Secret Weapons Over Normandy is an arcade flight combat game, designed by Lawrence Holland, the creator of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe and the X-Wing series. The game offers 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 have a look at the game, shall we?
The tutorials 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)... and of course their real purpose is to introduce the player to the controls – that were really easy to learn! There weren't many buttons at all to remember, the controls were laid out very logically, and in a pretty smart move some buttons when triggered a few times activate a secondary function of the button... The flight model was 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.
A lot of similarities pointed to Rogue Squadron and X-Wing series, from simplified controls, easy flight model, and even the form of the crosshair you'll use to target the 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 computer flight sim, in quality they're better than most arcade flight games out there. This comes with a price though – the framerates can become real choppy when flying through densely vegetated areas. 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 – blocky, with some really unrealistic smoke coming out. Overall the graphics and the interface are well made, and really put the game on top of many other similar arcade flight combat games.
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.
All console versions of the game support up to two players at once in split-screen mode, in either co-op or head-to-head mode (although there's no PS2 adapter or Xbox Live! Multiplayer support). Multiplayer dogfights are really fun, just as playing the campaign with a friend is. This is really the option that gives the console versions of SWON a lot of edge over the PC version, which doesn't feature multiplayer.
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. There are really no major faults that I can mention - it's generally well designed and made. The game is fun, the graphics and music are solid, and the multiplayer mode is lots of fun. So if you've ever wondered who would win the fight – IL2 or Tie Fighter, here's your chance to find out!