Released back in 1999, Hidden & Dangerous helped spearhead the burgeoning tactical shooter genre. It took the careful planning, team coordination, and one-shot-one-kill ethos that have come to define the genre and set them during the dark days of World War II. You controlled daring commandos of the British Special Air Service, fighting Axis aggression with brains and stealth as much as with firepower. For all its strengths, Hidden & Dangerous suffered major flaws, like swarms of bugs, convoluted menus and controls, and plain silliness, like characters dying when they fell several feet. Now, developer Illusion Softworks is back with a sequel, Hidden & Dangerous 2, which again puts you in the boots of SAS operatives who undertake bold missions behind enemy lines. Amazingly, despite the four-year interval, this new game is badly marred by the same kinds of faults that hurt the original. That's a real shame because if it weren't for these problems, Hidden & Dangerous 2 could take its place among the elite of World War II shooters.
One of the first things you learn about Hidden & Dangerous 2 is that it can be very hard work and is best suited to patient and forgiving gamers. Almost everything takes longer than it should or is more complex than it need be. Consider the menus. If you're like many gamers, one of the first things you'll do when you boot up the game is set the options to your liking. When you get to the control options, you'll find page after page of control assignments. There's no quick-reference card or single page in the manual that details them all, so you might wish to copy them down by hand for reference, continually hop back to the settings menus, or search for the details scattered throughout the lengthy manual. What's worse is that a bug can make it fiendishly difficult to change key assignments to your liking.
You'll quickly find that problems aren't limited to the control settings. Throughout the game, many parts of the interface and controls are cumbersome or initially confusing. Games like Splinter Cell have shown how you can enjoy complex character movements with simple, intuitive controls. These lessons were lost on Hidden & Dangerous 2, where you constantly find yourself fumbling or fiddling with numerous controls to switch movement stances, lean, climb objects, switch from a crosshair to your weapon's own "iron" sights, manipulate inventories, give orders, and more. You can easily spend so much time micromanaging that you overlook enemies you would have spotted in other shooters where less button-pressing and menu-navigating is required. Reaction time is vital here, too, since the enemies are good shots in this game. Making matters worse, movement itself, even outside of the control complexity issue, can be hazardous to your character's health: It's way too easy to fall off ladders to your death.
One of the most interesting features of Hidden & Dangerous 2 is the ability to control up to four characters at a time. You directly control any one character via a first- or third-person viewpoint. That character can give simple spoken orders or hand signals ("follow me," "fire at will," and so on) to his fellow troops. Additionally, you can pause the action and switch to an overhead map where you lay out waypoints, set movement speeds, stances, and so forth for your men.
Tactical shooters like SWAT 3 and the Rainbow Six series have shown how you can control multiple characters relatively smoothly and effectively, whether in real time or via premission planning. It's not so easy in Hidden & Dangerous 2. The interface is somewhat cumbersome, but more significantly, your AI-controlled allies often do phenomenally stupid things. They can make bizarre pathfinding decisions, get caught up on tiny obstacles or vehicles, block you or each other in tight spaces, not shoot at enemies in the same room, stand in each other's line of fire without moving, stroll into the ocean for no reason and drown, and perform other maddening acts of folly. The game too often becomes work as you repeatedly handhold your men.
The missions are already very tough, so these sorts of problems, together with major bugs, can really try your patience. A level that should have offered 20 minutes of thrilling adventure stretched into a two-hour ordeal of drudge work, retries, crashes, and total lock-ups. Scripting bugs can make a number of missions nearly impossible to finish, requiring numerous retries.
If you like, you can play the missions in a "lone wolf" mode, where you tackle them solo to avoid some of the hassles of controlling four men. However, part of the fun of Hidden & Dangerous 2 should ideally be in using all of your men to the best of their abilities. It's usually a patience-stretching chore, but when it does work, it's rewarding. You can choose from a variety of men, each rated for health, stealth, shooting, and other attributes that can increase after successful missions. You'll want to carefully decide how to employ your troops to make the most of their abilities. Also, each man can carry only a limited amount of gear, and it will usually have to last through multiple missions within successive minicampaigns. So, you'll have to choose your gear carefully before you start and then decide how to juggle it with items you scrounge from dead enemies.
