Some 23 years on from Capcom’s original sublime arcade hit, and a good few years down the line since Megadrive owners thrilled to Mercs (the semi-official sequel to Commando), Capcom have once again gone back to the top-down shoot ‘em up franchise to produce Commando 3: Wolf of the Battlefield.
Despite its stylised and cartoonish looks, the game instantly feels familiar to fans of the originals. Once upon a time way back in the annals of history, Commando was the game of choice for lunchtime gaming while I was at tech college trying to scrabble together enough knowledge to throw myself into a soulless IT career. Our local chippie had a Commando arcade cab, and a small gaggle of us would spend most of our break pumping 10 pence pieces into the thing in order to top Vulgus’s high score on the leaderboard.
The original game was tough, action packed and brilliant. This modern-day graphically showy game however owes more to Mercs than it does Commando, as you’ll find out during the course of this review.
The main game mode begins with you choosing one of three action heroes to take into battle. Each has their own specialities, though the differences between the lantern-jawed blonde Arnie-alike, the unshaven Stallone clone or the lithe and buxom…er…Jada Pinkett-Smith twin are negligible.
Dropped from a helicopter in a nice homage to the original game, you’re soon thrown into the thick of battle with nothing but a simple machine gun and a few grenades to take on the hordes of attacking enemies. As with the previous games, these enemies pile out of huts or APCs so the best strategy is to take those out first. Not that it stops the sneaky blighters re-spawning behind you more often than not, a small element of frustration when you can’t scroll the screen backwards on yourself to take them out in certain places.
As you pile through the battlefield, you can pick up powerups. Here’s where a touch of clever design might’ve been timely. You see, examine the word “powerup” – what does it mean to you? It means that your weapons should become better, more efficient at despatching the enemy, yes? No, not in Commando 3’s case – because apart from the standard machine gun’s powerups, all other collectables in the game actually make it harder for you to kill the enemy. The nasty green plasma gun is a prime example, because once collected your rate of fire drops to such an extent that you soon find yourself overrun, and cursing yourself that you bothered to pick up the green weapons crate containing the stupid thing.
Similar shenanigans kick off when you finally grab the Flamethrower. Again, this is about as effective a weapon as a hairdryer against waves of tough do-or-die soldiers. My advice is to stick to the main machine gun, pick up grenades and stick with ‘em as the simplest combination of weapons is more than enough to despatch most of the units in the game, even the end of level bosses.
You do have one more string to your bow though. You can collect “M-Crash” powerups which act like smart bombs, despatching any enemy or obstacle on screen. These uber-powerful special abilities are best saved until you absolutely need them.
As well as the weapons powerups you can collect health chests and medals along the way for greater rewards, and also locate hidden areas in each of the game’s levels, set amongst sandy beaches, impenetrable prison levels, even more impenetrable fortress levels, tricky mountain passes and steamy swamps. Releasing any prisoners of war you encounter along the way will also boost your score (and your achievements if you release them all).
Commando 3: Wolf of the Battlefield feels a lot more relentless and action packed than the likes of Commando or Mercs, but even though it’s now joined the ranks of the Xbox Live Twin-Stick-Shooter brigade, it definitely touches on the earlier games in various ways, like the set-piece level interludes where your gung-ho Commando rides rafts, hydraulic lifts and even a couple of different vehicles into battle against the opposition.
So it almost retains its identity as a Commando game. I say almost, because the graphical style really grated with me, reminding me of a cross between Evil Genius’s cel-shaded angular despotic antics, and Cartoon Network-style animation slapped together by people who can’t draw anatomic musculature or boobies properly. I could’ve done without the slight references to the Iraq conflict weaving their way through the game too. The main protagonist looks a little bit too much like Bin Laden for comfort.
Though the enemy units follow relatively predictable patterns of attack, at least there’s a goodly variety of them, everything from spindly near-suicidal ground troops to steroid-pumped minigun-wearing tough nuts. Each of the game’s end of level bosses are strangely easy to defeat and any hardened shoot ‘em up fan will find progression through the game about as challenging as ripping a wet tissue in half.
For those who like a little more hand holding, one of the game’s neat features is the ability to play a localised co-op game with each player taking on one of the 3 characters to pile through the levels. It’s worth doing this to nab a few of the co-op specific achievements if nothing else, and it’s actually good fun when there are three players all scrabbling for powerups.
For a sequel to a couple of games I played to death in my youth, it’s a brash and breezy attempt to recapture the classic gameplay of some of Capcom’s most recognisable games but there’s still a lack of polish present, with odd sound glitches happening at the end of levels, and that weapons powerup annoyance.
There are far worse shoot ‘em ups on the XBLA though, and for 800 points this isn’t too bad a game to add to your collection if the demo wets your whistle. For what it’s worth though, if you gave me a straight choice between this and an absolutely 100% accurate clone of the original, complete with the same sound effects, jaunty tunes and gameplay I’d choose the original Commando every time.