Secret Weapons Over Normandy is not a flight sim. This is perhaps the most important thing you need to know about LucasArts' new game, as it's contrary to what most people who walk in to a WWII-themed flight game would probably expect. Secret Weapons Over Normandy is a spiritual successor of sorts to the 1991 PC classic, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe and, at its core, presents itself as a mission-based shooter with some very arcadelike qualities. While it accomplishes its goal of providing a fun WWII-themed shooting gallery, it doesn't really shine in any one particular area, resulting in a game that's competent but not very compelling.
In SWON you'll play as an American pilot named James Chase. It's 1940, and you've been assigned to Britain's Royal Air Force. After proving your skill right off the bat, you're enlisted into a secret flight outfit known as the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks are the best of the best, and, as a member, you'll be tasked with some of the hairiest flight missions of the war. You'll also travel as needed. First you'll start out in Europe, from where you'll begin your flight assignments as you go after German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in an attempt to prevent him from taking command in Africa. Then, after the attack on Pearl Harbor creates a Pacific theater of operation, you'll move on to Japanese targets. Then it's back to Europe to thwart some of Germany's more-devastating special weapons programs. The game tells its story well by presenting grainy black and white photos and offering narration from James Chase as he records the events in his journal.
The mission design in SWON is pretty straightforward. You'll be given a basic task (which usually consists of ensuring that some target remains safe), and the mission design spins out from there by adding objectives in midflight. Though most of the game's missions involve some sort of defensive element, the enemy AI doesn't immediately pound your primary targets, which means you don't have to watch over your protected objective terribly closely. This gives you some leeway for dogfighting or taking care of secondary objectives, and it prevents the defensive portion of the game from ever really becoming frustrating. Completing missions and secondary objectives earns you upgrade points, which can be spent to better your planes with increased flight and weapons capabilities. The game contains 26 different planes, each with a handful of different stats. More often than not, you're able to choose which plane you fly, though certain missions require certain models, so you'll occasionally be forced into an unfamiliar (and non-upgraded) cockpit. Xbox Live owners can download the Corsair F4U, which is quite overpowered when compared to most of the other planes you'll see throughout most of the game.
While the PC version of the game has been designed to allow for the use of a flightstick, the game really plays best with a gamepad. This fact, alone, should speak volumes about what sort of game Secret Weapons Over Normandy is. You really should have one device or the other if you're planning on playing the PC version, as the mouse-and-keyboard control option really doesn't work very well at all.
The game's easy-to-learn controls and simplified flight physics let you fly like an expert almost immediately--which is good--but the game really lacks challenge. The fact that you have a Max Payne-like slow-motion option available at all times to slow down the action makes lining up shots even easier. Regardless of that, enemy planes are easy to get behind and practically pop immediately after you open fire on them. More-hardened targets, like tanks and aircraft carriers, usually only require a few blasts from your secondary weapon to go up in flames. By comparison, your planes start out pretty tough, and you'll earn three levels of armor upgrades as you progress through the campaign, which means that you won't really get shot down very often. In the event that you do take too much damage or run out of ammo, most missions have nearby friendly airfields that let you land for repairs and rearming. The difficulty ramps up a bit near the end of the game, but by this time, you're so powerful and so comfortable with the controls that you can tear through the enemy forces like nobody's business. This makes for a pretty short game, though SWON does contain a handful of optional missions that roughly double the game's mission count. When you add it all up, you can expect to get through the game's campaign in around 10 hours, though that number can fluctuate a bit depending on how many of the optional missions you take on.
The console versions of the game have a two-player split-screen option that lets players, along with computer-controlled wingmen, fight each other over the game's different environments. Obviously, online play would have been a very strong addition here, but no version of the game has any online support whatsoever.
Graphically, the game looks good but doesn't really stand out in any way and just sort of has a plain look to it. The game maintains a decent frame rate, and the models and terrain are passable. The Xbox version stands out as being the clearest while also keeping the smoothest frame rate. The PC version has display settings that let you pump up the resolution, but this only really serves to put a finer point on the game's graphical blandness.
There's a great deal of voice in SWON. You'll constantly hear radio transmissions from both your allies and your enemies, and the voices are all well done. The game also contains appropriately militaristic music, and the sound effects, which mostly consist of weapon fire and explosions, fit the action well. The Xbox version of the game has Dolby Digital 5.1 support, so you'll hear enemy planes coming up from behind and other sorts of surround sound trickery.
Secret Weapons Over Normandy is a decent air combat game that takes a stripped-down, arcade-style approach to the genre. Anyone who's looking for a meaty challenge or something with some simulation aspects won't find much to like here.