|System: X360, PS3, PS2||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Cauldron Games||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Activision / Blizzard||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Nov. 04, 2008||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Jason Lauritzen
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.