Back in 1998 a small Spanish developer called Pyro Studios released the first Commandos game. Commandos was a strategy game with a difference: instead of jumping on the Command & Conquer RTS bandwagon that was trundling along at full speed at around about this time, Commandos was instead a World War 2-set Mission Impossible-style series of infiltration missions where you took command of a small squad of 4-6 Allied operatives as they blew up various bits of critical German infrastructure and assassinated key personnel. It was a game notable for the massive strength asymmetry between your squad and the opposing forces — each level was infested with dozens and dozens of guards and your commandos were unfortunately rather realistically squishy, quickly succumbing to just a couple of rifle bullets — which in turn engendered an extreme focus on stealth and on using the unique toolkits available to each individual commando to unpick the enemy patrol paths so that you could reach your objective.
Commandos was successful enough that it spawned its own real-time tactics sub-genre. As well as two sequels (Commandos 2 arguably perfected the formula, while Commandos 3 was a bit of a cash-in from a studio that was running out of ideas and talent), it inspired two Desperados games, Robin Hood: Legend of Sherwood and even Star Trek: Away Team. But then a funny thing happened: after the initial rush of imitators, this particular strain of stealthy strategy game died an abrupt and premature death. Save for Desperados 2 in 2006, nobody has made a Commandos-style game in almost fifteen years.
That is, until Shadow Tactics was released last month. And oh my goodness, it is Commandos to the core.
Shadow Tactics is a huge surprise in so many ways. First, it’s arrived almost completely unannounced – I track gaming news like a hawk, and I’d never even heard of it until about a week before the demo came out. Second, it’s resurrecting a genre that’s been dead for over a decade. And third is that, given that it’s trying to not only bring the genre back to life but also update it for the modern era, it has absolutely no right to be as good as it is. Shadow Tactics is not without its flaws, but playing it makes me feel like there were another 10 years of Commandos games released that I somehow wasn’t aware of and that it’s building upon almost seamlessly.
Shadow Tactics continues the fine genre tradition of visiting different time periods and places by being set in post-Sengoku Jidai era Japan. The Shogun is overseeing a period of peace following the wars that gained him the title, but not everyone is happy with this state of affairs and there is a conspiracy afoot to unseat him; as the Shogun is aware of this, he brings in your band of covert operatives to unmask the conspirators. Shadow Tactics works with a comparatively small team roster of five, and it’s extremely rare that you’ll get to work with all five at once in the same mission; most missions have one or more characters being unavailable for some plot-convenient reason and you having to do without their skills and tools for the duration. The team is made up of:
- Mugen the Samurai, who fulfils the Green Beret role of being an extremely burly man whose main job is to stab people. He has a sake bottle that he can place within view of a guard to attract them to a more convenient spot for the stabbing, as well as a Sword Wind ability that lets him stab up to three guards at once.
- Yuki the Thief, a teenage girl who probably ends up killing more people than Mugen. This is thanks to her Little Trap, which can be placed somewhere out of the way, and her Bird’s Voice flute-thing that allows her to attract guards towards the trap. Which then kills them instantly by firing a spike upwards into their groin.
- Hayato the Shinobi, whose most useful non-sword piece of equipment is “a rock”. It’s not even a special rock; he just throws it to briefly divert the attention of any guards who hear it clattering to the ground. He also gets a Shuriken to take guards out at range, however anyone hit with it expires in an extremely protracted and noisy fashion that’s guaranteed to attract notice if there’s anyone nearby so it’s less useful than it sounds.
- Aiko the… Spy Lady? She can use disguises (which must always be obtained from the map somewhere, because she apparently never thinks to pack her geisha things ahead of time) to pass unnoticed, and she can also engage guards in conversation to distract them. Her Sneezing Powder ability lets her dramatically reduce the vision range of guards for a brief period, allowing other team members to slip by unseen.
- Takumi the Sniper, and all-around baller old man. He’s got a wooden leg that doubles as an ammunition-limited silenced sniper rifle, a collection of bombs that will indiscriminately murder anyone within a wide radius1, and — best of all — an actual honest-to-god tanuki called Kuma who acts like the radio decoy from Commandos: send Kuma out to a nice spot and then activate him, and he’ll roll around on his back and generally act like a cute little bastard that nearby guards cannot resist petting. Then you stab them in the back while they’re fluffing his belly.
