Newcomers to the games industry, Spanish developer Pyro Studios expected to sell about 15,000 copies of their first game. Within six months of its release in June 1998, it had shifted a massive 900,000 copies and topped the charts in the UK and Germany for over a dozen weeks. For a stealth game, Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines had made a big noise.
A confirmed surprise smash hit, Commandos instantly established Pyro as a studio to watch. Their polished execution of a novel and distinctive gameplay style made Commandos a template for a small but enduring wave of similar games; German studio Mimimi breathed new life into the subgenre as recently as 2016 with their excellent revival Shadow Tactics.
Commandos carved out a refreshing niche. Focused on real-time control of a small squad of World War II soldiers, it stood in stark contrast to both the strategic wargames that began in the early '80s and the simpler, newer real-time strategies of Command & Conquer.
With its emphasis on stealth and a degree of historical realism, combined with real-time gameplay and a refreshingly modest scale, Commandos could appeal to both serious grognards and more casual armchair generals. Over two decades on, the game still seems distinctive and in some way fresh - as well as remarkably fully-formed, given the newness of Pyro's ideas.
Beneath the World War II trappings, Commandos is at heart a puzzle game in disguise. The thrill is in using the two to six commandos at your disposal to meticulously unlock the enemy security, one step at a time. For a game set during the war, there's precious little combat per se - but the fiery sabotage that concludes most missions sets up a thrilling cycle of tension and release.
Pyro's grasp of mission design is exceptional. There is a hefty complement of 20 missions across Norway, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, France, Belgium, and finally Germany, and each one is carefully crafted. While their work on Commandos 2 is better known, the art team did a tremendous job on the varied locales of the first game, from the snowy Lofoten Islands to a German castle by way of the rooftops of Tunis.
For some, Commandos is synonymous with brutal difficulty - and while it isn't an easy game, it is fair and sometimes quite forgiving. Enemies aren't alerted by commandos sprinting immediately behind them, for example, and certain patrols will casually step over the corpses of their comrades if they can't easily trigger an alarm. The fact that sentries are found to be missing also does not cause alerts. Spellbound's 2001 game Desperados were largely a Commandos clone transplanted into the Old West - but it altered all of these aspects, and became significantly tougher as a result.
While a remarkably polished and seemingly timeless game, Commandos does have two notable flaws. The first is a lack of any music outside of menus, and no ambient sound - so often a key component of the atmosphere in stealth games. The second is that one commando dominates all of the others in prominence and usefulness. The Green Beret can literally carry enemy bodies but also figuratively carries his whole squad. His ability to climb certain walls, conceal himself, and use a radio decoy make him able to operate mostly independently.
While the Green Beret cuts the throats of half the Wehrmacht, his comrades have very rigid, limited roles. The Sapper can do little except plant explosives, and the Sniper will often fire only one or two rounds and make no other contribution to a mission. There's little sense of a real team, a factor that Desperados tried to address with its short cutscenes and dialogue. However, by including a character with abilities near-identical to the Green Beret - team leader John Cooper - it suffers the same pitfalls.
The tremendous success of Commandos enabled Pyro to develop a standalone expansion for release in 1999. Beyond the Call of Duty introduced eight new, tougher missions and spread the workload for the commandos somewhat by introducing new distraction techniques. The later Commandos 2 would also add an acclaimed soundtrack, and even more detailed artwork.
The Commandos style would be a relatively short-lived subgenre, all but dead by around 2006 and until its recent resurrection. The tidal wave of World War II RTS games may have diluted its appeal, and the emphasis on trial and error may also have been a factor. Today, the fact that these games stand up remarkably well and are being revived is a testament to the high quality of the original Commandos, the strikingly original and accomplished project that started it all.