Hidden & Dangerous
It's a style of game that we all take for granted nowadays, and one that has spawned some of the most memorable PC titles of recent years. Truth be told though, the squad-based tactical shooter is a pretty youthful genre. Bullfrog s Syndicate and Sensible Software's Cannon Fodder perhaps provided its first twinklings in the early '90s, but the tactical elements of these games were somewhat undeveloped. It was Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six that brought tactics kicking and screaming into the shooter genre in 1998, although the shooter' portion of that otherwise excellent title was seen by many as lifeless and dry.
Shoot 'em up action and tactical gameplay weren't comfortable, fully-fledged bedfellows until a year later, and the catalyst for change was Illusion Softworks, a small and hitherto unheard of development studio from the Czech Republic who released a game by the name of Hidden & Dangerous. Like Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines from the year before. Hidden & Dangerous put you in command of an elite Allied unit from World War II. This band of brothers - members of the SAS, no less - were tasked with embarking on dangerous covert missions deep in enemy territory, involving a healthy mix of sabotage, kidnapping, subterfuge and general Nazi ass-kicking.
However, unlike Commandos, Hidden & Dangerous was not a puzzle game, and although stealth had a part to play, there wasn't as much emphasis placed on sneaking about. Instead, it offered an action-packed yet strategic experience, involving careful forward planning followed by a good deal of shooting and blowing things up. And what's more, it was all presented in glorious 3D.
Czechs And Balances
The team responsible for this groundbreaking title was fronted by Petr Vochozka, the youthful co-founder of Illusion Softworks. based in the Czech Republic s second largest city Brno.
The company started life in 1993 as a small publisher called Vochozka Trading, growing into a full development house four years later. Although Petr already had some experience as a games designer, having worked on several small projects within the Czech Republic, the rest of the team were raw recruits - and at the outset, it showed. The young designers, understandably enthusiastic at the prospect of getting down to business on their first major game, went a little overboard on the title.
"It sounds strange, but the whole core team for this game consisted of no more than ten people," recalls Petr. "There were a few others externally, but only about five maximum. None of these guys had ever worked on any big or commercial game before. We simply didn't have the experience, so we came up with far too many ideas initially. We didn't know how difficult it would be to implement them all, but we managed to do it without too many cuts."
A Simple Plan
Indeed, many of the features brainstormed at the early stages of development managed to make it into the finished product and, according to Petr, that's partly due to the youthfulness and naivety of the Illusion Softworks team. "Lack of experience was our biggest challenge," he chuckles. "But I've often thought that it was also our greatest advantage. I doubt whether we would have tried to implement so many features if we'd been aware of the obstacles they'd generate."
The desire to innovate and to create something entirely new was pivotal at the early stages of development. Petr continues: "At the time we started work on Hidden & Dangerous, there were no similar titles on the market - although maybe I should mention the first Commandos title, which was under development at the time. We all liked action and war movies and games, and we wanted to develop something original."
And although the game didn't make it into the shops until after the release of some slightly similar titles, Petr insists that the team simply weren't in a position to take cues from them: "Shortly before release. Special Ops and Rainbow Six both appeared on the market, but I can't really say that we had time to play them and implement any changes to what we were doing."
Baby You Can Drive My Car
Indeed, when asked about their memories of Hidden & Dangerous, many gamers mention the deadly bugs. Although Petr's keen to point out that it turned out pretty much as he wanted it to, he readily acknowledges that the game wasn't quite as refined as it could have been. "Maybe we could have added a few more months' testing and polishing," he admits with a grin. "But then again, it would always be good to have a few more months on any project."
Illusion implemented a wide variety of mission settings in Hidden & Dangerous, with levels taking place in landscapes as diverse as Northern Italy, Yugoslavia, and the frozen snowfields of Norway (a swashbuckling reimagining' of the famous operation to sabotage the Third Reich's atomic bomb programme at Telemark), as well as the German heartland. There was even one stage set entirely on a crippled, sinking battleship, with your team sent in to retrieve an Enigma decoding device before it became permanently consigned to Davy Jones' locker. In a nod to their homeland, the team also located the two final levels in Czechoslovakia: one in the shell-ravaged, sniper-infested Bohemian capital of Prague, and another in a massive airfield during a battle between the beleaguered Germans and Czechoslovakia's Soviet liberators.
Famous Last Stands
The gameplay in the missions varied immensely as well: some levels required stealth and cunning - the mission where your team had to disguise themselves in civvies and steal a patrol boat from a town under curfew for instance - while others called for a rather more balls-out, action approach. Petr has a particular affection for a certain type of mission.
