The original Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way was appropriately named because it was the first of a bevy of squad-based first-person combat games. But because it was on the front lines of the tactical-combat genre, Spec Ops was quickly surpassed by games like Rainbow Six and Delta Force, which improved upon the action, the realism, and the multiplayer gameplay. Did developer Zombie and publisher Ripcord reclaim their spot at the forefront of this hot genre by striking back with Spec Ops II: Green Berets? The answer is an emphatic no.
Building upon the basic style and feature set of the original, Spec Ops II charges you with a series of missions as part of the US Army's elite Green Beret Special Forces unit. You lead your team of up to four squad members into combat in a variety of locales, including Antarctica, Korea, Pakistan, Thailand, and Germany. You tackle a series of loosely connected missions in each area (either four or six scenarios, depending upon the region). In fact, these operations are so loosely connected that you can tackle them in any order you please. And whenever you complete one, you end up back at the game's main menu. As a result, Spec Ops II doesn't offer the strong sense of continuity and immersion of similar games such as Rogue Spear and Delta Force 2.
While its lack of continuity doesn't actually affect gameplay much, Spec Ops II's incredibly bad-looking menu screens don't help either. Never before has a game relied so heavily on giant Courier-font lettering. To make matters worse, the same font style is used for the barely adequate, completely static mission briefings, which are anything but helpful. Basically, you get a bullet list that comprises a very rough outline of the situation along with an overall objective. No useful information on enemy opposition is offered, nor is there any sort of map to guide you.
Even when you enter the mission, the game does not offer a map feature per se. Instead, you get a zoomed-out overhead view that is useful for only one thing: tracking down your squad mates after they get separated from the group by some obstacle, which is an all-too-frequent occurrence. The game does use waypoints to direct you to objectives, but even here Spec Ops II comes up lacking: You have to zero in on these objectives by turning in place until your compass heading turns red. That's how you know when you're facing an objective. There is no arrow indicator to show which way to turn or any map overlay indicating the ideal route to take. Is this more realistic than an all-seeing map? Probably, but it can be damn confusing, and it is just flat-out inadequate anyway.
Spec Ops II's actual gameplay is improved over the original, but it could still use some serious work. You can take three different stances - standing, prone, and kneeling - and can move in all three. However, you cannot keep your gun barrel up while running, which is extremely frustrating. When you run, your gun automatically dips toward the ground and comes back up again when you stop. It might not be so bad if this transition were handled smoothly, but the change from dipped to at-the-ready is often jarring and awkward, making the movement in Spec Ops II feel just as bad. Again, dipping the gun barrel may very well be how real Special Forces operatives work, but considering that so many other elements of the game feel more like a Quake II mission pack than like a combat simulator, this little slice of reality just seems out of place.The game's strongest feature is the sheer number of weapons it makes available to you. Not only can you outfit your guys with 19 different weapons - including the prototype Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW) and the super-slick Vektor 5.62 assault rifle - but you can also pick up weapons dropped by fallen comrades and enemies. For some reason, player-controlled characters do not drop anything but weapons when they die, meaning that specialty items (such as satchel charges) must be doled out to every man in the unit. That way you can still accomplish the mission if some of your guys die. According to the game's manual, there are typically items hidden on the map to help with key missions (and presumably eliminate the need for redundant equipment loadouts), but it's bad form for mission designers to rely on hidden or secret objects.
At least Spec Ops II looks decent. The game inexplicably prompts you to choose a resolution and color depth before each and every mission, but why not just save this information after the first time? Fortunately, its sharply detailed 3D engine runs well in high-resolution 32-bit color on a reasonably equipped machine. The lighting is very well done on most levels, including nice dusk and dawn effects. However, night missions are a bit of a problem, as you must rely on the game's night-vision mode to get around. This would be fine if enemy soldiers stood out at all, but they don't, unless they're perfectly silhouetted against the sky or a building. The all-green view of night vision makes it nearly impossible to spot bad guys, which definitely adds some tension not found in other games, yet this operative blindness often just feels overdone. In most cases, you must rely on the infrared scope of a sniper rifle to spot enemy troops. But because the field of vision is so limited with these scopes, you leave yourself extremely vulnerable to attack while you slowly scan the landscape for trouble.
It might help if your squad mates were reliable, but they are only slightly more intelligent than the computer-controlled teammates from the original game. They do come in several varieties: close combat, sniper, machine gunner, and so on, and they react with appropriate tactics for their specialty. Still, they tend to get mowed down all too easily when a single bad guy pops up over a hill. At other times, the squad mates seem almost superhuman, spotting and killing enemies long before you can even hope to see, hear, or shoot them. It's this inconsistency that makes the gameplay so bizarre and disappointing.
Another problem is the general level design. While many of the locations look good and relatively true to life, the missions themselves follow an all-too-familiar pattern found in most Quake II look-alikes. You will find yourself on a very distinct path through most missions, with bad guys placed deliberately in spots where they can pop out and get the drop on you. In most cases, enemy placement feels much more like a shooter than like a combat sim, because your foes are spaced so that you can tackle them one or two at a time. And they are always just far enough apart so that they eventually lead you to the objective. You simply won't find those great camp-wide alerts of Delta Force 2 or the terrorist rush of Rogue Spear anywhere in this game. Again, the result makes you feel as though you're playing through a Quake II mission pack rather than through an original game.
Multiplayer support may be Spec Ops II's one saving grace, though you'll have to find other players who share your enthusiasm for the game. It supports 16 players over LAN and Internet and includes an intuitive lobby application from which you can host or join multiplayer sessions. However, Spec Ops II betrays the original game's multiplayer deficiency and keeps the multiplayer features at arms' length. You cannot host or join a session from the game's main menu. Instead, you must run the lobby program separately, and that takes you to a modified main game menu. This is a minor problem, but the developer could have incorporated the multiplayer options into the main game menus without too much effort.
In the end, Spec Ops II is a marginally better game than the original. However, the squad-based combat genre that had quickly moved far beyond Spec Ops is now even farther ahead of its sequel. Though its graphics are good and its weapons selection is terrific, Spec Ops II's bizarre and poorly matched mix of action shooter and combat-simulation elements comes off as unbalanced and, more importantly, unenjoyable.