Reviewed: December 24, 2003
Released: November 18, 2003
Major PC publishers seem to be in no big rush to crank out anything involving wings unless it qualifies as a simulator. In fact, Crimson Skies is the last major game I can think of to buck this trend (independent developers have put out a few enjoyable distractions). Because of this, it is fitting that as the Crimson Skies’ sequel hops over to the world of consoles, LucasArts steps in with Secret Weapons Over Normandy (SWON).
From developer, Totally Games, creator of such gems as X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter and Star Trek: Bridge Commander, if one were looking to eclipse Crimson Skies, these are certainly the people one would call on. Of course, SWON is a game that wages its war on all platforms and so Totally Games is faced with the task of creating a game that reaches out to both console and PC gamers.
Told as a WWII narrative, SWON’s story follows the exploits of a young American pilot who has volunteered to fight the Germans and Japanese before the US had entered the war. Very loosely based on reality, you’ll guide the main character deep into German controlled territory and discover some of the outlandish aircraft that the Nazis were beginning to crank out (albeit too late in the war to have ever played much of a role).
My first reaction to Secret Weapons Over Normandy was, “I should really be playing this on the Xbox”. SWON unflinchingly throws away any pretences of a being a simulator and falls more inline with the combat and physics associated with space sims except with stalling airplanes and a ground to smash into. Twitchy controls, a checkpoint system as opposed to a “save anywhere” function, and the inclusion of some very loopy physics had the PC gamer in me cringing…at least at first.
While I never found a control setup that I was happy with, once I accepted SWON for the schizophrenic mix of planes that can stall but otherwise go unaffected by inertia and gravity, I began to enjoy myself… a lot.
SWON’s core gameplay is simple enough: based on a mission system with primary and secondary objectives and checkpoints scattered about, your job is to shoot stuff. As you complete these missions, your performance is rated and you are awarded medals, new planes, the opportunity to upgrade your aircraft, and access to “Challenge” missions, which grant even more airplanes and upgrades.
What makes SWON stand out is the way that its missions play out and the excellent pacing and variety it offers. The basic campaign mission plays out in a very fluid manner in terms of both including unfolding story elements and allowing the player some margin for error and decision-making.
At the beginning of each mission, you are given a brief overview of the political climate at the time, the area you’ll be flying into, and a number of targets that will need to be dealt with. Once in the air, how you choose to deal with these targets is largely up to you. Thanks to partisan airfields, you’ll usually be able to scurry off for repairs and to change out your payload. This affords you the opportunity to explore the target area and decide how to take on the level.
Most missions will have you facing waves of enemy aircraft and nests of AA guns while trying to work your way towards whatever ground target needs to be eliminated. This leaves you with a large number of choices. The AA guns are obviously a huge threat but bombing them takes a great deal of accuracy and “slow and steady” is exactly how oncoming enemy craft want you to fly. Luring enemy planes away from the AA guns to take them out first makes some sense but if there are hangers near those AA guns then you’re missing a chance to knock out many of their craft before they launch, thusly making the battle that much harder for yourself. Throw in time-sensitive objectives like escorting a defecting scientist or clearing the way for advancing forces and the player has a lot to take into consideration.
To further add to the player’s bevy of choices, most missions allow you to select which plane you wish to use. These planes are earned by successfully completing campaign and challenge missions (challenge missions are generally friendly competitions with fellow pilots to see who can take out the most enemies). You are also able to upgrade your airplanes armor, ammo capacity and the like, so you’ll slowly build a hanger full of planes customized to suit your tastes and find some are better suited to certain forms of combat than others.
As for the actual combat, the first hurdle is SWON’s bizarre controls. Two preset layouts are offered and both are equally odd and, even after much customization, my planes flew like they had a few too many before take off. Flying upside-down for endless periods of time, turning on a dime and then “straightening out” into an uncomfortable angle with one wing pointed straight towards the ground is dizzying to say the least. SWON also includes a blur affect as you make these impossible turns so soon your craft will pull you into its drunken stupor. That being said, you’ll likely reach an uncomfortable understanding of SWON’s physics and be knocking your equally drunken enemies from the sky in due time.
