At Least It’s Not a WWII Shooter
After so many History Channel-based games, one would think that developer Cauldron might want to spread some creative wings and think outside a TV-themed box. It’s been less than a year since Cauldron’s last title – History Channel: Battle for the Pacific – and we already have a new historical game. This time the developer has traded out the all too familiar set-piece that is World War II in exchange for a lesser known conflict: the American Civil War.
Swapping wars should provide an ample amount of narrative difference. The Civil War was marked by discussions over the nature of government’s proper role (if any) in economics, bitterly dealt with the right to secede, and marked the beginnings of more involved, welfare-oriented federalism. All this must have been lost on Cauldron. These pivotal issues never once arise throughout the course of play. This historical period is rendered vapid by a studio intent on cranking out another me-too first-person shooter.
History is rendered sterile on account of Secret Missions’ level intros. Briefings, handled in a History Channel fashion, complete with rendered maps and black-and-white photos, live up to their title – they are, in fact, way too brief. At no point would anyone learn a viable history lesson. Instead, what is presented are little-known facts about turning points in battles and up-and-coming weapons technologies, like the Gatling gun and ironclad battleships. To keep things politically correct, you play half the missions as a Confederate solider and the other half of your time is spent working for the Union. Instead of delving into the psychology of each side, the developers skirt away from the issue, overly simplifying and dumbing everything down, effectively saying, “When you’re in blue, the gray uniform guys are bad and vice versa.”
There would be some consolation present if the basic gameplay made up for the meager presentation. Trouble is this never happens, because the run-and-gun nature of the Secret Missions can be summed up in one word: generic. You can run through the entire game in under four hours (a one hour improvement over Cauldron’s last History Channel game), but the game can ultimately be condensed down to one hour on account of the repetitive tasks you’re given. Whether you play Union or Confederate, tasks always fall into two categories: eliminate opposing soldiers and hit the action button near an appropriate object, whether it be to set off an explosive barrel, activate a telegraph, or open a gate.
Any sense of spatial strategy goes out the window after playing the first mission. It’s clear the developers have a linear mindset when it comes to level design and want you to take one path and one path only. Try all you like, but you’ll constantly encounter invisible walls in the form of insurmountable fences and piles of conveniently placed tree limbs. Following the set path for each level reveals another level design issue: enemy funneling. Cover is always placed in front of a predetermined enemy spawn point. You battle it out, move to the next piece of cover, and watch the process repeat.
Secret Missions’ may be a war game, but rarely do you play with a squad of more than three members. Instead of being any real help, they end up complicating and sometimes breaking the game. Often you’ll see them firing in the wrong direction or refusing to advance. What makes them more of a burden than a benefit – besides their terrible accuracy – is how they determine the checkpoints. Sometimes you can advance solo, unlocking the next checkpoint, steadily moving the mission along. However, a lot of the time, your squad mates won’t advance until you trip some kind of trigger. During one mission, we noticed that every time we went down a particular alley a random Confederate soldier would kill our character in one hit – it didn’t matter if you shot first or jumped behind cover. But, if you huddled up with your fellow soldiers, the same nemesis’ accuracy diminished and the area became passable. Another problem we encountered was in setting off an explosive. If you left the building via a different door than your team, you would always die from the explosion, no matter how much distance you put between yourself and the blast.
Basic shooter no-nos that were a problem in Battle for the Pacific return once again in Secret Missions. While you have the option of aiming down a gun’s sight, it is actually a less effective method than aiming from the hip, due to the wonky hit detection. This is on account of the game’s crosshair. When it’s white that means there’s no good shot to take; when it’s red it means you’ll always get a hit – even if you’re aiming a good foot away from an enemy. By making the second option more effective, the game penalizes you for taking time to setup that one good shot; it’s better just to wildly fire when you see a flash of red on the screen.
Enemy A.I., for the most part, is laughable. Troops will stay stationed behind cover and rarely advance on your position. If they do, they’ll flail their arms around attempting a miserable melee attack. They also completely ignore grenades. Tossing an explosive in their direction doesn’t net an intelligible response, so instead of troops scrambling, they simply wait for the inevitable eruption. Since grenades are so plentiful and effective, you can finish a lot of sections using nothing but them.
Animation is not the game’s strong suit. If you throw a grenade beneath someone’s feet, they’ll launch 30 feet into the air. Instead of landing on the ground, they’ll disappear in the middle of the air. Likewise, hit detection doesn’t correlate to believable animations. Shooting an enemy in the face may make them buckle over their knees or grab their arm. Combat aside, it’s impossible for soldiers to stay still. During cutscenes it seems like they have constant jitters, dancing back and forth to an inaudible music selection. All these animation oddities are paired with clipping issues that cause fellow soldiers to get stuck in objects.
To insert some variety, the developers toss in the occasional vehicle mission that may have you firing a Gatling gun from a train or manning a cannon in an ironclad battleship, but these are really attempts at artificial diversity, as all you’re doing is shooting as many objects as possible with a different weapon. Depending on your skill – simply the amount of people you kill – you’ll get skill points that you can use before the start of a mission. You can use these to give your character a perk, like 50 percent more ammo or 50 percent faster health regeneration, but the game is ridiculously easy, making these bonuses unnecessary.
History Channel Civil War: Secret Missions treats what should be a rich historical palate as a first-person shooter backdrop and nothing more. Both parties – history buffs and shooter fans – will be disappointed. This is essentially Battle for the Pacific re-skinned and repackaged.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.9 Graphics
Aside from the occasional bit of impressive texture work, it’s hard not to notice animation oddities and weird clipping. 3.5 Control
The standard run-and-gun stuff works fine, but errors from Cauldron’s last game – like wonky hit detection and ineffective scope aiming – carry over to this title. 2.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Voice samples repeat often and the History Channel clips that play before levels are too brief, never divvying out an ample amount of historical information. 2.0 Play Value
Knocking $10 off the cover charge doesn’t make up for the extremely generic and short single-player campaign. With no multiplayer to speak of, there’s little reason for this title to occupy more than an afternoon’s time. 2.6 Overall Rating – Average
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.