"I do like 'defending' levels - for example, the mission Last Courtesy, where you're in the centre of a small airport and have to defend your position before your plane lands." He also cites Crystal Falcon as a favourite; this was the unforgettable mission where your four-man team had to fend off an entire armoured company - including a pair of Panzers - using only small firearms and a handful of landmines.
Hidden & Dangerous also had a number of multiplayer options, tne most notable being a co-operative mode that enabled up to four players to play through the full campaign as a team. It still draws players today, six years later, and Petr reckons the reason for this is simple. "Not many gamers have had the opportunity for co-operative multiplayer (in other titles) since Hidden & Dangerous came out."
Indeed, many H&D fans were hoping that a co-op mode would be included in last year's sequel, but they were destined for disappointment. However, Hidden & Dangerous 2's latest expansion pack Sabre Squadron, includes several levels that enable you to team up to take on the Axis goons once again.
Spoils Of War
Hidden & Dangerous proved to be a huge critical and commercial hit, going on to sell over a million copies. Although the developer knew that it'd created something special, the extent of its popularity still came as a surprise.
"We were strongly hoping for success, but it definitely exceeded our expectations," recalls Petr. The title's achievement also meant that Petr's dream of making Illusion Softworks the first internationally renowned Czech games developer was coming along in leaps and bounds. "It convinced our investor to put more money into the company and we were able to develop more games." The first of these was an expansion pack for Hidden & Dangerous, called Devil's Bridge in the US and Fight For Freedom in Europe. It was developed and released relatively quickly (within a year in fact), adding more levels featuring improved Al and jazzed-up visuals, while keeping gameplay pretty much the same. What gamers really wanted to see was a full-blown sequel, but this would have to wait - Petr and his colleagues had other priorities.
Illusion Softworks* next PC game was the brilliant Mafia in 2002, which married the freedom of movement seen in titles like Grand Theft Auto with a compelling gangster plotline and glorious visuals, courtesy of the company's own LS3D engine. The following year saw the release of Vietcong, a first person shooter developed jointly by Illusion and fellow Czech studio Pterodon.
Buoyed by the success of these two games, Illusion finally launched the long-awaited sequel to Hidden & Dangerous in late 2003. It'd been in development for over three years, hampered by the departure of the leading team members, a change of engine and a considerable about-face in direction. Initially, the game was set to revolve around a main character, Lt Gary Bristol, his exploits as the leader of an SAS unit and his personal war against an arch nemesis SS officer. However, this idea was soon (and perhaps wisely) dropped, and replaced by a return to the mission-led style of the original title.
"The two biggest problems with the original game were bugs and problematic map control, and s. I think that both were well resolved with the sequel," recalls Petr. "The game was totally rewritten from scratch, so this was a big achievement for us."
Indeed, the show-stopping bugs that afflicted the first game were pretty much stamped out. The new 3D map - well, it was no longer a map as such - but the actual three-dimensional action was just as detailed as you'd see from the normal first- and third-person viewpoints. What's more, you could even watch your orders being played out in real time, pausing when you wanted to issue more.
Further additions included ragdoll physics, access to a wider variety of weapons and war gear, and an RPG-style stat system whereby your squad members got more proficient at various skills as they progressed through the game. Overall though, the choice to retain a similar game style looked to be a sound one. as Hidden & Dangerous 2 proved to be a solid success with both critics and consumers alike.
So where now for Petr and co? Well, the team recently released the Sabre Squadron expansion pack for H&D 2, which adds more of the same squadbased action you've come to know and love. As for the next project, Petr is keeping schtum. So have we seen the last full instalment of SAS action from Illusion Softworks? "I can say that the next game from the Hidden & Dangerous team will not be a Hidden & Dangerous game," he smiles. "Maybe another team, another studio... Who knows?"
He certainly has enough on his plate steering the ship at Illusion, a company that now employs over 150 people in five different offices, including two in neighbounng Slovakia. And it's a company that's very much built on the success of Hidden & Dangerous, a true original. Asked what it is about the game that makes him most proud to have been part of its development. Petr doesn't hesitate. "We always try to come up with fresh ideas, not just clones; I'm most proud of all the fresh ideas it brought to the way games were played." He pauses and smiles. "Well, that and the nice graphics."
Download Hidden & Dangerous
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
The one-line review of Hidden & Dangerous is simple: Commando in 3D. Literally. It's the same basic premise: an elite unit of soldiers working behind enemy lines to disrupt the Nazi advance. It's the same style of gameplay: take control of different mission specialists to achieve distinct goals by operating as a team. It's even got the same level of difficulty: bloody hard. Where it differs most obviously is that it uses a game engine similar to that of Rainbow Six, everyone's favourite team-based special forces sim.
All of which probably makes you think that H&D is going to be a damned fine game indeed. And you know what? You'd be right.
