Heroes Over Europe is the sequel to Heroes of the Pacific, the World War II arcade flight sim that pit would-be pilots against the forces of the Empire of Japan. From Pearl Harbor to Iwo Jima, the well-told story underlying its missions was riveting as players saw the war from the eyes of a young pilot who was part of the campaign that pushed the IJN back across the Pacific. I was surprised to see the sequel fall far from the established mark. It's not as bad as what passes for Wing Commander on XBLA nowadays, but one expects a sequel to actually improve on its predecessor.
The sequel follows the story of four pilots, each one falling into the clichéd mold of brash and daring men who mature into knights of the sky as the war rages on. Heroes Over Europe would take me from the Blitz in London to the very gates of Berlin in a final raid against the heart of the Third Reich. While it takes many liberties with history, the story tries to preserve the basic spirit underlying why these lads have gone to war. Make no mistake: This is a popcorn arcade flier that's as far from any sense of realism as XBLA'sWing Commander Arena is from the challenging realism of Gaijin Entertainment's IL2-Sturmovik: Birds of Prey.
On the bright side, the title's presentation is better than that of its predecessor. In between most missions, mock black-and-white newsreel footage pieced together from actual film lets you know how the war is progressing on every front. A newsreel barker eats up each victory with plenty of propaganda-speak, a slick interface map shows off the world, and decent voice acting fills the airwaves with nervous chatter and angry German phrases. The characters do a decent job with the material, although the predictable stories and overwrought personalities often made it hard for me to take it seriously.
The graphics are a huge improvement over Heroes of the Pacific. Fragments fly off planes as bullets tear through them, and when you look down, the landscape is richly textured with rivers, hills and snowcapped mountains. The cities are breathtakingly detailed with famous monuments, from Parliament and Big Ben in London to Tempelhof Airport and Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. These are some of the most stunning cities seen yet in a flight sim, and the details are impressive; when I flew by the Reichstag's façade, I was even able to read the words, "Dem Deutschen Volke." Although the damage modeling for planes isn't as precise as IL2-Sturmovik's, if you like big explosions and can forgive how a chopped-up plane can stay airborne until you punish it with a river of lead, this game could be for you.
Two different flight controls are offered: arcade and professional, although they are not very different. The "professional" option allows you to steer the plane with the rudder instead of simply pointing the stick where you want to go; it offers a little more for the pilot to work with. As with Heroes of the Pacific, different difficulty levels are offered, and as each mission is completed, new planes are unlocked. At higher difficulty levels, additional planes become available. Bonus objectives within each mission can also be enough incentive to unlock new planes, and a few are different enough in handling and firepower to make it worth trading in that Hurricane for a P-51.
Aside from that, the rest of Heroes Over Europe left me scratching my head. The first thing that I noticed is that there are no cockpit views. I looked to the thin manual for answers, thinking that perhaps I had missed a key. Then I looked to the forums for help, in case the cockpit views had been added by one of the patches. Instead, I found that Senior Producer Justin Halliday had stated prior to the title's release that there would only be an external view. He went on to explain that this was because it "is an arcade flying game for consoles and PC" and that "the inclusion of cockpit views is not a priority for this style of game."
I guess the developers behind Crimson Skies and Freespace on the PC had it all wrong. Even more confusing is that the feature was present in the prior title, Heroes of the Pacific, which I had also played through.
Instead, I was shoehorned into two views: a chase plane view and a pseudo, sideways third-person view of the plane as it angles toward a reticle at the center of the screen. It isn't unusual to have a third-person view as your only option in a console flight sim game. It worked well for the Xbox iteration of Crimson Skies, but the PC version was a different animal altogether. It had flight instrumentation and a cockpit view despite being an arcade flier, but the nice thing about both versions was how well the control scheme was seamlessly engineered to maximize the fun without sacrificing any control on either platform.
However, Heroes Over Europe's implementation leaves much to be desired for the PC crowd. The plane feels pinned to the reticle in the third-person, over-the-tail view and it can feel unnatural when you're trying to maneuver around what can feel like a fixed camera, especially in a close dogfight.
In addition to a cockpit view, Heroes of the Pacific had an altimeter, speed gauge and a radar view, but none of these features are in Heroes Over Europe. Instead, I get a beeping sound when I'm too close to the ground, as if I were piloting an F-16 and have to guesstimate how fast I'm going by checking the torpedo indicators or bomb sight scaling beneath my plane.
Not a lot of attention was paid to the menu options for the PC, either. The game didn't like the fact that I had a flightstick and an Xbox 360 pad attached to my PC at the same time, nor did it give me the option to switch off the pad's rumble feature, so I disconnected it so it wouldn't jump all over my desk. I also found out that I couldn't change my button assignments while in a mission unless I exited it and made those changes from the main menu. In the past, most sims that I've played on the PC have allowed me to change button assignments in-game.
