Why bother with secrets? They always sneak out when you're least expecting them to, and the hoarders of the elusive information end up worse off than if they'd just blurted it out in the first place. Evidently the Nazis were really rubbish at keeping mum during World War II if LucasArts' latest flight combat classic is anything to go by. But heavy artistic license, comical stereotyping and dubious historical accuracy can't disguise the fact that Secret Weapons Over Normandy is the most enjoyable flight combat game ever.
But we shouldn't have expected anything less - after all, the game comes from the legendary creative mind of Larry Holland and his Totally Games outfit, the team behind a long list of landmark Star Wars and WW2 aerial combat titles stretching back over 15 years. Coming some 12 years after the revered Secret Weapons Of The Luftwaffe, it's fair to say you'd have to be a veteran to be excited about the prospect of a belated sequel but you neither have to be an old hand nor even be remotely interested in flight combat to appreciate that this is a top drawer title that deserves to be anything but a best kept secret.
What-ho old chap!
In slightly irritating, but necessarily predictable fashion, the game's RAF hero is an over confident all-American crack-pilot-to-be James Chase who fancies a slice of the action to show those damn stiff Limeys who's the daddy. Typically, the Brits all fit the jolly hockey sticks stiff upper lip mould and with a pip pip and chocks away it sells units to its intended audience. Sure, we roll our eyes to the heavens once again but the warm stereotypes set the tone for a game that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Split into 15 missions, each with at least one related challenge mission, it's one of those rare games that holds your interest from start to finish with a pleasing degree of variety everywhere you look. Whether it's the mission structure, the weapons, the environments or the aircraft, it's an incredibly well thought out game that rewards skill and persistence, is rarely frustrating, never boring and always sticks to the principle that games should be fun. On the latter point, it's important to emphasise that this most definitely isn't trying to be some po-faced simulator that'll have you crashing to the ground the moment you attempt a daring manoeuvre, or have you blown out of the sky for taking a stray bullet.
You always have an advantage over your adversaries. For one thing, you're given a 'Reflex Time' function allowed to speed up or slow down time to suit your requirements - and it's arguably this function that plays a key part in keeping you coming back for more. Rather than have a predetermined skill level, it's best to think of Reflex Time as a handy cheat to call upon when things get a little more hectic than you can reasonably deal with. Fed up with those pesky Me-163s shooting you down in formation before you've even had a peep of a shot? Switch into slow Reflex Time, zoom in and blast them to kingdom come before the Gerries can scream "Gott in Himmel!". On the other hand, on the occasions when you've got to traverse 10,000 ft to your next target, there's nothing better than being able to switch to fast Reflex Time to save yourself significant tedium.
SWON to secrecy
For pleasing touches, SWON is crammed with them. Rather than stock the game with an arbitrary number of 'lives', you can strategically land at the nearest Partisan Airfield to replenish your ammo and armour (never any need to worry about fuel), and it forces you into a whole different way of thinking as you buzz your way around the intricate landscapes. Although the game checkpoints your progress, it does so with your current ammo and armour, so you can't just 'die' and resume fully tooled up. It's a vital element of the game to always make sure you're capable of surviving the next onslaught - and in most of the latter missions you'll fail miserably if you think you can just plough on regardless.
Even the controls couldn't really be bettered, being plentiful yet sensibly mapped to render the manual redundant. Perhaps the most useful is the game's Zoom Camera, which not only makes for more precise targeting, but also shows off the impressive game engine to good effect. The same applies to the Target Lock function, which is SWON's equivalent of taking a quick look over your shoulder, giving you the sneaky ability to see instantly where your foe is in relation to you without ever being disorientating and is far more useful than any radar or arrow indicator could ever be. Perhaps the only less than perfect control implementation is the Bombing camera, which switches to an overhead view to allow you to line up your target. Trouble is, the aiming reticle is rarely accurate, and ends up being perhaps the only frustrating element in the entire game. Mercifully, bombing runs are rare.