All of the team bar Takumi get a bog-standard melee attack (Takumi’s sniper rifle functions as his primary attack), and everyone also eventually gets a matchlock pistol with three shots; this is loud, but the sound radius is slightly smaller than the pistol’s range so if you take advantage of good positioning it can be really useful for getting rid of particularly annoying guards. The characters are differentiated somewhat in how they can move around the map, as the three lighter characters (Yuki, Hayato and Aiko) can clamber up and down vines and use grappling hooks to take advantage of alternate routes, but Mugen (because of his armour) and Takumi (because of his leg) are restricted to using ladders. They get other benefits though: Mugen is strong enough to pick up giant boulders and throw them at groups of enemies, instakilling them and making it look like an accident, while Takumi… well, he’s got a gun and he’s got Kuma, which already makes him arguably OP.
Many levels are therefore built around infiltrating a compound with your more mobile characters so that they can clear guards out of the way of Mugen and/or Takumi, who are critical to bypass other obstacles later on. Said obstacles almost always consist of groups of guards, and there are three types: bog standard guards who behave exactly as you would expect guards to; straw hat guards who are not distracted by rocks/bird noises/cute tanukis and who are commensurately more difficult to eliminate; and finally Samurai, who are just a massive pain in the ass. They can see through Aiko’s disguises and their armour makes them impervious to melee attacks from everyone except Mugen, who can take them on in a classic samurai duel. Everyone else has to stun them with a firearm first and then run in to finish them off with a quick stab – except because stunned samurai always turn to face the direction of the shot and will start unloading their pistols at anyone who enters their vision range, this often requires teamwork as one character shoots and another does the stabbing when the samurai turns away.
As in all Commandos-alikes, guard vision range (and how your team can evade it) is probably the single most important mechanic in the game. Right-click on any guard and you can see their vision cone sweeping from left to right and back again as they patrol whatever compound you’re currently trying to sneak into. Guards can see quite a long way, but their vision cones are split into two distinct ranges: a light green area that denotes close range, in which they will see you no matter what you’re doing, and a dark green, hatched area that represents long range. Long range is where 90% of the action happens in Shadow Tactics, as guards cannot see you at long range as long as you’re in stealth mode (which as in all games is represented by your team crouching down and skulking about rather more slowly than they would otherwise). They also can’t see dead bodies at long range. Unfortunately they can see bodies that are still in the process of becoming dead; melee attacking a guard causes the attacker to exit stealth for the duration of the attack, and nobody has a melee attack that’s quicker than the time it’ll take for a guard to look back in your direction and notice what you’re doing. Ranged attacks have a similar problem; in fact all lethal skills in Shadow Tactics have an associated dying time during which you can’t let any other guards catch sight of the one that’s currently in the process of expiring.
Even if you successfully pull off a kill you then usually have to get rid of the body before a roving patrol moves into close range and spots it, and this is another of the ways that Shadow Tactics differentiates its characters as they all have different ways of moving bodies. Aiko and Yuki have difficulty moving fully-armoured guards around and are limited to dragging the corpse along the ground; this is slow, but secretly quite useful because corpse-dragging is not something other guards will notice at long range. It’s certainly more useful than Hayato’s more normal method of throwing the corpse over his shoulder and walking off with it, which causes him to exit stealth and invariably get spotted. Takumi, being an old man, cannot carry corpses at all, but Mugen makes up for him: as he is the brawniest team member he can carry a corpse under each arm and jog off with them. Corpse disposal points are littered strategically throughout levels, ranging from bushes and wells to simply throwing them off a cliff. Each has an unlimited capacity, which did lead to my wondering at times how such a small shrubbery was able to accommodate seven guards and all their equipment, but if you set real-world logic aside it works well as a gameplay mechanic.
Hiding in shrubberies is also a key element of stealth in general as they completely block guard vision – in fact a significant portion of Shadow Tactics is figuring out how level attributes change the guard vision cones. For example, they can’t see into bushes, but even if they’re just looking past them the bush still blocks their vision enough to turn what would be a close-range patch of their vision cone into a long range, hideable portion. Being one storey up from a patrolling guard usually does the same thing; two storeys blocks their vision entirely. Rain reduces their vision range, but also creates waterlogged ground that will generate noise as your team tries to slosh through it. And during night missions the guard vision cones are almost entirely made up of long range areas that you can stealth through easily – except around light sources such as torches and braziers, where they’ll spot you no matter how far away they are.
