Commandos 2: Men of Courage Review (PC)

Pyro Studios latest addition to the Commandos family takes the series to a whole new level. It is a delectable feast of military planning and execution which rewards the patient and contemplative gamer with hours and hours of tactical fun. While the first game, Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, introduced gamers to an entirely new sub-genre in Real Time Strategy, Commandos 2 comes very close to perfecting the model. This new puzzle/action/tactical sub-genre was successful enough at its inception to spawn such near-clones as Commandos: Beyond the Call of Duty and, more recently, Desperados.

The graphics in the game are wonderfully crafted and stylish.

The series is famous for its difficulty, and C2 doesn't dissapoint.

For newcomers to the sub-genre, C2 allows you to control a small squad of Allied commandos operating in various Axis territories during the middle and later stages of World War II. Each mission has your squad meeting a series of objectives, some of which change and/or expand over the course of the mission. The action takes place in pausable real time, but no commands can be issued when paused. The view is isometric, but unlike most isometric games, it is fully 3D and rotatable. You move your commandos with mouse clicks and give them more subtle commands with the keyboard. There are some moments when timing and reflex are crucial to completing a task, but most of the time player objectives are best accomplished with good planning. Each commando in your squad has his or her set of special abilities while all share a number of common abilities. For example, the Diver has a wetsuit and can perform duties underwater while the Spy can don enemy officer’s uniforms and give orders to the enlisted, diverting their attention from, say, the Green Beret sneaking up to slit a throat or two. At the same time, all the commandos can operate rifles and machine guns and toss packs of cigarettes to lead enemies into danger, (apparently all German soldiers find errant packs of cigarettes irresistible and will gladly leave their posts temporarily to pick one up).

Famous (or infamous) for its extreme difficulty, the third installment in the series does not disappoint in that regard. Until you develop a number of effective strategies, expect to be loading and reloading segments at a terrific rate. The good news is that quick load times are indeed just that and there are simple hotkeys for both quick save and the aforementioned quick load. And once you get past the initial learning curve, you will find that the difficulty is balanced just right. Indeed, on lower difficulty settings, you are never stuck long, and easy kills are more than balanced out by hard ones. Ramping up the difficulty perceptibly affects the speed and intelligence of enemy reactions and, as a result, player strategy. In the end, not only is one campaign a long and interesting experience, but, with the 3 difficulty settings, players are treated to three radically difference experiences.

This is not to say that all you will be doing is killing. Some of the missions have you blowing up strategic defense systems, sneaking into radio rooms to deliver important intelligence to command and stealing enigma machines and messages, just to name a few of the complex and varied campaign objectives.

One of the central criticisms of the first Commandos games was that, in the end, players were limited in their choices of solution methods. Puzzles had only one “right” answer. Commandos 2 does away with this restrictive conceit and this is one of its greatest achievements: the missions are painstakingly constructed to allow players to adapt solutions to their own styles. For example, a room full of enemies can be cleared stealthily by puzzling out a sequence for your Spy and Green Beret, distracting the right person at the right time with the Spy and cutting the throats of the isolated with the Green Beret. Alternately, you can set up your Diver and Green Beret to cover the Sapper’s back by setting them to guard mode, then easing the Sapper up to a window and lobbing a grenade through the window into the room. This will, of course, cause guards to come from all over. However, when they rush into your sentries’ fields of view, the Diver and the Green Beret will cut them to pieces in a carefully orchestrated crossfire. Just make sure that grenade takes out everyone in the room, or your best laid plans can topple like a house of cards.

Environments are varied and interesting.

Most of the action will take place inside buildings and structures.

Artificial intelligence in a Commandos game must be approached in a very different way from most strategy games. The player’s units themselves do nothing without direct input from the player. The rules of enemy behavior are very simple, on the one hand, yet very effective on the other. The player is never pitted against a computer-generated mastermind (as in C&C, HOMM, Civilization, etc.), but individual soldiers who, for the most part, all act the same way. That said, usually they act realistically enough to dissuade the player from effecting absurd plans of action.

Graphically, the game is a significant step up from the first and sets a new standard for isometric squad-based games in general. The backdrops are every bit as lush and interesting as the best of Baldur’s Gate 2, while the 3D characters possess a myriad of highly believable animations which put the latter’s 2D sprites to shame. You will find an incredible amount of detail adorning the sets of the 10+ missions in the game. Add to this a musical score that heightens the tension with rhythmic loops that never seem to resolve and the atmosphere calibrates perfectly to the gameplay and subject matter.

It seems a shame to bring up such niggling details when a game is as well-designed and involving as Commandos 2. But there are some issues that bear mentioning. First there is the occasional crash, infrequent but annoying nonetheless. Fortunately these crashes usually occur during loads, so no game data gets lost.

Second, if you have never played Commandos before, the tutorials can seem quite confusing and challenging. Indeed, once you get used to the interface and develop some techniques, you will probably never encounter anything so stumping again in the game. So, new players must make sure to pass through the initial frustration before forming a final opinion. Even after that first impression wears off, however, some players are not going to react well to the overall difficulty level of the game. While difficulty is, indeed, a virtue of the game, for some it will be a significant vice as well. This is definitely not a game for the impatient.

Lastly, the laconic and silly commando voices of the first Commandos are not significantly improved upon here. Selecting a commando will cause said commando to repeat his or her signature phrase every time--a fact which, over the course of the game goes far beyond the merely grating and tends to adversely affect the meticulously constructed sense of “being there”. It’s not even as if the voices are believable. Cartoonish, Caricature-like, are terms that spring quickly to mind when considering them.

Artificial intelligence is pretty good in this game, giving you a fair challenge.

It's too bad the developers decided to stick with really inappropriate voice-overs.

Top game moment: Climbing the Eifel Tower towards the end of the game in order to contact headquarters after a job well done.

If strategy games were often picked for game of the year, I’m sure Commandos 2 would get a great deal of votes from major reviewers. The game is full of detail and variety outlined against a brilliantly tense graphical and musical atmosphere. There are quirks and blips to be found, and the action is not always entirely believable, but for sheer mental immersion, there are very few competitors on the market. Expect many hours of fun and delicious frustration from this one. To be sure, people who love blasting through games are going to run into a fairly solid wall in Commandos 2, while those gamers who like to take their time, plot out their moves will be rewarded in pure gaming gold.

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