades, or on increasing the payload capacity of the various ammo types. These need not be used sparingly either. As mentioned earlier you will likely only use a select few aircraft once all are unlocked so you can fully upgrade these planes easily and have a plethora of tokes left over. Unfortunately the enemies don't get the benefit of these upgrades, so those planes that went down faster than panties on prom night will drop even faster now.
The game is enjoyable don't get me wrong, but its ease will seem too great even for some inexperienced gamers. It is also a very short game clocking in around 10-12 hours. There are many optional missions available that will unlock as you progress through the game. These can add significant length, but are not necessary to completing the game. Most of these missions will award you with upgrade tokens that can be used during the campaign, but some will reward you with planes. Luckily the reward is stated before you do the mission so if you just want to get the planes there is no need to do all the upgrade missions. There are also two multiplayer modes available to add some value to the game. In one mode you will be able to go head to head with a friend in a dogfight in the planes of your choosing in on of the various locales in the game. There is also a cooperative mode where you and your friend will team up to accomplish various tasks like sinking ships, or taking out enemy installations. With no online support though, these modes will quickly be forgotten.
The graphics in SWON won't be winning any awards, but there are several nice touches worth noting. The plane models are all well done, but more impressive is the sheer number of planes that can be on the screen at one time. Some missions will have you flying with multiple wingmen and an even greater number of enemies. The draw distance is immense and will have you seeing your enemies well in advance of entering attack range. The damage models add a lot to the action of the game. Pieces of the planes fly off as they are pummeled. Smoke trails out from the engines as they burst into flames from a rocket. This looks especially impressive during night missions and can help you identify which planes are getting ready to go down. The textures overall are slightly grainy, but the amount of models on the screen at one time from the water, grass trees, and other environmental elements, to the numerous tanks, planes, boats, turrets, and buildings can explain why they had to be slightly downgraded. This also allows for a steady framerate throughout which is a definite plus.
As with almost every LucasArts game the audio is SWON is fantastic. The music is spot on with the era and most of the sounds were recorded using instruments of the time. The majority of the engine noises were recorded using the actual planes so authenticity is clearly represented. The gunfire and other weaponry all sound excellent and are really the highlight of the game. The voice acting, which there is a lot of, is equally impressive. Some of the accents do come on a little thick, but for the most part they help draw you into the various countries you will visit. You can hear your wingmen as well as the enemies through the speakers in the plane helping to bring the battle to life.
By no means a stand out in the genre, SWON does a decent job of providing a fun WWII shooter that is easily accessible to all. In keeping with a trend that unfortunately seems to picking up rather than declining, SWON tries to cater to the lowest common denominator and dumb down the controls and the difficulty for the casual gamer. Game developers take note: Making a game short and easy is not the answer to capturing a broad audience. With a longer campaign, much improved A.I., and a difficulty that ramps up more quickly this could have been a great game, but as it stands its just your run of the mill arcade shooter.
Score : 7.5/10
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