Commandos 2 Updated Preview

We extensively played through the latest build of Commandos 2--read our impressions.

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Two years ago, Eidos Interactive and Spanish developer Pyro Studios introduced an innovative and fun game that was noteworthy for several reasons. Commandos was a strategy game involving tactics, action, and puzzle-solving, and it was set during World War II. You had to guide a small squad of commandos through a series of extremely dangerous missions behind enemy lines and use stealth and ambush tactics to succeed. These factors alone didn't necessarily set the game apart, but combined with challenging and clever game design, they resulted in a unique game that won a large following. Today, Pyro and Eidos are close to finishing development on the sequel, Commandos 2, which promises to be even better than the original.

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We recently got our hands on a nearly finished version of Commandos 2 and played through one of the game's huge missions to get a sense of how the sequel will actually play. The preview build features a wonderful tutorial that teaches you how to control the interface and the game; in addition, this briefing is presented as a briefing by your commanding officer. The mission we played has the same high production values of the rest of the game and immerses you in the gameworld from the outset.

The first thing that we noticed in Commandos 2 was its incredible graphics. The graphics are beautiful and very detailed. The resolution is now set to 1024x768, so the designers were able to cram even more detail onto the screen. There are also various zoom levels that let you pull back for a more expansive view or zoom in to track individual characters. While the graphics in the game appear to be prerendered, the buildings and the characters are in fact fully 3D, resulting in fluid animation for the commandos and other characters in the game. In fact, seeing the new thief character scale a wall or the Green Beret swing across a telephone wire is amazing to behold, as these characters move with a lifelike grace that you won't typically find in games. The environments themselves are intricate and detailed, right down to the individual cobblestones that make up the ground of the town square. Because of the 3D graphics, you can also rotate the camera 90 degrees to give you four different angles on the environment. In addition, you can divide the screen into windows (up to six of them) to let you track up to six different parts of the screen at once, which comes in handy when you've split up your commandos and still want to see them and any nearby soldiers who might be getting too close.

The sound in our build of Commandos 2 was certainly up to par with recent games, and the music was suspenseful and dramatic. However, the voices of the characters don't quite mesh yet. For instance, the thief, who is supposedly a French character, sounded like a wisecracking American kid. But the Green Beret sounded suitably gruff and direct.

As noted before, the entire game seems to have high production values. The graphics are excellent, and they combine with the voice acting and music to pull you immediately into the game's fiction. Even the tutorials look like they'll be well done--your commanding officer will show you secret papers that detail how to conduct yourself during operations. Once you're roped in, nothing in the game pulls you out of the context, including the mission briefings.

Missions

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As soon as the mission in our preview build started, we were treated to an in-game cutscene that showed our team of four commandos running from the wilderness into the outskirts of a German town. The new thief character was the first to run in. As the lightest and fastest character, he blazed in first, with a blurring motion reminiscent of the kind in The Matrix. Next came three familiar characters: a Green Beret, a sapper, and a sniper. Once they all rendezvoused, they lay down on the floor, and the Green Beret radioed headquarters. It was then that the briefing started. Rather than present the mission briefing as a static screen prior to the mission, it was presented as a seamless in-game movie. The Green Beret engaged in a little banter with his commanding officer, all while the thief character kept issuing snide remarks. As the commanding officer detailed the mission objectives, the camera would scroll to the objective locations, and the commanding officer's voice-over would announce what the mission goal was. In this case, as per the title of the mission, "Saving Private Smith," we were supposed to rescue a Private Smith, who was in desperate need of help. Unfortunately, as the camera panned to his location, we saw that he and his Allied platoon were trapped in a ruined church in the middle of town, surrounded by German soldiers. To make matters worse, the town was divided in half by a river, so we were on the other side from Private Smith. Of course, the bridge across the river was too heavily guarded, and the riverbanks themselves were blocked off by mines and barbed wire. Veterans of the original Commandos will find that missions in the sequel are every bit as challenging as in the original and will require a lot of tactical puzzle-solving.

