In 2006, the Spanish game developer Pyro Studios was full of confidence. With a new game nearly complete, they had big ambitions. The CEO, Ignacio Pérez, planned to grow the company from 70 staff to 250 over the next few years. Pyro would become not just a preeminent developer in Europe, but in the world.
In retrospect, these comments have a tragic feel. The game that Pyro was about to complete was Commandos: Strike Force and it would prove to be a stinging failure. Pérez’s big plans would never come to pass. Worse, his company would never again release a notable game. It would first be reduced to the relative ignominy of mobile game development, and then would finally close for good in 2017.
On paper, Strike Force appeared to be based on good ideas and a sound business logic. It was intended as a means for Pyro Studios to capitalise on its established Commandos series, to move into cross-platform development, and to break into the lucrative console market. To all this, they would shift Commandos into a first-person shooter mould. In the end, the game badly alienated the company’s existing fans and failed to win new ones. Its critical and commercial failure contributed strongly to the demise of Pyro, long the foremost studio in Spain, and the Commandos series.
Now that a new revival of the series is in development, it is interesting to go back to the disastrous fourth entry. Picking over the wreckage, it is clear that Pyro’s plans were not without merit. Strike Force is a desperately average game, released much too late to have a chance in a crowded World War II shooter market. But it does have good ideas, and a certain charm of its own.
The best laid plans
Based in Madrid, Pyro Studios had been built on the success of the Commandos series. The first game had unexpectedly sold 900,000 copies, and ensured the enthusiastic future support of Pyro’s British publisher Eidos. Commandos 2 (2001) remains, in some ways, the most ambitious entry in the real-time stealth tactics genre that the Spaniards pioneered. But by the mid-2000s, Pyro were already finding themselves at a crossroads.
Firstly, their recent games had underperformed. Commandos 3: Destination Berlin (2003) and Praetorians (2003) had been developed in parallel, but neither met sales expectations; the same can be said for Imperial Glory (2005). Secondly, the industry context was changing. The big picture was that PC-centric development was losing ground to cross-platform projects that stood a chance of big sales on consoles. In the cold light of day, it was clear that Pyro’s usual style of game was poorly suited to this model.
More specifically, there was a major boom in fully-3D first-person shooters with World War II settings. Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001), Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002), and Call of Duty (2003) had all been big business in recent years. Pyro made a bold and fateful decision. They would develop a reboot of the Commandos series which represented a European competitor to these American-made hits. Strike Force would be a first-person shooter, but one which incorporated the stealth and tactical elements of Pyro’s previous successes.
If it worked, this plan could have given new life to the Commandos brand and helped Pyro to break into the increasingly lucrative market for console shooters. It must have seemed like a smart idea at the time. But Strike Force would prove to be a disaster which failed to please any potential audience. In time, its failure contributed significantly to the demise of Pyro Studios. That is not to say, though, that the game was not distinctive or that it lacked redeeming features. In its own way, it remains an intriguing oddity.
A new perspective
When it is discussed at all, Strike Force is often described as a standard World War II shooter, but this does it a bit of a disservice. To be fair to Pyro Studios, their game does do some things differently. The most notable departure from convention, and one which links it with the earlier Commandos games, is the multiple playable characters. There are three playable commandos. In most missions, two or all three of them are playable and typically the player can switch between them at will.
For this departure into the first-person perspective, Pyro reworked three of the six commandos from the first game, Behind Enemy Lines - the Green Beret, the Spy, and the Sniper. Because Strike Force is a reboot, the team preserved the broad archetypes of the original characters, but gave them new identities. The Green Beret, for example, is no longer an Irishman but instead an American.
Like Commandos 2, Strike Force is divided into three campaigns - set in France, Norway, and the Soviet Union. In each mission, one, two or all three of the commandos work to complete a short set of objectives, possibly with the support of allied troops. The playable characters each have their own style of play:
This division of labour, and the various gameplay styles it represents, genuinely do make Strike Force feel distinctive - even now. When it works, it delivers some exciting moments. A late mission sees the Green Beret hunt down and destroy an armoured unit in the ruins of Stalingrad; another operation has the Spy and the Sniper work together to help an allied convoy navigate a Norwegian fjord. But too often, Strike Force does not work and it failed for good and fairly clear reasons.
Importantly, Strike Force felt quite dated right from its original release in 2006. Built on the off-the-shelf Renderware engine, its graphics were largely unimpressive. In a number of respects, it looked worse than the World War II shooters that influenced it, even though these were years old at the time. Half-Life 2 had been out for nearly a year and a half. Inexperienced with fully-3D, first-person games, Pyro could not compete in this area.
The previous Commandos games are known for their beautiful and sprawling 2D environments. Only very occasionally does Strike Force even hint at the same grandeur. Its 3D environments feel small and inert - Return to Castle Wolfenstein was more impressive nearly five years earlier. The missions are often brief and feel rushed and truncated; at times only one character is available, which undermines the game’s main supposed selling point. In general the game is simply too short, with a campaign that takes only a few hours to tackle.
Worse, Strike Force is much too easy. Pyro’s earlier games were known for their stern difficulty, and it seems as if the studio wanted to soften this in order to secure a wider audience. The result is missions which often lose all sense of challenge and tension. The Spy’s use of disguises, for example, tends to make stealth missions almost comically trivial. What should be an exciting behind-the-lines mission comes across as James Bond facing off against the Keystone Kops.
Instead, Strike Force is often at its best when it dispenses with stealth and focuses on combat. One of the strongest missions has the Green Beret and the Sniper working together to defend a bridge against a determined enemy assault. This of course, is a world away from the original appeal of the Commandos brand.
In the end, Commandos: Strike Force was a bold but desperately flawed gamble by Pyro Studios. It neither captivated the series’ existing audience, or captured a new one and this proved to be its undoing, creatively and commercially. Pyro would never again make another significant game, and its plans for future expansion were dashed. Spain’s most notable developer proved to be sadly short-lived, releasing games for less than ten years.
Today, Pyro’s best games still stand as a sturdy testament to their talent. For its part, Commandos: Strike Force is both an interesting curio and a kind of warning. Time will tell if new owners Kalypso Media can resuscitate the Commandos series.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.