Gaming Love Letter is a look-back column that evaluates games from the past. Monthly, we will feature a standout game or aspects of games that have stood the test of time. As the gaming industry bounds forward, former stand-out features of games – the atmosphere, the soundtrack, or general gameplay – get left in the past, even if they still appeal to players. We will highlight it all, and show you – and many modern game designers – what’s being missed out on.
By Ethan Bortz
A Hidden Gem Called Hidden & Dangerous 2
Back in the early aughties, aesthetics and artistic vision triumphed over desire for maximum profit when it came to video game design. Developer teams were able to focus on making great and actually complete products as opposed to half-baked games filled to the brim with microtransactions.
Artistic vision shines throughout all of Hidden & Dangerous 2: Courage Under Fire a 2003 PC exclusive game developed by Illusion Softworks (now 2k Czech) and published by 2k Games. Hidden & Dangerous 2 is the sequel to the 1999 pioneering tactical first-person shooter Hidden & Dangerous. The game is a product of the early tactical shooter days of the 2000s; similar games that came out around it were Ghost Recon (2001) and SWAT 4 (2004). Hidden & Dangerous 2 is an obscure title, and though it sold decently, the game’s legacy has been eclipsed by some of the other enormous releases of 2003 like the original Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (the Wikipedia page for “games released in 2003” doesn’t even feature H&D2).
Despite its obscurity, H&D2 still has a loyal community. On a good day, several people can be found playing the multiplayer on their own servers. Across all corners of the internet where H&D2 is still discussed an intense affinity for the game is displayed. Whether it be a YouTube video of the soundtrack, the game’s subreddit, or the still active forum website, the same things are echoed, a desire for the game to be properly recognized and a longing for a third title. The deep devotion to Hidden & Dangerous 2 makes sense. Look past the game’s dated graphics and the several old school mechanics. In no small sense, you will find that H&D2 gives an experience better than most modern shooters, an experience of which nothing is alike.
A Tactical Sandbox Full of Opportunity
To define the game in a mouthful, Hidden & Dangerous 2 is a tactical squad-based PVE sandbox WWII stealth shooter. Tactical shooters prioritize realism and expect players to behave like soldiers, not action heroes. The game moves slowly; corners need to be checked and areas need to be scoped out lest the unsuspecting enemy squad spots the player and opens fire. Bullets kill the player fast even on normal difficulty (my preferred way to play), and health doesn’t magically regenerate like in Call of Duty.
H&D achieves a wonderful blend of open-world and linear level design. H&D2’s levels utilize a sandbox approach in the level design similar to games like Battlefield. After being given a briefing going over all the level objectives and “available intel” players are put into a selection screen where they can equip their squad with weapons, ammo, medical supplies, and play dress-up with the available uniforms. Then, the player’s squad is put into the level whether it be by parachute, truck, or even by scuba diving. After deploying, the player is free to approach objectives as they wish. The levels leave plenty of open space for maneuvering past enemy patrols or setting up flanking ambushes. But the levels aren’t so big that they are left with dead space.
Travel Across the World with a Classic Soundtrack
Hidden & Dangerous 2 takes the player’s squad of elite SAS soldiers across all different fronts of the second world war. The game’s scenes feel like a breath of fresh air compared to most other WWII games.
H&D2 doesn’t take place as just as one of two units in one of two places; the US Army in Normandy or the US Marines in the Pacific. Yes, the requisite attack on Normandy is in the game. But the seven campaigns (not including the expansion pack) all consisting of two to six levels also send the player to Norway, the Arctic, Libya, the Alps, Burma, and Czechoslovakia.
In H&D2 those locales are populated by a multitude of different enemy armies; players will fight the Africorps and the Italians, the Japanese, and the SS and Wehrmacht. All armies have appropriate uniforms and insignias (even the offensive ones). Specific historic details are even put into the setting and the enemy uniforms that capture the historical moment. For instance, women can be seen performing non-combat roles for the German army, like radio operators (a touch of historic accuracy I have yet to see in any other WWII shooter).
The soundtrack of Hidden & Dangerous 2 does a perfect job at setting the mood of the game. H&D2’s soundtrack consists of half classic war movie music from the sixties and seventies and half original tracks. Both the original and licensed music blend together well with standout tracks from both categories. Bombastic trumpets bellow out at the player as a Stuka attempts to strafe their truck driving down the desert. Dark and ambient violins surround the player as they creep through the snow-covered forests of Norway under the cover of night. Each level features two different tracks, one for when the player is undetected and the other for combat engagements. The undetected tracks evoke an eerie “calm before the storm” feeling, raising tensions until the first shot is fired. Once engaged with the enemy the music ramps up dramatically, letting the player know they are in battle and the lives of their digital soldiers are on the line.
