Version tested: PC
Command And Conquer
When I first played Commandos back in 1998, I had no preconceptions. It just showed up as a demo in a stack of demos, and happened to be the game I chose to play on a rainy afternoon. It's taken three years to get the sequel ready, but my patience has paid dividends. In fairness to Spanish developer Pyro Studios, three years isn't that long to wait for a game in this industry, and given that it took me about nine months to wrap up the first game, and there was a mission pack, the intervening period wasn't even that long. The problem with truly great games though, is that you hang on every word, every screenshot and every glimpse you can get of the game. Every time Eidos unleashed another slew of screenshots I found myself lusting after the sequel, wanting ever so much just to sink my teeth back into the nit and grit, the trademark engrossing gameplay of Commandos. So it does feel like we've been waiting a long time. The good news is that for Commandos fans the game has certainly been worth the wait, and it's as intimidating and downright insurmountable as before, if not more so. The game draws on plenty of movies to bring you the ultimate 'behind enemy lines' experience, and fans of films such as Where Eagles Dare and Saving Private Ryan will spot a number of references. The world Pyro Studios have built for the sequel is very believable, and as you guide your tiny task force of allied operatives deep into enemy territory, you truly appreciate how much more challenging and sophisticated an experience Commandos 2 is compared to its predecessor.
The maps themselves are equally believable. At first sight the screenshots we have been peering at for the last three years look decidedly similar to the original game, but the difference is in the detail. The levels are still pre-rendered, but everything is minutely detailed right down to the door handles and bits of rubbish littering the streets of a sacked French town. The character models are in 3D this time around, and rotate and scale beautifully. It's actually quite interesting to note just how well Pyro have modelled them despite the overhead viewpoint. Getting the look of movement right from the side is hard enough, let alone from four separate isometric viewpoints. All this said, there are only ten main missions in the game. Whereas Commandos offered a number of smaller missions to get you started, the sequel offers only a couple of (supposedly helpful) tutorial missions, but really it assumes that you will be hooked from the get go, chucking ten extraordinarily complex and exciting missions at you for the single player game. You start out with your team of operatives already entrenched under cover with an enormous list of objectives. These can include just about anything from sabotaging warships and other vehicles to assassinations and intelligence duties. The game will take perhaps forty or fifty hours to overcome if you don't rush things, and that's despite the relatively small number of missions on offer. Once you have completed the game once you will want to go through it a few times on higher difficulty levels too, although you might want to pace yourself! The higher difficulty levels help the guards to react quicker, and feature different volumes of activity and such, and frequently this means changing your strategy. Things are difficult regardless though - there is no 'easy' mode. The closest thing is the tutorial mode, which offers little or no actual guidance, but just gives you fewer objectives. By assuming that players know the score already, Pyro have made Commandos 2 a little frustrating for the newcomer, and that's going to give them trouble, particularly in the PlayStation 2 version, but if you're prepared to hold off on drawing your own conclusions for a couple of hours while you get the hang of things, your patience will be rewarded.
We're still marines and we've got a job to do
Commandos 2 is essentially just a bigger and better version of the original, but then sequels aren't supposed to innovate; they are supposed to quench the thirst for more. They do everything bigger - more explosions, more characters, more missions, more story. It's the same for movies. This isn't a stereotype; it's a simple, logical facet of every sequel. Commandos 2 doesn't try to pretend it's something it's not, but everything it does is better than the original game and there's more of it, and that's why it's so good, and why fans of the series won't be disappointed. Take the cast, for example. In the first game you only had a handful of operatives, but this time around there are new faces at your disposal who will prove essential to certain missions. On the one hand you have your Green Beret, the strength and skill of the outfit, with his trusty knife for dispatching guards; and a deadly marine capable of knife-throwing and other interesting methods of waste disposal. Then there is the sapper, a demolitions expert perfect for causing a ruckus when it's most needed; your mechanic, who can hotwire any vehicle; your spy, capable of disguising himself as the enemy; a sniper; and your typical female secret agent. New additions include a thief who can sneak in and out of the deadliest of situations without harming a hair on himself; and a bull terrier, to help distract your enemies when you need to get yourself out of a hole. Although there is always some way to complete an objective, Pyro Studios have done an excellent job of masking this by giving you such a limited set of skills, weapons and other equipment that you do feel like someone with his back up against the wall. You have plenty of strategic options when you first start out, but which is the right one? And which one fits your resources? It's a Blue Peter-esque balancing act at times. You may have a plan, but can you really make it work, or are you missing something vital to your success?
We will never surrender
Just like the original, things can take a turn for the worst easily, but unlike the original that doesn't mean tracing your steps back to whichever deadly situation got the better of you. Commandos was often criticized because most puzzles effectively had only one solution, and once you had found it you just tried it over and over again until it came off. With Commandos 2, you could be walking into a trap the whole time - you can take nothing for granted - and if something goes wrong you needn't necessarily go over the same process repeatedly. You could just try another door, so to speak. Strategically though, Commandos 2 shares a lot with its predecessor, and you still have to case the joint if you want to succeed. Every single guard needs to be carefully noted if you want to make your way through to the objective. Pyro never bothered with the fog of war, because that could never work. As such, you spend most of the time just staring at the screen trying to piece together the routine needed to overcome your enemies and steal your way through to the objective. The tension doesn't come from something silly like a ticking clock, it's born in the pit of your stomach just before you go to work. Before you step out into the open. The only thing that caught me off-guard in Commandos 2 is the multiplayer mode. What genius. If you can find someone as fanatical about the game as yourself, get together and play Commandos 2 co-operatively. There is nothing to match the joy of completing a mission in Commandos 2, except perhaps completing it as a team. Try it with your girlfriend, she'll find you irresistible for weeks. (Note: actual results may vary.)
Commandos 2 is a resounding success on all counts. It looks better, it sounds better, it offers you more strategy and single player game time than the original did, it takes longer to complete, it has a multiplayer mode and it boasts unparalleled replay value which forces you to think laterally about the same situations because of guards with increased alertness. This will probably see you through until next year, so if you have been looking for this winter's killer application on PC, pull up a chair and ration yourself some cocoa. It's going to be a long haul.
9 / 10