By Stewie Sutherland
One of the few games my PC could run back in school, Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines and its update, Beyond The Call Of Duty (combined, they make the Commandos: Ammo Pack) were the thinking man’s distraction. A top-down view of a scene set in WWII, players had to plan a sharp, precise strategy to complete the objective of a team of Commandos. Easier said than done, when the scenes were crawling with enemy soldiers who were watching and listening for the slightest signs of trouble. Rushing in head first with guns blazing was a sure way to get killed, too.
That was when you had to stop, slow down, and observe. Take in every detail. Every guard and every patrol. Study the patterns and points of view. Then, when you’re sure of what to do, direct a team of experts to slip in and strike before sneaking back into the shadows again. It was slow, detailed and addictive, taking up insane amounts of time to complete objectives in the stealthiest way.
Commandos is built entirely on strategy. When you start a mission, you’re treated to a short cinematic from the same bird’s eye view of the area and a no-nonsense voice tells you the group’s objectives. A quick rundown on what has to be done, who should be used for what action, and how to escape when you’re finished. This unseen Commander refers to the player only as “Officer”, and this can go a long way towards drawing a person into the role. The entire scene may last all of 20 seconds but feels very much like a true military briefing.
When finished, the entire zone is laid out before you and it’s time to begin. Where similar games would have a map blacked out until a character explored it, Commandos demands the playing Officer to study the grounds. Every soldier, patrol, garrison and vehicle can be observed. An eyesight tool lets you see every enemy’s point of view: with this, you can find out how far away they can spot a standing Commando, a crawling one, and their blind spots.
With every patrol pattern and vantage point open, players can plan their strategy. There are dozens of ways to approach a different point, each with their own risks and pay offs. Eager players might decide to send their unit behind a corner and fire their guns, attracting Nazi’s to rush and investigate and catch another volley of fire. The downside to this is higher levels often have alarms sounded at the smallest noise, and the extra enemies pouring out of buildings can greatly hinder the rest of the mission.
The main way to approach a point (I found) was to go slow and silent. Some members of the team have knives or lethal injections, and sneaking up behind a person with this weapon is a quick and instant kill.
Laying a nasty and deadly bear trap where a patrol walks is another good option. Strangely enough for the A.I., when a man walks and dies on the trap, the others will take a moment to look at the body and look around, and then finally fall back in and continue their rounds. Running and resetting the trap again is an excellent tactic: after finding nothing the first time, living soldiers don’t even blink an eye when a second or third man dies in the same place from the same silent trap.
You might be thinking something from reading that last one: that sounds slow. You have no idea. Soldier’s points of view often overlap – killing a man from behind does no good if two or three see you doing it. To quietly remove a single soldier, players might be forced to drop lures, or wait a minute for wandering guards to move away. To take out a patrol of four, you can be looking at a minute of waiting just to run out, drop a trap, and run back. Queue another minute. Take your time like the game suggests and you can find yourself spending half an hour or more on a map.
It’s important to learn from the kick-off that timing and stealth are the most important assets available to your unit. A commando can only take a few bullets before being killed, and it’s impossible to pass a mission unless every man lives. A mistake like killing a guard with a witness looking over you can spell instant failure: a shout is the only warning before several guards cut your man down. When this happens, all you can do is reload and try again.
The titular Commandos team are made up of 6 characters, each with their own skills and personalities. The main soldier of the group is the Green Beret, a tough Irishman who goes by the nickname of Tiny. Tiny is the workman of the group, and will be doing a lot of the killing. One of the few who carries a knife, he’s the only man who can pick up bodies and move them, clearing away the evidence. Carrying a radio decoy and a shovel to hide in the snow, you might have to spend several baited moments waiting for the right moment to spring him on a soldier. Just don’t keep giving him too many orders at once or you’ll be treated to a gruff “I’m coming!” back.
The workhorse Green Beret done, the other five are very much experts of their field. The Driver is a loud American named Treads by the group: the only man who can drive bikes, tanks and trucks, as well as carry heavy weapons and a medic kit. The Marine is an Aussie (who I have to complain, has one of the worst forced accents I’ve heard, beaten only by the time ‘The Simpsons’ decided to come down under) named Fins. Fins carries a blow-up boat to ferry men across water, as well as his own SCUBA suit to dive down into the shallows. Players can have him swim up to a riverside guard and sneak up to stab him in the back before slipping back under the water. Very cool, but prepare to get tired of his “Yus, sihr!”
The two British members of group are as different as chalk and cheese. The Sniper is an educated Aristocrat named Duke. Using his high powered rifle is his main function, but it’s also one of the very few weapons with limited ammo. Choose best when using it. The Sapper (demolitions expert) is a bloke named Inferno, and has a deep “Yes sir!” attitude to everything. The grenades he carries are also limited, but incredibly destructive. Timed and remote bombs are his specialty, and only he can blow up the bigger targets you’ll find.
Finally, a Frenchman nicknamed Spooky is your team’s Spy. With a nasty looking bottle of poison and a syringe, Spooky can be quick and deadly from behind, and after grabbing a German uniform, can impersonate any Nazi Officer, allowing him to distract guards by talking to them. Oddly enough, he never carries a uniform with him, and must always grab one from a clothesline on site in the missions he’s in.
Made back in ’98, Commandos’ graphics are above par compared to other games available at the time. At a high resolution, I played in a large, clear and sharp area. Details like a fallen tank in the water or train tracks are pleasantly clear. The characters however can be bland: while Nazi’s are all carbon copies of each other (minus their own Officers), the Commandos themselves can be hard to discern. While the Marine carries a heavy sack and the Green Beret is a hulking man, the Driver, Sapper and Sniper all resemble each other a lot. Play for too long and you’ll simply see everyone as grey baddies and green-and-brown men.
By today’s standards, Commando’s comes up short compared to other military simulations. (After all, wasn’t Modern Warfare 2 named Game of the Year?) For back in its hay day however, it was just the game that people had on their computer and loved. It had the look, the feel and the smarts about it. I can’t even think of another game I’ve played that has such an emphasis on tactics and strategy, and I’m including all my consoles in that statement. For buffs of army games, I’m sure I don’t need to mention any of this because Commandos seems like such a standard that they’d still have it installed on their PC’s today anyway. Still, for gamers who want a bit of classic action, I highly recommend it. Just prepare yourself for the amount of time and patience required to play it: you won’t be finishing it any time soon!
7 OUT OF 10
Special thanks to our friends at GOG.com for helping us with our review. Their updated downloadable version of the game ran perfectly on our Windows 7 PC, and can be purchased here!