One of my goals this year is to play more games and extract some tips on good game design along the way. This is my fourteenth review in this series called “50 games”.

This review is a bit special as it is written by Martijn Frazer, host of DOS Game Club and fellow hobby game developer. Martijn has been re-playing Commandos over the last month or so and asked if he could submit a guest review, which is super-cool! Here it is - thanks Martijn!

Normally when I play older games, they tend to be games that run in DOSBox. Not only are old DOS games hugely nostalgic for me, I also enjoy their simplicity and it’s easy to get them to run on various platforms. Getting older Windows games to run correctly can be more of a challenge, especially when you’re not using Windows as your main operating system. But there’s one game that is in my opinion well worth the hassle of setting up Wine, and that is Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, developed by Pyro Studios and published in 1998 by Eidos Interactive.

I’ve played Commandos back when it came out originally. I really enjoyed it then and managed to get around halfway through the game. Sadly I ran into some technical issues with my computer at the time, so the game became very glitchy for me. This was by no means the fault of the software and probably had to do with some broken RAM or a faulty mainboard or something, but it caused me to stop playing and I never really picked it up again since. That is until a few weeks ago, when I bought the game for cheap on and decided to give it another shot to finally beat it now, 20 years later.

For those who don’t know, Commandos is a top-down real-time tactics game with a focus on stealth. The game is set during World War 2, where you control a small team of 6 allied commandos, each with their own specialty. They are:

  • The green beret: a strong guy who is able to take out enemies silently with a knife. He has the ability to carry heavy objects, which also allows him to move dead bodies out of sight. He is equipped with a little remote controlled radio, which can be used to lure enemies towards it.

  • The sniper: obviously this guy is equipped with a sniper rifle, which can be used to take out enemies from afar, which is very useful indeed. He has limited ammo however, so you can only use this unit very occasionally. He also acts as the team medic in some missions.

  • The diver: this guy carries a harpoon, which is a great weapon because it is quiet (like a knife), but works from a distance (like a gun). Best of both worlds! He’s also equipped with scuba gear, which he can use to go underwater and avoid detection that way. Last but not least he’s able to use boats, which can be used to carry other units across water. In some missions he even carries an inflatable boat with him.

  • The driver: as the name suggests, the driver is able to drive different vehicles. This varies from getaway cars to escape safely from a completed level, to taking control of armoured trucks and tanks to attack enemy battalions. In some missions the driver is also equipped with a machine gun, which can be effective to take out larger groups of enemies. And finally, the driver can act as the team’s medic.

  • The sapper: one of the most varied members of your team, the sapper can carry explosives of different kinds. In some missions he has remote-detonated bombs, in other missions he has time bombs, and he also sometimes carries grenades. Besides the explosions, he’s also equipped with a trap which is activated when an enemy steps on it, killing him instantly.

  • The spy: the final unit that’s available is also one of the most fun ones. The spy is able to dress up in an enemy uniform and walk around without attracting suspicion. He can also casually start conversations with enemy troops to steal their attention, allowing your team members to sneak by or place a deadly attack without them noticing. The spy also packs a powerful lethal injection which he can use to silently poison enemies, making them drop dead instantly. And last but not least the spy is able to carry dead bodies, just like the green beret, although if the spy is spotted with a corpse on his back, he immediately loses the cover from his disguise.

The game is split into 19 missions, each on their own map, where you travel around Nazi-occupied Europe and northern Africa. At the start of each mission, you receive a short briefing on the objectives of this particular level. Most of the time the goal is to blow up a certain building or kill a specific enemy individual. Not every team member is available in each mission. In some levels you only have 2 or 3 members to work with, in other levels you get a bit more, but in no level you get access to every team member, except for the last level. This is all predetermined by the game, you can’t choose yourself which members you would like to use.

A key part of the game is the alarm. Once you are detected, enemies will sound an alarm which will call over more troops, making the level more difficult to finish. In some levels sounding the alarm mean an instant game over, but even in levels where it isn’t as crucial it’s a good idea to try to avoid detection and be as stealthy as you can. The way to avoid being detected is by observing the enemy’s view cone. You can shift+click on any enemy to see their view cone, which shows you exactly what they are looking at. You can use this to for example quickly sneak by on the right, while they are looking to the left. The view cone also shows the area in which you will be detected standing up and laying down. By laying down, you can sneak up a little closer to an enemy without being detected, but of course you will move a lot slower this way.

At the start of a level, often a lot of enemies are covering each other, which makes it hard to just go out and kill them. For me, the game is all about patiently observing the enemy, checking out their view cones, seeing who covers who until you find someone who isn’t covered by anyone. By taking out enemies one by one, you slowly disintegrate the enemy’s network until there are only a handful of guys remaining. In a way, the level becomes easier as you progress, because there are less and less guys watching each other’s backs. Luckily the AI is never suspicious when they suddenly find themselves all alone, even when there was lots of activity just moments before.

The AI is really the weak point of the game. Enemies all just walk their routes, oblivious to most things that happen around them. They will always walk towards a decoy radio, even if it’s for the 20th time. Once they have sounded the alarm, they will no longer notice new dead bodies, even those in their own squad. The last person in a 6-man squad will happily follow the exact same path into a trap that has killed his 5 colleagues just moments before. It feels more like they’re dumb robots than anything. But then again, their predictability is what allows you to plan your strategy to begin with. Despite the military theme, it really is more of a puzzle game than an action-packed shooter.

The game does a nice job at ramping up the difficulty. At first, you can just sort of wing it and take risks in taking out the enemy. In later levels the enemy units are better placed to guard over each other, so it becomes really crucial to be more patient and strategic.

The first bunch of levels are really interesting because as the difficulty ramps up, you’re becoming more and more familiar with the mechanics and start to develop strategies to deal with the various situations the game throws at you. Sadly after about 10 or so levels, you’ve really seen most of what the game has to offer and it becomes a matter of applying what you’ve learned. In total the game offers 20 levels, which I feel is really a few too many. By the time I got to the last few levels, I wasn’t enjoying the game as much as I was at the start, because nothing new is really being introduced anymore and it’s just more of the same. Not to say the later levels are badly designed, because they are certainly challenging and interesting to play. It just would have been nice to see some new things or encounter new situations in the late game.

This game was received very well back in 1998 when it came out and it certainly holds up well today. Because the graphics are all 2D it’s all sharp and full of colour and detail, barely revealing the fact the game is already 20 years old. The UI is simple and works well. In order to pull off some fast moves, you really need to master the keyboard shortcuts, but these are all explained within the game itself and are quite easy to remember. The music isn’t particularly memorable, but it fits the style and sounds alright. All of the guys in the game are voiced, which helps in giving them some character.

If you’re into stealth and strategy, this game is definitely worth checking out, even today. It’s by no means easy and will test your patience and wits, but as you get further into it, you’ll likely discover a bunch of strategies to cope with each situation the game presents you with. If you have played Commandos and are looking for more, there is an expansion pack for the original available with more levels. Also available are two sequels, which I’ve yet to check out. This game also started somewhat of a genre, spawning several Commandos-likes over the years. The ones I’m aware of are: Desperados (Commandos, but with cowboys), Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood (Commandos, but with Robin Hood and his merry men) and more recently Shadow Tactics (Commandos, but with ninjas and samurai). Of these I’ve only played Shadow Tactics, which is actually a very good game and I can definitely recommend if you’re into this genre.

What lessons can be learned from Commandos? Hmmm, well…

  • By giving different characters only limited abilities, interesting gameplay emerges from having to use them as a team
  • Keep the player engaged by introducing new things
  • Hi-res 2D graphics still look as good today as they did 20 years ago