Ambush the Enemy with Your AI Squad
Today’s video game AI is honestly unimpressive — with only a few exceptions. In 2003, it wasn’t any better. The enemy AI certainly does the job of moving and shooting at the player well, but is sometimes inconsistent about it. The Enemy AI’s weapon accuracy can range drastically at certain points; some are unable to hit the player from five feet away while others can headshot the player-an instant kill-from fifty feet. Random instant death from a German Karabiner 98k or Japanese Arisaka is a point of complaint among players. But I personally feel that that this aleatory nature of death adds to the historical authenticity.
Friendly squad AI is a bit more complicated than the enemy. The player’s squad comprises four elite soldiers picked from a large pool of options, each with a distinct set of RPG style skill stats and small, fluff backstories.
Skills include the strength, endurance, shooting, stealth, first aid, and lock-picking. Some skills are more important than others, like the medical ability which affects how efficiently a soldier can use healing items, an essential skill for at least one squad member. The stealth skill can turn soldiers into a ninja, and the shooting skill can make a soldier have aim-bot. Players can take over and switch freely between anyone in their squad, as long as the soldier is still alive.
Another method of ordering the squad around is by using the “tactical mode.” The “tactical mode” will completely freeze the game and unlock the camera. Players can then order soldiers individually to perform complex layered maneuvers. An example of a maneuver could be “sprint here while aggressively firing at all enemies then crawl to this location and don’t engage in any combat, afterwards, regroup at this position”. Once the order is laid out players can enter real time and watch their maneuver unfold. The “tactical mode” adds a surprising amount of strategic depth to H&D2 and manages to combine the genres of tactical shooter, real time strategy, and turn based strategy. The mode can also just be ignored completely in place of the voice commands.
The player’s AI controlled soldiers are essential in playing the game well. One burst from an MP40 can kill the player; they will need their men covering their back or advancing alongside them. The player’s squad is also necessary if they want to bring a variety of the different weapons H&D2 has to offer.
A Surprisingly Large Weapon and Vehicle Pool
Even from a modern perspective Hidden & Dangerous 2 has a great weapon variety, thirty guns (not counting scoped variants) alongside ten different types of explosives. Each nation’s military featured in the game uses the appropriate firearms and explosives for the era. The player will usually only be able to start the mission off with British guns like the Lee-Enfield or the Sten gun and American lend-lease guns like the Thompson and M1 Garand. But players can pick up any enemy weapon they want and carry it with them throughout the current campaign.
The gunplay doesn’t provide the buttery smooth animation quality of a modern title, but it makes up for it with feedback. Bullets feel properly punchy and give satisfying impact. Enemies don’t take much to kill; a single shot to the chest with a bolt action rifle will take one down. H&D2 is also among the first games to utilize an aim-down-sites feature. The aim-down-sites feature adds a bit of historical authenticity that would be sorely lacking without it. Typically, soldiers don’t fire weapons from the hip; they aim in using the iron sites on their weapons. The iron sites and scopes featured are all well modeled, especially considering that the developers didn’t have much of a game design precedent to go off of.
Hidden & Dangerous 2 features a huge amount of different vehicles from Italy, Germany, Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union. In the game, five different tanks and an armored car make an appearance along with, nine airplanes, six trucks, a motorcycle, and two halftracks. Extensive details are put onto the vehicles like squadron markers on the fighter planes. In the campaign, players can drive all the trucks, the motorcycle, and all three Panzers. Mechanically, all the vehicles work well and have notably good physics.
An Era of Games in Need of Revival
The ongoing trend of modern shooters like Call of Duty is to be frenetic and easy to pick up and put down. Hidden & Dangerous 2 is neither of those things, it is slow and has a learning curve to get over. H&D2 requires players to take their time and strategize their assaults. The game was not designed for mass appeal, and unfortunately, that led to the death of the short-lived series. The modern iterations of the Ghost Recon series have lost all semblance of tactility. And SWAT 4 never got a sequel. But with the exponentially expanding video game market comes a growing demand for more tactical shooters. The hugely popular beta release of SWAT 4’s spiritual successor Ready Or Not has proven that gamers desire more games like it, and with that desire comes potential for a genre revival. H&D2 may one day receive the same spiritual revival as the SWAT series. Till that day, H&D2 will never be forgotten by those who have played it. A game that features such artistic vision and passion for the art of game design is difficult to forget.