"War is shit," someone said on TV last week. Yes it is. We'd hate to be in a real one, and we hate it when real ones happen. We're not sure how EA feels about war, but they certainly shove a lot of it down our throats. C&C Red Alert, Renegade, Generals; Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault, Frontline, Rising Sun; and of course Battlefields 1942 and Vietnam, with expansions flying around all of the above like shrapnel in a centrifuge.
We find it an awful lot easier to stomach EA's war-mongering when it's not quite real, and not quite recent. C&C Generals crossed the line with its Iraqi scuds and chemical weapons, and Battlefield Vietnam looks like an orgy of napalm and poo-sticks laced with awkward guilt. BF1942 Secret Weapons, on the other hand, drags untested and presumably rejected war plans out of the lab and injects them into live conflict on a canvas of unrealistic settings. Showdown at the Eagle's Nest? Jet packs over Essen?
Videogames seem to be moving back towards the realms of make-believe where perhaps they belong. We certainly feel easier about strafing hordes of infantry with a whopping great bomber when we know it never made it into circulation...
Relieved of the burden of morally dubious slaughter, we've been fully embracing Secret Weapons of World War II since we got hold of it earlier this week. Like The Road To Rome, its individuality is assured by a bit of rebalancing and a hangar full of new toys. In this case, DICE introduces a collection of extremely destructive weapons, improves aerial combat and insertion, and gives each of the two opposing sides a particular slant, rather than armouries that reflect one another right down to the last shell.
We'll almost certainly see balancing issues emerge during Secret Weapons' infancy, particularly on some of the more exotic maps like The Eagle's Nest, but EA is sure to patch these quickly. Sadly, it's impossible for us to judge this for ourselves right now because EA hasn't set up press servers, and wouldn't give us 64 copies of the preview code. Botmatch it is.
Still, the impression we get is that the wealth of new toys in Secret Weapons is going to change the dynamic significantly, and the best thing we can do at this point is take you through as many of them as possible!
Of the new toys, the one that catches most people's attention is the German rocket pack. DICE has been remarkably sensible with this, refusing to add it to a standard loadout and instead leaving it hidden around the maps. You equip it like a vehicle, and tap space repeatedly to rise higher into the air, otherwise controlling direction, firing and so on as per normal. As with the jet pack in Tribes, you have a limited supply of fuel that runs out after a while, but gradually replenishes when you're not using it. Cleverly though, you can't just zoom up into the sky firing your jet pack-issue SMG and then chute down to safety - if you run out of juice in the air you will come down with a splat.
One way of replenishing your fuel supply without landing is to clamber into the new C-47 Cargo Plane in mid-air. This hulking beast acts as an aerial spawn point and can be flown around all over the level by Allied pilots. We're not sure if you're meant to be able to jet pack your way inside, but we did, and promptly killed respawning bots as they sat with their arses clamped to the deck. From the spawnee's point of view, until you exit the plane by pressing E you have only a fleeting glimpse of what's going on outside, so while it's possible to drop over precisely the spot you want to land using the mini-map for guidance, you're relying on the pilot's ability to avoid incoming artillery and rockets.
One such rocket is the new Axis Wasserfall Guided AA missile, which reminds us of the Redeemer weapon from Unreal Tournament. The new guided AA missile is ideal for taking out Cargo planes, Flying Wings and other bombers providing you can control it - like everything in Secret Weapons, DICE is trying to balance its sheer power with temperamental controls, and it's a technique that works. It will take supreme concentration and a lot of practice to perfect the stupidly fast, screen-shaking, limited fuel missile, but when you do, you'll immediately graduate from incidental to invaluable in the Axis war machine.
Also patrolling the skies we have the Allied Goblin Jetfighter, which is fast, small and responsive. Sadly it doesn't pack much of a punch, but it should make for some interesting dogfights, and it's bound to cause some trouble for enemy fighters. It's also useful for protecting the new Horton HO 229 Flying Wing, a monster of a bomber which drops so much explosive that it can wipe out an entire spawn point's resistance, as we found much to our delight in the early hours of this morning. It moves surprisingly fast and has a pretty mammoth turning circle, but as long as it's in the sky with a vaguely competent pilot you won't want to be on the ground.
