Reviewed: January 15, 2004
Released: January 7, 2004
Conflict: Desert Storm II: Back to Baghdad is the much-anticipated sequel to the 2002 inaugural release from Gotham Games, and probably one of the most engrossing and exciting military action games of 2003. The game has cleverly undergone a name change and has been released to coincide with certain current events to increase interest public awareness, but even without these clever marketing ploys Back to Baghdad stands up quite well on its own as a worthy successor. The extra three months of development time for the GameCube version has been well spent, and this is easily the best version of the game on any system.
Even though the title might lead you to believe you are hunting down Saddam Hussein and his minions the events that take place in this game actually occure in 1991 during the Gulf War as you once again take the role of either US or British SAS troops and the part each group played in that conflict. Once again the missions are based on actual missions from the real campaign, or at least the parts that have been declassified enough to make into a game. This is always a plus for the realism fanatics.
Back to Baghdad offers up plenty of enhancements to the original game, both in the technical aspects and in the gameplay and mission design. A few of the issues I had with the first game are still present but fans of the original will have no problem working around these to enjoy a new tour of duty.
Back to Baghdad plays out like most other third-person action games, but with a few subtle RPG differences that arenít easily apparent at first. There is also some excellent strategy and squad control tactics tossed into the later missions. While the team AI is fairly descent, you will still want to baby-sit your squad just to keep them out of trouble and plan some more elaborate strategies.
The game opens with an amazing movie that captures some of the action you will be experiencing when you get into the game yourself. It really gets you pumped to play this game. Then itís off to boot camp where you take part in some extensive training in weapons, vehicles, and squad commands. Graduates of the original boot camp can skip this part of the game entirely as it is identical to the first with the exception that this time the training takes place at night. Once you graduate from boot you should be comfortable with the commands and more than ready for the rigors of war.
Each of the missions are prefaced with a detailed briefing where your goals and objectives are laid out on an overhead map. This time the missions seem to rely a bit more on strategy and stealth, but you will have plenty of opportunities to engage in all out warfare. You might get some recon photos or satellite surveillance to assist you in locating enemy targets. Everything is presented in a clear and concise interface and can be recalled anytime during the mission. The map is especially useful as it shows your location in relation to any of your numerous waypoints.
You start off in command of a four-man strike team for either the US or British SAS. Regardless of which side you choose you will always get the same missions. Only the uniforms and accent of the characters change based on your country affiliation. Still, itís nice to be able to choose and the SAS have some cool uniforms. Back to Baghdad offers brilliant support for up to four players to play cooperatively thus eliminating the need for the AI command system that single players must rely on to command their men. Solo players can and will often have to switch into the bodies of each of their team members to move them into precise position as the AI isnít always the smartest.
Each member of your team has a specific purpose that is usually indicated by their current loadout. Everyone comes equipped with medkits and weapons but the selection of weapons such as sniper rifle, rocket launcher, heavy machine gun, C4, etc. dictates their role in the mission. You will coordinate these men and the use of their supplies much like an elaborate puzzle.
There are a few new toys in the Armyís back of tricks this time around give you a few more options in deciding how to approach any given situation. The new phosphor grenade has some specific uses as does the smoke grenade, and the new ability to pause before throwing a grenade can eliminate those instances where the enemy picks it up and throws it back at you.
During the mission you will get to employ all sorts of real military tactics including stealth, and weapons combat. Staying out of sight is your best defense so making use of the crouch or even prone position is always a good idea when enemy soldiers are nearby. Using objects and buildings as cover will allow you to get close to your target and take them out swiftly and silently. The game starts off easy enough but quickly ramps up the challenge as you are assigned more objectives of increasing difficulty.
Back to Baghdad is every bit as complicated to play as the first game and makes use of every button on your gamepad. The lack of precision of moving and aiming with the twin sticks while firing at the enemy can cause some random deaths. Itís an unfair disadvantage that PC players wonít have to suffer with thanks to the intuitive mouse and keyboard controls. Even so, console gamers are a unique breed and have learned to adapt to these control issues.
To help make up for the lack of precision the game does offer an auto-aim function that seems to create more problems than it solves. First, it introduces a certain level of unrealistic accuracy where you can target enemies that you often cannot see. It also means you computer-controlled teammates will go off half-cocked and start shooting up the enemy as soon as they get a lock rather than waiting for you to give them specific targeting instructions.
