It's not hard to be proud of yourself, but confessing something bad or shameful is never easy. That's why, my dear reader, I'll need all the support I can get from you in this intro paragraph. Basically the thing is that... I suck in combat flight sims. I'm the guy who spent 30 minutes trying to take his plane off the ground in Falcon 4.0, before admitting own incompetence and uninstalling the game for good. I'm probably the guy you called “n00b” while shooting me down from the sky for the 10th time in a row in IL2: Sturmovik. But now that you know it, please don't make fun of me. I doubt it's my fault, plus it's always easier to put the blame on someone, so I'll just blame it on my family's genes, as we don't have any pilots of the family that I know of. Not even one. So you could probably understand my feelings when I was asked to review Secret Weapons Over Normandy, which I believed was marketed as a WWII flight sim. Holding the game box in my hands I've imagined the torture and pain I'll have to go through in the next few days...
As I was about to start crying, I've discovered something interesting on the box – it claimed that the game's lead designer is Lawrence Holland, the creator of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe and the X-Wing series. Belonging to a generation of younger gamers, the title SWOTL didn't tell me a thing, but what gave me hope was the notion of the X-Wing series – after all I was actually capable of playing those, as there was no need to memorize a million and one buttons, half of which can only be used in certain situations. And that's when I've first felt hope...
The game promised over 30 air-to-air and air-to-ground combat missions across the globe in epic WWII battles. And when they mean 'across the globe', they mean just that – you'll be fighting everywhere, from North Africa to Norway, and from Stalingrad to Sumatra. There are also 23 authentic WWII aircraft, and 14 weapons systems, including 5 “top-secret” ones (aka prototypes). But let's stop with the features and go have a look at the game, shall we?
I guess the biggest surprise I got was while playing the tutorials, that are highly recommended for veteran flight sim fanatics and newbie players alike (mostly because they'll give you a real “feel” of the action, while keeping you relatively safe)... the controls were easy to learn! There weren't many buttons at all to remember, the controls were laid out very logically, and there were no advanced buttons that you'd see in any 'serious' flight sims, like turning on different engines, radar controls, etc... In addition to that, the flight model was (maybe too) easy to master, so not much effort was needed in order to stay in the air... As a matter of fact it felt very arcadish, in the vein of Rogue Squadron. I guess that's when it hit me... This isn't a "real" flight sim after all – it's an arcade flight game!
Everything pointed to it, from simplified controls, easy flight model, and even the form of the crosshair you'll use to target their enemies. And even the name, Secret Weapons Over Normandy became much more logical as I got more into the game. Especially, after I've played through the game and unlocked... X-Wing and Tie Fighter! Yes, you read it right – you can unlock those, and use them later on in the game... And you can probably guess yourself what's faster and more maneuverable – a German Stuka bomber, or an X-Wing. An extra cool feature that is included in the game is the ability to make the time slower after you've successfully destroyed a few enemies – it becomes a major element later on in the game, as at times you'll be facing such massive hordes of baddies that you wouldn't be able to take on them without it.
The storyline starts in 1939, with evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, and ends in 1945. You'll learn about the storyline's progress through video cut scenes that are shown before each mission. They mostly consist of collections of some photos and letters that the pilot writes home. The basic gameplay consists of successfully completing various objectives during the combat missions, in order to unlock the next one. One thing I was particularly pleased with is that the objectives themselves are rather varied, from taking out all bad guys from the air to defending allied ships from being sunk by enemy bombers, and from supporting your attacking tanks to bombing an airfield. Some of the missions will even have you playing as a B17 gunner, taking down enemy aircraft from the skies. Another nice thing is that your objectives are rather dynamic – as you complete one, usually another one will be given, until you've finished them all. The missions become progressively harder throughout the game – although for accuracy's sake I must say that it's solely because you'll encounter more and better enemy aircrafts in the later missions, not because the enemy fighters' skills become better. Although later on in the game you'll be able to command your wingmen as well, which is a pretty nice feature, even if you're only able to give them a total of three different commands (Attack my target, Attack at will, Defend me).
Probably one of the coolest things that SWON inherited from X-wing and Rogue Squadron series is that as you progress through the game you'll unlock more aircrafts that you'll be able to use (in the beginning the only aircraft you'll be able to fly will be the light Hurricane fighter, and as you finish more missions more powerful aircrafts will become available in your hangar, such as IL2, B17 and P51 Mustang), and add various enhancements to them, such as better engines, more armor plating, better weapons systems and so on. This really makes the game more interesting, since in the later missions you'll be able to have a choice of what aircraft you want to use for this particular mission. In some cases you'll even be able to make a quick stop at an enemy or allied airfield and switch the plane in the middle of a mission. To unlock enhancements you'll need to complete as many objectives as possible in all the missions in order to receive upgrade requisition forms (most of the missions give you secondary objectives that don't need to be completed in order to successfully pass the mission – but upon completion they'll give you the coveted upgrade requisition forms). The game also features an "instant action” mode, where you can play on any unlocked battlefield with any unlocked aircraft, with up to 9 wingmen, against up to 10 enemy aircraft.
As you'll be flying above the different battlefields, you'll notice that quite a bit of work was put into them. There's a lot of vegetation on the ground, various buildings here and there, and while they won't meet the same degree of realism that you'd expect from a flight sim, in quality they're better than most arcade flight games out there. The various aircrafts are well designed, and each one looks unique and fairly close to the original (if we're talking about the historically accurate models – although X-Wing and Tie Fighter do look appropriately as well) – although some more polygons wouldn't hurt them. You will also see quite a few ground vehicles and naval ships, although I'm not sure if I'm convinced if that was indeed a Panzer that I've just turned to shreds with my bomb. It must be noted that the explosions themselves are rather poorly done, and really reminded me of Rogue Squadron on PC – blocky, with some really unrealistic smoke coming out. Overall, the graphics aren't bad, although it's noticeable that the game was primarily made with consoles in mind.
There's a lot of radio chatter while in the air, that's extremely nicely done, and really gives you the feeling that you're in a middle of a fierce dogfight. Although if it keeps you from concentrating on the task at hand, you can always reduce the chatter level or turn it off completely. The music is also there, and the one thing that it doesn't do is distract you from the mission. While it's nothing special, it does the job done. One thing I was disappointed with, was the fact that the volume level of the voice of the adviser in the hangar (where you choose aircraft before the mission's start) that is supposed to give you valuable tips is at least twice as low as the radio chatter voice, so you'll literally have to put the volume up to hear what you're being told, and then lower it down again. While it's a minor annoyance, it's an annoyance nonetheless.
Probably the one thing that disappointed me the most, was the lack of multiplayer. Yes, you read it right – while the console versions of the game support up to two players at once, in either co-op or head-to-head mode, there's no such thing on PC. No Internet play, and no playing the game with two controllers. While Lucas Arts tried to make it up to PC players by throwing in a level editor, I don't think it can rival the level of excitement that a similar game could provide in multiplayer. Another problem consisted out of the fact that the keyboard controls seemed to be quirky at times – which of course is understandable, with the game being a console port, and can be rectified by the fact that the game supports both joysticks and gamepad controllers in order to make your life easier.
Secret Weapons Over Normandy turned out to be a very enjoyable arcade flight game. For those that enjoy this type of games, it can very well become a favorite past time for a long time, or at least until a new Rogue Squadron for the PC will appear on the horizon. There are really no major faults that I can mention - it's generally well designed and made, but if you have the choice between a console and a PC version of the game, I'd advise you to grab the console one – solely because it features multiplayer, which I've personally missed in the PC version.