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Our build of Commandos 2 also revealed that the game's missions aren't always straightforward. Once the mission briefing was over, the in-game movie didn't end. The three senior members of the team--the Green Beret, the sniper, and the sapper--all rushed up to the town walls and tried to disable and sneak past a few guards. However, they were immediately captured, leaving our thief dumbstruck in the town outskirts. As the last seconds of the in-game movie showed the Germans leading the three captured commandos into three separate buildings, the movie ended and the mission finally started.

With the three original characters captured, we got a chance to play as the new thief character and learn his tricks. There will be two other new characters in the game, including a Russian seductress and even a dog, which can slip through enemy lines to bring you vital equipment. However, in our preview build, the only new character we got to play as was the thief. You'll find out about his unique talents next.

Playing the Thief

Playing as the thief highlighted a few of the new features in Commandos 2. As in the original game, each of your commandos has a unique set of abilities. In the thief's case, he can scale walls and pick locks. Along with the Green Beret, he can swing along telephone wires and climb into windows, giving him a lot of mobility. That mobility came in handy for rescuing the three captured commandos. The thief also has a pet rat that he can use to distract enemy soldiers. And he is undisputedly the fastest commando of the bunch, running and crawling more than twice as quickly as the Green Beret.

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To rescue the characters, we first had our thief run up to the wall of the town and then climb the wall, being careful to not move into the line of sight of any German guards on the lookout. However, sight alone isn't the only way guards can detect you. Sound is even more important now than it was in Commandos. You can now turn on a visual indicator of how much sound you're making, a feature reminiscent of one in the recent Commandos-inspired game, Star Trek: Away Team. When we did this, our every footstep created a ripple effect in a circle around us, indicating the sound we were making when moving and just how far the footsteps could be heard. In addition, if you fire off a gun near any soldiers, they'll hear and either stop what they're doing or even come to investigate. Thus, silence is also important in avoiding detection, although staying hidden is still the key to slipping past guards.

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Once we climbed up the side of a building, we hopped onto a balcony and then peeked into a window to see if one of the captured commandos was inside the building. Commandos 2 now has indoor environments, and with dozens of buildings in town, there are a lot of indoor areas to explore. The mission in our preview build gave us ample opportunity to try out the new indoor environments. We slipped in through the window with the thief, snuck up behind a guard, and then smacked him on the head to stun him. Unfortunately, the thief isn't one of the brawnier commandos, so, unlike the Green Beret, he can't fatally stab a guard. However, after the guard watching over the Green Beret was knocked out, we were able to free the Green Beret and start using his abilities as well. Those who played Commandos will be familiar with the Green Beret, who is relatively fast, very versatile, and also has a lot of killing power. His most useful weapon is his knife, which lets him instantly kill enemies without making any noise.

With the Green Beret in our control, we were able to try out some of the more lethal options in Commandos 2. The indoor environments in Commandos 2 really add another dimension to the game and require that your every move be even more delicate and controlled, if only because you're in a much more confined space, with more enemies packed in around you. We used one of the thief's other abilities--the use of his pet rat--to distract enemy guards so that the Green Beret could sneak up and slit their throats. When you use the rat, the thief reaches into his pockets, draws out a little white rat, and sends it scurrying near a guard. The rat runs to where you set it up and does a few somersaults, distracting the guard. If you have the guard's line of sight turned on, you see his field of vision zeroes in on the rat, giving the Green Beret the chance to move in for the kill. Of course, there are plenty of other ways to kill guards, which you'll find out about next.

The Sapper and Sniper

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As you kill or tie up enemy guards, you can take their equipment. You can also snag equipment from boxes and cupboards. In the preview build, not all the equipment was available, but we did outfit our Green Beret and thief with pistols, handguns, machine guns, rifles, and even a flamethrower. German guns taken from enemy soldiers have finite amounts of ammo, but your own Allied-issued handgun has unlimited ammo. Of course, the handgun has poor range and little firepower. In this way, the designers seem to be limiting your access to high-powered firearms. If you want to keep using hard-hitting rifles, rapid-fire machine guns, and long-range sniper rifles, you'll need to keep picking up enemy guns and ammo.

