Review by Tom Clark
"Behind enemy lines, out numbered, alone. Sucks to be you, commandos!"
''Okay men, it doesn't look good... Our spy got killed trying to steal an enemy uniform. Our truck was blown up with our driver in it. The marine and me are left stranded in this building, and the sapper and the sniper are left hiding in the ruins, with an enemy patrol heading straight for them. There's only one thing for it....''
''Stand and try to fight our way out, kamikaze style, Sir?''
Welcome to Commandos.........
The games industry is beyond saturated with games that cast you a a lone hero, sent in against the odds to destroy large quantities of enemies single-handed. It's refreshing, therefore, to see that Eidos Interactive's 'Commandos' series bucks the trend. Set in World War Two, this, the debut for the series, sees you taking on the enemy in a manner that is more, while not exactly realistic, well, fair. You see, this time charging out all guns blazing will only result in death for your toy soldiers. Get one whiff of trouble and the enemy sound the alarm, and hordes of Nazis come raining down on your people, and it's goodnight. So you have to take things slowly, think things through, make a plan, and only act when you think you're ready. It's an utterly fantastic premise, and one that works extremely well.
In Commandos there are six main characters, although it is a rare occasion where you will have all six at your disposal. Each character has their own special abilities: the Green Beret (as close to a main character as Commandos gets) can bury himself in the snow or sand for extra stealth possibilities, and can carry dead enemies out of the sights of their friends, the marine carries a handy dinghy with him to ferry the gang around with, and can also swim underwater, the sapper is an explosives expert, the spy can pinch enemy uniforms and infiltrate their camps (complete with a rather spiffy lethal injection move), and the driver and sniper are both fairly self explanatory. While the fact that there are only six men in all (and like I said, usually less than that in a mission) may make the game seem limited, the various combinations of their abilities mean that there are literally thousands of ways to accomplish each mission. While your role in proceedings is superficially very detached - you select the commando, select what you want him to do, select where he does it, and then more often than not watch him die horribly in the process - you really feel involved in every mission, and really take the death of one of your men hard. Lose a man, you see, and the mission is automatically failed. Not only are you outnumbered and outgunned, you're coming out alive, or not at all.
Thankfully, with a little patience, you can learn exactly how to avoid the enemy troops. They rather helpfully follow set patterns as they patrol, unless distracted by something (gunshots are pretty good at doing that, so you'd just better think of a less noisy way of killing that chap who keeps walking past your hideout - a bear trap perhaps?). In addition, a very helpful 'eye' icon allows you to see an enemy's field of vision - solid red and they can see you, transparent red and you can avoid them if you crawl. This is fantastically useful to you, as it allows you to perfect plans that don't involve killing enemies and drawing unneeded attention to the area. If your trigger finger is just too itchy, though, you can hide the body. Picking it up and dumping it in the woods is a rather crude but effective option, but find any barrels lying around and you can use them to truly make the body out of sight. To be honest I wasn't too sure how this works, but I prefer to think that you hide them behind the barrel, as the other option is rather too gruesome to think about.
The missions themselves are usually along the lines of 'destroy this, blow up that', but the strategies you need to employ for successful completion of each task differ wildly from stage to stage, making each mission a completely different experience from the last. The size of the map varies from level to level, and while large maps mean that you have a lot of land to traverse without drawing much attention to yourself, smaller maps mean that while you don't have so far to go, you can't afford to make a single mistake on the way, or a whole mapload of enemies will be bearing down on you. Every single one of the twenty missions provides a unique challenge, and each one takes days, maybe weeks, to complete, but the sense of satisfaction that comes with the mission completed screen is unbelievable.
The interface through which you control the action is superbly designed and is fantastically intuitive. In addition to all the shortcut keyboard options, the faces of the commandos in your team are along the top of the screen, and clicking on the one you want takes you to him immediately, saving you the trouble of trying to track him down in a hurry. In the bottom left of the screen is the selected soldier's rucksack, and from here you can select what action you want him to take - if you want the sapper to cut through a fence, for example, select the pliers from his bag. It sounds like a cumbersome system, but in truth it works very well, and allows you with practice to carry out tasks at the sort of speed that may just make you believe that you'll get out of this in one piece. Even so, there is a lot going on at any one time in Commandos, and it seems like you have to be watching two, three, even four areas of the map at the same time. That's where the split screen comes in. You can choose the number of areas the picture focuses on at any one time, meaning that the top right of the screen could be fixed on an enemy gun turret, the top left could follow that wretched patrol that keeps taking you by surprise, and the bottom half can follow your boys. It takes a bit of getting used to, admittedly, but it's an intuitive and successful feature.
The graphics in this game are, to put it bluntly, outstanding. Although taken from a view high above the action, every single character is perfectly drawn and animated, and the surroundings are packed full of a phenomenal amount of detail - every building looks different to those around it, every vehicle really looks like it's been travelling in a war torn landscape - dusty and dented, the water really looks like it's flowing... all with very little graininess, although it does suffer somewhat when you use the close-up to make it very close to the action.
Sound, too, is superb. Although there is little by way of music, the voices are brilliant, and even manage to raise a smile - the Green Beret's Northern Irish burr, or the Marine's scratchy Australian accent being the most memorable, although the Driver's New York accent appears to have come from some really terrible fifties gangster movies. The sound effects are of a similarly high standard - from the teeth-shakingly loud explosions, to the nasal whine of the aircraft, it seems that barely any inch of processing power that your computer may have is going unused (in my, now rather old, machine at least). The attention to detail seen in the sound as well as the graphics really makes this one of the most immersive real time strategy games on the market.
If there is one criticism to be levelled against Commandos, it is that it is perhaps too difficult for some people's tastes. It's no exaggeration to say that this is one of the hardest games ever made (really), and the later levels are both nail-bitingly tense, and monitor shatteringly challenging, and it must be said that not everyone who starts this game will see it through. Those who do, though, can rest assured that they have just played through one of the most unique, polished and downright great PC strategy titles on the market. It's a few years old now, but that only means that most people should have a PC that can run it. Very highly recommended.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 01/15/02, Updated 01/15/02
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