Commandos Strike Force is something of a departure for this popular series. In the past it was a fairly complex squad-based game with a World War II setting. Your three-man squad, comprising of a Spy, Green Beret and a Sniper, combined with local forces to take on the evil Nazis in top-down strategy style. In Strike Force you take control of the same three-man squad and once again combine with local forces to take on the evil Nazis and their nefarious warmongering. So where's this departure you may ask? In Strike Force the series hurdles, or rather stumbles, over a fence and into the unknown territory of a first-person perspective.
The move is fairly understandable. Although previous iterations attained critical and commercial success, their appeal was always going to be narrow and, as such, the move to the more console friendly FPS genre fairly predictable. As a result Strike Force feels like a completely new game compared to the previous incarnations, with the three-man squad being almost all that remains.
Your squad, made up of Colonel Brown (the spy), Captain O'Brien (the Green Beret) and Lieutenant Hawkins (the sniper) all bring their own unique skills to the game. Missions with Colonel Brown, with his ability of take disguises, involve some fairly typical stealth gameplay, whereas missions with Captain O'Brien are far more action orientated. Hawkins is often involved in a support role from a hidden location, although he can sneak around a bit too. Throughout the game you will need to combine these skills to complete your objectives, bringing a variety not seen in many other World War II themed titles.
The opening missions of the game serve mostly as an extended tutorial and an introduction to the story. You'll be taught how to take advantage of each squad member, and for the most part the tutorials do this well. Controls are logically set out and comfortable to use, however, these tutorial missions do throw up some odd scenarios. In your third mission, your introduction to the spy, you are faced with a group of five or so soldiers that have been placed deliberately with their backs to each other. They stand, motionless, just waiting for you to creep up behind them and perform a stealth kill. Yet, despite these men being no more than ten yards apart, none will see or hear anything. This seems to stretch the concept of the 'stealth kill' a little too far.
'...enemies display the sort of selective hearing normally reserved for excitable puppies...'
Indeed, the A.I in general seems to be slightly stilted in this respect. Enemies often display the sort of selective hearing normally reserved for excitable puppies, completely ignoring gun shots, and even when alerted they often only investigate for a few moments. Yet, poke your head from cover for even a second and they'll spot you in the dark of night whilst standing fifty yards away. This imbalance becomes something of a turn-off; albeit one that you eventually get used to.
Other problems with A.I become apparent when you're joined by allied forces. A certain number of your allies often need to be kept alive otherwise you'll fail the mission. To do so you can give them medical attention as and when they need it - a fairly neat addition - however, you have no way to control the actions of your allies. They soon become more of a hindrance than a help, making the action sections a frantic race to complete the objectives before everyone gets killed. These action segments, centred around the Green Beret, although generally competent, don't quite reach the level of the more interesting stealth sections.
You'll also have to witness some truly atrocious in-game cutscenes, and, unfortunately, there are an awful lot of them. Cutscenes occur both before, after and during missions to develop the story and attempt to introduce some character development. The voice acting is passable but there's a complete lack of lip-syncing and co-ordinated movement; with some hilarious puppet-esque arm waving. This is, oddly, in contrast to most of the normal in-game animations, which are generally fluid and realistic, giving the impression that the game was a little rushed out of the door.
Attempts at character and story development also prove to be ham-fisted. Early missions are complicated by the Nazis unexpectedly being aware of the squad's movements. They suspect a traitor, and O'Brien suspects Colonel Brown of being it, despite no obvious reason for doing so. The whole storyline feels very contrived and there seems to have been little commitment on the part of the developers to integrate the story in a logical and engaging way.
What makes all these niggles all the more frustrating is that behind them can be found some genuinely fun gameplay. Missions centred on the spy are particularly interesting, with a nice variety of primary and secondary objectives. These can be completed in any order you see fit and level design is open with an authentic, if rather bland, appearance. Although the A.I will occasionally frustrate, it's fun trying to avoid guards by obtaining the best disguises possible. The effectiveness of your disguise depends on your outfit's rank, so if you're dressed as a soldier you won't fool anyone for very long, but find an officer's uniform and your fortune will be much greater. With a decent disguise only the dreaded Gestapo officers will be an obstacle.
Commandos Strike Force sees the series enduring a somewhat inconsistent conversion to the FPS genre. The plethora of annoying little quirks and dodgy production values mask some genuinely fun and varied gameplay. I can't help but think that some of the charm and intelligence of the series has been lost in Strike Force. It looks okay, it plays okay, it has some nice touches, but it lacks the spit and polish required to elevate it above the rest in an already crowded genre.