Review by JavaKid

"Great game! Exciting, deep, intelligent and rewarding."

The year is 1941, and war rages across Europe. Holland, Poland and France have all fallen to the goose stepping Nazi forces of German's Third Reich. Their tyrannical leader, Adolf Hitler, has entered into a pack with Italy and Japan - together they form the original Axis of Evil, seeking nothing more than the total conquest of Europe, Africa and Asia.

In western Europe one beacon of hope still shines. Great Britain, under its leader Winston Churchill, stands firm against the Nazi advance. Shielded only by the English Channel, a narrow stretch of water between the French coast and the south of England, Britain continues to defend itself against sea and air attacks. But the water which so successfully defends Britain from invasion also makes it hard for her forces to launch a counter-strike, to take back parts of France. A large scale invasion is suicide. In this hour of desperation Churchill needs a new strategy, a force which can slip through the tiny cracks in the Nazi defense, and penetrate deep into enemy territory on a mission of sabotage.

Enter the Commando - a highly trained warrior, akin to a modern day Ninja, who's skills with weapons and explosives is second only to his powers of stealth.

Now, for the first time on the Playstation, you can take control of an elite band of Commandos, each with their own skills and capabilities. Each of the ten grueling missions (plus two shorter training missions) presents you with a list of primary and secondary objectives - your job is to figure out how to achieve them by commanding your allotted men, either individually, or together as a team. As the mission progresses, new information may add to your list of objectives, so you must remain alert and keep your strategy flexible at all times.

It is worth pointing out, before we go any further, that this is not a game of thumb-twitching destruction. This game requires patience, cunning and an eye for strategy. Setting traps. Observing troop movements. Planning your next moves in advance. This is Command and Conquer meets Metal Gear Solid and Prisoner of War - with a cherry on top.

To say that ''Commandos 2: Men of Courage'' is 'quite deep' is like saying the Grand Canyon is 'a little bit wide'. To say ''Commandos 2: Men of Courage'' has 'a fair amount of gameplay' is like saying War and Peace is a 'slightly long novel'. This is probably the deepest and most meticulous game on any console. It is also one of the hardest - but one of the most addictive and rewarding.

The range of options available to each Commando is staggering. Enemy soldiers can be shot (with several different types of gun), stabbed, knocked out, poisoned (via drink or injection), distracted, given false orders (thanks to disguises) or blown to bits (with mines, grenades or different types of bomb). And that's just for starters. Once incapacitated they can be searched, carried or dumped inside boxes or through windows to hide their bodies. Unconscious enemies can be tied up to prevent them from waking and raising the alarm. A host of items can be stolen from them, including weapons, spare ammo, cigarettes, and even clothing which can be used as a disguise.

Ladders and poles can be climbed. Some walls can be climbed too, or grappling hooks used in the absence of a ladder. Water can be swum in, or dived under. Beds and tables can be climbed under, to hide. Boxes and cupboards searched. Windows can be looked through, to survey enemy forces inside or out. Grenades can then be tossed through to deal with them. (Alternatively, once inside a window makes a great vantage point for a gun fight.) Mines can be detected and deactivated. Fences cut and barbed wire removed. Vehicles can be stolen and driven. Radios used to contact the team's commander. Even the enemy AA guns (heavy anti-aircraft cannons) can be secure and turned against the Nazi's.

There's just too much to describe. Needless to say, the instruction manual is quite lengthy compared to other PS2 titles. But luckily there is an extremely comprehensive set of tutorials accessible off the title screen, which walk you through each specific type of action and how to perform it. You're advised to play through the first couple of sets of tutorials before attempting the game. It will probably take you the best part of an hour - but it will save you much head scratching later. And as an added bonus there is also an in-game help function, which gives reminders on most of the commandos, weapons and actions in the game.

Although complex, you quickly realise that almost all actions in the game follow the same basic interface patterns. The Commandos are steered using the left analogue stick (easier than the original PC version, which uses mouse clicks). Targeting and weapon selection are done using the D-Pad. The map is controlled with the right analogue stick, and the other buttons are used to access the various on-screen menus. The hardest part is figuring out what all the tiny on-screen icons mean, which appear or vanish depending upon what you are currently doing, or what is near by. By the end of the two training missions you should already be competent with the controls - and only occasional references to the manual, tutorials or in-game help will be needed thereafter.

However, the controls are not meant for fast access - switching between weapons can take a few seconds for example (especially frustrating when you are being mercilessly pummeled by enemy forces). But think of it this way - just how realistic IS a game that allows you to switch between a rifle and a bazooka instantly? This just gives a further edge to the need for careful planning.

For each mission you are given a team. Objectives can be completed in any order, providing they are not inter-dependant, giving very open ended gameplay. Sometimes you start with only one man and have to locate other members of your force. These may include a resistance agent who will lend you their services, or captured soldiers who will join your team after you locate and release them. Occasionally you may even be able to take charge of an entire platoon of friendly fighters, and command them to ambush the German forces. Each member of your Commando team has special skills, and each level is cleverly devised to get the most out of the particular team members you have available.

