Pyro Studios’ WWII RTS Commandos 2: Men of Courage offers more missions and gameplay tweaks, but is it also more fun?
Commandos 2: Men of Courage (PC)
(Spain 2001, developer: Pyro Studios, publishers: Eidos Interactive (now defunct)/Kalypso Media Digital, platforms: PC, PS2, Xbox)
The commandos take on more missions across the world during WWII from 1941 to 1944.
Old war story with familiar faces
Despite mostly depicting parts of the war and being inspired by both historical facts and movies, there is a bit more continuity, if not exactly memorable plot and character development throughout the missions. For the first time, the commandos interact with each other in quite a few in-game cut-scenes that give the game a more cinematic feel.
While this might sound like a step up, the writing is far from good and not on par with modern games like Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive or Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. At times the dialogues are cringeworthingly bad, which can’t only be seen with the banter between the commandos, but with a few minor characters, like a shipwrecked sailor being a perfect example for a weak attempt at humor. Even though the dialogues give the characters more screen-time and lighten the mood, there aren’t any memorable or emotional scenes.
The movie references are even more obvious now with levels based on The Bridge on the River Kwai or Saving Private Ryan. However, anyone expecting dramatic and emotional moments will be disappointed, because one simply follows orders and completes objectives without thinking much about the ongoing war.
The more cinematic presention can be felt in individual missions that sometimes build on one another. For example in one level one infiltrates an enemy installation with the thief under the cover of the night and hides under a bed, which might sound like an easy goal, but takes quite a while to accomplish. Then a cutscene plays to show the rise of morning, with the rest of the commandos arriving by boat.
In another level one has to steal a submarine at the end after blowing up all sorts of enemy equipment. In the next mission one is stranded on ice, obviously with Nazis around, adding a bit more tension to proceedings. Even if it’s not really clever storytelling, these interconnected missions immerse the player more in its world and characters than Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines and its add-on did.
Mission and confusion time
The missions themselves are varied, but unfortunately despite being given clear goals of what one has to do, this is often not true for how to achieve them. For example, in order to escape with a submarine, one has to find and bring along the captain and all the crew as well as the commandos. While this sounds straightforward, one can easily leave some of the crew members behind, simply misses them or forgets to free them.
In another case, one is to ride an elephant over a river, but the controls are never explained. Finding a blow torch in a sunken ship requires entering it via a certain hole that can easily be overlooked, so one swims around its broken parts without realizing that it’s there. In one level, one has to radio HQ, but this only works if all commandos are in the same room, again something that isn’t mentioned before. Then one has to set up a bomb on a bridge, but unlike the usual method of having one special character use his bombs, one has to put a bomb into an inventory slot at a specific part of the structure to activate it, again something that isn’t explained.
New tricks to learn
The gameplay remains largely the same, although there are a few changes (e.g. footsteps making noises) and new mechanics. One of them is the character’s freedom of moving around levels and interacting with the environment. Before one always had to use ladders to climb buildings or staircases to get down. This time, most of the commandos can simply jump from heights and even throw themselves (or enemies to hide) through windows, making it possible to react more quickly at times. The thief is the most agile of the commandos, as he runs almost ridiculously fast and can climb walls and enter windows, but the green beret can also climb poles and cables.
3D possibilities and problems
Entering buildings is probably the biggest change for the series, and it’s not always for the best. Each time one is in front of a door or window, one can have a quick look inside, as the game switches to a quasi-first-person perspective. This prevents barging into a room with enemies looking in the commandos’ direction. Being able to throw grenades through any opening also makes the gameplay much more dynamic.
However, due to the 3D environments, finding out where mission objectives and characters are by using a map that rotates with the camera is a nightmare. While the briefings show where one has to go and the in-game objectives list indicate with additional photos where they are, one often feels lost or rather in the middle of a hidden object game.
Enemies as well as entrances, exits or other objects can often be overlooked, and moving around the 360-degrees camera can be annoying, too. The level layout is quite confusing as well, as there are so many indoor parts with countless rooms, ladders, and stairs that it’s only a matter of time before one doesn’t know where to head next.
