Don't mention the war!
War! What is it good for? Apparently, it's good for a Gamera-sized butt-load of World War II video games. I mean, the only other media source that rivals the video game industry's frightening affinity towards the exploits of the mustached ex-painter/dictator and his crew of brainwashed, dyslexic followers is The History Channel.
Spend five hours watching The History Channel and you'll learn everything from how to build a zeppelin at home in three easy steps to why Hitler decided to adopt. I could have sworn history reached before and beyond the events of 1939-1945.
But I digress, and if I don't get to the point, the folks over at Illusion Softworks and The Gathering may think I never played their latest, which they so graciously airdropped into the GR compound.
I'm talking about Hidden & Dangerous 2, the official sequel to the 1999 sleeper. Part RTS, part RPG and part squad-based shooter, the game lets you discover the complexities of war up close and personal. Underneath its more serious elements lies an engrossing, fast-paced action game. It's like a mullet – business in the front and party in the back. And just like the oft-maligned hairdo, it leaves staunch critics with plenty to gripe about.
In H&D 2, espionage is the name of the game. Assembled in 1940 to stir up serious trouble and confusion behind enemy lines, the British Special Air Service (SAS) quickly became the most feared battalion on the battlefield. As in the game itself, they wreaked havoc from frigid Norway to the blistering heat of North African deserts, fighting off soldiers and bed-bugs alike in Asian jungles and the labyrinthine city streets of Europe. These guys got around.
Your mission objectives are just as varied as the backdrops. You'll shoot (of course), sneak, scuba dive, plant bombs, snap photos of secret documents, drive a number of different vehicles and much more to complete your mission objectives. Lady monotony is not welcome on this tour of duty.
The great vehicle models and physics are courtesy of the IS3D graphic engine – the same impressive engine used in Illusion Softworks' own Mafia. And like the virtual streets of crime and corruption, H&D 2 looks damn good. The areas are not as finely detailed as what you'll find in a game like Max Payne, but you get much more exquisite draw distances and sweeping vistas. The texture quality is high and the lighting, particle effects and explosions really draw you into the theater. On par with the kind of immersion we saw in Medal of Honor, this is an award-winning engine that has stood the test of time.
Speaking of which, H&D 2 will test your supposedly 1337 skillz by way of a steep learning curve and sheer difficulty. Casual gamers will instantly dislike the swarms of menus and commands, and even hardened vets will grow aggravated with the convoluted controls.
Over 20 single player missions can be played while you control a single soldier in Lone Wolf mode, or you can control a squad of four soldiers, each with various skills and specialties. The four are handpicked out of 40 possible candidates. You can change up the roster at the beginning of each new campaign, which are broken up into smaller sub-missions.
The game enjoys some added depth as each soldier can increase his stats, including endurance (amount of punish you take), strength (how many weapons and items you can lug), lock-picking, first aid, stealth, shooting, etc. Skills go up through usage - killing bad guys increases a soldier's shooting percentage, while picking locks decreases the time needed to pick other locks. This is a great feature in a squad-based shooter, though it throws a wrench into trying out the other soldiers. Who wants to try Schwartz on Campaign B when you just went through hell building up Lauer's shooting and first aid ability on Campaign C?
Once you've been briefed on your objectives, it's really up to you to decide how you want to complete them. The maps are huge, offering a great number of ways to carry out your orders. There also a few different ways to control your squad. You can hop from body to body in first- or third-person, or you can pull up the 3D tactical map to plot waypoints and assign various tasks, such as Attack or Guard. Clearly a mixture of the two is most efficient. You can take command of one soldier, order another to "Follow me!" and assign waypoints and duties for the other two while jumping in and out their bodies just to fine tune a few orders and make sure they're not slacking off. You can also issue voice commands, but soldiers must be within earshot to respond.
Unfortunately, H&D 2's great gameplay system is flawed, haunted by the ghost of the original H&D – buggy pathfinding and weak friendly NPC A.I. Your soldiers can easily get stuck in the few narrow corridors and fumble around trying to get out of each other's way in small, confined rooms. The pathfinding errors are more egregious, as you'll tell a guy to go "here" and he takes the most circuitous route possible. Insubordination sucks.
Moreover, I found some soldiers would carry out some commands just fine while a second command just would not register despite deleting the original command. To remedy these issues, you can either control the soldier yourself or give him a bunch of waypoints with less space in between, but that sort defeats the purpose.
In addition, the tactical map itself can be a pain. Instead of enjoying a simple top-down perspective when you first access it, you have to move the camera from whatever angle you were originally playing. Sure, like an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective is going to be good for issuing waypoints. You wind up having to slide and scroll and raise the camera to get a decent vantage point. It's frustrating.
Illusion claims they have streamlined the tactical map mode from the original. I haven't found this to be the case. It's more troublesome minus some of the cooler, more intricate options, like staggering commands to be carried out at different times.
But while the bad is hefty, the good is there to match it. Enemy A.I. is more than adequate; snipers snipe while other soldiers carefully move in for the kill. For the most part enemy soldiers will take cover when necessary, try to flank you and throw grenades to rout you out of hiding. The game is tough - as it should be when four guys think they can take out an army on their own turf. The difficulty is part of the allure.
To help you in your cause, there are over 40 different real-world weapons and 20 different vehicles. All operate differently and feature impressive sounds to help appropriately personify the sounds of war.
All weapons and munitions are also carried over into the robust multiplayer. Up to 32 players can enjoy Capture the Flag, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Objective Missions. Unfortunately, there is no cooperative mode at this time, but a patch is supposed to be released in the coming months to add this.
After four long years for fans like me, Hidden & Dangerous 2 is finally here, carrying with it some of the same problems we saw with the original. Still, the atmosphere, graphics, scope, versatility and ultimately fun gameplay keeps the bad bits in check enough to keep you up long hours coming back for more. If you're a WWII nerd but have seen enough of The History Channel, it's not a bad buy.