Long before 128-bit graphics engines and BD-ROM drives, games were universally in 2D. It was what the hardware could handle, and gave developers a well-defined creative space to work within. As our shared hobby has grown in technology and cash flow-through, most games have gone 3D, with 2D being considered archaic in most venues (perhaps save fighting games, see SF4). The conversion to 3D has typically also involved adding new game types and development tricks to the product, often to its overall benefit from the perspective of creative depth.
So take a step back and consider what would result if a developer took concepts from more modern games, shooters in this case, and created a 2-dimensional game around those ideas. That was the question asked by Entertainment Products of Sweden AB (insert joke about 5 times fast) in Crash Commando.
Basically, Commando is a totally typical First-Person Shooter, done as a third-person 2D side-scrolling game. You’ve got all the standard ingredients: multiple weapon types, vehicles, pickups and powerups, limited-use special weapons (trooper-portable and mounted), objective-based battles, and even character upgrades based on kills and survival time. The difference is the viewpoint. CC could easily have been done as a top-down view shooter like some of the Contra remakes we’ve seen, but the action is actually viewed side-on instead. To allow for complex level geometry, this means there’s generally as much or more vertical real-estate in each arena as there is room to walk; obviously, soldiers (and even vehicles) have jetpacks to get around. It works, even fairly well most of the time. Jetpacks are limited by a recharging power bar; this refills quickly, but not so much as to allow limitless flight. EPOS even put in a rolling ball attack with the jets, which while neat isn’t terribly useful. One important point is that each level consists of two “sides,” which can be crossed between by connecting tunnels. Fighters in one side can see what’s going on in the other, and some weapons are even designed to fire across the way.
The vertical nature of the game makes for some interesting battles. Players (and bots) hop and float around the levels, blasting away at each other with a surprisingly well-rounded arsenal of gun types. It’s a standard selection, more or less: basic machine guns, shotguns, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, and an energy-beam weapon called the CAB. Players can also choose hand grenades, land-mines, or remote-detonated C4 as explosives, and a bowie knife or pistol as a backup weapon. Sadly not everything “feels” as useful as it should; shotguns seem to reload a touch too slowly, and the one-shot kill weapons (rockets, grenades and usually sniper rifles) feel pretty dominant in either deathmatch or objective battles. Too, due to the vertical gameplay and limited entry to some areas, the wall-bounce ability of the grenade launcher can be absolutely brutal in skilled hands. C4, while a neat idea, causes the user to relinquish their primary weapon while waiting to detonate, a crippling limitation if fighting alone.
Of course, almost everything does have a use if you look for it. Mines and C4 can be laid in front of objectives (computer terminals or control panels) in the games that involve them, and the CAB – an otherwise very weak weapon – can disrupt and detonate mines without putting the wielder in danger. Explosive weapons are obviously pretty useful at cracking vehicles, though basic slug-throwers will do the job given time. Available vehicles are tanks and “rail buggies” (I have no idea why they didn’t just call a jeep a jeep), both of which are single-seat. Jeeps – forgive me, it takes less time to type – feel vastly more useful in most applications, simply for their speed and rapid-fire cannon. Tanks can be very worthwhile for defending (or taking) objectives, but are much slower and can’t get nearly as much airtime (though the concept of jeeps and tanks flying stretches credibility a bit anyway). Vehicles can even be driven between the access tunnels, if their paths (which are usually fairly defined, boosters aside) lead to one.
The objective match types involve either Espionage, best analogized as CTF with multiple flag locations; or Sabotage, a standard “plant a bomb on the target panel(s) and guard it till it goes off” affair. The larger levels are clearly designed for this. To help newcomers navigate the battlegrounds, connecting tunnels have signs indicating which objective points they lead to, and attack or defense objectives are nav-marked when needed. There’s also ham-handed voice over detailing what’s going on with your objectives; the silliness is amusing the first time or three, but you may wish you could turn it off after a while. The information is useful, but like most shooters a thorough knowledge of each level counts for far more than just quick reflexes and following the nav points.
Crash Commando offers relatively little in terms of single-player content. There are 16 “Boot Camp” missions, all of which are basic deathmatches against a steadily increasing number of bots (AI gets harder as well). It’s not a bad way to introduce the levels, but an option to play the objective-based games with AI accompaniment would have been very worthwhile. Sabotage and Espionage, though perhaps a little simpler in 2D than in a more typical FPS, are still quite a bit more complex than standard deathmatch fragging, and will be intimidating to some newcomers. Custom games can also be created in solo-player, but again only deathmatch or Team deathmatch is available. This is perhaps one of the game’s biggest failings.
Multiplayer does open up quite a bit more with the objective battles being the usual order of the day. As previously stated, old hands who know the levels and vehicle or special-weapon spawn points are going to hammer newbies into strawberry jam, but the game generally moves quickly enough that you can learn as you go along. Respawn waits are sometimes painfully long, as much as 10 seconds in some cases, but this is mostly forgivable once you’re used to it. In wise recognition of the fact that you can’t always find 15 other players ready to jump in, each larger-sized map has a smaller “Showdown” version, trimmed to make 2- or 3-person team games more intense and fun. The previously mentioned character upgrades will come into play as well. After a couple of kills and some time without dying yourself, you can choose to upgrade your jet-spin attack, gain slow self-healing abilities if able to avoid damage, or increase your movement speed (easily the most useful of the three). Upgrades are lost when you get fragged, but they’re a neat reward for skill and can be game-changers, especially the speed for Espionage missions.
The question of quality, for most games, comes down to two issues: first, did the developers have a good idea; and second, did they do it justice. Crash Commando answers both these questions with a fairly firm “Yes.” It’s accesible, but offers enough depth to reward the investment of time and dedication. It hits basically all the buttons you’d expect a more visually modern shooter to punch, but manages for the most part to put its own spin on the genre. Though itself visually simplistic, CC is competent in the graphics department and doesn’t have much in the way of lag or framerate problems online. It might not be the next Red Faction or Warhawk (though it does share some characteristics and feel with the latter), but it is fun and worth your time. One more mild complaint is that you really can see all the different game-types have to offer in around 30 minutes, but the title screen does mention that this is version 1.0, so it’s entirely possible that expansions will later add maps and game types. Which would be a good thing, since this is a solid base product. If you like arcade-style shooters and don’t have to have a disembodied right arm as your onscreen avatar, go get it.