Review: Proof that the piano wire is mightier than the sword.
The Commandos series of strategy games has long been a huge favorite among PC gamers for its smart, challenging gameplay. But as gamers' tastes have changed, developer Pyro Studios felt the need to take the franchise into a new direction ? specifically, into the third dimension.
Similar to games like Command & Conquer, the Commandos series has shifted from a top-down strategy game to a first-person 3D shooter. The idea was to provide the same cerebral planning and tactics as the PC strategy games, but with the frantic action of a modern FPS. It's a tough assignment since Pyro had to keep many of the same elements their loyal fans have come to love, yet make it accessible to the veteran FPS gamer. So were they able to pull it off?
Well ? not quite. For a developer who never made a FPS before, it's a decent freshman effort but can't seem to make up its mind what it wants to be.
It's Nazi killing time!
Loyal fans will see some huge changes ? not surprising when you shift from one genre to another. For example, you can no longer control a squad of soldiers. Instead, you are limited to three characters: Captain Frank O'Brien, an American Green Beret and all-purpose soldier, capable of carrying several heavy weapons like the BAR, Panzerfaust and tank mines; Lt. William Hawkins, a British sniper who can slow down time by holding his breath while peering through his scope; and Colonel George Brown, a sneaky covert ops specialist who uses stealth and deception to wreck havoc behind enemy lines.
Up to two Commandos are available per level (the game pre-selects them for you) but you can only control one at a time. However, you can easily switch between them on the fly, allowing you to adjust tactics as the situation changes. For example, on one level I was fighting off waves of Nazis with my Green Beret but was getting hammered by mortars. I then switched to the sniper, took out the mortars by killing the enemy spotters, and then switched back to the Green Beret to finish off the wave. On most levels, however, you will go solo.
The ?story? (if you can call it that) is pretty basic; you battle through 14 loosely connected missions fighting Nazis through France, Norway and Russia. There's a subplot about a possible traitor in your midst, but it seems thrown in more as an afterthought than anything else. Each level has several main objectives and optional secondary objectives, some of which are hidden bonus tasks. Upon completion of each mission, you are given extensive statistics of your performance, including the number and type of enemies you killed; number of headshots, stealth kills and long distance shots; accuracy; and objectives completed. You score points based on your performance but they really don't mean anything since there are no bonuses or incentives for high scores (you can unlock bonus artwork after finishing each mission but this is not based on your performance). You also can't look up stats from previous missions so the whole point system seems, well, pointless.
Being sneaky is fun?
Gameplay is a mix between stealth and flat-out shooter action. Fans of the series shouldn't be surprised that the emphasis is on stealth and strategy; you can certainly run-and-gun whenever you want but typically you'll have a much more difficult time than sneaking around. Enemies are highlighted on your mini-map as arrows and have three alert levels indicated by color: green (neutral), yellow (suspicious) and red (alerted). If you're too close to an enemy and he sees you, they'll immediately go into the red and start shooting. However, if he sees you from a distance, he'll only become suspicious; a timer above his head will indicate how much time you have to duck out of his vision before he goes into full alert.
The spy has a big advantage over his teammates in that like Agent 47 from the Hitman series, George Brown can kill enemies and steal their uniforms, allowing him to walk around in hostile territory relatively unnoticed. However, the catch is he can only fool those of a lower rank; so if you steal an officer's uniform, the grunt foot soldiers will leave you alone but a fellow officer will become suspicious and could blow your cover if you get too close. Encounter anyone with a higher rank and they will instantly know you're a spy and alert everyone in the immediate area. It's a cool system and motivates you to work harder to obtain higher ranking uniforms.
The stealth missions were my favorite, evoking fond memories of Thief and Splinter Cell. You can sneak up behind enemies and perform a stealth kill ? a garrote for the spy, a back stab for the sniper and a neck break for the Green Beret ? during which the camera temporarily pulls back into third-person view so you can watch your silent killing skills in all its glory. The spy's silenced pistol and the sniper's throwing knives can also quietly take out enemies (as a side note, the sniper must have one hell of a throwing arm because he can chuck his knives a ridiculous distance for a silent one-hit kill).
However, the stealth mechanics are very simplified and feel dated. You don't have to worry about hiding bodies because they simply disappear after about 20 seconds. Sticking to the shadows won't reduce your visibility, but you don't have to worry too much about creeping quietly since enemies seem to be quite deaf to mysterious running footsteps behind them. Once the spy gains a high-ranking uniform, you can pretty much do what you want with little fear of alerting anyone. For example, one mission started out tough because it was filled with Gestapo agents, the highest rank in the game. However, I was able to take one out early and steal his uniform, making it extremely easy to walk right up to lower ranking enemies and give them a piano wire necktie. Of course, I still had to worry about someone seeing me kill their buddies and avoid other Gestapo, but otherwise I could pick them off at will.
