Although many themes have been covered by the FPS genre successfully, the WWII treatment has been amateurish at best. Save for a few stunning titles like Hidden and Dangerous, WWII and Vietnam seem to have been largely ignored, relegated to "value" developers, often ardent MOD developers who try to create a professional quality game. Due to the "value" nature, these games often peruse a 3D engine that is a generation or two behind. Many may recall the one of the last Build engine games, WWII GI, as one example of this phenomenon. WWII Normandy is no different, albeit, it uses a more up to date LithTech engine. When it comes to FPS games situated in WWII, especially those around Operation Overlord, there are appears to be two specific genres. First is the actual beach assault and the chaos of that. Very few titles have done this justice (although WWII GI attempted to do so and the upcoming World War 2 Online massive multiplayer game will do so as well). Most developers, however, opt to cover the exploits of the 101st Airborne division who were deployed at night before the actual amphibious landing. Why do developers focus on this part of the theatre so much? It's actually quite simple. Historically, much of the paratroopers were separated, deep in enemy territory without contact with friendly forces. Since AI is so hard to program and scripting every miniscule event, too much of an effort on the part of developers (especially value-oriented developers), this backdrop provides the ultimate setting for a "one soldier vs. world" conflict.
WWII Normandy is no different except for the fact the
developer for this title is 3LV Games, with a little help from the KISS FPS makers, Third Law. Their talents definitely show in this title as the audio and visual elements of the game are anything but amateurish. The player assumes the role of a separated American paratrooper over Normandy and throughout a series of ten missions, is responsible for achieving certain tactical level objectives to ensure the amphibious landing is a success. These objectives are usually small and include knocking out a gun, ambushing bridges or destroying a tank convoy. Briefings are given on a static loading screen and there are no more than a few objectives on each map to keep the game less confusing. The only cutscenes are in-game and are few in number. As there is but very little narrative on your persona, it can be conjectured from the types of missions, that the soldier you command is some sort of a commando because he always embarks on missions alone. Reinforcements or friendly support are often dead by the time you reach their areas, reminding me of what happened in Quake 2, where the whole game rested on uniting with fellow soldiers who are still alive but the only soldiers you find are either already dead or perish in scripted events. WWII Normandy continues this FPS tradition and your fellow comrades only serve to become logical places to put ammo/health backpacks. There isn't anything wrong with this practice but I thought, by naming a game WWII Normandy, there would at least be some semblance of friendly AI; even if they just sit around and dumbly shoot at nothing as it was in WWII GI.
This isn't to say the game is entirely unrealistic. Endowed with a great number of features from the LithTech engine, WWII Normandy is able to offer action from the very low to the very high resolutions and even includes a software renderer. With the low system specs of this game, perhaps it would make a better title on thriftier notebook hardware. Added to that, this game features support for 3D audio. The aural component of this game is professional. Although some of the weapons have weaker sounds, the explosions, SMG fire and Colt 1911 guns betray this title's "value" origins. The effects are crisp with ample bass and no clipping or unnecessary hisses. Since the entire game takes place at night, aural cues are crucially important in identifying enemies in the dark and the strength of the audio component in this title shows itself when you are under fire. The interspersing of bullets ricocheting off the ground (with low thuds) and metal (high twangs) are incredibly well done. On the other hand, the accompanying musical score is not as impressive. Most of the time, its mood is subdued (at least it is not techno) staying true to the theme it is scoring. Sometimes the more exciting parts of the score seem a bit forced. There are only a few voiceovers in this game, mostly German with one or two lines of French that don't seem to exhibit any audio anomalies.
For visuals, the entire game is painted in 16-bit color, which really isn't too noticeable since most of the time the game will be at night. The 3D models for tanks and vehicles are adequate but unfortunately only the tanks are capable of any significant motion. These 3D elements are offset by a series of 2D sprites, presumably to make the game run faster. Vegetation for example, is often rendered with sprites. The weapons models are decent featuring convincing reload animations as well. They are good enough that your weapons are recognizable as coming from that era. The only enemies that exhibit animation are the various soldiers who come in officer and regular grunt flavours holding SMGs, potato bombs or pistols. Moreover, there seem to be very few interactive elements. For example, most of the windows, doors and walls are unbreakable by explosives or bullets. At the same time there are some sprites of metal fences and hedges that seem to be transparent to weapons fire. It would have been nicer to have breakable windows (I counted only one in the entire game) or even ladders (again, only one showed up for me) to get around some of the murderous crossfires.
