IGN Review of History Channel Civil War: Secret Missions
When it comes to making historical events and moments approachable, the History Channel excels at condensing the blander elements into interesting segments that both educate and entertain. As a result, it would seem like a natural course for the television network to branch out into video games, using their considerable talents to make titles based on wars both engaging as well as informational. For example, Activision and Cauldron teamed up with the History Channel two years ago to present a glimpse of the Civil War, but it was plagued by generic play and lots of technical issues. Unfortunately, not much has changed for their latest return to the War Between the States. History – Civil War: Secret Missions attempts to present the clandestine action of Union and Confederate soldiers during the war, but a non-existent story, coupled with weak gameplay mechanics and bland visuals, make this a disappointing shooter at best, and a mediocre one at worst.
There isn't particularly a plot for Secret Missions, exactly – players are introduced to some of the most famous battles within the war, and some of the stealthy operations carried out by both the North and the South to attempt to gain an advantage on their enemies. At the beginning of each mission, you're provided a narrated introduction that gives a historical context as to what segment of the war you'll be participating in. Taking advantage of the History Channel's mix of narration along with maps, photographs and other art, these briefings seem to be taken directly from a documentary on the network. You're shown a map of the country, as well as a quick animated zoom in to give you a sense of what actions you're about to embark on.
Unfortunately, this sense of context falls apart as you play each mission. Outside of perhaps a few sentences that you'll receive at the start or the end of a level, there's little to no context as to why you're trying to accomplish the various objectives that are presented to you in the game. Even worse, when you complete a level, the gameplay abruptly ends and displays a stat screen without any kind of contextual explanation as to how your actions contributed to your side or harmed your enemies. Considering that you're probably not a history professor with a focus on the Civil War, having a bit of an understanding as to how your success during a mission actually affected what happened more than 140 years ago is pretty important. Instead, the development of each segment comes across like a disjointed set of missions where, for the most part, you go from point A to B, killing soldiers that are dressed in a different color than you or your allies.
That's assuming that you'll be able to accurately kill your enemies with the assortment of weaponry that the game features, which suffers from serious hit detection issues. There's a certain amount of this that is understandable – weapons back in the Civil War were much less accurate than their modern counterparts. Add to this the smaller round capacity that most weapons had, and you've got something that doesn't exactly add to the tension for a shooter when you're constantly reloading after every shot. Secret Missions attempts to get around this logistical nightmare by infusing the battlefield with a larger number of repeating rifles or single action pistols that are scattered around that players can pick up and wield, and while you're restricted by carrying a primary and secondary weapon, as well as grenades, you can easily switch back and forth between firearms.
But the larger issue comes in the fact that many of the shots that you fire seem to vary wildly in the damage they impart, particularly if you happen to look down the sights of the gun to take a more accurate shot. For instance, I lined up an enemy perfectly and fired one shot, only to notice that it didn't appear to affect him in the slightest. I took another shot with the exact same result. It was only after the third shot that it seemed like he was finally registered that he'd been shot.
"Firing from the hip," if you will, by using the reticule and waiting until it turned red to register a perfectly lined up target, appeared to be much more successful, although it still seemed like it would take at least two shots to kill someone. It was the rare shot that instantly dropped a soldier immediately. But I quickly got accustomed to firing off three or more shots at an enemy just in case – it's not like I was ever in danger of running out of ammo anyway, because there were plenty of glowing reddish pink ammo boxes lying around to replenish my supply. That completely discounts the few moments when you hop onto a Gatling gun or cannon, which magically has infinite ammo attached to the fixed weapon.
Strangely, in the PS2 version of the game, hit detection seems to be harder to get on an enemy. Even when using the crosshair, I noticed that it could sometimes take five or more bullets to kill one person, even if they were standing right in front of me. The same could be said for grenades and some cannon ball shots, which appeared to disappear once in the air, making it extremely hard to gauge the trajectory of the projectile. As a result, battles seemed to drag out much longer than were necessary (even with enemy reinforcements) because your actions didn't seem as effective when fights broke out.
