If you’re like most people, then chances are you’ve never heard of Sequel Maker’s Disease (SMD). It only strikes at game developers, and although its vector of contamination is unknown, its symptom is always the same: when the infected developer decides to make a sequel, it takes the core gameplay from the original product and then adds a whole lot of stuff to it -- even if that stuff isn’t needed or beneficial. Well, evidently Pyro Studios became infected with SMD when developing Commandos 2: Men of Courage, the sequel to 1998’s Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines. As a result, Commandos 2 has everything that Commandos had, plus more: more commandos, more abilities, more equipment, more objectives, and more enemies. There are even more ways of viewing the game’s world. Fortunately, while SMD can often be fatal to the sequel (if not the developer), Pyro Studios managed to make Commandos 2 fun to play despite the extra level of complexity, and it ends up being just as good as the original.
Commandos 2, like its predecessor, is a squad-based real-time strategy game. It takes place during the heart of World War 2, and it allows you to guide teams of commandos on raids against German and Japanese bases. There are 22 missions in all -- two training missions, ten real missions, and ten (short and sometimes silly) bonus missions -- and their objectives range from disabling planes on an aircraft carrier to rescuing prisoners from a castle to stealing an Enigma machine from a German U-boat. There’s even a mission that gives a nod and then some to the movie Saving Private Ryan (little did Tom Hanks know he was playing a commando).
To complete the missions, you get to control up to nine commandos. Six of those commandos -- the green beret, the sniper, the diver, the sapper, the driver, and the spy -- are back from the original game, but three are new. So in addition to the original six, you get to control a thief, who can pick open locks, a seductress, who can wear disguises and shoot sniper rifles, and a dog, who can distract enemies. More commandos sounds good, but it’s here more than anywhere else that Pyro Studios added stuff to the sequel that they didn’t need to. The seductress is just a combination of the sniper and the spy, the dog doesn’t do enough to be worthwhile (and only appears in a couple missions anyway), and the thief’s main skill could have been given to somebody else (like, say, the nearly useless driver).
Plus, Pyro Studios made a philosophical change with the commandos. In the original game, the commandos didn’t share many skills, but that resulted in a couple of them (the green beret and the spy) doing almost all of the work because they had the skills most important for playing the game. To “fix” the problem, Pyro Studios allowed the commandos to share many more skills in Commandos 2 -- like knocking out enemies, hiding bodies, shooting rifles, and using medkits -- and while that makes the missions more convenient to play, it results in a new problem. Now it’s almost arbitrary which commando to use because they all have the skills necessary to do 90% of the work. And so Pyro Studios basically made a double mistake: there are more commandos than the skills warrant, and the commandos are indistinct at best. Hopefully, if there’s a Commandos 3, Pyro Studios will pare down the number of commandos and try to better strike the balance between unique skills and convenience.
Luckily, while Pyro Studios made some bad decisions with the commandos themselves, they made all sorts of good decisions about gameplay -- perhaps because this is a place where more really is better. In the original Commandos, gameplay pretty much followed a routine of sneaking up on guards, knifing them in the back, hiding their bodies, and then repeating, but in Commandos 2 there are far more things for the commandos to do and far more ways for them to do it. For example, the commandos can now loot chests and bodies for equipment, and that’s the only way they’ll get things like cigarette packs and rifles, not to mention ammunition. It also means mission objectives don’t have to be about killing people; they can also be about finding things (like code books), giving variety to the missions. Plus, commandos can do all sorts of other new things, like climbing telephone poles, detecting mines, diving underwater (and possibly killing sharks), disabling electric fences, and going into “attack mode” so they can defend themselves. Attack mode is probably the most interesting of the additions because it makes gunfights a viable option in missions, and it means you don’t have to use stealth if you don’t want to (or at least not all the time). In total, the new gameplay options mean that there are always new things to try and do in the missions, and so the missions never get repetitive, and they never get boring.
However, where Pyro Studios pays for all the gameplay options is in the interface. There are just so many things to do in the game that I don’t think anybody could have created a good interface for it. For example, about 85 actions are hotkeyed (some keys are context-sensitive and get to do multiple things), which means there probably isn’t a good default mapping. But Pyro Studios failed to make the hotkeys configurable, and so there’s no way to create a convenient layout for the commando skills you tend to use. Plus, there are other issues with the interface, like the right mouse button being under used, way too many actions requiring shift-clicks, alt-clicks, and control-clicks, and a quicksave option that isn’t particularly quick (for some reason it’s one of the few actions that didn’t get a hotkey). Commandos 2 is a difficult, complex game and Pyro Studios would have helped themselves a lot by making the game friendlier to play. As it is, you’ll eventually get used to the interface, but you probably won’t ever like it.
To help make up for the interface, Commandos 2 looks outstanding. There are a variety of locations in the game -- from towns to jungles to snowy wastes to an aircraft carrier -- and they all look absolutely authentic. Plus, Pyro Studios has a great eye for detail. Even when you look at something as boring as a barracks, Pyro Studios didn’t just plop down some generic cot objects. Each cot looks different, just like each room looks different, just like each location looks different. What’s more, Pyro Studios spent a lot of time on the ambient movements of the enemy soldiers. If there’s a dartboard in the room then the soldiers might play darts, if there’s a chalkboard then they might wander over to write something down, and if two soldiers are talking, it looks like they’re really talking, with the right sorts of hand gestures and movements. And all of this is even more impressive since Commandos 2 allows you to change your perspective when viewing the world. The outside world can be viewed in jumps of 90 degrees, and the inside rooms can be viewed from any angle. It’s just difficult to believe all the work that must have gone in to make a game look as good as Commandos 2 looks.
The sound is also competent, but it’s not as inspiring as the graphics. All of the voice actors do a quality job in their roles as the commandos, but then they tend to say things like “I’ll need mines if we’re going to destroy those tanks” and so they’re not really stretched. Similarly, the background music and ambient noises did their jobs, but there wasn’t anything special about them.
I always rate the documentation for games, but usually I don’t write anything about it because there isn’t enough to say. But Pyro Studios made some mistakes in this area. For starters, the manual isn’t particularly good. It doesn’t have an index, its screenshots are so small that you can’t tell what they’re showing, and it scatters the hotkey information all over the place. Plus, it leaves out some stuff, like that mission objectives are written in hypertext, meaning you can click on them to learn more information. I was still learning about things I could do in the game (like being able to knock on walls) right up to the end. Compounding the problem, the two included training missions aren’t really training missions. They’re just short missions, and I guess Pyro Studios assumed that if you could get through them you’d have learned enough about the game to keep playing. But that’s not really the way to do it, and the result is that you’ll have to figure out most things on your own -- and probably struggle a lot early in the game.
Overall, Commandos 2 is a good game that just tried to do too much. It’s interesting at this point to compare it to Desperados: Wanted Dead Or Alive, since Desperados has the same sort of gameplay as Commandos 2 but kept things much friendlier and simpler. I liked Desperados slightly better than Commandos 2, but if a developer is going to err, I like that they do it on the side of ambition, and I look forward to what Pyro Studios will offer for the Commandos 2 expansion pack. (But please, don’t make it as difficult as Commandos: Beyond the Call of Duty.)