Secret Weapons Over Normandy Hands-On Impressions

We take a test flight of Larry Holland's upcoming World War II air combat game at LucasArts' press event.

Today at the LucasArts press event, we had an opportunity to get some hands-on time with the PlayStation 2 version of Secret Weapons Over Normandy, a new game from Larry Holland and his team at Totally Games. The company is best known for its work in developing the X-Wing and TIE Fighter space combat series, but longtime PC players also know it as the creator of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, a flight combat simulation released for the PC in the early 1990s. Secret Weapons Over Normandy is also a flight combat game set in World War II, but unlike in its spiritual predecessor, you'll be able to take to the skies in the Pacific theater, fly Russian aircraft over the eastern front, and pilot a much larger selection of aircraft.

Secret Weapons Over Normandy is not meant to be a hard-core flight simulation. Instead, it offers a fast-paced arcade style of gameplay that lets you concentrate a lot more on keeping the enemy in your sights as opposed to worrying about esoteric details like lift and the proper angle of attack. The arcade style is emphasized by Secret Weapons' instant replay feature, which lets you interrupt the game at any point to view the last 15 seconds of action from several camera angles of your choosing.

While the game is not a hard-core sim, that doesn't mean you can turn on a dime and easily keep your plane pointed at the enemy. Every one of Secret Weapons' 23 flyable aircraft has specific ratings for speed, armor, maneuverability, and firepower, so you'll quickly become acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of the various planes. You'll also be able to control the throttle on your aircraft, which means you'll need to pay some attention to airspeed in order to keep enemy targets in your sights or increase altitude more efficiently.

Aside from including a number of different camera angles to choose from (both first-person and third-person), the developers have included a padlock button that allows you to always keep the camera pointed at your enemy. Using the padlock while in the third-person mode allows you to easily see your target's heading in comparison with your own. The result is that you'll intuitively know which direction you need to steer in order to get the enemy in your crosshairs. Once a targeted enemy is in range of your weapons, a red aiming reticle appears in front of it, showing you exactly how far you need to lead your gunfire in order to hit the target.

With all the viewpoint and aiming assistance provided, one might think that Secret Weapons will be an easy game. Thanks to the game's fast pace, numerous enemies, and varied mission objectives, the game should still provide plenty of challenge for seasoned flight-sim pilots and twitchy action-game fans alike. The first mission we tried, Dunkirk, is also the first mission in the game, and it provided an accessible level of difficulty for us as we became acclimated to the controls. In the mission, we hopped into a nimble British Hurricane fighter, shooting down squadrons of slow-moving German Stukas trying to dive-bomb the troop transports in the channel. The game throws a curve to the player later in the mission by sending in a wave of Bf-109 fighters, but these too are easily dispatched.

We then tried the Midway mission, which appears later on in the game's campaign, and found that Secret Weapons gets a lot more challenging. This time around we hopped into the cockpit of an American F4F Wildcat fighter and tried to provide air-to-air support for squadrons of dive-bombers trying to attack the Japanese aircraft carriers. Trying to shoot down the hordes of Japanese Zeroes turned out to be quite a challenge, as the Zeroes were much faster and nimbler than the Stukas and Bf-109s from the Dunkirk mission.

We sampled a couple of other missions as well. One placed us on the eastern front of the war, flying an IL-2 Sturmovik fighter-bomber for the Russians. Though relatively slow and lumbering, the Sturmovik was equipped with powerful cannons and rockets, allowing us to cut a swath through a column of German Panzer tanks, clearing the way for our own column of T-34s to advance. Another ground-attack mission put us behind the controls of the antiquated British Swordfish biplane. Outfitted with regular bombs, the Swordfish we piloted offered us a special camera viewpoint and crosshair for easier bombing. When you're piloting a bomber, a targeting reticle appears over the ground with an aiming circle that enlarges or contracts depending on your heading. Flying straight and level, the circle is huge, to account for the inaccuracy. If you go up and then dive at the target, the aiming reticle contracts greatly, reflecting the increased precision of your bombing strategy.

The most interesting mission we tried was a multipart mission that started with us in the ball turret of a B-17 bomber. Instead of flying the plane, we were charged with using the machine guns in the ball turret to shoot down incoming squadrons of Bf-109, Fw-190, and jet-powered Messerschmitt 262 fighters. After surviving those attacks, we parachuted out of the bomber and into an Me-262 base, where the mission resumed with us in the cockpit of a stolen Me-262, trying to shoot down the other jet fighters and finish the destruction of the base.

Secret Weapons Over Normandy includes 15 single-player missions, many of which have multiple parts, like the B-17 mission. During the campaign, you'll be able to fly about 15 different aircraft, with the remaining eight flyable aircraft unlockable for the instant action modes. As you complete objectives in the campaign, you'll earn upgrade points that you can use to purchase new types of weapons such as bombs, torpedoes, rockets, and some experimental weapons like guided missiles. You can also use the points to upgrade the characteristics of the various planes. Eight multiplayer maps round out the game's features, and they'll offer various competitive objectives. One will have each player in his or her own ball turret of the B-17, competing to see who can get the most kills.

Secret Weapons Over Normandy is currently slated for release later this year on the PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox platforms. While the console versions of the game will include two-player split-screen multiplayer, the PC version will have no multiplayer modes whatsoever. Instead, PC players can look forward to the easy-to-use mission editor that will ship with that version of the game.

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