One thing you need to be careful of is that whenever the spy uses a gun, his cover is instantly blown and his uniform disappears. You can re-equip his uniform afterwards but it seems strange you can garrote someone and keep your clothes on, yet killing the same person with a silenced pistol leaves you exposed. Also, for some silly reason the spy loses his uniform between missions. One time I had the coveted Gestapo uniform and when the next mission started up ? which was really a continuation of the current level ? I had nothing but my regular clothes on. Granted, stealing uniforms is pretty easy but it still causes unnecessary work on your part.
The sniper missions are probably the most fun because they require stealth without the benefit of a disguise. The best level was in Russia, where you must take out several key officers with a limited amount of ammo, while avoiding patrolling soldiers and snipers hiding in the crumbling buildings. This level required a lot of tactics and patience, and probably comes the closest to emulating its PC strategy cousins. However, it also required a lot of repetitive trial and error to find enemy snipers, who are well hidden and can spot you in an instant.
?but being trigger-happy is not?
The worst missions involve the Green Beret. While he is a tough soldier who can dish out the hurt with abandon, the combat simply can't compare to the plethora of good WWII shooters out there. To be fair, Call of Duty 2 spoiled me with its hyper-intense action but that game aside, the FPS combat in Strike Force is wholly average at best. Certainly the action can get quite frantic when you are being swarmed by Nazis from three sides, getting picked off by snipers and having mortars raining down on you, but there's simply nothing special about it; you've been there, done that dozens of times before.
The dumb enemy AI also doesn't help. Enemies will run right at you, stand out in the open and will sometimes get stuck behind cover. Some enemies won't even move at all and are firmly glued to their preprogrammed spot on the map. The AI is also a bit inconsistent; for example, if you sneak up behind someone and perform a stealth kill just within another enemy's peripheral vision, he will be instantly alerted. Take out the same enemy from a distance with the sniper, and his buddy will be blissfully ignorant of his body flopping back in painful ragdoll fashion.
Occasionally you will have NPC teammates fighting by your side during the most intense battles. They seem to be a bit smarter than the enemy, as they will man mounted machine guns and turn their attention to enemies trying to flank them. You can also heal fallen comrades if you have enough health packs ? a necessity since if you lose too many, you will fail the mission.
If you are using two Commandos and one falls wounded, the game automatically switches you to the other character. One cool feature is that NPCs will heal your Commando if you can't get to him ? a good thing too, because the Commando you aren't controlling is little more than a useless target for the enemy. He will not seek cover or return fire; instead, he will just stand there like an idiot sucking up Nazi bullets until you take control over him again. This is very disappointing, especially considering other games like Battlefield: Modern Combat and Brute Force enable even a basic survival AI to characters you aren't controlling.
However, the worst aspect of the game has to be the graphics; even if it were an original Xbox launch title, this game would look old. The character and weapon models are average at best, but trees and bushes are flat cardboard cutouts like in the original Ghost Recon; even worse are horrible 2D balcony railings and fences that look straight out of the original Doom ? and no, I'm not exaggerating about that. Character animation is jerky and when they talk, their mouths flap up and down with no attempt to synchronize them with the wooden voice acting. The Commandos also continually repeat the same phrases, which gets very annoying.
With the two different styles of gameplay, Strike Force suffers from an identity crisis. It can't seem to make up its mind: is it a stealth game? An action shooter? A strategy game? It seems the developers were trying too hard to please everyone ? their loyal PC fans along with new FPS gamers unfamiliar with the series ? but ended up satisfying no one. It's too bad, because you can see the potential for a good stealth sniper game, but the lack of focus really hurts the finished product. As a result, the average gameplay limits the single player campaign's replayability since there's really no reason to play through it again once you're done.
?except in multiplayer
Fortunately, Strike Force includes up to eight-player multiplayer through Xbox Live and System Link (there is no split-screen). Generally, multiplayer boosts replayability and the fun factor of any game, but even here Strike Force falls a bit short.
For example, there are only three gametypes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Sabotage, a cool objective based team game where each side must have at least one Spy. When you kill an enemy, your Spy can ?interrogate? him to obtain part of a six-digit code needed to arm a bomb in the enemy base. Your Spy is vulnerable during the interrogation, however, so you need to protect him until he's done. If you're lucky enough to interrogate the enemy Spy, you will get half of the code. It's a cool concept that encourages smart team play but if your teammates don't work together, things can get quite frustrating.
The multiplayer maps are also exactly
the same as the single player maps ? which in some cases works fine but in others, the shortcomings of a single player map (like huge chokepoints and spawn points too far away from the main battle area) become apparent. Multiplayer is fun but there are much better online WWII shooters out there.