Historical Flyover Portends the Postmortem Condition

SECRET WEAPONS OVER NORMANDY
For: GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox
Developer: Totally Games
Publisher: LucasArts
Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Play Magazine unironically calls this WW II flight-and-might sim a "joyous ride through history," which sounds like something funnyman Kurt Vonnegut would write. So let's quote him. Slaughterhouse Five's cracked vet Billy sees a WW II flick in reverse (long story): "The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes." One part History Channel, two parts Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, Secret Weapons Over Normandy necessarily sucks much of the life-and-death from war history's grand sweep and anonymous tragedy. Whaddya gonna do?

It's the postmortem—pardon me—postmodern condition. Exacting and monotonous, flight simulators are cornily realistic. Secret Weapons' assortment of bombing runs, dogfights, and detail missions fly by thanks to an emphasis on arcade-style ease-of-play, but one simply leads into the next. The wealth of carefully copied oddball planes—the twin-tail "Lightning," hammer-headed "Ascender," flattened "Flying Pancake"—and experimental warheads provide the game's only color. (Cut scenes show the creators painstakingly measuring and recording the antique fighters.) Characters are rendered in black-and-white: Stoic American Chase, heh heh, forbidding Germans, and pussy Englishmen. Set during the war's early Dunkirk evacuation, when the U.S. simply sent pilots to aid the Royal Air Force, Secret Weaponsbarely hints at the slog ahead. Unless you play through to the end.


BEYOND GOOD & EVIL
(Ubi Soft—GameCube, PS2, Xbox, PC) 9

What, exactly, lies beyond good and evil? Kelis's milk shake song? As Jade, a photographer exposing a government conspiracy on war-wracked planet Hilly, you must care for sniveling orphans, consort with shady characters, kill soldiers invading and defending Hilly, and wear green lipstick—all while paying your electric bill. The cartoonish environment, though small, abounds with hidden desirables and fine detail-blaring propaganda, rich reflections and shadows, site-specific music, assorted visual gags—and even minor characters possess crisp, individual personalities.


DDRMAX2: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION
(Konami—PS2) 8

Unlike bukkake, this Japanese pastime makes perfect sense. We must, per Billy Idol, dance alone on a big cushy pad sometimes. This game insures that even without a partner, we score or get rejected. Only the fleet-footed will hack "Heavy" mode—not to be confused with "Workout" mode, which counts the calories you burn. The series' most extensive music library yet includes Kylie, Dirty Vegas, obscure J-pop, and a host of fun, anonymous techno crap.


ESPN NHL HOCKEY
(Sega—PS2, Xbox) 8

Branding: Cows don't like it, but corporations sure do. When the gloves come off, this ESPN tie-in is really just a manicured version of last year's game. The complex controls have been refined, and the team-management franchise mode now allows you to import new characters. (You pick which teeth he's missing!) Most notably, Sega tightened online play, closing easy-goal loopholes and adding a surprisingly fun single-skill competition mode. Stick handling, anyone?


FREEDOM FIGHTERS
(EA Games—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 7

Enemy submarines sit in New York Harbor, tanks roll down Broadway, and femme fatale Tatiana Kempinski ha-ha delivers propaganda over the airwaves: It's up to Brooklyn plumber Christopher Stone to flush the Soviet army from NYC. By passing medic kits to wounded rebels, bombing the enemy, or raising the Stars 'n' Stripes, you win the loyalty of up to 12 citizen soldiers, who accompany you through large, nonlinear levels. Don't let your freedom go down the toilet!


MARIO KART: DOUBLE DASH!!
(Nintendo—GameCube) 9

Speedier, sillier, and even more psychedelic, the first new Mario Kart in five years is reason enough to buy a GameCube. The Technicolor franchise's slapstick battle aspect, best summed up by the ability to drop a banana peel on the track, evokes the cartoon violence we all know and love while continually obliterating rankings. Between opponents' backseat bombers, traps, and other natural threats (breaking waves, thunderbolts), you'll need much more than a good drift technique to finish first. So turn on, tune in, and drop out!


NCAA FOOTBALL 2004
(Electronic Arts—GameCube, PS2, Xbox) 8

It's time again to toss around the ol' pigskin, and I don't mean Anna Nicole Smith. This year's model effectively tweaks 2003's brutal ballet and careful play planning and the boot-and-recruit student-turnover drama central to "Dynasty" mode. Skill can't make up for the irritating flaws in short passing, but if you've perfected your game, try re-creating classic moments like Doug Flutie's 1984 Hail Mary against Miami or go against fanatics online with the PS2 version.


NEED FOR SPEED UNDERGROUND
(Electronic Arts—GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox) 8

The newest Need for Speedintroduces the novel ability to exoticize your crappy base-model with conspicuously sporty aftermarket parts, like spoilers. (And I don't mean car-safety guru Ralph Nader.) Engine ups and nitrous tanks unlock automatically, but hustling style-points by drifting around corners and landing jumps opens almost infinite combinations of superficial customizations. No spinners, though—race designers have yet to reinvent the wheel.


PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME
(Ubisoft—GameCube, PC, PS2, Xbox) 9

The first Prince of Persiawas 2D; you play The Sands of Timein four dimensions. Plummet into a chasm? Rewind up to 10 seconds and take another leap. This evolution of Enter the Matrix's bullet-time gimmick rounds out the game's spectacularly acrobatic play, which finds you running along walls and climbing, dodging, jumping, flipping, and shimmying around enemies and through obstacles. The impeccably intuitive controls make this feel as magical as it looks. With empires like this, who needs revolutions?

 
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