A quick forewarning: glancing at the title of a game named Airborne Troops: Countdown to D-Day might lead one to expect some World War II aviation antics and much ado about the famous battle at Normandy. In reality, there is nary an airplane dogfight and the D-Day references are sparse outside of the game’s packaging. The player assumes the role of a lone American soldier, John Walsh. The story begins with Walsh serving as a bodyguard to a French resistance fighter, only to have their plane shot down. The dying Frenchman’s orders were to carry out a series of orders to prepare for the invasion of Normandy, and he instructs John to complete the tasks instead. Carrying out these objectives is what makes up the entire game over the course of seven different locales.
Much of the time the player will be traipsing through indoor corridors and chambers, interspersed with outdoor settings. There is a respectable variety in the d?cor of the indoor settings, but a modicum in terms of the structure and layout of the indoor rooms. The buildings consist of an unnaturally large number of stretching, linear corridors. Airborne Troops is more interesting to look at when the game ventures outdoors – perhaps because so much of the game takes place indoors, the outdoor environments are more pleasing to look at. It’s relative anyway, since there’s a minimally utilitarian blandness to the visuals overall. The biggest problem in this respect, though, is a lack of subtle flourishes to enhance the player’s sense of disbelief. Airborne Troops never truly feels like a war game; rather than presenting an immersive environment, it feels like a trek through a series of elaborately designed Hollywood stage sets.
The symphonic score, sounding like a dull impersonation of the Saving Private Ryan soundtrack, kicks in occasionally but is thankfully used sparingly. Instead, Airborne Troops employs liberal doses of silence as opposed to background music, a smart way to enhance tension without resorting to a hackneyed cinematic score. On top of the expected sound effects, like guards’ footsteps or the few bits of guard dialogue, it sounds like an Ambient Moods of Warfare record is playing in the outdoor sequences. The distant crashes and explosions feel compelling at the beginning, but the repetition quickly becomes obvious and reduces these sounds to mere white noise.
Airborne Troops touts the effort invested in researching the background materials for the game, citing its “historically authentic weapons, uniforms, locations, and situations.” It would be surprising, though, if there were actually a real-life John Walsh who accomplished all these missions. The game takes obvious historical liberties in other areas, most notably with the saucy French spy that appears in a couple of missions; she ostensibly turns up to be escorted to safety and help with the fighting along the way, but inevitably ends up running headlong into swarms of Nazi troops and forcing the player to rapidly switch tactics. It is entirely believable that some of the missions were based on historical fact; a lot of them have numbingly mundane objectives, consisting of tasks like “go to that room and fetch that document” and “blow up that idle tank over there.” In a way, it’s refreshing to see war represented as a series of workmanlike details rather than some glorious escapade, but many wargame fans will surely be bored with the missions.
There is easy access to an area map and a list of objectives. In each mission, objectives are divided into primary and secondary tasks; complete all of the primary tasks and the mission is a success and completing all of the secondary tasks as well unlocks a few pieces of concept art. Nothing in the game prevents the player from reaching the end of a mission without completing all of the primary objectives; keeping track of the progress is entirely up to them, as the game is more than happy to let the player finish the level and then declare that it must be restarted due to an incomplete task. Paying close attention to the objective list is crucial, then, and the map is a fairly effective aid in tracking down task points except in the cases where a mission has multiple floors. When indicating objective markers, the map doesn’t distinguish upper and lower areas, so it can be confusing to look for an objective that doesn’t seem to exist when it is really just on floor that the player doesn’t know about yet.
It is unlikely that players will have any measure of success by consistently attacking the enemy troops directly. For cases where a firefight is unavoidable, there is a decent selection of authentic, standard WWII weapons to choose from like pistols, rifles and sub-machine guns. The pistol is the weapon for last-ditch efforts, being weak but having unlimited ammo, and most of the time there is enough ammunition for the better weapons. There is also a weapon resembling the rocket launcher found in many action games, but its supply is stringently rationed and there is rarely a true need for it in the game.
Airborne Troops has an auto-aiming feature that works about half the time, but it probably won’t take the player long to learn to work around it. The camera isn’t conducive to quickly and accurately moving the gun’s cursor around, but when the player has time to plan an attack the results are usually satisfying. One of the more interesting strategies built into the game is that the player has to keep track of alarm systems. When a gun is fired, nearby guards will hear it and possibly trigger an alarm – it is imperative to pick off enemies that approach an alarm until they stop coming. Perhaps the most unintentionally funny moment is when the player and an enemy trigger a witless duel of alarm systems; it is possible to form a cycle where the player and an enemy each end up at nearby alarm stations and alternate turning the alarm off and on in rapid succession.
It’s somewhat ironic that with all the effort put into researching the weapons, in most cases the lowly knife is the weapon of choice. Attacking directly with the knife isn’t a good idea, especially with the clunky melee-fighting engine, but it is invaluable when sneaking up on guards. If at all possible, the best course of action is to approach a guard from behind and slit his throat. This attack method works so well because the AI is painfully limited. In Airborne Troops, there are many situations where the player is forced to weave a path through multiple guards, and the most useful strategy is to analyze their movement patterns. Guards are only concerned with their own movement pattern and signs of nearby movement, and won’t notice when a fellow guard normally in front of their face vanishes. The guards can thus be isolated and picked off with the player’s only concern being to move stealthily and avoid other guards’ lines of sight. At this point, the game becomes a Newtonian physics exercise where the goal is to analyze the conflicting trajectories of the enemies, figure out the safest point of attack and then execute the plan with mathematical precision. There is a fine line between success and failure, and accordingly this part of the game feels less redundant than one might expect.
There are some intriguing aspects to Airborne Troops, but none truly stick out in retrospect. Despite emulating accessory facts of the war like weapons and soldier uniforms, there doesn’t seem to be a sincere effort to represent any meaningful kind of truth about the war itself. The best aspects of the game are when the player concentrates solely on the mechanical task at hand, which makes one wonder why a WWII setting was necessary in the first place – though taking a look at sales numbers of WWII-inspired hits such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty gives a hint of the motive. The measure of satisfaction achieved in reaching the end of the game is no more significant than with any other middle-of-the-road game and for most people, that won’t be nearly satisfying enough.