World War II shooters are a dime a dozen these days, so there's no good reason to waste your time with a game as haphazardly produced as WideScreen Games' Airborne Troops: Countdown to D-Day. Airborne Troops was actually a Europe-only PC game released way back in late 2003, yet it's just now finding its way to US shelves on the PS2, with a silly new subtitle to boot. Even by 2003 standards, Airborne Troops is an extremely uninspired shooter that borrows endlessly from other World War II games, yet still manages to get almost nothing right. Thus, by 2005 standards, Airborne Troops is a wholly poor effort.
In the beginning of the game, we are introduced to our protagonist, John Welsh, an American paratrooper who speaks with a vocal cadence resembling that of the guy who narrates all those movie trailers. John rambles on at length about an important mission he must embark upon that puts him in the heart of German-occupied France, though after a while, it all kind of turns into a form of white noise, as his melodramatic voice ceaselessly continues on about attractive female French resistance fighters, Nazis, and so on. There ultimately is no story worth caring about in this game, nor any characters worth sympathizing with, so it's tough to really get involved with any of what Airborne Troops puts in front of you. It's all just a slapdash excuse for you to run around shooting Nazis.
At heart, Airborne Troops is a third-person shooter with some exceptionally clunky shooting mechanics. You have a variety of period-correct pistols, rifles, and machine guns at your disposal as you navigate your way through many perilous French cities and landscapes, as well as a great deal of Nazi resistance. The L1 button works as a form of auto-aim, and the R1 button fires. Unfortunately, the auto-aim doesn't work the way you'd want it to. It veers off in weird directions, away from your closest target, often leading to a few extra hits you wouldn't take otherwise. The good news is that you can still manually aim your weapons, though even this doesn't always work. Pistols and machine guns get only a microscopic dot for an aiming reticle, and they often require almost ridiculous precision to hit a target properly. Rifles, on the other hand, are given a comically large reticle, and as long as a given enemy--no matter how far away--is in the reticle, you'll hit him 90 percent of the time. Even the method for switching weapons is silly, as you have to hold down the triangle button, which brings up a menu of weapons to select. You then have to press the left analog stick in the direction of your desired weapon to select it. In the heat of battle, with a group of Nazis shooting the hell out of you, this obnoxious method of weapon switching is at best inconvenient, and at worst painfully stupid.
And boy oh boy do the Nazis like to gang up on you. Of course, it's only natural that an enemy army would bear down on a single combatant such as yourself, but the trouble here is that even if, for example, you manage to shoot your way through what seems to be all the soldiers in a particular building, the game will simply spawn more at random intervals. This means that you have no hope of eliminating all the enemies in your path--that is, unless of course you can avoid drawing their ire. The game expects you to do this by remaining stealthy. The analog stick is pressure-sensitive, so if you lightly move the stick forward, you'll creep forth, and you can also press the L2 button to put John into a crouched position. You even have a stealth-kill move you can perform if you sneak up on an enemy. The problem, however, is that remaining undiscovered is often an utter impossibility. Enemies are constantly patrolling, many areas are heavily guarded, and there are never enough solid hiding spots, so there really is no way to properly sneak your way through the game. Ultimately, you're better off just taking the run-and-gun approach and hoping for the best.
All these gameplay elements really only equate to an experience that is thoroughly mediocre, so you may be asking yourself what pushes the game over the line into markedly poor territory. The answer is the game's almost incomprehensibly dumb mission design. Initially, you may not even realize how bad it is. You mainly just have to run through each level, getting from point A to point B, shooting bad guys, and achieving certain level objectives. These objectives are never exactly difficult, as all you ever have to do is find a specific objective icon in a level, walk over to it, and press the action button. The problem arises when you inadvertently finish a level without completing all the required objectives, and are forced to do the entire thing over again.
Yes, that's right, you can get all the way through a level, inadvertently miss an objective with no notification that you have done so, and then be forced to restart the level. That's the entire level, too--even though levels are broken up into multiple sections, there are no save points between sections. To be fair, sometimes the game does notify you of certain objectives before a level during the painfully dull narration sequences, but there are often objectives that you don't know you need to fulfill until you stumble upon an icon in the level. Now, combine the fact that you'll have to explore every nook and cranny of each level to make sure you haven't skipped over any objectives with the fact that an endlessly spawning army of Nazis will pursue you until you're dead, and what you have is an incredibly frustrating situation.
The one aspect of Airborne Troops that isn't flat-out lousy is its graphics engine, which, while not exactly remarkable, does have its merits. The character models, despite being a little on the stiff side, look decent, as do many of the game's environments. You won't find any impressive textures or creative set pieces here, but the game does manage to create a fair interpretation of war-torn France. There are some graphical hiccups that do bear mention, however. Namely, almost nothing in the game really animates all that well. Enemy soldiers move around in a fashion reminiscent of an online shooter from three years ago, skating around levels with guns aimed, clipping through objects and other character models in the process. Then again, this is a year-old PC shooter that's been shoved onto the PS2 with little alteration, so it's not really that surprising that the visuals are somewhat dated.
The audio in the game falls back toward the more haphazard side of things. We've already mentioned the laughably melodramatic voice work for our hero, but there are also the Nazis, who barely have anything to say, and what they do have to say barely sounds like German. Most of the sound for the in-game action is pretty underwhelming, as the gunshot noises are extremely generic, and the ambient effects the game employs sound about as cheap as you can get, with badly filtered explosions and faraway gunshots that just go off at random. There's some orchestral music that pops up now and again as well, but it adds no drama or flair to the package, and instead just serves as more background noise.
Airborne Troops: Countdown to D-Day is not a worthwhile game on any level. It's just another budget-priced shooter that lives up to the pedigree of most budget-priced shooters, in that it has only the minimum number of pieces necessary to make a game that runs from beginning to end without crashing or bugging out on you, and has none of the pieces necessary to be any fun at all. The deadly trifecta of horrible mission design, lousy shooting, and a total lack of an endearing plot pretty much seals the deal on this one, so if you want a World War II shooter for your PS2, look quite literally anywhere other than Airborne Troops.