The guards themselves are arranged in such a way that each level is essentially a sequence of puzzle boxes, with each group of guards forming their own little interlocking vision cone ecosystem. You’ll watch guard patterns and patrol routes for 3, 4, 5 (or more) minutes, trying to figure out the weak link; some combination of patrol routes, terrain and character abilities that’ll provide an opportunity to kill just one guard, and by doing so create a blind spot that brings that particular little ecosystem crashing down as you murder your way through the rest of the guards in short order. Most of the time this is incredibly engrossing, and you don’t notice how long you’ve spent playing Shadow Tactics until you finish the mission and see the statistics screen telling you that it somehow took nearly an hour from start to finish.
If I had one criticism of Shadow Tactics’ gameplay, though, it would be that creating those blind spots is sometimes unnecessarily fiddly in terms of controls. Later levels require you to do synchronised guard kills combined with distractions to divert the attention of others, and pulling these complicated combos off is more than a little awkward. The game does have something called Shadow Mode where you can queue up a single action for each character that’ll be executed simultaneously when you hit Enter, but this isn’t enough when what you’re trying to do often relies on three or four actions being executed in sequence; you end up doing them manually and fucking up the execution several times before you get it right. Shadow Tactics is a game of trial and error at heart — it’s even got a timer that reminds you if it’s been more than a minute since your last quicksave — but I felt like in some cases I’d have to reload the save half a dozen more times even after I’d figured out what to do, because the game was fighting me as I tried to carry out my plan. It’s definitely not helped by Shadow Tactics’ interpretation of where exactly you are pointing your mouse cursor sometimes being somewhat… liberal, shall we way, especially around walls, cliffs and other sheer surfaces. The final levels demand a level of precision that the controls simply cannot provide, and it was here that Shadow Tactics briefly crossed the line separating pleasing brain-teaser from annoying time-waster. It managed to drag itself back shortly afterwards; however while it’s a very finely-tuned experience most of the time Shadow Tactics’ level design is some way from being perfect.
This was a little odd, because in almost every other respect the production values are very, very good. Surprisingly so, considering this is an indie title release with almost no fanfare. Each of the levels looks very nice — although Shadow Tactics is lacking the set-piece levels that defined the first two Commandos games, the tradeoff is that its levels are all fully 3D with a rotatable camera that’ll provide the familiar isometric perspective from any point in a 360 degree circle. You team of assassins and spies is finely animated, and I particularly liked little touches like the seamless segue from stabbing to corpse carrying; Hayato won’t let the body slump to the ground but will instead toss it straight over his shoulder. The team also has a ton of high-quality voice acting that isn’t restricted to the Commandos “Oi wish oi could do dat!” soundbites upon being told to do something; they’re constantly talking to each other and building up a rapport with one another. Speaking of, one of the most pleasantly surprising things about Shadow Tactics was this slow building of character without the reliance on the overdone trope of one of the team being an asshole to generate conflict. Your team of five genuinely respects and, later, likes one another; the most obviously mercenary character on the team is the shinobi Hayato, and even he is clearly sticking around for more than money. The character writing isn’t particularly profound in terms of quality, but it is believable and well-judged throughout and does most of the legwork in terms of keeping you invested in what’s going on, because the actual plot is — predictably — utter balls.
Still, this is probably the least important failure for a game that gets nearly everything else so, so right. It doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking with the Commandos formula, but it introduces dozens of quality-of-life improvements that are required for that formula to find a receptive new audience in 2016 2017, and it’s a testament to how well it does so that this resurrection of a genre that’s been dead for more than ten years doesn’t feel dated in the least. Shadow Tactics deserves far more attention than it’s currently getting, and it would certainly be a shame if, after doing such a good job of bringing it back to life, the genre simply died a second death because PC gaming sites ignored it in spite of Commandos being one of the most PC-est games ever2. I can only hope that it does well enough in spite of this for developers Mimimi to try their hand at a sequel because they’ve clearly got the talent to make Commandos work in the modern age. Shadow Tactics is proof enough of that.