FINALLY! My first game finished this year. And all of that just because of The Witcher 3. I had started playing that one just before New Year's and as far as I can tell I hadn't even finished one third of it after three weeks or so. Anyway, so I took a break from that one and just finished Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun on PS4.
So, to me Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines is one of the best games of all time, I finally finished that one in 2013 or so thanks to rediscovering it through GOG. I kinda enjoyed some of its clones but for some reason never ended up finishing either one of them and I don't think either one of them quite understood the brilliance of Commandos and what made it tick, including its own sequels. Shadow Tactics, on the other hand, is the first attempt at a Commandos clone I've seen that basically did everything right. And it also chose the perfect setting for this kind of game.
So the game has just five characters and each of them with rather few abilities, the only one I haven't used even once was the medkit since, obviously, I reloaded the last save every time I got spotted. So yeah, that's one thing that sadly hasn't changed but should have: the game pretty much requires you to scumsave and is not only one of very few console games I know that has quicksaving (incidentally the only other ones I can think of are the Splinter Cell games in the HD Trilogy), it even comes with a HUD element that reminds you if you haven't saved for more than a minute. I would have preferred if they had taken the Metal Gear approach where being spotted just temporarily changes the dynamics rather than brutally screwing you but oh well, it was still fun.
Anyway, I'm happy that they downsized the formula compared to most Commandos clones which suffered from bloated mechanics and overly convoluted mission logic. Shadow Tactics keeps it clean and simple, you soon have all the characters and abilities and then the game plays around with that, like a good puzzle game which, let's be honest here, Commandos and Shadow Tactics are at their core. I was a bit disappointed that there's not really a single ability that stands out as something truly original, most of them are reskins of stuff from Commandos, others are something you'd find in a hero unit in an RTS. The same goes for most features related to enemies and the environment (like traces in the snow). I guess the biggest surprise was that three of the characters can kinda do platforming, jump from roof to roof, climb up vines etc. - and it was pretty great, I wish they had utilised that a bit more. And I was also a bit disappointed that the characters play a tad too similarly to each other with four out of five being able to perform stealth kills and carry bodies so you only switch them when you need a special ability - then again, that's probably better than Commandos where the Spy and the Green Beret easily did 95% of the work, the others coming only into play when the level really required it.
Anyway, thus far the game may sound just like a decent clone at best but it's really riddled with small great stuff, besides doing the stuff that Commandos did a lot better and solving readability problems that Commandos suffered a lot from. When you're seen, the game slows down, making it easier for you to make a quick decision that will allow you to avoid being spotted (like in Metal Gear Solid V, I know), the cone gradually fills up, making things even more fair and comprehensible. You can create "accidents" that will keep enemies from raising the alarm if they spot the victim (like in Hitman: Blood Money, I know). You can crawl through bushes, where you're invisible while crouched (like in Assassin's Creed III, I know). And my favourite, during night missions enemy view is heavily reduced but next to light sources you're perfectly visible even at high distance (like in Thief and Splinter Cell, I guess...). Okay, so none of the mechanics are too original but the point is that they are perfect matches for the Commandos formula and mix things up very nicely. What I probably appreciated most was that enemies belong to three distinct categories that have their own behavioural patterns and that can be easily distinguished just by looking at them, something that was a pretty big problem in Commandos. A particularly nice touch were the tough-as-nails samurai enemies, who are hard to manipulate, pretty aggressive once they suspect something and are pretty hard to kill as only your own samurai can perform stealth kills on them. Otherwise you can only use a grenade (which you never seem to have more than one of per mission) but usually it will take two characters to take care of them, one firing a gun at them and the other one hitting them while they are weakened. Plus they can see through disguises so taking care of them was among the more fun challenges and I just wish there had been more enemy types to diversify the gameplay towards the end. Anyway, besides getting a bit monotonous towards the end I enjoyed the game very much.
Oh yeah, and finally: Shadow Mode. THANK YOU! I remember that Desperados kinda played around with tools that allowed you to make multiple characters perform specific actions when you give a signal of sorts but I never quite got the hang of it. If memory serves it was too clunky and complicated. Shadow Tactics' Shadow Mode isn't perfectly executed but it's very close. Dozens of times I've set up three or even four characters to perform certain actions at once and I orgasmed each time the plan worked out, with multiple enemies going down at the same moment. It also made it easy to have one character generate a distraction while another one is taking killing a single one and dragging them into the bushes. Awesome. And as I mentioned, I played it on PS4, thus on a gamepad, and they solved the interface for this feature quite well with a "shadow" of your character basically serving as a cursor - that made setting up ambushes and such no more awkward than performing the moves manually. Bravo!
Now, I said that the setting is a perfect match for this kind of game but frankly I also feel that the developers didn't make the best out of it. I guess the format the story is told through, just very basic montages and simple scripted sequences in the game view, was a tad too humble but the bigger problem is that the story wasn't particularly interesting nor the characters developed. There's literally no big surprises in the game (well, except maybe one). Everything's very by-the-book. It's not historical enough to make me feel like I'm experiencing history (something that the Assassin's Creed games did a lot better, even if they are riddled with conspiracy bullshit) and the characters were all too simple and innocent to be believable or make me wonder about their actual motivations and such. They kinda tried to make the ninja the cynical one who doesn't quite fit in but of course his nihilism is disproved again and again. And Mugen, the samurai who is holding the group together, isn't nearly as charismatic as he should be. The style of the English voice acting didn't help either (maybe I'd feel a bit differently if I had turned on Japanese VA, which is actually an option) although I'm pretty sure it's exactly the style the developers went for and I respect that, it's just not what I would have preferred. I was also disappointed that there was nothing in the game that made me learn anything new about the era, samurai etc., something that I generally expect from a game in a historical setting that I'm not particularly accustomed with.
And that's pretty much it. Music's not mindblowing but good, graphics are good if similar to tons of games in the post-Borderlands era and... oh yeah, the game plays fantastically on a gamepad where you control the characters directly. I can't imagine I would have enjoyed it any more if I had played it using a mouse and keyboard.
I wholeheartedly recommend the game to anyone who enjoyed Commandos or any of its clones.
Sorry for the long post.