Let’s face it, flight sims aren’t as popular as they used to be. Who wants to dive headfirst into a multiple hundred page manual to learn how to fly a plane (unless you’re training to become a pilot)? Most gamers want to simply leap into a cockpit and take off into the wild blue yonder. Fortunately, a recent trend for these games are “arcade flight sims”, simplifying the control while providing the white-knuckled action. LucasArts’ latest title is the most recent title in this breakout genre, taking players into the flak-filled skies of World War II. Get ready to hunt down the Red Baron in Secret Weapons Over Normandy.
SWON casts players in the role of James Chase, amateur barnstormer and pilot assigned to the Royal Air Force at the beginning of the war. Shortly after assisting the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk, Chase gets enlisted into the Battle Hawks, a secret crack squad of fighter aces tasked with taking on Germany’s clandestine operations. Much of this will involve Germany’s feared Luftwaffe, the lightning fast air force of Hitler and their vaunted Nemesis squad. However, as was often the case during the war, Chase and his wingmates get shifted throughout the theater of war as needed, which will send his squad soaring through places such as the Pacific Rim, the skies of Russia and the sands of Africa.
Much more that the typical briefing expected with a war game, SWON features historical film footage interspersed with narrative details of the Battle Hawks exploits in-between levels. Before taking off to the skies, Chase recounts the basic objectives of his mission in a journalistic format, as if he were reminiscing about his exploits long after the war from his personal diaries. Most of these missions involve destroying specific targets, such as research labs or escorting vehicles to specific destinations with minimal harm. However, these are rarely so simple, and feature a number of hidden and secondary objectives that arise during combat. Successfully completing your primary objectives (along with any or all other derivative goals) will score you at least one upgrade requisition, which can be redeemed for improvements to your plane, such as better armor or faster engines.
As Chase fights his way through the war, he has the option of adding downed planes and enemies to his scorecard (not to mention additional upgrades for his plane) by accepting challenges posed to him by his squadmates. Most of these will test his skills, such as racing against the clock to a specific objective or shooting down more planes than your wingman, although others will give you the opportunity to try your hand behind the controls of a new aircraft. All told, there are more than 25 historic and fictional planes to be unlocked throughout the more than 30 missions (hence the “Secret Weapons” moniker). Once discovered, these planes can be used in campaigns or the instant action mode, which allows you to quickly take to the air.
Controls for SWON are really easy to get a hang of, which is incredibly nice for pilots that want to just send enemies crashing in flames. Throttling your plane is controlled by one analog stick, while pitching and rolling your plane is manipulated by the other. Commands for your wingmen are delegated by the directional pad, which lets you quickly dash off an order without diverting your attention from an incoming bogey. Two buttons are assigned to scroll between ground and air targets, which can be destroyed thanks to your primary or secondary weapon. If you ever need additional ammo (or you’ve been shot up badly and need a new plane), you simply have to lower your wheels and fly towards a friendly airfield. Thankfully, the designers allowed two different ways for players to land: hardcore flight pilots can try to manually land on the airstrip, while novices can simply fly into a highlighted icon to automatically repair their craft. Most noticeable about the controls is the “reflex time” button, which allows you to cover large distances by speeding up time or gain improved accuracy on targets by slowing time down dramatically. However, it’s pretty blatant that this game was designed for consoles in mind. PC owners will want to either plug in a gamepad or a joystick, because trying to accurately fly using arrow keys will make you want to throw your monitor out of the window.
Graphically, you’re going to have to deal with an average muddy display of textures for environments. Typically, this involves gray and blue swaths for water, nondescript generic bushes and trees, and cloudy sky patters that you’ll see over and over again. This is done to allow for the sheer number of planes, bullets and explosions that can be tracked onscreen at the same time with a minimum of slowdown. However, if you can deal with these limitations, you’ll be able to enjoy where they spent a lot of attention to detail, such as the flame trails on damaged planes or the debris that flies and splinters from explosions. While the camera is nicely done, there are at least three separate camera angles that are provided for the game, the regular view, a tight zoom and a target lock on enemies. Unfortunately, you don’t really need any more than the basic camera to get yourself through most, if not all, of the missions. Also, what’s up with the replay feature? It’s truly useless, and will mercilessly repeat the last fifteen seconds of any failure you make (i.e. crash). This doesn’t allow you to capture or even save successful runs, which is rather sad.
Sound, however, is well done, with a great orchestral score that feels like it was taken from a war movie. LucasArts has always been great with music and sound effects, and SWON is no exception. The foley artists also spent a ton of time capturing the individual engine sounds of each plane and weapon, which provides a great atmosphere as you’re flying through the wild blue yonder. The voice acting is also nicely done, and while the accents slip a little here and there, it’s well delivered through the game, which also includes the continual radio chatter that you’ll hear in every mission.
Unfortunately, there are some other issues that wind up dragging down the gameplay of SWON. The first, and perhaps largest issue that players will have with the game is that it’s way too easy. Players can’t adjust the difficulty level of the game, which doesn’t really extend the longevity of the title. Simply put, once you’ve gotten used to dogfighting in SWON, you really won’t have much difficulty taking on your enemies. Even harsher is the incredibly short duration of gameplay. Since the challenges are completely optional, anyone can fly through the entire single player campaign in half a day or less. While there are instant action options to supplement the gameplay, there isn’t even a true multiplayer experience; you only have an option to play with a second player cooperatively or competitively. This really isn’t acceptable, especially with the huge amount of servers providing multiplayer games. Thankfully, Xbox owners can download additional missions or planes to use in their game; however, even this won’t extend the play of the title.
What’s more, there’s never really a need to get accustomed to one particular plane because you’re constantly acquiring newer, better planes. For example, it would’ve been nice if you actually had to work hard for your Mustang, then be forced to use it for a number of missions before getting a new craft. Unfortunately, once you start to acquire some of the more powerful planes, like the jets, you’ve probably racked up more than enough upgrade tokens to outmaneuver and outgun anything the enemy can throw at you. Even with the shaky tracking of airborne or ground targets, which sometimes forgoes immediate threats for faraway objects, your planes should be able to handle whatever’s thrown at it. Finally, the inclusion of unlimited “reflex time” can lead to an abuse of the AI of the game, giving players a further unfair advantage over a computer opponent struggling to keep up. Considering some enemies won’t even veer out of the way of oncoming fire until it’s way too late, slowing their reaction time even further makes passing missions somewhat of a cakewalk.
At first glance, Secret Weapons Over Normandy seems like a great game for fledgling pilots to play out the course of one of history’s greatest wars. Don’t get me wrong, it is. With easy to pick up controls, creative premise and number of aircraft presented in the game, SWON had a ton of promise. However, the lack of difficulty levels, imbalanced gameplay mechanics and lack of multiplayer support reduce this game from being much more than a rent for anyone other than the most hardcore flight fanatic.