Expansion packs are the gaming equivalent of an extra helping of pudding. You've doubtlessly already gorged yourself on the single-player main dish, picked out the stringy bits between your teeth and cleansed your palate with a fruity multiplayer dessert. At that point you should be quite content, unless the chef was having an off day. Maybe the portions were a little on the meagre side, or maybe you're feeling a bit gluttonous. Sometimes, when offered, you just can't resist the thought of more, even if it will probably result in loosening a few notches on the belt to make way.
In the case of last year's Hidden & Dangerous II Illusion decided to skip its famous co-operative play side dish and hope that the punters wouldn't notice. "It's out of stock," came the reply. "It'll be back next time," they assured. As a result, we all came away from the table still feeling a bit peckish. Of course, most customers felt that the standard was good enough anyway, and didn't complain. Others, though, kicked up the sort of stink that would give Basil Fawlty a nervous breakdown.
We were admittedly in the polite "oh well" camp, having been so engrossed by the single-player campaign that it felt more than a little harsh to damn a game for a feature that most games don't feature anyway. Others, though, passionately felt that co-op was one of the integral features of H&D, and to drop it for the sequel was unacceptable. Well, here it is, anyway - better late than never, and followers of the squad-based shooter series can either buy the spruced up Gold edition called 'Courage Under Fire' that includes both in one package, or 'Sabre Squadron', the traditional add-on pack retailing for about half the price (depending on where you look).
Set across nine missions in France, Africa and Sicily, Sabre Squadron is another against the odds squad-based sneaker where silent manoeuvres are encouraged over run and gun - although how you approach each mission very much depends on how you like to play. In terms of changes, there are very little to report on; it's still very much a case of picking off enemies one by one, being careful to watch your cover, and making sure your squad-mates aren't doing anything really stupid.
Having recently played through the Rainbow Six III console games, it's refreshing to go back to a system that lets you play as any of the four members of your team (as opposed to R6's dogged one-player-controls-everyone system), not to mention be able to pilfer items off downed enemies and, if you've killed them without bloodshed, wander around in their uniforms and utterly fool the sentries.
Bursting at the seams
On the other hand, going back to this style of interface can be a tad jarring after the seamless brilliance of RS III on Xbox, and it's particularly noticeable how the path-finding AI and general squad AI isn't quite up to the level we've become accustomed to elsewhere. Simple things, such as trying to get past your buddies in corridors still, prove to be a problem, and squad-mates are prone to taking their lives into their own hands by wandering blindly into evidently dangerous situations. Enemy AI can be a bit weird too, with foes reacting to dangerous situations by basically charging at you, rarely bothering to adopt a little cunning. We swear we picked our way through most levels by simply waiting for enemies to appear from around a corner - and they'd oblige more often than not, providing perfect sniper fodder for our deadly sharpshooter.
It then dawned on us that this is basically how we cleared H&D2, and reprising these tactics wasn't as much fun the fourth time around (counting the original and its Fight For Freedom expansion). It feels a little bit like cheating, and although the game does try its best to limit the reliance on quick saving by only providing one slot, you can still get by saving after each firefight; a massive reduction on the sort of tension the original inspired (which gave you two slots in total - as does Rainbow Six III and the Conflict games), although at least the frustration factor is reduced.
Whatever your thoughts on the thorny issue of save mechanics, it's hard to generate the same degree of excitement when you can keep saving relentlessly. Annoyingly, it's possible to screw up completely all too easily thanks to the 'one slot' issue, either because you've saved just before getting a rocket in the face, or because you've run out of the explosives you need, because you've wasted them on bonus objectives without realising. Next time we hope Illusion can see the benefits of implementing a checkpoint save system with a limited number of saves. It's by far the fairest way in that it ensures players aren't forced to go right back to the start because of something very particular.
Of course, many of the issues we've raised in single-player aren't remotely an issue with co-op. It is, without doubt, the best way to play H&D, and seamlessly introduced via its Gamespy system. Disappointingly Illusions hasn't extended co-op play to the H&D2 maps, just Sabre Squadron, meaning just nine maps are available. For some reason we expected it to retroactively enable the twenty-odd H&D 2 maps as well, but no dice. Ah well. Given that no-one had the ability to play this online until today, the best we could do was a bit of LAN play, and so long as you've got voice communication enabled, the potential is there to have an incredible time creeping around taking out Nazi scum.
Give me a human's brain
Wonderfully, co-op play supports up to six players, so you're not limited to the traditional four as you might expect, and a number of lives and four levels of difficulty can be tweaked to your requirements. In fairness to the strength of the single-player campaign and the traditional deathmatch/occupation/objective multiplayer, this is the game you wanted to play all along. Once you've played it in co-op (with people who know what they're doing, with any luck), it only serves to make the single-player version seem so limited by comparison. Gone is the constant chivvying of flawed path-finding AI buddies making themselves look like tits and getting themselves killed, and in comes a much more engrossing and atmospheric way to experience it. Without the co-op you might have thought twice about buying it, but now there's really no excuse at its budget price. Having now indulged properly, we can see why some H&D followers were so enraged by the omission of co-op last time out. If we'd have known the treats in store we might have got a bit huffy too.
Like many other games of this nature, how much fun you'll have is directly proportional to how clued up your team-mates are; get a bunch of boneheads and it's a pretty stressful experience. We're just keeping them crossed that interest picks up, because during the review week, it was common to see little more than 100 odd hardy souls still playing H&D2 online. With any luck this will be just the spur the game needs to grab people back from whatever else has been taking up their time. It deserves to do well. For what it's worth there are a sprinkling of other multiplayer additions as well, notably three new deathmatch maps, two new objective maps, and three new occupations; not overly generous admittedly, but still a nice haul for those of you're big into the multiplayer side of the game (we're not).
All that said, five summers on from our first H&D experience, the appeal is starting to wear off in patches. In many respects this has got a lot to do with the LS3D engine, which in comparison to what's out there these days is looking a touch behind. There's very little advances in terms of physics and ragdoll animation, the vehicle physics are just as berserk as ever and little touches like the bitmapped skies and the poorly textured buildings that you can't get into look less than cutting edge these days. It's not the stunning spectacle you once remembered it being, but that's progress for you - it has this uncanny knack of making things we once cherished look dated.
And in a way, expansion packs have the knack of doing the same thing. They kind of serve as a reminder of how things have moved on in the genre, and at this moment in time with the release of Sabre Squadron, it is impossible to shy away from the realisation that H&D as a franchise needs a bit of a pep up in several areas and is gradually being left behind in a genre it once dominated. Still, at the reduced price, and with co-op, anyone who loved the previous games shouldn't hesitate to sign up for duty. Meanwhile, let's hope Illusion is busy crafting the game that puts it firmly back on top of the pile.