The direct approach isn't always the best approach--this concept lies at the heart of Commandos 2 just as it did with its predecessor, the innovative 1998 real-time tactical combat game that mixed elements of stealth, action, and even puzzle-solving in a World War II setting. Spanish developer Pyro Studios' visually stunning sequel takes the core gameplay of the original, adds some of the features from the 1999 stand-alone expansion pack along with plenty of great new ideas, and ultimately provides a highly challenging, sophisticated experience that's even better than the first. But be warned--Commandos 2 can be as intimidating as its premise makes it sound: You'll command a small group of elite Allied operatives deep behind enemy lines to perform a series of important clandestine missions. At every turn, your commandos will be avoiding the patrols of German or Japanese forces. It can be a difficult game, especially at first, but Commandos 2 truly evokes the intensity of the harrowing depictions of World War II that you've probably seen in film or on television.
Actually, the game clearly alludes to the movies that inspired it--even the manual admits that the game has more in common with fictional accounts of the war than with factual ones. If you're familiar with classic World War II movies such as The Guns of Navarone, Bridge on the River Kwai, or even the more recent Saving Private Ryan, then you'll easily catch the references to these films in the game's various missions. As in these and other epic World War II movies, in Commandos 2 you'll have to do such things as rescue Allied soldiers, sabotage powerful sea vessels, assassinate key enemy officials, get your hands on important documents, and much more. The objectives are plentiful and varied and the game will take you to a wide variety of real-world settings, but the overall number of missions in Commandos 2 seems small: There are only 10 main missions in the game. You must play through them all sequentially, even though they aren't necessarily related to one another. In fact, the relative length and difficulty of each mission doesn't necessarily increase from one mission to the next, either.
Make no mistake, though--by any standards, all these missions are huge, and you'll typically spend many hours trying to accomplish the laundry list of objectives in each one. There's also good incentive to replay each mission, since a number of smaller bonus levels can be unlocked if you thoroughly explore the main missions. And the game's two higher difficulty settings noticeably affect the way enemy guards react, requiring you to take different paths to success. But before you can get into the main missions, you must first get through two "tutorial" levels, which have to be the most difficult tutorials ever put into a game. These smaller missions provide very little actual tutorial--instead, they take a sink-or-swim approach by dropping you straight into enemy territory, leaving you to learn the hard way about the intricacies of the complex gameplay of Commandos 2. This can make the first hours of play unnecessarily frustrating, so much so that some players may be quickly turned off to the game. That's too bad, because Commandos 2 is well worth the effort it takes to learn.
The colorful, memorable cast of characters at your disposal comes mostly from the previous Commandos games and includes a powerful Green Beret; a deadly marine; a spy capable of disguising himself as the enemy; a sapper, your demolitions expert; a mechanic who can commandeer enemy vehicles; a master sniper; and even a seductive secret agent. New additions to the roster include a fleet-footed thief and an unlikely bull terrier whose barking can distract your foes. You'll also join forces with Allied troops whom you can control in many of the missions.
In the original Commandos game, each character had a limited, very specific set of skills--for example, only the Green Beret and the spy could actually move enemy victims' bodies so that other guards wouldn't see them, which made these two the key players in most missions. In Commandos 2, for the most part, each character has a wider variety of skills and is much more versatile--for example, most everyone can now move bodies out of sight. This gives you many more strategic options during play and, for better or worse, eliminates much of the puzzlelike feel of the original game's missions. The game's sole remaining puzzle element lies in the fact that you can't choose which commandos to bring into a mission and can't choose their starting equipment--you'll just have to make do with what you get.
Though Commandos 2 has fewer situations requiring very specific solutions compared with the first game, the gameplay itself is basically similar. As you approach each mission objective, you'll have to take note of all the enemy guards standing between you and victory. There's no fog of war--you can spend lots of time just examining every square inch of the map from your godlike isometric vantage point, observing enemy patrols and looking for openings or weaknesses. Mission objectives generally aren't time sensitive, so you can afford to strategize at your leisure. And though you can take missions at your own pace, the situations always get very tense whenever you're preparing to strike. This constant buildup and release of tension is superbly maintained throughout the game, making it addictive and often exhilarating to play.
The key to finishing the missions lies in staying hidden while secretly eliminating guards that bar your passage. You'll see enemy guards' line of sight represented with a sweeping colored cone--using the Tab key, you can either check the line of sight of one guard at a time or place a marker anywhere on the map that will show you whether or not that point is visible to any guards. When possible, you can run, walk, and crawl about, as well as swim and drive vehicles. You can climb ladders and ledges. The thief can scale walls, the marine can remain underwater indefinitely, the sniper can take aim from telephone poles, and the Green Beret can climb hand over hand across wires. All characters can hug walls, which makes them less noticeable. You can eliminate guards in a variety of ways--the Green Beret's still adept at knifing them up close, while the marine has perfected throwing his blade, making him perhaps the most lethal of his comrades. Most characters can now punch out guards, who'll come to their senses later--good thing you can tie them up, too. This more-humane approach is rewarded at the end of each mission, where you'll be ranked in various categories based on your performance.