Unlike previous games when one simply had a specific number of tools at one’s disposal, this time each character has an RPG-like backpack in which items can be stored. Looking for new items (like bombs, grenades, rifles, and even dosages of poison) in crates or countless cupboards becomes very tedious, though. While each commando can pick up everything, many of the tools can only be used by specific characters. So one has to have them stand close by and use a trade button to transfer items. Despite the inventory hassle, its purpose is clear: giving players even more freedom to tackle missions.
Even more unique character traits
There are so many abilities unique to each character with all sorts of tools that one often struggles to find the right one or rather the hotkey to use it. This requires reading through pages of an in-game manual, making this much more complicated than the in the first game.
A new gameplay addition that doesn’t quite work is taking control of a group of soldiers. It’s not really RTS material, as the only thing one can do is to put them in position, i.e. they lie on the ground, kneel or stand up, and then order them to attack when an enemy is in sight. Explanations of how to effectively use this are as sparse as the actual few missions this is implemented. One can also wait for ages in one level before the enemy forces arrive if one doesn’t hit an inconspicious “start invasion” button. What follows is a rather chaotic battle in which one is better off placing mines and throwing grenades with the commandos and simply using the soldiers as cannon fodder or as a distraction.
Fewer missions and more objectives
10 missions might sound a bit short for a true sequel at first, as Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines had over 20 and Commandos: Beyond the Call of Duty offered 8 as an add-on. But each level has secondary objectives and with a total playtime of around 20 hours, it’s certainly a long game. However, these optional goals make it also much harder, and as there’s no reward other than a promotion that doesn’t help progressing in the game, not everyone will tackle them.
Sometimes it can help to pursue these targets, as they make certain parts of the game easier, e.g. getting hold of a higher official’s uniform to distract more enemies. In the last level taking place in Paris one might even have an almost too easy time by capturing a tank and simply blowing away any opposition around the Eiffel Tower (although one still has to get on top of it with a bit of stealth).
But most of the time, it gets quite tough to achieve the optional goals. In rare cases it can also feel like completely unnecessary work, e.g. freeing over 50 allies in a castle with so many rooms and levels that it results in a wild goose chase. As one has to pick up enemy soldiers’ clothes and give them to each one of them (made more difficult by the limited space in one’s backpack), one soon rather gives up than thinking about their freedom, as it’s not really worth the hassle.
In addition, one can play bonus missions, but these are unnecessarily tedious to unlock, as one has to collect all pieces of a photo before completing a mission. It involves looking in every cupboard or crate, so going through all indoor places simply to find them requires both patience and time. With levels generally being quite challenging and taking hours to complete, only very few players will take it upon themselves to do this, too.
More cinematic flair and dated technology
The presentation hasn’t aged well with very ugly character sprites and portraits, although the fluid animations and explosions are quite nice to look at, while some of environments have nice weather and lighting effects, especially during night missions. The CGI cut-scenes are still impressive, even though the lack of real historical documentary footage, except for the intro and outro, makes one wonder if it’s all just for the sake of more Hollywood atmosphere.
The more cinematic approach can also be heard in the almost ridiculously overdramatic music that lacks the catchy and more minimalist melodies of the original. It’s certainly not a bad soundtrack, as the orchestral pieces are nice to listen to, but it’s sometimes a bit too much. Unfortunately the voice acting with questionable accents only emphasises the rather bad writing of the dialogues.
A sequel with quite a few problems
Commandos 2: Men of Courage wants to be bigger, but it’s not necessarily better than its predecessor or even add-on. While it offers much more freedom and dynamic gameplay, the cumbersome inventory system and frustrating 3D environments with their confusing indoors layouts make it a tedious experience.
This is too bad, because at it’s heart, there’s still a fun character abilities-driven game with a much more varied level design (despite the questionable bonus missions unlocking idea). However, giving the characters more screen-time or rather talking time isn’t the best decision made, as there isn’t much of a plot or character development to make the player feel more sympathy for them.
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