The Flying Wing is also responsible for probably our favourite moment with Secret Weapons thus far, which involved firing a T-34 Calliope rocket launcher from a turret mounted on a Sherman tank. Controlled separately to the tank's main cannon, this devastating rig can loose up to five rockets simultaneously, and in this instance we found ourselves faced with a bombing run from monstrous Horton, only to take it out of the skies and watch it surge downwards and plough into the ground just metres away.
Another new and fairly large tank is the Axis Flakpanzer, equipped with an AA gun, which while not as visually arresting as the rocket launcher when it's billowing smoke, does at least make a satisfying boom and cause mayhem for anything in the sky - we even hit a hapless rocketeer with it. There is also the new snub-nosed Sturmtiger, with its front-mounted naval gun, which will destroy just about anything in its path in one shot, and lest we forget the motorcycle with sidecar-mounted machine gun. It's like swatting a fly if you can hit it with a Panzerschreck or tank round, but it can be very useful in getting from A to B at speed and firing on the go.
Perhaps less exciting are the basic weapon changes, but in giving some of the classes more of an advantage, they do affect the balance of the game quite significantly. For a start, there's the new Allied assault rifle. We like using this, because it's great at sprinkling anything within about 20 yards with bullets and carries more than most of the other weapons in BF1942, but we don't like being on the receiving end because it's pretty powerful and goes on for longer - and what can we offer in return?
Allied engineers are now equipped with the Remington Auto 5 Shotgun, too, giving them the chance to punch holes in Axis' troops when they're trying to break through to plant mines and detonation packs, whereas the Axis engineer retains a rifle, but this time it's a Mauser K98 Grenade Rifle. It's hard to aim, but then again it does cause more damage than the average car bomb when it hits its mark.
Our favourite new weapon? Apart from the throwing knives, which are as entertaining as they sound, we'd probably go for the new semi-automatic Axis sniper rifle, which can pump out round after round without the old fire, reload, zoom, fire routine. It doesn't do as much damage as the original, but it does mean you can take a second shot if you graze your target.
Behind the lines
Finally then, we come to the playgrounds themselves, a myriad of different locations several of which never saw a shot fired as far as we can make out. The Eagle's Nest, for example, is generally thought to have seen one and one alone. However in Secret Weapons, the Axis forces are defending it right to the hilt, with the nest itself up on top and a couple of control points and armouries further down. It's a long and arduous trek to the top for Allied forces, who must first capture a town square and then a small compound a short way up the hill, but after that the onus is on the Axis forces to come out and fight, because they don't have enough control points to hang around shooting up the bridge until the Allies hit zero.
Another new map is based on the German city of Essen, and more has been seen of this than many of the others. It's a tight and complex beast with lots of little nooks and crannies and an Allied airbase positioned one side of a bombed bridge, with the Germans entrenched through the town. Capturing it is by no means easy, but the C-47 Cargo Plane is on hand and there's a jet pack lurking in one of the hangars...
Other new locations include Prague, a V2 Rocket Research facility and a nighttime excursion in Kbely Airfield. From what we've seen of these so far, they're as expansive as usual with the individual flashes of genius we've come to expect from Battlefield. We'll be investigating these in more depth for our review next month.
The Secret's out
In the meantime, the real test of Secret Weapons' mettle comes on Friday with the release of the demo Hellendoorn mission, and we thought instead of overloading you with our quick-fire thoughts on that, we'd give you this overview of the expansion pack and let you make your own minds up. After all, we won't know how Secret Weapons really stands up until there are 64 soldiers running around willy-nilly.
Expansion packs are notoriously difficult to get right, and although The Road To Rome did a pretty good job, we think Secret Weapons is going to be a much more important addition to the BF1942 fold.