By Bill Havercroft
Discovering a hidden gem is one of life's great pleasures. So it was several years ago now, when my father decided to purchase and try out a couple of these newfangled video games for himself. He selected Secret Weapons over Normandy, a World War II flying game on the Playstation 2. This was released with almost zero hype or publicity in 2003, and despite receiving favourable reviews, has remained an obscure title. He and I both gave the game a quick whirl, before deciding neither of us could really be bothered to play it; for him, his lack of console experience meant the controls were too daunting, while I probably had enough other games to keep me occupied at the time.
Then one boring summer a couple of years later, I decided to give it another try. The game sucked me in almost immediately. Having known little about WWII aviation beyond the ubiquitous Spitfire before playing the game, by the time I was done with it, my knowledge of the aircraft and air battles involved in that most interesting of wars had increased hugely. I'd found a new interest, which has lasted to this day. Prompted by a recent visit to the RAF Museum, I decided to play through the game once more. Despite now being seven years old (video games tend not to age well) it's just as good as I remember.
So, the premise of SWoN is simple: fly a variety of aircraft through a number of missions based on key events in the Second World War. You play James Chase, an American pilot who volunteers with the RAF in 1940, and is placed in a crack SOE-endorsed squadron named the Battlehawks. Improbably, Chase gets loaned and transferred all over the shop during the war, allowing him to take part in such varied theatres as the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, the North African campaign, the Battle of Midway, Stalingrad, disrupting the Germans' V-weapons program at Peenemunde, and of course D-Day. The plot is rather contrived in this respect, but it holds together surprisingly well. It's certainly preferable to the alternative, just being dumped into each mission with no background - "hey, you're a random pilot fighting the Battle of Midway now, enjoy!"
Along with narrated cutscenes describing the real-life circumstances, and read-aloud excerpts from Chase's diary before each mission, there's an awful lot of radio exposition and guidance from Chase's colleagues during them. The voice acting is mostly exemplary, important since none of the characters are ever really seen; there are black and white still photographs displayed during the expository cutscenes which purport to show the main players (I can't tell whether they're actual archive photos from the war, or just mocked up), but you really only know each character by their voice. In addition you get snippets of radio chatter from your German/Japanese enemies during missions; refreshingly, these are spoken in their respective native tongues (all the comms are subtitled and logged in case you're too busy shooting stuff to hear what you're supposed to be doing next) rather than in dodgily accented English. It all adds to the feel.
Of course, the gameplay is what really matters, and SWoN's is top-notch. Unlike most flight "simulation" games, which focus on absolute realism to cater to huge anoraks (no offence to any huge anoraks reading this), SWoN takes liberties and tailors the flying so that it's actually fun and easy to pick up. All of the planes available to fly are whizzy fighters or fighter bombers, all equipped with machine guns and some kind of secondary weapon: bombs, torpedoes, cannons etc. The gameplay and mission objectives generally focus on destroying a variety of enemy aircraft and ground- or sea-based targets. As with the plot, realism takes something of a backseat here. So while real-world fighters carried enough machine gun ammo to fire continuously for maybe fifteen seconds, you get enough rounds here to keep spraying for several minutes. Even the smaller of the two wing-mounted cannon models can sink a battleship in about fifteen shots, and your little Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber can somehow haul around twelve big torps at once. And only one is needed to sink any ship or U-boat. Such deviations are more than worthwhile however, since single-handedly sinking an entire german fleet, downing a squadron of heavy bombers, or exploding a whole battalion of Panzers with rockets is massively enjoyable stuff.
On the other hand, the dogfighting is the weakest component of the action. While the AI planes are capable of proper aerobatics, ducking and weaving and rolling to avoid your hail of gunfire, you are restricted to such breathtaking manoeuvres as 'turning' and 'adjusting throttle'. It's mainly down to the simplified controls. By default, pushing left and right on the controller's left-hand analogue stick turns the plane in a combination yaw-roll manoeuvre. This is how planes turn in the real world, but of course real pilots have separate controls for the yaw and roll. This more complicated scheme is available in the game, with yaw and roll on the left and right sticks respectively, and it theoretically allows for barrel rolls and other fancy stunts. But unless you're an actual pilot, it's just too difficult to get to grips with. What this means is that the dogfights are less about outsmarting and outmanouvring your opponent, and more about chasing him round the screen until he sits still for long enough to receive some of your bullets. It's still satisfying when you manage to perfectly lead a fighter across the sky and watch it fall to earth in flames (the game helpfully brings up a little red reticle when you're in range showing you where to aim to actually hit the baddie), and I can't really see how they could have improved the dogfighting aspect with the controls available, but it's still a little disappointing.
There are a few other missions where you get to jump out of your plane for a bit and man a turret; usually ack-acks, or on a couple of occasions in the infamous Sperry ball turret of a B-17 bomber. The game doesn't really depict the utter affront to human dignity that the ball turret represents, but no matter.
Besides the aforementioned simplified flight controls and little red leading reticle, the game helps you out in several other ways. You get a radar in the corner of the screen showing the top-down locations of friends and foes, and enemies and other important objects can be highlighted, clearly showing their position, distance and damage meter. There are also various different camera viewpoints available, aiding you with things like bomb targeting. Though it takes a little while to get used to using all this tech, each one turns out to be extremely useful. For example the highlight system makes it so that you're never unsure as to where you should be going or what you're supposed to be filling with holes next, a common source of frustration in video games.
The aircraft featured certainly deserve a mention. The game's title points to the fact that there's a slight focus on the oddball experimental machines developed by both sides during this period of rapid war-driven research and development. As you progress through the game, you get to fly many of the famous faces: the Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf 109 (various Axis planes are fortuitously acquired during the campaign), Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and the de Havilland Mosquito among them. But later on (usually as a reward for completing all bonus objectives in a mission), you get access to such oddities as the Curtiss-Wright XP-55, the Dornier Do 335 , and the brilliant Chance Vought "Flying Pancake" [link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Pancake]. In addition, the coming of the jet age is depicted towards the end of the game, with the appearance of the Messerschmitt Me 262, the world's first jet fighter. These speedy devils terrorise you for a couple of missions before you get your hands on one yourself, and it becomes your best friend for the remainder of the missions.
Secret Weapons over Normandy is just a fantastic, hugely entertaining game. It's clear that a lot of time, effort and research has gone into making it as fun and polished as possible, right down to the wonderfully stirring orchestral soundtrack and the included DVD-style "special features" movies, which variously give some insight into the making of the game, and visit some of the featured aircraft in real life.
Video games are usually hard to love completely. Even if overall a game is brilliant, since you're an active participant, any little niggles in any aspect tend to come back to annoy you again and again as you play, dampening the fun. SWoN achieves something very rare in that it's brilliant overall, and the little niggles are almost entirely absent. It's dangerously close to perfection.
Secret Weapons over Normandy was released for the Playstation 2, Xbox and PC. It's out of production now, but a cursory internet search reveals it can be picked up second hand for a few quid. I highly recommend doing so.