For example, the initial mission is one of infiltration - starting in a speed boat out at sea, find your way inside an enemy submarine base and steal the Enigma machine used to scramble top secret military communications. Sounds like an ideal job for the thief, who's quick speed and nimble fingers can be used to open locks and pick-pocket keys from passing guards. But the security is too overwhelming for the thief alone - he needs an ally. And one is already on the base, in the form of a female resistance member, a femme fatale who's stunning looks means she can move unchallenged around most of the base, and distract any love-struck guard with idle chit-chat when the thief needs to slip past a particularly well protected guard post. But the thief will have to find and get to her before she will join his team. Along the way he picks up another valuable member of the Commando's squad - Whiskey the dog. Whiskey can dash quickly around the base, ferrying supplies between different members of your team who are cut off. His barking can be used to distract sentry guards, giving other members of the team valuable seconds to slip past unnoticed.

There are many other team members, each with they own specialities. For example the diver, who as well as being handy with most hand guns is also an expert in underwater combat and weapons like the harpoon gun. The sapper is the explosives expert, whether that be locating and defusing mines, to planting bombs. The spy is a master of disguise, and having stolen a uniform can pass himself off as the enemy and distract sentries or give them new orders (''look in that direction'' or ''follow me'') assuming the don't out-rank his current disguise. The thief can pick locks and break into a safe or a locked supply box. Other members have exceptional strength, or unique ways of causing distractions or diversions. And while all members (except Whiskey the dog) can use basic weapons like guns, only some of them can use specialist weapons like grenades and bazookas, and only some can stealthily overpower an enemy soldier by hand and tie them up.

Each character and searchable object has an inventory - a grid of cells into which objects can be transferred. Small items take up one cell. Larger items take up a square of cells. Luckily some can be combined up to a certain limit - for example several medical packs can be placed into the same cell. Items can be taken from near by objects or unconscious guards (or conscious guards if you are the thief) and shared with any near by team mates.

The ten levels are split across nine distinct locations - from European submarine bases to the snows of the arctic and the heat of the jungle. The playing environments are huge, and highly detailed. They feature stunningly beautiful graphics and excellent atmospheric sound. In large locations, like outdoors, the game view is isometric. Rotating the map moves in 90 degree jumps - very handy when your view of a Commando is blinded by an object or building. In more compact locations, like inside a building, the game view can be freely rotated. Both modes support scrolling in any direction and zoom in or out for close inspection of the action or strategic overviews. Only when at maximum zoom do the graphics loose their crispness - and even then, not by much.

But stunning visuals can be ruined by sloppy enemy A.I. But here Commandos 2: Men of Courage doesn't disappoint. Thought the enemies in Metal Gear Solid 2 were intelligent? Well they look like dunces compared to this lot. Just as in the MGS series, the enemy has a view cone - a triangle of visual awareness. Stay outside this cone and you won't get seen. However, unlike with MGS, the enemy's view degrades at the further points. This means, in layman's terms, that a Commando on the edge of a sentry's vision will be spotted, but if he crawls along the ground or wears a disguise he can pass unnoticed. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Sentries mounted on high rooftops can see for miles. And snipers have exceptionally good eyesight - so be warned.

There is no radar of enemy vision, like other stealth games (MGS, Prisoner of War). Instead the player can choose to see the view cone of a single solider at a time by highlighting him with a special cursor. As you move in to take down a key sentry, you will have to keep track of the other soldier's movements and views in your head. One false move and sirens will sound to bring hordes of screaming troops to your location. This is where distractions come in handy. Throwing a cigarette packet, a bottle of drink or a similar object onto the view of a sentry will make him leave to investigate - pulling him out of the line of sight of his colleagues. Then you can strike, and hide the body quickly. (Although be warned - loud noises will alert enemy troops!)

Sounds hard? Well it is - but it is also very very rewarding. You feel you really are controlling a crack squad of Commandos - using skill and cunning to guide them through each level, figuring out how to solve each objective while surveying the area and carefully picking off each enemy who stands in the way of you and your mission. Fortunately saving can be done at any time - so having completed an objective, you can snapshot your achievements to memory card and then reload when you next screw up (which you will, trust me!)

The levels are long, with several primary and many secondary objectives each. The locations are often strewn with enemy troops and supporting civilians - and to avoid a bloody gun fight a path much be cleared to get the key members of your team to the desired location, in order to achieve the objective. This game will have dedicated gamers tied up for weeks and weeks. And casual gamers should plan on indefinitely putting the rest of their life on hold. (This is NOT a rental - you MUST buy!). As if that wasn't enough, hidden throughout each level are pieces of photograph. Complete the photo and you will unlock a small bonus level which you can play before moving on to the next level proper. There are three modes, normal, hard and very hard - and each level for each mode has its own set of performance scores. Completed levels are accessible from a title screen menu, meaning you can always go back and replay old levels to boost your scores.

Believe me, even in a review of this size and depth, there are a handful of cool gameplay features I had to leave out. Such is the scale of this game.

To sum up, Commandos 2: Men of Courage is a slick, beautiful, clever and addictive game - one that will test your brain power and patience more than your thumb twiddling prowess. It has a steep learning curve at first, but you expect that from a game of such incredible depth. However, if you take the time to play the tutorials and read some of the manual you'll quickly get to grips with the game. Criticisms? Well loading times for some of the levels can be a tad long - this is especially noticeable when you are attempting different solutions and need to reload frequently. And also the game flow is interrupted a little by the momentary pauses in play as the game loads the huge outside map after you leave a building. But these are all minor niggles - and given the size and scale of the game, it is surprising it was capable of being squeezed into a console at all.

The verdict? Great stuff... and roll on Commandos 3!!!

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 09/16/02, Updated 09/16/02

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