In Commandos 2: Men of Courage, you're charged with commanding a small group of elite Allied operatives deep behind enemy lines during World War II. The direct approach isn't always the best approach, and at every turn, your commandos will be avoiding the patrols of German or Japanese forces. In this respect, Commandos 2 is quite a bit like its predecessor, the innovative 1998 real-time tactical combat game that mixed elements of stealth, action, and puzzle solving. Spanish developer Pyro Studios' sequel, first released for the PC last year, took the core gameplay of the original and added plenty of great new ideas, ultimately creating a highly challenging, sophisticated experience that was even better than the first. Arriving shortly after a less successful PlayStation 2 port, the new Xbox version retains more of the great qualities of the PC game. Though the core game was clearly designed with the PC in mind, the developers have done a commendable job both of translating mouse-and-keyboard controls to the Xbox's stock controller and of not sacrificing the finer points of Commandos 2's extremely challenging gameplay.
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. You must play through them all sequentially, even though they aren't necessarily related to one another, and the relative length and difficulty of each mission doesn't necessarily increase from one mission to the next.
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 decent incentive to replay each mission, since a number of smaller bonus levels can be unlocked if you thoroughly explore the main missions. Additionally, 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 "training" levels. These smaller missions drop you straight into enemy territory, forcing you to learn the intricacies of Commandos 2's complex gameplay the hard way. Unlike the original PC version, the Xbox version of Commandos 2 does offer a supplemental step-by-step tutorial that consists of a great many lessons that explain all the dozens of different types of actions available in the game. The tutorial takes a while to finish and still doesn't guarantee you'll have an easy time getting started with the actual game, but it's better than nothing.
The PC version of Commandos 2 features razor-sharp high-resolution graphics that look spectacular. The Xbox version captures much of the effect and fares better visually than the recent PS2 port. While perhaps that's to be expected, what's less apparent is that the subtle differences in the quality of the graphics of a game like Commandos 2 directly impacts how well it plays. The game's small but very well animated 3D characters are easier to spot onscreen on the Xbox than on the PS2, which makes a real difference. Even still, important details such as lockboxes or sniper posts can be difficult to notice, so you'll really need to keep your eyes peeled. You won't really mind doing so, since Commandos 2 looks very good. You'll appreciate details like the animated 3D portraits of all your squadmates and how everything in the game is shown exactly to scale. Gigantic Japanese bombers, aircraft carriers, Allied submarines, and German castles are just some of the many things you'll get to see. The Xbox version of Commandos 2 runs smoothly unlike the PS2 port, and its levels load quickly--an important point, since you'll invariably end up retrying each mission many times. The sound in Commandos 2 is about as impressive as the graphics. Your characters' responses are limited and will quickly grow old, but otherwise, the game's ambient effects are well done and its musical score is 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.
The colorful 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 (demolitions expert), a mechanic who can commandeer enemy vehicles, a master sniper, a seductive secret agent, a fleet-footed thief, and even a 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. Each character is versatile and has a wide variety of skills. This gives you many strategic options during play, though the game's one puzzle element lies in the fact that you can't choose which commandos or starting equipment you'll bring into the missions--you'll just have to make do with what you get.
The gameplay demands extreme precision. As you approach each mission objective, you'll have to take note of all the enemy guards standing between you and victory. 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 well maintained throughout the game.
The key to finishing the missions lies in staying hidden while secretly eliminating guards who bar your passage. You'll see enemy guards' lines of sight represented with sweeping colored cones. By pressing the Select button, 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. You can eliminate guards in a variety of ways. The Green Beret is adept at knifing them, but most other characters can simply punch out guards, who'll come to their senses later. Good thing you can tie them up, too.
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 in addition to his diving gear. All these characters can transfer their equipment between themselves, but some equipment--explosives, for instance--can be used only by a particular specialist. Still, a character like the thief might have a much easier time getting his hands on something so the sapper can put it to good use. You'll even get to commandeer a variety of vehicles. All 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, the loading times are relatively brief, and you can save your progress anywhere. Anyone would agree that Commandos 2 is a very tough game, but at least it's not totally punishing at the normal difficulty setting. 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 have a few moments to duck out of sight, which makes the game considerably less frustrating and reduces the number of times 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, and you can aim automatically. 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 a viable approach 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 lengthy tutorial and the counterintuitive controls. Seemingly every function on the Xbox controller corresponds to a different action in the game. There's a conveniently context-sensitive onscreen cursor, and there are helpful options for highlighting all enemies and objects of interest onscreen, but you'll still need to learn to use the commands for things like searching bodies, picking them up, and quickly changing characters on the fly. Exchanging items between characters is also cumbersome, although thankfully, the game pauses when you access your inventory. These interface issues can be a problem since it takes a while to come to grips with them. Fortunately, moving your commandos is pretty intuitive. You control them directly using the left analog stick, and you can simultaneously move the camera around with the right stick.
One interface issue with Commandos 2 is that you can view the main mission area from four different angles, 90 degrees apart. Transitions between angles are a bit sluggish, and having a choice of perspective isn't merely optional, as tall buildings and other such objects can obstruct your view. 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. The game's frequently obtuse mission briefings are another reason it can be hard to play Commandos 2. Objectives are quickly mentioned in dialogue between the characters, and once the conversation's over, you can recap only 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 can 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.
Commandos 2 is a distinctive game with a great design and a lot of impressive features. Yet even though the designers did as good a job as could be expected of porting the excellent PC version to the Xbox, Commandos 2 still just doesn't feel quite at home on a console. The graphics aren't quite as sharp, the cooperative multiplayer mode is gone, and the controls, which were difficult to get used to even in the PC version, are less precise but no less difficult to master. The PC version also retails for about $20 less these days. But there's no point in taking the comparisons any further. Commandos 2 definitely deserves a large audience, and Xbox owners looking for a genuinely tough, original game should check it out.