[one_third]Dismantle Nazi Germany piece by piece in this stealth review of Pyro Studios’ classic isometric strategy game, Commandos.[/one_third]
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What comes to mind when I mention stealth gaming? Is it watching a guard patrolling unaware, three glowing green dots hovering in the darkness above? Is it hacking into a security system to disable hostile turrets and cameras? Is it sneaking through darkened medieval corridors, blackjack ready to strike? Perhaps it’s all of these things, but maybe – just maybe – the foremost image in your mind’s eye is of a motley crew of elite soldiers bringing down Nazi Germany from within.
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines hit shelves a scant couple of months before Looking Glass’ opus in 1998, and while the latter may define the genre for many, the former is no less deserving of praise within the stealth arena.
Difficulty in accepting it as a true stealth game may arise in its presentation however. Thief would have us believe that the silent approach works best in the first person. More recent titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution combine first and third person to great effect, providing periphery beyond that of an ordinary human being, while still managing to feel contextually relevant.
How then, could an isometric perspective provide an effective platform from which one could get one’s sneak on? There are multiple approaches to the problem. There’s the RPG method, as seen in Baldur’s Gate: thieves with backstab bonuses and various vanishing tricks. There’s the turn-based approach, as seen in the likes of Jagged Alliance: a reliance on visual range, light sources, and camouflage all playing their part. And then there’s the real-time tactical gameplay of Commandos.
To this day, few developers have attempted – much less achieved – the style of game that Pyro Studios pioneered with Commandos. There was no single element, but rather a perfect storm of ideas and features to which the game could attribute its brilliance. Where Jagged Alliance 2 would hide detailed enemy movement outside your team’s line of sight, Commandos allowed the player to view the whole level – every enemy, vehicle and patrol – as though issuing a challenge: here’s what you’re up against – JUST TRY to beat it.
Like Thief, every aspect of Commandos was designed around forcing the player into a silent and deliberate approach. Each level hosted overwhelming odds, with crafty level design and enemy placement that ensured a quick demise for anyone rushing in for a headlong assault. There were masses of guards, all with individual cones of vision, overlapping, criss-crossing, and constantly rotating as they scanned for infiltration. Patrols could be particularly tricky, as each member had his own vision; just because the patrol leader didn’t spot you, didn’t mean the rear-guard wouldn’t.
It was possible to find areas away from prying eyes by clicking the vision icon on the ground. This would then reveal a guard whose gaze fell upon chosen location, and while it may not sound too taxing, Pyro only allowed the player to see a single guard’s vision at any time.
To manage the plethora of information players needed to successfully navigate levels, it was also possible to split the screen into as many as six panels, and set the camera in each to follow patrols, watch areas of the level, or even observe other commandos.
This also facilitated the coordination required between each commando. The unique skills of the six soldiers necessitated careful planning, as quite often a specific ability was required at a specific location, at a specific time.
The Green Beret
The Green Beret was a master of stealth and distraction. He used a noise emitting device to draw enemy attention, and could bury himself in the ground, lying in wait like a heavily muscled trapdoor spider – his fangs a combat knife, poised to sink into an enemy’s back. His strength allowed him scale cliffs and walls, as well as move bodies and explosive barrels to strategic locations.
The Sniper’s rifle was one of the game’s greatest assets. A single shot killed an enemy at great range, but ammunition was limited, ensuring that only the highest priority targets were sighted down its scope. If any of the team were wounded, the Sniper could also patch them up with his first aid kit.
With a SCUBA tank, the Marine could travel underwater, undetectable to enemy eyes. His harpoon gun allowed for silent takedowns over distance, though he also carried a knife for close encounters. Unlike the Green Beret, the Marine couldn’t carry the bodies he left in his wake, so care had to be taken that enemies would not see them. By using an inflatable boat, however, it was possible to have him ferry other commandos over bodies of water to assist with clean-up.
While perhaps the antithesis of stealth, there are approximately no ways to silently explode an enemy installation, so although the Sapper could cut holes in chain fences with his pliers, and deploy a modified bear trap to instantly kill solo patrolling enemies, his specialty was – as his title implies – blowing stuff up. Grenades, time-bombs, and remotely detonated explosives were all a part of his arsenal.
In those times when making a lot of noise was unavoidable, the Driver was handy to have. His ability to commandeer enemy vehicles and gun turrets made him of paramount importance to seeing the others to safety, whether by acting as their getaway driver, providing covering fire with his submachine gun, or by blowing holes in enemy lines with a freshly stolen tank.
The Spy was probably the most fun of all the commandos, able to hide in plain sight after stealing a General’s uniform, he was also fluent in German and so could convincingly distract lower-ranking enemies. His weapon of choice was a poison-filled syringe, though his identity was instantly revealed if anyone else spotted him administering the lethal injection, or carrying away the human evidence of his crime.
Though each of the commandos had a handgun to fall back on, it was largely an ineffective weapon when pitted against the superior range and damage of the German soldiers’ machine guns, and so understanding and utilising the full spectrum of abilities at the commandos’ disposal was key to victory.
Despite the specific roles they all had to play, the game never felt linear. There was never only one correct path to win any given level; put two different commandos in front of the same mission and there’d be two different solutions.
The levels themselves were quite varied as well. Whether destroying key enemy infrastructure, or assassinating important officials, the mission parameters were constantly changing, increasing in difficulty as the game progressed. Gunfire that was tolerated in early missions would trigger alarms that resulted in game failure (or inundated the level with troops and patrols, making it exponentially more difficult) later on. Likewise, blowing up an enemy installation may be all that’s required initially for mission success, where in subsequent levels this could have caused masses of troops to converge on your position while you tried desperately to get to the extraction zone.
The difficulty at times felt as though it was dialled up to 11, but the challenge only made success that much sweeter.
The complex nature of Commandos’ stealth gameplay should now be readily apparent, and perhaps herein lies the reason this genre is largely untouched. The interplay between enemy AI and player skill, the commanding of multiple independent characters with distinctive skillsets, the multiple paths to each solution, and the reliance on split-second timing, all bear the hallmarks of clever puzzle design – a rare talent in the games industry.
They’re obviously very different games, but it’s nevertheless interesting to note the difference in approach when compared to a game like Thief, which fundamentally relied on the restrictions of the first-person perspective to help heighten immersion and tension. Commandos, conversely, relying on almost a sensory-overload of information to achieve the same result.
Both games’ mechanics are timeless. It’s unlikely their core systems will become dated in the way their graphics engines have, though Commandos’ 1024×768 resolution still looks surprisingly good, even when scaled to fit a 1920×1200 24” monitor. It was a genuine shock to fire up the GOG release of the game and find it relatively unscathed by the ravages of time. It says a lot that a game now 14 years old is as playable and as challenging as the day it was released. But I digress.
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines is probably not the first game that comes to mind when you think stealth gaming, but its unconventional approach is exactly what made it stand out. It managed to be both frenetic and sedate, simultaneously action and puzzler, heavy on planning with splash of improvisation. It was a stealth game unlike any we’d seen before, and to my mind, defined the stealth genre in a way no game has matched since.