As we touched on earlier, variety is very much on the menu. It would be a mistake to imagine SWON as a straightforward dogfight fest, forever shooting distant dots in the air performing aerial ballet as you chase them around a blue sky. One thing SWON does very well is keep the combat as close to the ground as possible, meaning the visuals are more often than not quite spectacular as you swoop down and miss certain death by a whisker. Among the many standout moments include blowing up a dam in a narrow fjord, performing a daring POW rescue, blowing up a naval fleet, bombing bridges, taking out hangers full of planes and so on. Along the way you'll be shooting out gun towers, blitzing seemingly endless AA guns, blowing up trains, tanks, mobile AA forces, missile facilities and crucial research facilities - and that's even before you get to turn your cannons and missiles on the inevitable aerial reinforcement that continually assaults your resolve. In terms of making you feel like you're a WW2 pilot, no other game comes this close to nailing that fantastical sense of excitement that must have accompanied these heroic feats. I never thought I'd ever say that about a flight game, but there we are - just remove all thoughts of this being a beardy combat flight title, and instead think of it as the kind of shoot-'em-up you never even imagined could be made.
Rose tinted goggles
Graphically it's never fails to impress either. In a game where your targets go from being mere dots on the landscape to being intricately modelled 3D replicas that explode convincingly, it's hard not to feel that SWON was nothing less than a labour of love for Totally Games. So often in the past, the landscapes were nothing more than pathetic green featureless plains, with blocky trees and a procession of box shaped buildings, and it's great to see that technology has finally caught up with intention to allow this to be a distant memory. In SWON every area is not only impressively large, but superbly mapped to convey huge variations in gradient and vegetation, with equally well-crafted buildings. And with the slow Reflex Time switched on, watching a tank get blown to smithereens high into the air as your craft flies underneath it is the kind of head on rush that every gamer craves. As flight games go, this is Burnout 2 - I can think of no greater a comparison as even the excellent Crimson Skies pales by comparison for sheer design genius and that ability to strap a fixed grin to your face.
As things stand, SWON's a pretty scripted, linear experience; every level relies on your ability to fulfil certain key objectives within a time limit, and attempting to get ahead of yourself can often result in slightly odd consequences (such as being suddenly transplanted halfway across the map). But don't for one second think that it's an on-rails experience, because there are always different ways to complete the level and upgrade points to earn for completing the secondary and bonus objectives. With around 26 craft to play with and upgrade, there's an immense replayability - not to mention some truly special surprises, which we'll leave to the comment posters to spoil for you if you hadn't heard already.
Complementing the package is some superb surround sound effects, which in the context of an aerial combat game works brilliantly, as well as excellent radio chatter from all sides of the conflict, which is not only well executed but often crucial to successfully completing the mission. The musical accompaniment is of the usual dramatic orchestral variety which seems to come bolted on as standard with WW2 games, but acts as a suitable backdrop without ever being irritating. Add to that some great engine and gunfire sound effects and it's hard to find fault.
Live enabled my arse
Where Totally Games did drop the ball was in not making the game fully compatible with Live. So far a trio of planes and one tough, but short-lived new mission are available for download, but that hardly makes up for not being able to duke it out online. The potential was there for the instant action split-screen multiplayer to have made it to Live and it's hard to appreciate why it didn't, short of laziness. And given that most missions feature wingmen that you can command to defend you or attack your target, it would've also made a perfect co-op multiplayer game. Whatever the excuse, it'll come as a massive disappointment to those who have enjoyed Crimson Skies' numerous Live multiplayer modes, because it would have arguably been even more enjoyable in SWON - and could have elevated it to top score status.
If we're being really picky, then perhaps you could accuse Totally Games of making some of the missions easier than they could have been. Some of the earlier missions, for example, feature AI planes that are little more than cannon fodder, but arguably they need to be and should be thought of as part of an extended tutorial more than anything. Perhaps some of the missions could have been longer too, with some over and done with in a matter of a few minutes, but with over 25 hour's worth put in to complete all the missions, it's not a game you'll conquer too quickly.
It's a sad irony that of all the top-notch Christmas releases that SWON has turned out to be one of the best kept secrets of the year. In terms of shoot-'em-ups we can't recall a more enjoyable one, and any game that causes someone who's supposed to be holidaying from videogames to not only complete every single campaign and challenge mission, but go back and replay some of them as well has to go down as a one of the games of 2003. But in an era where only EA games and huge licensed properties sell, we shouldn't be too surprised that most shoppers ignored this truly classic game.