Lucasarts’ flight sims have earned the reputation of being packed with both action and a good story taking players from the skies of WW2 with Battlehawks 1942 and Secret Weapons Over Normandy and then to the stars with X-Wing and Tie Fighter. Lawrence Holland would be the name that would be remembered among fans of Lucasarts’ high flying adventures for bringing these experiences to their PC screens, and with Secret Weapons Over Normandy, he brings another adventure to both consoles and PCs. I had the need to scratch my Crimson Skies itch, and this seemed the game that would fit the bill. With Larry Holland at the helm, I was hoping to experience the same kind of thrills that he had used to help put Lucasarts on the action gaming map.
Secret Weapons Over Normandy was flown on the PC. It is also available for the Xbox and the PS2.
In SWON, you take on the role of James Chase, an American assigned to England on the eve of the Third Reich’s imminent plans for invading the island nation. Chase is soon drawn into an elite group that becomes embroiled in a high flying rivalry with Germany’s best as they battle to thwart their plans. As Chase continues the fight over the skies of Europe and even the Pacific, he’ll take part in the kind of missions that the history books have conveniently left hidden within classified archives as he follows the web of conspiracy uniting the Axis powers.
Players hoping to take part in the historical battles of WW2 may be slightly disappointed to learn that SWON only touches upon those conflicts, choosing to focus more on the kind of missions that a secret group of Allied Aces can only unofficially undertake in the background. Despite this, it is still packed with about thirty or so action packed missions that take you between both theaters of war.
Cliffhanger in the Sky
Lucasarts can be counted on to not only provide a fun gaming experience, but a decently staged presentation that backs it up every step of the way. SWON is no exception to this. From the boisterous opening theme by Michael Giacchino that captures the romanticized WW2 atmosphere that SWON takes place in to the story material interspersed with WW2 photographs, map montages, narratives from the main character, the game feels a lot like a pulp action adventure in the skies. While it may not break any new ground in terms of characters as most of them in the game sound like your typical WW2 serial heroes and villains, it does the job. Germans speak in German, and Japanese pilots speak in, well, Japanese, which adds a lot of flavor as its all well acted with subtitles (which can be turned off) letting you in on what they’re saying.
In flight, your wing mates and allies on the ground will chatter to you about new objectives and help tell the story during the missions as well and the enemy will taunt and menace you like the pulp villains they are, but not to the point where you want to reach for the imaginary radio switch to turn them off (though there’s a setting that can actually reduce this chatter). As you complete missions, you will also unlock videos that go behind the scenes and tell more about some of the battles that SWON‘s fictional pilots take a part in as well as listen to a variety of interviews with veterans. Overall, the story and the game are both meant for pure action fanatics that want to shoot down the Third Reich’s best in the same way that they may have shot down air pirates in Crimson Skies. The only thing missing here is the buttered popcorn.
The weakest part of the presentation, though, are probably the graphics. The planes look pretty good as do many of the explosions and special effects, but the ground effects showing the little buildings of towns, vehicles, and other bits are pretty awful which is probably to be expected. In this case, the graphics did not age well. From a distance they’re okay, but blurred textures and low poly blocks that masquerade as tanks and trucks come into view as you dive in for a strafing run.
Speaking of graphics, another thing is that you won’t see a single swastika anywhere as PC correctedness once again rears its ugly head to give you the impression that you’re fighting yet another batch of Nazi wannabes (even though the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht were not all Nazi party members). The worst example of this, though, is one of the photographs at the end of the game showing American GI’s triumphantly holding up a flag between them. I’ve seen this photograph before, so it was sad and insulting to see that someone saw fit to edit the photograph and replace the swastika with a decorated Iron Cross. So…its fine to use photographs of Hitler in this fiction, but not the swastika?
Anyways, the action of the game is easy to get into as the flight mechanics have been simplified to the point where it only takes a few minutes to really learn how to get around. A tutorial in the beginning helps to set you up and the reason that I chose to play this game on a PC, a joystick, is supported with the ability to remap many of the buttons to help customize your flying experience. While its easy to play, the simple flight mechanics are also part of its weakness. Flight sim purists won’t like how the engine allows less than able pilots to ricochet off of the ground, for example, or ignore the effects of g-forces in flight, or never have to worry about fuel. Although its possible to stall your plane, the engine takes some pains in trying to make sure that its not something that’s easy to do. You can choose between two different control schemes, though, and opt to fly with simple arcade, realistic, or a balanced control scheme between them. You can also land your plane yourself if you want, but for those that dread bounding off of the ground and exploding, the game even provides a floating icon for you to fly into for an automatic touch down. If you’re looking for realism, you won’t really find it here, something that Holland himself had admitted to allow it to focus more on the ‘fun’ factor than in beating the player for not having taken flight sim lessons beforehand.