I also don't quite remember the AI being this suicidal in the previous game. Mid-air collisions occur on an almost mission-by-mission basis, thanks to the numbskull piloting that most of your "allies" and enemies seem to have perfected. Why have any AI on my side at all if it only gets in your way instead of taking on the enemy? I may have wingmen, but I couldn't order them to help me out, even though I could hear them chatting up a storm.
For most of the game, you will be the one doing the work, and that's all well and good in most cases, but Heroes Over Europe crosses the line between having you feel like an ace and being expected to save the world by yourself. The game sends wave after wave of fighters upon you, which can make most missions feel like repetitive slogs with unexpected difficulty spikes. The occasional "Aces" can make life interesting during a mission as they did in Pacific, though not everyone may appreciate their sudden appearance in a tough fight.
The worst example of this wave mentality was in a B-17 bomber mission, where I was expected to play defense, but this particular mission spawned plane after plane to create the impression of impossible odds. It wasn't impossible, but it certainly felt like a brick wall after the prior mission's cakewalk. It also dramatically underlined how lobotomized my "allies" were in leaving me to do all of the shooting. It's frustrating, to say the least.
Another step back for the sequel is in the number of missions that you can fly. Only 14 missions comprise the entire European Theatre, making this a remarkably short game that can be finished in less than 10 hours. The prior game, Heroes of the Pacific, came with 26 missions spread across 10 distinct conflict zones. On top of that, there were even a few historical missions based on actual acts of heroism to add more authenticity to its WWII roots. That aspect is definitely missing from this title.
The missions often feel repetitive, but the developers made several clumsy attempts to create dangerous situations that would offer unique challenges. Unfortunately, many of these attempts come off as staged events that can trash history and your patience. At least with The Saboteur's bombastic take on crushing Nazis, I knew what to expect. With Heroes of the Pacific, I didn't need to worry about being a part of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo as a one-man act. In Blazing Angels 2, weird weapons and planes were the order of the day. Not so with Heroes Over Europe.
I had to wonder at the mission that sent me off to bomb a military parade in Berlin and then fly a timed mission through the canyons of buildings at street level to escape enemy radar. It's as if every antiaircraft gun in the city had suddenly earned the ability to home in on my plane. I expected this to train me for a later mission, where I would have to perform a Death Star trench run through some canyons to destroy a secret V-2 missile base, but alas, that wasn't to be.
In another mission involving B-17s, I had to avoid flak as if I were flying in an airborne minefield, where stepping off of the unseen path would result in instant death. A puff of white smoke indicated where the flak would explode a second before it did, theoretically giving me time to dodge the incoming explosion (my wingmen were apparently immune to the stuff). Somehow, every flak gun in the area was now radar-guided to send every shell my way.
Regardless of whether I flew at treetop level or tried to weave and dodge thousands of feet above, I would get hit unless I spun in a tight circle. As stupid as that sounds, it actually worked. Other games that use flak weren't quite this obnoxiously difficult about punishing the player for failing to perform the Cirque du Soleil in the air, but given the short length of Heroes Over Europe, I guess the challenge had to come from somewhere.
One neat feature is the Ace Kill. By getting close enough to a plane and keeping it in your sights, a gauge slowly begins to fill — and quickly evaporates if you lose your aim. Once it's ready, you can use bullet-time in the air to shoot at vulnerable areas on the plane, with the potential to kill them in one shot. It's an interesting mechanic, although those who didn't want to see this much arcade in a flight sim may not like it as much as others.
In a handful of instances, Ace Kills are a requirement for mission completion. In a mission based on the Battle of the Bulge, the Third Reich's last great offensive in the West, I had to shoot down V-1 "buzzbomb" rockets that were being launched. Instead of doing the smart thing by shooting them out of the sky, I had to Ace-Kill each one by shooting out its motor and letting it fall. Even if it landed in the city after blowing away its engine, it was considered a good kill.
What kind of logic was that? Well, the game explained that the explosion would kill me if I simply shot it out of the sky, apparently assuming that I would be sitting on top of it as if I were Major Kong. Knowing that was rubbish — British pilots regularly shot these out of the sky if they could get to them, and they survived — didn't help the feeling that this was a weak attempt to squeeze another challenge into an already short game.
There's not much to write about multiplayer, except for the fact that I couldn't find anyone to play with. Not only do you have to come up with a new account to get online and find somebody, but once you go through that process, there's also no one out to fly against, making it all seem like an even greater waste of time.
Heroes of the Pacific was a tremendously fun game; it was tough but fair, and it had a series of memorable missions. Heroes Over Europe feels like a step back in every respect, from the missing cockpit to the missions, which miss out on major opportunities to expand the length of the single-player campaign on the Eastern Front and over France in support of the Normandy invasion.
It's a disappointment to see a promising series end in this way, especially now that Transmission Games is no longer around to potentially fix issues in a sequel. Flight sim fanatics who are eager to take a break from reality and fly around in an action-packed arcade shooter on the PC may still want to give Heroes Over Europe a whirl. They'll just have to put up with its sometimes annoying characters, its total disregard for realism, and its lack of basic gauges and indicators.
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