Control is somewhat standard FPS fare with the entire interface customizable courtesy of the LithTech engine. I found however, there were some clipping problems particularly with treacherous rocky terrain. Often, I would get stuck and walk through parts of an object like destroyed tanks. Undocumented in the game at the moment (although I am contacted by the developer that a patch and additional documentation will be
released shortly), the grenade throwing mimicks the conventions found in Dark Forces. To push the grenade farther, press and hold on the grenade key. I also found landmines were of very little use in the game. In the time you spend luring someone to your landmine you could have easily shot two or three soldiers or tossed a well-placed grenade to finish them off.
One of the purported features of this game is the "realistic damage". This simply points to explosion radius and the simulation of shrapnel that results from them. So if you throw a grenade, it's usually a good idea to go somewhere where you can't see it anymore. Another feature purported is the "realistic AI". I find this was a mixed bag. Some of the AI do perform patrols and sit around in idle states on their own. After you alarm them, they will come chase you down non-stop. I found suppression fire was all but ineffective unless the enemy were scripted to run away. The piece de resistance of AI behaviour in this game is and I quote, "Fire from Cover". This feature simply means that the enemy unit is able to fire and then retreat to a safe spot creating a kind old-style Western shootout or effective stalemate with you. Again, there are only a few instances where this is successfully used and I think it's because the developers have to script it into the map. It is most prevalent with snipers from windows and indoor fighting where the soldiers will pop out, shoot and then head back for cover, altogether not too challenging if you've seen this before (and more so) in Half-Life or R6. Simultaneously, there are plenty of units that expose themselves and exhibit rabid urges to run you down with complete disregard for their own welfare. Luckily, this just makes for easier gameplay. Higher levels of difficulty only amplify the sensitivity of your persona to damage and increase the number of enemies.
The missions are generally short enough that they can be completed within 15 minutes. Considering there are only ten missions, of varying lengths, that doesn't give much value. This game presents even less value as there is not even a symbolic inclusion of a multiplayer component (one of the reasons why WWII GI wasn't immediately canned after it came out). For the most part, the missions are well designed with roadblocks, debris and buildings put in to make each mission feel like a deadly gauntlet run. There are some innovations however. There is one defend mission, in which you have to take out a convoy of tanks complete with harassing infantry. As mentioned before, the urban fighting scenarios make for some intense fun. The weakest portions are those that have you going through trenches and underground tunnels. I found these boring and without an SMG or grenades, it's rather hard to clear these. Some missions require you to disable guns but you don' t do much more than hit a switch or run to a spot till the game tells you, "You disabled a gun." Even more anti-climatic is one mission where I had to blow up a train cart. I simply moved into the train cart and the game displays, "You have blown up the train cart." There wasn't even a symbolic explosion as reward for all the work done in that mission. The endgame is equally dower with a short narrative on the battle for Europe and a congratulatory message.
Truly, this game was not designed to (and cannot) compete with titles like Hidden and Dangerous, the best example, par excellence, of an FPS game set in WWII. Not being an exceptional FPS player myself, I completed this game within two hours, so I'm not sure how much of a value it will hold for others. Certainly, some of the missions are not worth replaying a second time. It is said that Third Law decided to make WWII Normandy while waiting in limbo to develop another game. They simply licensed the LithTech engine and did this from scratch. This is uncannily similar to what happened to Robert Zemeckis, director of Cast Away, who filmed the portions with the normal Tom Hanks and then subsequently took some time off to let Hanks lose weight. In his spare time, he decided to film What Lies Beneath and that mediocre horror movie (although it had big stars) made $200 million in itself while the real film, Cast Away, also grossed roughly the same. However, with its severely short single player component and lack of online play, I can't foresee the same fortune happening for 3LV's WWII Normandy.