Reviewed: January 23, 2004
Released: November 18, 2003
Argue as much as you like, console games are slowly replacing the PC and this has never been more apparent than in the genre of flight sims. Realistic simulations are a thing of the past and we now have games like Lethal Skies, Ace Combat, Crimson Skies, and the recently released Secret Weapons Over Normandy to fulfill our fantasies of aerial combat.
If the name sounds familiar you might be old enough to have played the original Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe back in 1991. The brainchild of Larry Holland, this unique PC flight simulator offered gamers a chance to fly authentic WWII planes, both historic and experimental. Larry moved on to create Totally Games and released the legendary Star Wars: X-Wing series of games. Totally Games now invades next-gen consoles with their own trademark game design, not quite as rich as their previous sims, but a perfect flight action title for the Xbox.
Immerse yourself in intense WWII flight action as you take on the role of Chase, a RAF pilot who proves himself worthy to join the Battlehawks, an elite and top-secret fighter squadron. You’ll fly more than twenty realistic aircraft across a variety of combat theaters over World War II Europe like Britain and France and other territories such as North Africa, the Eastern Front and the Pacific Theater.
You’ll take part in over thirty action-packed missions featuring air-to-air and air-to-ground battle scenarios. You fly authentic and experimental aircraft like the A6M5 Zeke, B-17 Flying Fortress, XP-55 Ascender, F4F Wildcat, Swordfish, IL-2 Sturmovik, P-40 Tomahawk, P-51 Mustang, and the XF5U-1 Flying Pancake just to name a few. Equip your planes with more than a dozen weapons and bombs or climb behind the sights of an AA turret and shred the skies.
Secret Weapons Over Normandy is light on story and heavy on the action. You are given brief narratives in the form of journal entries and letters to home that outline the current situation and there are mission briefings and the occasional chat with your flight mechanic, but aside from these you are merely menu hopping to get to the next mission.
The missions are quite varied and range from escorting bombers to attacking ground installations, blowing up bridges, torpedoing subs, or blasting columns of tanks from the hillside. There is also plenty of good old-fashioned dogfighting with traditional weaponry and even a few fictional secret weapons that give the game a definite arcade feel.
Missions generally consist of a primary objective with plenty of minor secondary objectives thrown in as the mission unfolds. In one mission you are supposed to blow up several bridges but early into the sortie you are informed of a “suspicious” vehicle approaching town. It turns out this jeep is loaded with explosives and if you don’t intercept it in time you will lose a key structure.
Juggling numerous objectives and prioritizing them is a key factor in the gameplay. Some of the missions are quite long and you often have the luxury of returning to your airfield or landing at an allied airstrip somewhere in the mission area to repair and rearm. Sometimes you have to clear out an enemy airstrip so ground forces can capture it and turn it into an allied refueling point. To make things user-friendly you have the option to manually land your plane or simply pass through the landing icon floating above the airfield to engage the auto-landing system.
There are dozens of unique planes to fly. Many are assigned to you in the early missions and many more are locked, and not until later in the game do you actually get to choose your plane. Planes are modeled according to armor, firepower, speed, and handling and while the flight dynamics are far from realistic you still need to be aware of these variables when choosing a plane that’s right for the mission at hand.
Actually, there are so many planes to fly that you seldom have enough flight-time with any of them to become proficient, especially in the earlier missions where you are forced into a new plane almost every mission. Later in the game you are free to choose your aircraft and can settle down with your favorites.
The arcade flight model is mirrored in the control scheme. You are given standard and advanced control options, the standard is perfect for arcade gamers and novice pilots and the advanced mode will help to ease a few of the concerns of sim-veterans out there. Sure, this isn’t MS Flight Simulator but it’s a lot more fun. While not officially endorsed, SWON works quite well with a joystick. I broke out my ThrustMaster Fox 2 Pro Top Gun and it worked like a champ and really enhanced the flight-sim experience.
There are some very nice touches added to the controls and the interface. There is a nice time-acceleration mode called Reflex Time that lets you traverse long distances of inactive airspace in record time. You can also slow time, not exactly like the Matrix, but just enough to give you the edge in locking onto multiple targets.
