One of the first things I learned about reviewing videogames was the importance of always reviewing the game I played, rather than the game I would have liked to have played. Every now and then, this is harder to do than it sounds. Sometimes a game is very close to being good, close enough that it almost seems like a tragedy that the developers didn't go the extra mile to make the game just a little bit better—in those cases it becomes nearly impossible to judge the game on its own terms, and instead, I find myself compelled to fixate on the huge mistake, and let it color my overall opinion of the game. Commandos: Strike Force, is one of those games.
A first-person shooter set during the second World War, Commandos concerns a group of, well, commandos out to sabotage the Nazi war machine by killing as many people as possible, and also blowing up a few sundry vehicles and buildings. The successor to the long-running Commandos series, this is the first to be a full-on action title, rather than a real-time strategy game. The most notable feature of Commandos series, the ability to easily switch between characters, has been reproduced here faithfully, and it's one of the game's most successful attributes. Sadly, it's also the source of the game's most crippling misstep, which I'll be addressing five paragraphs from now.
With the massive glut of World War II FPSs out there to act as source material, it's no surprise that Commandos gets all of the gameplay fundamentals right. The player runs around well-designed, if slightly small levels, shooting Nazis with nicely modeled, balanced, and most importantly, satisfyingly loud weapons. There's nothing new or original here—this isn't one of those games that features hypothetical sci-fi weapons or Nazi werewolves or the like. It sticks pretty closely to the fundamentals—soldiers appear, the player slaughters them wholesale. The only question is whether they're to be killed through stealth, with automatic weapons, by sniping, or some combination of the three.
For the spiritual successor to a game about co-operation, it's surprising just how rarely the game asks the player to juggle a variety of roles. The only three characters (Spy, Green Beret, Sniper) never all appear in the same mission, and the Green Beret gets a surprisingly small amount of play. For a FPS, it's very light on direct combat, which leaves the Green Beret with very little to do. Each of the characters has a special ability he can use to more effectively murder his foes: the Spy can use disguises to move undetected through enemy ranks and the Sniper can make everything slow-slow to a crawl when making long-distance shots. In comparison, the Green Beret's ability to hold a gun in either hand is startlingly useless.
While the game's central feature, the ability to play as more than one character simultaneously, is executed flawlessly from a technical standpoint, from a gameplay standpoint it doesn't work quite as well. Controlling more than one person in any real-time context is always going to be a little difficult, but here it's a bit of a mess. The partner AI is both slow to react and a miserable shot, so the three combat-intensive levels where the Green Beret and Sniper work together are far more difficult than they ought to be. I found myself constantly forced to switch back and forth, because it's impossible to beat the levels without accurate sniping, but if I left the computer in charge of the Green Beret for more than a few seconds, he had a bad habit of jumping out of cover and getting himself killed. Luckily, the game features convenient, anytime saving, which massively reduced both the game's length and its frustration factor.
The game is at its best during the solo missions, where the developers can focus on coming up with elaborate trials to put the player through, rather than trying to figure out a way to make the convoluted multi-character levels playable. The Spy missions are especially satisfying as they play something like Hitman-lite. Winding through buildings and alleys, putting on disguises and strangling sentries, all without having to worry about disposing of bodies or mission-ending alarms. Sure, it's a little on the easy side, but after struggling my way through Blood Money, it was refreshing to just fly through a level or two, shooting people in the head with a silenced pistol without having to worry about the consequences.
So the game itself is just kind of a middling, unimpressive experience. So what about the game it could have been? Everything about the game just screams that it should have offered some kind of a co-operative mode. The game offers online play, but it's nothing more than simple deathmatching, which is competent enough, but nothing special. Many of the game's levels just scream out for simultaneous multiplaying. All of the levels where the Sniper and Green Beret team up would have actually been entertaining if I could have been playing along with another person, strategizing over a headset about where the next wave of enemies was coming from. That's even more true of the Sniper/Spy levels, which offer a number of situations for co-operation between players. There's more than one situation where I would come across two sentries, patrolling together, and all I could think of was how interesting it would be were I able to strangle one while my partner sniped the other from a few hundred meters away before he could raise an alarm.
Given its premise and its pedigree, Strike Force had an opportunity to become something really different; instead it's just a fairly mediocre experience. Entirely competent in all technical respects, Commandos is a passable FPS, but absolutely nothing more. Normally this would do nothing more than leave me cold, but given how close it came to being something actually special, I found myself oddly saddened by the experience of playing it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Playstation 2 version of the game.