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Freeing the sapper and sniper also freed up even more destructive firepower for our team of commandos. As mentioned earlier, another new feature in the game is the ability to move along telephone wires. Both the Green Beret and thief have this ability, and we used it to move above the German guards without notice, climbing hand over hand along the wires to break into the windows of another building. Once inside, we freed the sapper, who offered some vital abilities for the completion of this mission. The sapper can lay down antitank and antipersonnel mines, as well as lob grenades. Provided you can find enough of these items, they are perfect for decimating whole squads and even blowing up enemy vehicles. However, you're not the only one who can lay down mines, and more than once, our Green Beret was accidentally obliterated by mines along the riverbank of the mission we played. Thus, the sapper also can use a mine detector to ferret out and disarm mines. Even better, he can then pick them up once they are disarmed so that he can use them. However, he doesn't have nearly the mobility of the Green Beret and thief, so for him to move through doors, the thief has to unlock them first.

Despite his mild manner, the sniper character in Commandos conjures up memories of Private Jackson, the religious and near-flawless sniper from Saving Private Ryan. When you use the sniper rifle, a floating crosshair appears onscreen, and you can move it around to locate targets. The crosshairs are like a magnifying glass that lets you zoom in and shoot far-off enemies. After freeing the sniper, we used him extensively to cut down German guards who were watching the river from the opposite side of the riverbank. As it can with the mines, the enemy can use snipers against you as well. A few times, we found ourselves sneaking along the riverbank only to see a floating crosshair appear over our men--and it wasn't ours. So in this mission, sometimes it came down to being a faster draw with our sniper than the German snipers. With the enemy guards dispatched, we were free to use the sapper to cut the barbed wire fencing off the riverbank and then comb the riverbanks for mines. The sniper rifle is rightly powerful but has limited ammunition, so we had to conserve our shots. Fortunately, there were enough enemy snipers on the German side--enough so that the Green Beret could knife them and steal their ammo clips.

Final Thoughts

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With the barbed wire cut, the mines disarmed, and everyone freed, we took our commandos and infiltrated the second half of the town to rescue Private Smith by using long-range sniping and the Green Beret's knife, as well as a few grenades, to wipe out the Germans and enter the church unmolested. Interestingly, mission objectives do change during the mission. In our build, we had to review the mission objectives notebook to see our new objectives, but hopefully in the final game there will be voice-over and other indications to let you know that your objectives have indeed been altered. As it was, however, the mission changed once we healed Private Smith. We had to then take Smith to a radio in an abandoned house so that the commanding officer could verify he was safe. You'll be able to actively control other Allied soldiers, just as you can in a few missions from the original Commandos. These characters don't have nearly the abilities or options of your commandos, but you can use them to set up ambushes or explore territory. In this case, we took control of Private Smith to walk him to the abandoned house and use the radio to personally speak to the commanding officer.

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With the mission fulfilled, the demo mission kicked into high gear, and we got to see even more of what should make Commandos 2 a fun game. The commanding officer informed us via the radio that the Germans were marching into town and that we had to defend ourselves. Soon, several tanks rolled into town, followed by waves of infantry. In previous previews and demos, we've seen some of the larger and more impressive-looking vehicles--but seeing an actual tank rolling down the street and firing shells at our men was an awesome sight. Fortunately, we'd set down antitank mines around the town, resulting in magnificent pyrotechnics and explosions. At that point, the mission became a great firefight, and success depended on how we set up our defenses. Clearly, Commandos 2 should have a great mix of stealthy tactical puzzle-solving as well as spectacular combat, explosions, and other eye candy. Even though we played only one mission, it immediately highlighted many of the new features in the game, as well as reinforced the fun brand of challenging gameplay that debuted in the original Commandos.

Commandos 2 should be on track to release soon, and our preview build was surprisingly stable and well balanced, indicating that the game is close to completion. If the mission we played and the gameplay we experienced is any indication, Commandos 2 should be even better than the original. That should be welcome news to those gamers who want a smart and clever strategy game and for those who want more challenging action in a World War II setting.

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