Air skirmishes are actually a great deal of fun. While the reticule that shows you where the targeted plane is located could use some tweaking, SWON offers an excellent third person camera mode that tracks your enemies movements so you never lose sight of where they are in relation to you. The AI seems solid and always provides a challenge and will lead you on weaving dogfights that could go on indefinitely should you not employ some degree of tactics, especially understanding both your craft’s capabilities and what advantages it has over your enemy’s (such as maximum altitude). On certain missions, the player is even given limited control over their wingmates adding further strategy.
As for ground targets, your plane can be armed with a vast array of bombs, torpedoes, cannons and—later in the game—a handful of guidable weapons. I suppose I expected dogfights to be the real highlight of SWON but fighting off the Luftwaffe doesn’t hold a candle to swooping in on a fleet of aircraft carriers, knocking the planes off of their decks, and eventually seeing the ships safely to their watery grave. Other air-versus-ground fights include the taking out of V2 missile launchers, Panzer divisions, research labs, and whatever unfortunate vehicle happens to catch your eye.
As mentioned earlier, SWON’s pacing is excellent. This is partially due to its “however you like” approach to missions structure, but by and large it is the variety of missions and their order that keep things interesting. You’ll rarely find yourself fighting same-ish missions one after another. Instead, SWON is structured so that each mission offers something different from the last and will some times even take you out of the pilot seat and place you at the controls of a B-17’s ball turret or an AA gun. It’s rare to see this degree of thought put into mission diversity and is ultimately what fully endeared me to SWON.
There is nothing remarkable going on here but you wouldn’t know it from the game’s performance. Sometimes slipping well below 30fps on a 9700 Pro, SWON mysteriously underperforms as it cranks out pleasant but relatively standard graphics. Airplanes are nicely modeled but suffer from average textures, the ground can be a bit barren but the colors are vibrant, buildings are attractive but somewhat cartoon-ish, etc.
What SWON does have going for it are some excellent explosions. Since the game is all about making things go “boom”, I’m grateful to see that Totally Games has ensured those bursts of flame are of the highest quality. You’ll not find out of place “fireball” effects here but instead, planes that splinter, smoke, and finally tear themselves apart, throwing their wings and propellers outwards from an excellently animated explosion complete with particle system effects.
The narrative is a mix of George W. Bush’s accent and the near-emotionless and sleep-inducing voice acting found in any of The History Channel’s Civil War documentaries. The radio chatter is frequent and while the accents are overly stereotypic, it actually works well since it helps the player know who is speaking without taking their eyes off a target.
As for battle sounds, SWON does an excellent job. From the satisfying sound of your guns bathing the enemy in bullets, to the sounds of bombs dropping and obliterating their targets, to the nerve-wracking effects accompanying enemy projectiles digging their way into your plane’s armor, SWON does a topnotch job of delivering an intense audio experience that draws you into the action.
The musical score behind SWON is excellent. While a few songs might be overly impassioned for anything short of God falling from the sky, you still have to respect their quality.
There are fifteen campaign missions in total and oftentimes multiple challenge missions attached to each, so SWON is not starving for content. Additionally, unlocking all airplanes and saving up upgrade points for your favorites adds the potential for a second trip through the campaign not to mention that returning to early levels with your newly acquired planes is good fun. There is also an “instant action mode” but it really isn’t customizable enough to add any replay value. And where's the multiplayer modes console gamers get to enjoy?
First impressions may frighten PC gamers away from SWON but the gamer who gives this title some time will be rewarded with a fun and diverse experience. From “console port” to delightfully entertaining diversion, SWON eventual won me over and vanquished my early skepticism.
If you’re in the mood for a high quality and arcade-ish style dogfighter and are willing to overlook a few shortcomings, it doesn’t getting any better than Secret Weapons Over Normandy.