One of the more subtle aspects of Desert Storm II is the RPG-like attributes that are hidden beneath the surface of this action title. As you and your men use certain weapons more and more you will gain added proficiency with that weapon. This actually allows you to customize and create a well-trained killing team. The only problem results when you put all your training of a particular weapon into one man and he dies. This is a great system that rewards your patience and actually lets you develop a symbiotic relationship with your team. Youíll actually feel sad when your sniper bites the dust, at least until you reload your save game and bring him back.
The AI has been significantly improved, both the enemy and your AI-controlled teammates. Enemy troops communicate and coordinate their attacks and your squad mates dynamically react to ambushes and other unexpected challenges. This means a lot less babysitting that what you were used to in the first game. The fact that you can now take direct control over this men is also a huge advantage.
The remaining list of improvements, enhancements, or new features include four commandos from the beginning (the first game only started you with one), the aforementioned new weapons and items, a few new moves like being able to roll while prone, and a nice assortment of vehicles that you can drive. Hop behind the wheel of a jeep or APC for some off-road action.
Since this game was cross-released on several platforms including Xbox, PS2 and PC I was expecting just another port, but the designers have really gone the extra mile to tweak this game for the GameCube including more detailed textures and realistic lighting. With many of the missions taking place at night there has been some noticeable improvements in the lighting engine and environmental effects like the new sand storms that are breathtaking and even a bit scary. You can even see your menís breath on those cold desert nights.
There are gorgeous lighting effects including some of the best sunlight, shadows, and cyclic lighting for night and day lighting I have seen on the GameCube. The low light of dusk or dawn creates long shadows on objects and can make things difficult to spot and identify. Of course, shadows can also help conceal you on stealth approaches.
The animation of the men is very good and the detailed textures are excellent. The camouflaged uniforms are amazing with wrinkles and subtle details like insignia, belts, holsters, and all sorts of military equipment strapped on. When you hit the dirt and start crawling it looks just like those old war movies. The new roll move looks great and is handy for extinguishing any flames. The peek move looks realistic but offers a substantial advantage to the gamer by swinging the camera out for a better view.
The game features a decent draw distance considering there is hardly any use of fogging or other cheap masking tricks. All of the textures are crystal clear, yet suitable blurred on distant objects to give you that perceived illusion of depth.
The camera is pretty good for the most part. It keeps a good angle on you and the action and you are free to move it around as you see fit. There are a few times where you can get yourself into a position that the camera canít track accurate. These often involve buildings, canyon walls, or steep drops down hills or dunes. This is more likely to happen when you are crawling in the prone position.
The sounds of war are reproduced with great clarity and authenticity. Each weapon has a unique report. Air strikes are summoned with the appropriate radio chatter and static followed by the sonic swoosh of a plane and ending with a giant explosion. The rumble of the tank is ominous, especially when you are lying in a ditch peaking over the rise as it grows nearer to your position.
The speech is great and you get the charming British accent when you choose to play the SAS. Your trip through boot camp is almost humorous with the over-the-top drill sergeant lifted right from Full Metal Jacket barking out orders. I feel sorry for the actor who had to record these lines. He probably still has a sore throat.
There is some excellent use of 3D positional audio thanks to the wonderful Dolby Pro Logic II mix that surrounds you in the sounds of war. Youíll hear the distant sounds of gunfire from each of your speakers always reminding you where you are and to stay on your toes, or more accurately, kissing the dirt.
The music is very simple and consists of the same few bars being repeated over and over changing in octaves occasionally to break up the monotony. It does get a bit more exciting during an encounter indicating the enemy has spotted you. There is an option for custom soundtracks, but who really needs music in a military strategy game such as this?
Tackling the substantial list of missions will take the casual gamer around 15-20 hours. There is a lot of trial and error involved in many of the missions and even after you have won the scenario you are often tempted to try it again using a different tactic or approach. There are also three skill levels that let you fine tune the game to your own personal skill level.
The four-player cooperative multiplayer is a great feature and one that I wish more developers would start using. Not everyone wants to play Deathmatch or Capture-the-Flag. In games such as this where you are in command of multiple characters, it only seems natural to offer multiple gamers the opportunity to control those characters.
Much like the original, Conflict: Desert Storm II: Back to Baghdad is an acquired taste and best experienced on the GameCube. The opening movie hooks you and the training missions make the game seem innocent enough. Once you start playing however, the true nature of just how difficult this game really is become quickly apparent. This is not a game to be approached by the casual action gamer. There is a lot of strategy, planning, and even some character building required to achieve maximum effectiveness and mission success.
Itís rare that we see this level of sophisticated squad-based tactical gameplay in a console title. For those of you prepared for the challenge, Back to Baghdad delivers a satisfying combat simulation experience similar to what you might expect from the Tom Clancy series. Lock and load soldier!