Sit Down, Soldier
It's July 1942 and you're in command of a brand new military unit - the Special Air Service (the manual has a pretty good potted history of the SAS and its early missions) - designed to work covertly behind enemy lines. Illusion Softworks put you in the mood for all this right at the start with what has to be one of the most dramatic musical scores heard in a game since, well, Rainbow Six. Real Dirty Dozen stuff.
There is one slight annoyance at the start though, namely the lack of any kind of training mission to ease you in.
This may be a personal gripe, but being thrown head first into the missions before you've had a chance to get adjusted to how the different gameplay elements work doesn't help with the difficulty level at all. You spend the first few games of H&D basically just dying a lot until you get a grip on how to control the team orders and different types of equipment.
At this point though, special mention must go to the manual. It's extremely detailed, especially the sections on combat tactics. It covers pretty much every kind of situation you might find yourself in, from attacking hilltops to capturing enemy tanks, all in plenty of schematic detail. The only downside, as was said earlier, is that you don't have anywhere to practise all this before the missions start.
Some Of You Won't Be Coming Back
The only real complaint about the game is the difficulty settings. Just as Commandos was a case of trial and many, many errors until you found the one effective route through each mission, so it is with Hidden & Dangerous. You will die.
There was a last-minute decision by the developers to B include a savegame mid-mission. "B which is something of a blessing. The first time you achieve an objective by careful planning and precise teamwork elicits such a feeling of delight that you damn well want to save it so as not to have to repeat the whole process when you inevitably get massacred at the next hurdle.
The producers boast that there are many ways to complete each mission, which in a sense is true. It's not an overwhelming sense of freedom though. Even though your routes from point A to point B may vary slightly from one attempt to the next, you always get the feeling that there's a certain path to follow to ensure a victorious outcome. It's still up to you to find it though, and that's probably where the gameplay comes in.
Leave Me Behind, I've Had It
The odd thing about all this is that you don't actually care that it's so bloody difficult, because the game itself is so enjoyable to actually play. All the gameplay elements work pretty well, from the complexity of the planning screens to the levels of your soldiers' Al. Rainbow Six had a few major problems in this area, mainly your troops behaving like idiots at inappropriate times. Hidden & Dangerous works a hell of a lot better: small things like adjusting the time scales of your troops' orders so they can coordinate attacks, or the ability to pick up fallen soldiers' equipment (from either side), right down to being able to commandeer vehicles (nothing beats driving away in a truck with your men firing at pursuing soldiers from out of the back), and it all gels to make a genuinely rewarding gaming experience.
Which Is what H&D is: a rewarding game. There's very little wrong with it. The team-based combat genre is really taking off right now, with four or five titles all about to hit us before the year's end. No doubt they'll all be improving on each other with each subsequent release, but Hidden & Dangerous provides them with a very strong starting point. Highly recommended.
Two of the surprise hits of last year, Commandos and Rainbow Six, are coming together. Not in a conjugal sense - that would be too messy to contemplate - but in terms of gameplay. Imagine if you will a game set behind German lines in WW2; a game where you control a squad of up to four commandos - British ones, no less - and the idea is to kill the Boche, destroy trains and capture generals. And all in 3D.
Far from being just Quake with Bren guns, Hidden & Dangerous also features a backpack stuffed to the brim with tactical options. Before you start each mission, you have to make a plan of attack, giving each member of your team specific orders on a 3D map. Unlike Rainbow Six, however, where if your plan fails you usually have to start again, Hidden & Dangerous enables you to adapt your strategy on the fly.
"Hidden & Dangerous utilises an innovative system to control figures in real time," says Radek Bouzek, the game's chief designer. "It allows characters to co-ordinate their attacks, as well as use rapid real-time commands. You can simply program the simultaneous attack of your soldiers against a number of locations, and thus create havoc on the enemy base."
Although you could feasibly complete the game from a god's-eye view, there are also the options to play in both third - and first-person perspectives. Characters can run, jump, crouch, crawl and dive to the ground in the event of any artillery fire. Most exciting of all is the option to steal German staff cars, motorbikes and tanks, and make use of any mounted weaponry to complete the 25 missions. And with one or two shots likely to kill, stealth is obviously very important. "Players will have to be careful," says Radek. "You will have to act when the enemy looks the other way or when the searchlight is pointed at the other part of the garden. Once the enemy comes under fire it's going to be very difficult to attack even one of the guards. The enemy soldiers take cover, lie on the ground and run away from grenades. AI also enables the enemy to cover important sections, set up traps and pursue you across the level."
Graphically the game seamlessly mixes indoor and outdoor areas. Whether it seamlessly mixes action and strategy as successfully remains to b seen. And thankfully we won't have to wait too long to find out.