You can't always just maneuver behind unassuming guards and whack them. Characters like the spy come into play when there are far too many guards to handle. The spy and the seductress can divert guards by making conversation--but high-ranking officials may see through their disguises. All characters can use any cigarette packs or wine bottles they find to bait their enemies into sheepishly leaving their posts. Anyone can relieve an incapacitated guard of his firearm and any other goods he might have on him, including the shirt off his back. You'll have even more tricks at your disposal. For example, the sapper uses a wide variety of explosives, along with handy tools such as a wire cutter and a mine detector. The marine has a grappling hook and his trusty portable boat aside from his diving gear. The Green Beret still has his noise-making decoy device from Commandos and can still dig himself underground, out of sight. The thief has some lock picks and an amazing pet rat. All these characters can transfer their equipment amongst themselves, but some equipment--for instance, explosives--can be used only by a particular specialist. Still, a character like the thief might have a much easier time getting his hands on some so that the sapper can put it to good use. All of this means you'll usually have a lot of options on how to proceed, although some courses of action will be easier or more suitable than others.
Sneaking around isn't easy--expect to be detected often. Since one wrong move or one loud noise can mean you've blown your cover, loading saved games thus becomes a regular occurrence. Fortunately, loading times are pretty fast--probably in exchange for the program's whopping 2GB minimum install size. Also, it's important to note that Commandos 2, at least on the normal difficulty level, is more forgiving than the original game. For example, if one of your commandos loses all his health, one of his friends can revive him with a medical kit. And enemies usually won't recognize you as their foe right away if they happen to spot you from far off. You'll see them draw a bead on you and you'll have a few moments to duck out of sight, which makes the game considerably less frustrating and reduces how often you'll have to load saved games.
If you're identified as a foe, the alarm will usually sound and guards will swarm in, making success virtually impossible. Perhaps not entirely impossible, though--a brute-force approach can be fun and even effective, as the enemies' own weapons are even deadlier in your commandos' hands. It's a bit disappointing that guards won't fight back very intelligently and will walk straight into kill zones in droves--but the sheer number of guards you'll typically be up against means fighting head-on simply isn't viable most of the time. Even when they're not shooting at you, the guards can be fairly predictable and not altogether intelligent. This isn't really an issue--being able to roughly anticipate the outcome of your actions and the enemy's response is what makes Commandos 2 a strategy game rather than a crapshoot.
The overall difficulty of Commandos 2 is welcome--the missions are as daunting as they should be--but unfortunately, the game's learning curve is very steep, thanks to the sadistic tutorial and the sometimes awkward controls. Seemingly every keyboard key corresponds to a different action in the game. The mouse cursor is conveniently context sensitive, and there are helpful options for highlighting all enemies and objects of interest onscreen, but you'll still need to learn to use different keys for searching bodies vs. picking them up or equipping one type of gun instead of another. Exchanging items between characters is also cumbersome, although thankfully, the game pauses when you access your inventory, at least in the single-player mode.
These interface issues aren't too serious--it just takes a while to come to grips with them. The game does offer clearly labeled clickable icons so that you can alternately use the mouse to choose your actions, but the keyboard is necessary if you're to be efficient. Fortunately, moving your commandos is simple--double-clicking makes them run somewhere instead of walk, and the space bar makes them lie prone. Pathfinding is pretty much perfect--they'll move where you tell them to, though you can't set waypoints, a missing feature that might have let you coordinate simultaneous actions. As it is, you'll find yourself micromanaging one character at a time, though you can move your team all at once.
As you traverse each area, you'll notice one of Commandos 2's impressive features--you can view the main mission area from four different angles, 90 degrees apart. Transitions between angles are instant, and having a choice of perspective is generally convenient but sometimes necessary, as tall buildings and other such objects can obstruct your view. But unfortunately, since there's no compass or any indicator that lets you reorient yourself, switching view angles can be very jarring, and this really takes a while to get used to. Another part of the reason it can be hard to play Commandos 2 is that the mission briefings can be pretty obtuse. Objectives are quickly mentioned in dialogue between the characters, and once the conversation's over, you can only recap by looking at a checklist that gives you a terse description of each objective and that objective's relative location on the map. Again, you'll eventually get used to this system--it's just not as straightforward or clear as it could have been, and the checklists are often convoluted and don't always register your accomplishments correctly. The game would also crash to desktop from time to time, especially while loading saved games.
One thing's for sure: Commandos 2 looks incredible. The fully 3D characters are animated beautifully--everything they do looks great, and it's striking how realistically they move about. The huge prerendered mission maps are incredibly detailed. Everything is to scale--gigantic Japanese bombers, incredible aircraft carriers, impressive Allied submarines, and foreboding castles are just some of the many fascinating things you'll get to see. You can even enter into pretty much any building or other large space, where the game switches to a fully 3D depiction of the interior area. Here, you can rotate smoothly to get the perfect angle on the action, and your characters can even peek into and out of windows and doorways to find out what's ahead. The only problem with the graphics is in the zoom feature--you can get a closer look at the action if you like, but then everything becomes horribly pixelated, so the feature's not worth using. The sound in Commandos 2 is nearly as good as the visuals, except for the fact that your characters' very limited responses will quickly grow old. Otherwise, the game's ambient effects are excellent, and its musical score is simply outstanding--it sounds like it's straight out of an action film. It's intense at times and suspenseful at times, and it helps set the tone for each individual mission.
Commandos 2's multiplayer mode lets you attempt all the missions cooperatively, though the host player has to have beaten them in single-player mode first. This option lends even more replay value to a game that will take you many dozens of hours to finish on your own--thus, the GameSpy Arcade program is provided to let you easily find allies to play with.
Like its predecessor, Commandos 2 is a distinctive game with a great design and a lot of impressive features. Yet Commandos 2 is even better than the first--its design is much more focused, the missions are more involved, and the expanded options for your commandos are all excellent. As a result, the game will certainly appeal to most anyone who likes a challenge for both the mind and the reflexes. And what a challenge--you'll feel a real sense of reward and relief after finishing each of the epic missions in Commandos 2.