Then again, there are a lot of elements to the combat that are rather nonsensical. Killed soldiers will frequently be replaced by seemingly identical soldiers that can immediately materialize seemingly from nowhere and will run back to the exact same location as their fallen counterparts. The collision detection of these reinforcements seems to be off as well, because I did witness more than a few times where I'd take a shot at an enemy and would kill him, seeing a body crumple, only to observe that another soldier was instantly standing on the same spot, as if he'd been cloned and I was merely blasting off one layer of the same man.
The AI seemed to be flawed as well, as I'd see groups of enemy soldiers emerge from the woods as I crossed a specific point on the map, spawning them into a battle. These mindless men would simply stand in front of me firing away at my location without ever seeking cover when I returned fire. It was only when I'd come close to them that they'd start to exhibit a mild amount of intelligence, charging and attempting to perform a melee strike on me. That isn't to say that my "allies" were completely blameless in this situation, because they'd frequently run into me and disrupt a shot, charge into a fight and get stuck in some hand to hand loop, or fail to kill enough enemy soldiers to be truly useful to me and my cause.
Then again, considering that I seemed to be somewhat superhuman, I can't really say that I needed my allies much anyway. Instead of having to rely upon medicine packs or cover, players will quickly discover that they can take an incredible amount of bullets before potentially dropping from lead poisoning, and the regeneration of these health effects is as simple as moving slightly out of range and waiting for about two to three seconds (based on the amount of damage you've taken) to replenish your health. Instead of the screen slowly fading and getting blurry, the screen starts filling with red, obscuring your view to indicate how close you are to death.
Even stranger, as you play the game, you unlock skills and skill points that can be applied to your "character," improving the amount of damage that you can inflict, the rate at which you regenerate health, and other stats. These skills and points are supposed to be delivered by killing enemies or completing bonus objectives, and can be leveled up twice for each skill, but there are a few problems with the system. For one, it's possible to gain one or two promotions in a level if you can throw a grenade and eliminate enough enemies, or if rapid fired bullets take out your targets quickly, many of whom respawn in some sections. Should I really care about being a Sergeant when I can immediately leap up to a Lieutenant or Captain without having completed a section? That doesn't even bring up the blatantly unrealistic aspects of mysteriously augmenting your character's skills simply because you happen to have a higher rank. Why would a Major or Colonel be able to carry more ammunition than a Pioneer or a Corporal? Why would another soldier be able to heal faster or take more damage than another? It doesn't make sense.
Another thing that doesn't make sense are some of the supposed extras that are scattered throughout the game. As you move across each level, you may come across a photo of a prominent Civil War individual or a letter written by someone from the war. The significance of these items scattered on the battlefield? Absolutely nothing whatsoever – it's as if these things have simply been tossed into a level in an attempt to extend the time a player would spend searching through a level for extras, only to discover practically nothing there. With no multiplayer available within the game, you're really stretched to find a reason to return to this game and replay it over and over again.
Secret Missions isn't the worst looking game around, but it's definitely not one of the better ones around either thanks to visual issues. The reload animations for the weapons are distinctive and interesting. It's obvious that quite a lot of time went into capturing the differences, say, between reloading a Henry Rifle and a Spencer Carbine. However, one of the problems that you'll run into is when you start taking damage, because the screen becoming red not only starts to wash out some of the environment, but it also makes it harder to see where some enemies are that are shooting you. As a result, you may accidentally find yourself playing through a section over and over again because you can't find where a gunman is. The amount of pop-in within the game seems to be a bit more prominent, and you'll notice a lot more people materializing out of thin air instead of emerging through the forest. Water running in rivers and streams looks good, but fire and smoke effects are practically non-existent. Ground textures are extremely generic as well, and there's a lot of slowdown that crops up as youmove through each area.
Sound is practically in the same category as the visuals. The music that is included within the game is comprised of a lot of music loops, ones that seem to be right at home as underscoring moments from a History Channel show. They're fine, but nothing special or incredible associated to the action on screen, which at least sounds rather appropriate. Weapons have different sound levels and reports when fired, and they sound at least somewhat different from each other in the midst of battle. The thing that gets to be the most annoying is the repetitive lines that are delivered on the battlefield. Apparently, there were only a few things that the men in the Civil War could say, such as "Good shot," or "I want to see you fight," lines that you'll continually hear over and over again.
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