What happened to video games? It seems like they used to make up for lack of graphical and engine possibilities by increasing their scope and imagination. Now that all of the graphical dreams of previous generations are just a generation or two away from being fulfilled, it seems that game design is actually getting more and more lazy.
Exhibit A: Secret Weapons Over Normandy. The game is so titled to remind players of perhaps the greatest WWII flight simulator ever, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, which it is a partial remake of. The original game's premise was similar: in desperation as the war turns against them, the German army unleashes experimental jets and rocket planes, hoping that they'll turn the war's tide. The difference comes in the game's execution. SWOTL was as much a strategy game as it was a flight simulator—it allowed players to basically plan the entire air campaign against Germany, and then fly on the various missions as they attempted to destabilize Germany's infrastructure and shatter its defenses. It also allowed players to play the flip side—as the Germans, the only goal was to drag the doomed war on as long as possible.
So it's fair to say that, picking up the game, I had fairly robust expectations, what with the similar name and the Lucasarts logo displayed proudly on the box. Visions of a strategy/flight sim hybrid danced in my head. A true remake, allowing players to plan out elaborate bombing raids on cities, then flying those missions, taking part in the carnage as the Xbox's superior processing power renders entire squadrons of fighters battling at once, with ground-based flack cannons sending up a wall of black smoke and hot shrapnel.
Of course, this isn't that game. It's a much less ambitious one. Luckily though, what it attempts to do, it actually succeeds in doing fairly well. The easiest way to describe the game is as a World War II version of Rogue Squadron. Starting with the fact that the game is about an elite squad of the Allies' best fighter pilots gathered from every nation to fly the most difficult missions, everything from the mission design to the bonus structure to the selection of planes has a direct analog to every Rogue Squadron game ever made. As templates to base a game around go, there are worse option to choose from, and the game is just as entertaining a piece of lightweight fluff as its source material.
The game controls are tight and easy to learn, with one added feature that cements the game nicely in the "Arcade Flier" category: Slow motion. Anyone who has ever played a dogfighting game can attest to just how frustrating they can be, endlessly turning and climbing, attempting to get the enemy between the sights for just long enough to throw a few chunks of lead into him. Historically, this has been made easier by "lead sights", which compute how far ahead of the target one needs to aim to compensate for speed and direction. In addition to this, Secret Weapons Over Normandy allows the players to slow the game down to a crawl whenever they like, giving them all the time in the world to line up their shots.
The game plays just as well as any other action-oriented flight sim out there. So the question becomes whether the game's setting adds anything to the overall experience—and here's where the situation becomes a little more mixed.
Obviously the Second World War is the perfect setting for a flight simulator: It was the only really interesting air war. The First World War was fought with wood and canvas biplanes, so slow and ridiculous in appearance that it's tough to imagine today just why everyone on the ground found them as terrifying as they did. By Vietnam planes were supersonic—nearly faster than the bullets they fired, and there's something inherently uninteresting about computer lock-ons and letting the missile do all the work. World War Two planes were lean and vicious, blazingly fast, yet still reliant on short-range machineguns as their main weapon. Really, why would anyone make a game about another kind of plane?
The game makes the most out of its setting (I almost wrote "its license" there; the game wrings so many concepts and locations out of WWII that it almost feels like they were desperate to get the most out of their money), offering a kind of World War 2 survey class experience. This doesn't exactly help the game's attempt at a narrative, when one mission I was flying over Germany in the belly gun of a bomber, and the next I was at Midway, torpedoing Japanese destroyers. Even if the linking of missions doesn't make the most logical sense, at least the game gives players a chance to experience a wide variety of play styles. The bombing missions are also very fun, with a very functional targeting camera (familiar to players of Rogue Squadron) simplifying the game until it's just pure uncomplicated fun. The dam busting mission was an especially well-constructed, if overtly scripted example of the game's level design.
It's too bad, then, that the game uses its setting as something of a crutch, using historical facts and characters as a substitute for an actual plot. Sure, the game thinks it has a plot, with a villainous elite group of nazi pilots (the assumption being, I suppose, that if regular nazis are bad, then elite nazis must be that much worse, right?) scheming to use giant planes to thwart the Normandy invasion, but because the characters are so thinly sketched it's hard to care about whether they succeed or fail. Even worse is the fact that the game thinks, like the Medal of Honor series, that offering generic PBS-style war timelines is the same as telling a story. I just wish that the game had picked a storytelling style: if it wants to tell the history of the war and let players fight through certain parts of that history, fine, but if it wants to tell the story of a young pilot living through that war (and involved in unrealistically fantastical and heroic missions) then go all the way with it and give him legitimate characters and a story for the players to be interested in. I finished the game a few days ago, and for the life of me I can't remember the player character's name.
It's perfectly well executed in every respect: graphics, control, and level design are all top-notch. Everything it sets out to do is done extremely professionally. The only tragedy is that the game sets out do so little. When a company sets its sights at making a five, sure it's easier than setting out to make a ten—but when they succeed, is it really something to be proud of? The game was clearly made by a talented group of people, and it's too bad that they didn't attempt to make something a little more interesting and broad. Maybe they'll shoot for the moon in the inevitable sequel.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.