Pilots that would rather spit lead than learn aerodynamics will find a lot to shoot at here as SWON makes it almost too easy to kill the Third Reich’s best. Helpful reticles can help you lead your enemies, the forgiving collision engine ensures that you won’t burst into a ball of flames when you collide with someone, and friendly fire won’t kill your friends. Different camera views can help you aim your bombs or look down your sights at the enemy, and when you die it actually shows the last few seconds of your life in a macabre replay. But what might make the experience somewhat too easy and what may be the real reason for flight purists to detest the game is that it uses bullet time.
Well, not really ‘bullet time’, but it does allow you to actually slow down the action or speed it up. A special command allows you to speed up time if you’re flying a long distance towards a waypoint, and it can also slow down everything around you. Is there a penalty for using this? Not really. There’s no limit to how long you can keep the action ‘slowed’ making it possible to go through the entire game using this feature. The real penalty will most likely be in what you want to get out of the game and how easy this feature can make many of the battles. While some players will be able to ignore this feature and play the game at regular speed, others will probably see this as a gimmick that just ruins the immersion of the title.
As you follow Chase’s story through the mission in the game, you’ll also be able to earn requisition points that can be used to upgrade the planes that you may be asked to fly making them deadlier, faster, or giving them the kind of armor skin that can make the Sturmovik seem like a pinata. In each mission, there are secondary and bonus objectives that can give you opportunities to earn more requisition points that you can stock up or spend at will. Some missions will give you the opportunity to earn over twenty planes to add to your hangar for later missions, several of them ‘secret weapons’ like the Messerschmidt 262 which flew in later years of WW2 or were in the planning stages by both sides and never quite saw the light of day. Before most missions, you’re given the opportunity to select what plane you want to fly into battle with in addition to upgrading them. You’ll also be able to arm them with a variety of weapons, including radio controlled missiles or flying torpedoes, or be able to carry enough bombs to make a B-25 blush with the right upgrades.
You’re not alone, either, and will eventually have wing men that will fly by your side and take limited commands from you. They’ll do what they’re told for the most part, although expect to do the bulk of the real work as you’re the star pilot of the group. They can be useful and take some of the heat off of your tail, but don’t rely on it too much especially when they can easily get left behind if you rush towards your objective.
Despite the bombastic presentation that we’ve come to expect from Lucasarts, what the game does best in the end is to give the player lots of targets to shoot and a lot of missions to shoot them down in. However, the simplified flight engine along with the many advantages that it lends players in an attempt to strike the middle ground between realism and movie-inspired action will be disappointing to some flight sim fans expecting a bit more. This, including the slow motion gimmick of the gameplay, can make the game feel as if it is less of a challenge than it can be thanks to an AI that isn’t exactly the smartest pilot in the cockpit.
The missions themselves are introduced with a lot of flair, but some of their execution and pacing can easily leave you wondering what all of the fuss was about. Some missions can send you flying across the map in long stretches of sheer boredom, even with the accelerated time option, while others break up the action with pauses in the gameplay as it waits for you to destroy certain objectives. Most of them don’t do too much other than send you zipping around to blow up stuff as many of the objectives are typical fare.
But perhaps the weakest part of the entire experience depends entirely on what you want to get out of it. Realism grognards and armchair air warriors will probably find SWON a lacking experience because of all of the shortcuts that it makes in the gameplay and the flight model supporting it. And despite its action filled missions, its still no Crimson Skies, especially when it fails to even bring the player into some of the well known conflicts of WW2. Don’t expect to help defend Pearl Harbor, take a secret part in the Battle of Midway, do some dam busting along the Rhine, or participate in the final push towards Berlin. In fact, the game will appear to leave the player hanging right when things are at a crescendo, the epilogue seeming as if it were going to continue when it just ends leaving you with the feeling that many of the thirty odd missions were just filler.
There’s also no multiplayer included with the PC version of SWON, although it does come with a toolset that you can use to create your own missions as a consolation prize. If you’re looking to recreate those missions that you would have wanted to see in SWON, it should help you make that reality and share them out with others. Those looking for some multiplayer shoot ’em up action won’t find it here, unfortunately.
Weekend Pilots Wanted
Secret Weapons Over Normandy isn’t a horrible game, but it doesn’t quite capture the thrills that Crimson Skies or Larry Holland’s own Tie Fighter had delivered because of the risks that it doesn’t seem to want to take with its own material. But while it may not use the latest graphics and stand up to the other, more serious, WW2 flight sims that are out there today, its formula can still offer several hours of simple shooter fare that won’t demand that you strap into an ejector seat if it gets too hot to handle. It’s squarely aimed at the casual gamer and its presentation can make it easy to enjoy the slice of ‘secret’ history that Larry Holland wants to tell. One can only wonder, though, at what kind of game SWON could have been if it dove headlong into the 1930’s and 1940’s pulp serial action that its presentation was inspired by.
– World 1-1