Hidden & Dangerous 2 boasts an impressive array of gear and weapons, like knives, pistols, bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles, various mines and explosives, cameras, compasses, wire cutters, and much more. The weapons are modeled on real WWII firearms, so you'll find the familiar M1 Garand and MP 40 among less familiar arms like the Japanese Arisaka Meiji 38 rifle.
Your 20 missions take you from wintry Norway to the North African desert to the steamy jungles of Burma to the heart of occupied Europe. Some tasks are unimaginative, generic affairs, like simple raids on small bases where you just go around and blast all the bad guys. One mission is particularly implausible in the context of the game: Your four operatives have to eliminate an entire sprawling town of enemies. Many missions require way too much trial and error. Fortunately, many missions are also very colorful and exciting. In one, you infiltrate a research facility alone to photograph secret materials and then destroy the place. You sneak around silently, knife in hand, ready to dispatch guards. Tension mounts all the while as you rapidly evade a soldier strolling down the hall toward you or as you nearly stumble right into two scientists discussing their work. You get a palpable sense of being thrust into the lion's den. During such missions, you also get to take advantage of the game's unusually detailed disguise system that requires much care on your part. Every part of your uniform and visible gear has to be standard enemy issue, and even then, if you loiter around enemies too long, they'll catch on that you're an imposter.
Some of the other entertaining missions let you tear around in vehicles, like when you commandeer a flak vehicle at an Italian airbase and start blasting their planes to scrap. During one exciting venture, you roar through a canyon in a commandeered German bomber with fighters in hot pursuit. With the John Williams-style music blaring and guns rattling, it feels like something right out of an Indiana Jones movie.
One thing almost all the missions do well is create vivid, wonderfully detailed settings. In the aforementioned research facility, you'll find aerodynamic test chambers, old-fashioned drafting tables, propaganda posters on the walls, and many little items that bring the rooms to life. Buildings all look like real, lived-in places, instead of just a bunch of rooms seeded with guards for you to fight. To add to the believability, the game lets you overhear lengthy conversations between enemy soldiers or scientists. If you know the appropriate languages, some of these can be pretty interesting or amusing, like when a German scientist berates a guard at length for his laxity and then gives him a further tongue-lashing for making excuses. (Vital dialogue is subtitled for your convenience.)
Hidden & Dangerous 2 sports some gorgeous graphics and powerful audio to give these details added impact. The graphics engine may not be on the very cutting edge, but the developers sure made great use of it. The textures are surely some of the best yet featured in a game, with marvelous diversity and attention to detail, from the frost coating a U-boat in Norway to nearly photorealistic canyon walls in Africa to the dried blades of grass in a Czech town. Little details like footprints left in mud, playing cards scattered on a barracks table, and colorful leaves falling from trees in autumn add to the immersion. Loud, powerful sound effects bring weapons fire to life, and a derivative yet fitting orchestral score adds to the ambience. Many of the voice-overs are well above average, and the cutscenes are dramatically directed.
Along with the lengthy single-player campaign, Hidden & Dangerous offers three multiplayer modes: an every-man-for-himself deathmatch, an objective-based mode, and a territorial control mode reminiscent of Day of Defeat or Battlefield 1942. These modes feature some interesting maps, but like the single-player game, multiplayer is marred by major bugs that can make it hard to connect, let alone actually play. Also, there's no cooperative mode, and this is a game that screams out for it since it could help you circumvent the many problems with the AI.
In a word, Hidden & Dangerous 2 is frustrating. It's often frustrating to play, and it's frustrating to see that there's clearly a wonderful game hidden amongst the major bugs, cumbersome controls, questionable AI, and other flaws. When everything works well, Hidden & Dangerous 2 can offer an immersive, exciting mix of strategy and action in marvelously convincing settings. There's a lot of entertainment to be found in this game, but you'll need to wade through a lot of problems to get to it.