My only gripe with the controls would have to be the targeting system. While you have independent selection over air and ground targets you have no way to select primary missions targets. This makes for lots of cycling to finally get the target you want. There are also no commands to target specific threats like enemies attacking you or your escorts. It would have been so easy to simply hold down the target select button to highlight a primary objective. In this system holding down the targeting button lights up all visible targets and you can move your reticle to point at the target you wish and let off to select.
Even though targeting is my only real complaint there is a diamond in the proverbial rough - the target lock that padlocks the camera on your chosen target and keeps that target in view regardless of your plane’s orientation. This is a great way to steer your plane to fall in behind your enemy and blast them from the sky or off the face of the map.
To broaden the scope of the game there are dozens of challenges that open up as you progress through the mission structure. These challenges are almost like advanced training missions and will unlock developer movies when you finish them. You can also earn Upgrade Requisitions during the game and these can be spent in the hangar to upgrade your plane’s armor, airframe, engines, and increase the power of your weapons.
There are some interesting multiplayer modes for two pilots to fly head-to-head or cooperatively through some custom missions. These are pretty fun but they aren’t that long and there aren’t that many so you and a friend can probably explore the entire lot in a single sitting. It’s a nice inclusion that PC users are still lamenting.
Secret Weapons Over Normandy is a good-looking game, not as visually stunning as the stylistic Crimson Skies but definitely a worthy representation of the war-torn skies and landscapes of WWII. The terrain model is very sophisticated with mountains, rivers, forests filled with trees, roads, grassy plains, sandy beaches, and large expanses of ocean, often filled with enemy ships and subs.
The planes are exquisitely modeled and feature realistic control surfaces that move appropriate when you move the stick. Wispy contrails streak off the wingtips giving you a clue when you are increasing your speed. Planes smoke, catch fire, and blast apart in realistic pieces when they are shot. One of my favorite explosions sent a prop flying right into the camera causing me to instinctively duck. You can play from inside the cockpit for an authentic flight experience or from four chase views, both with and without a HUD.
The music in SWON is of epic proportions and ranges from authentic WWII military style pieces to some orchestra arrangements that sound like they were “borrowed” from the Star Wars soundtrack. You’ll never get tired of listening to this inspirational score.
Sound effects are rock solid. The design team visited the Air Museum Planes of Fame in Chino California, not only to capture visual details for models and textures but also to record authentic engines noises and other subtle sounds for many of these rare planes. You can even view their visit in a “behind the scenes” movie in the Gallery. Other sounds like weapons fire and explosions are all very realistic, either actual recordings or very authentic recreations. Historians would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
There isn’t a whole lot of speech, at least in the form of a story. You have the narrated journal entries and letters of Chase between the missions and the occasional hints and tips from the flight mechanic in the garage. There is also plenty of radio communication during the missions that mixes in some authentic accents and convincing chatter to heighten the tension and steer you toward your next target.
Console owners are treated to some split-screen multiplayer action but no online gaming modes are present even though Xbox Live is supported for content download. As of this writing there are three new content packages available for download indicating that LucasArts is committed to keeping this title alive for the long haul.
As a standalone game you will find at least 15-20 hours of quality gaming waiting for you between the missions and the challenges. The mission structure and “story” unfolds the same way each time so your only reason to replay is if you want to try a mission with a different plane, reason enough for some but a single pass for most gamers.
Secret Weapons Over Normandy is just another shining example that backs up my theory that consoles are replacing the PC. This game was released on PS2, Xbox and the PC. The PC version looked nice but played like a console game. It even played better with a PC gamepad than a joystick, proving this game was designed with consoles in mind. And even though using my Xbox joystick helped me “feel” like I was playing a sim I can help but admit the game played much better with the gamepad.
Totally Games has taken their traditional style of flight simulation and toned it down just enough to make it accessible to the console crowd, but in doing so will most likely alienate the PC audience and anyone looking for an authentic WWII simulation. For everyone else, you won’t find a more challenging or fun flight-combat game with creative mission design rooted in authentic WWI historic events.