In 1998, Madrid-based videogame developers Pyro Studios produced a shock hit with their landmark game Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines. It shifted 900,000 copies, and did particularly well in the UK and Germany. Eventually, it would prove to be the trigger point for a small but uniquely engaging sub-genre of real-time stealth tactics games. These sprang up in the early 2000s, died off, and were then revived in 2016.
After the release of the standalone expansion Beyond the Call of Duty in 1999, Pyro’s British publisher, Eidos, were eager to profit from another success. They put their weight behind the Spanish developers, who set to work on a sequel with a hefty budget of $7 million. Flush with cash and manpower, Pyro ultimately delivered an almost recklessly ambitious follow-up: 2001’s Commandos 2: Men of Courage.
Over 20 years later, the game is still an essential entry in the genre that Pyro invented. Commandos 2 is definitely a product of its time, and its learning curve can be steep for those more familiar with the friendlier revivals made by Mimimi Games. It is exuberant but imperfect, with a number of new concepts and systems which could have been better implemented. Despite these flaws, Commandos 2 is a thrilling exercise in painstaking stealth - and no exploration of the genre is complete without it.
Wish you were here: environments, visuals, and sound
The original Commandos introduced a group of six crack soldiers: the Green Beret, the Spy, the Marine, the Driver, the Sniper, and the Sapper. Over the course of 20 meticulously designed World War II missions, players used these troops’ unique skills to scupper German plans in various locales in Europe and North Africa. The game was defined by its beautiful 2D environments, thoughtful slow-paced gameplay, and punishing difficulty which demanded frequent saving and loading. Commandos 2 doubles down on all of these elements.
The sequel has only ten main missions, but they are even more elaborate than Pyro’s first attempts. The developers expanded their reach, setting several missions in the Pacific theatre. They added accessible interiors to each location, which range from a cavernous submarine pen at La Rochelle to a network of tunnels that threads through Savo Island. These interior locations add tactical complexity and a stronger sense of place to each operation. While they are fully 3D, they are almost as detailed as the intricate exteriors.
In the original Behind Enemy Lines and its expansion, the mission space could only be viewed from one, isometric angle. This placed notable restrictions on the level design. For Commandos 2, Pyro’s artists crafted each locale from four angles at 90-degree intervals. The player can switch between these at any time. At first, this is deeply confusing and is a significant part of the game’s learning curve. After the first mission or two, it almost becomes second nature - and represents a step closer to the fully-3D games which have dominated the genre since 2016.
The achievements of Pyro’s art team in Commandos 2 are extraordinary. The sequel stands tall as one of the best-looking games from its era, and its painterly, handmade approach helps it continue to look fantastic over two decades later. The third mission, “White Death” is often cited as the game’s highest visual achievement. Set in the Arctic Circle, it requires the Marine to rescue his comrades from the vicinity of an icebound Kriegsmarine destroyer.
Conversely, sound is the game’s technical weak point. Effects are often weak and undercooked, which undermines the carefully-crafted atmosphere. Happily, the music is much better - a fine score by Pyro’s regular composer Mateo Pascual, although he would deliver superior work for the developers’ last great game Praetorians (2003).
Back to war: gameplay changes
The core gameplay remains faithful to the design of Behind Enemy Lines. In each of the ten missions, the player is assigned a subset of the commandos. Using their skills, the player must first establish a foothold, and then gradually unpick the enemy defences. Typically, this means stealthily eliminating guards one at a time, to open up routes to the key objectives. Exploiting distractions and gaps in enemy sightlines is crucial, as is hiding bodies and making a minimum of noise.
Pyro made a number of bold changes, however. Possibly the single most common criticism of the first game is the weak skill set of some of the characters. In Commandos 2, the developers made a clear effort to increase the utility of the Driver. He is given the ability to deploy a lethal mantrap - something the Sapper was previously responsible for. At times, he can also use stun grenades, smoke grenades, and Molotov cocktails. The net result is that the Driver is a little more useful than before. Ironically, he almost never gets the chance to drive a vehicle.
Unfortunately, Pyro paid little attention to the Sniper, who is given no new abilities of note and mostly remains dead weight. The new characters are also flawed. The Thief sounds good on paper - a fast, nimble character able to reach otherwise inaccessible places. His inexplicable inability to kill enemies, or even to tie up unconscious ones, severely reduces his usefulness. For her part, the Seductress is a half-baked fusion of the Spy and the Sniper, who only makes rare appearances. Pyro arguably should have better balanced the core six characters, rather than introducing underwhelming new ones.
The core six do benefit, though, from some across-the-board changes. They can all knock out enemies, and everyone except the Thief can tie them up. Everyone can throw cigarette packets as a distraction, a mechanic introduced in Beyond the Call of Duty. Commandos 2 also introduces an inventory system, which allows the soldiers to collect, use, and exchange items located in the environment. This is often crucial to completing objectives, especially because the Sapper almost never remembers to bring any explosives with him.
When a plan comes together: mission design
While Pyro’s gameplay changes are a mixed bag, their mission design is superb. Commandos 2 assembles ten brilliantly designed challenges, each of which will take a good few hours to unpick. While the original game risked becoming samey at times, Commandos 2 revels in variety. The addition of 3D interiors allowed the team to craft even more complex operations, which offer more player choice.
One example is the sixth mission, “The Guns of Savo Island”. It is an imaginative mix of influences, including the real battles in the Solomon Islands in 1942 and the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone. Pyro even included a then-topical nod to Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (2000). The island is threaded with a network of fortifications, both above and below ground. The Marine must dive to a shipwreck to recover a cutting torch, fending off Japanese frogmen in the process. Optionally, the Sapper can demolish a wall to help capture a golden monkey statue.
The mission locations in Commandos 2 are more than just functional - the best ones feel like miniature worlds in themselves, like the ultimate interactive wartime dioramas. Pyro wear their influences on their sleeves to an unusual extent - their cinematic inspirations are evident in mission titles like “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and “Saving Private Smith”. In 2001, the team’s ability to live up to those films was quite real.
A classic, defining feature of the best real-time stealth tactics games is the “how the hell” moment. This is when a new mission loads up for the first time, the camera pans out to display an epic vista crawling with enemy guards and fortifications, and the player asks themselves: “how the hell am I supposed to do this?” What follows is the real magic - finding the ways to unpick the web of security, make narrow escapes, and eventually secure a victory against all odds.
Commandos 2 delivers some of the best “how the hell” moments in the genre. This is partly because the exterior of buildings hides the deeper challenges of the interiors. The ninth mission is a spectacular take on the notorious military prison at Colditz Castle. It is a terrifying, multi-storey edifice, surrounded by guards and hostile patrols. What is even more worrying, and exciting, is the thought of the even tighter security inside the walls.
Roads taken and not taken: the Commandos 2 legacy
Pyro Studios seized a unique opportunity in their development of Commandos 2. With the greater resources available to them, they greatly increased their ambition. This is evident not only in the scale and complexity of the missions, but also in the grab-bag of new and adjusted game mechanics. The game has an important legacy within the genre, because of the way other developers did or did not take up these ideas.
For example, there are several gameplay concepts that Pyro experimented with in Commandos 2 that only other developers explored thoroughly. In “The Guns of Savo Island”, it is possible to hide bodies in dense undergrowth. Mimimi Games used this as a crucial mechanic in Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun (2016) and subsequent projects. Similarly, at one point the Thief is given a pet rat, Spike, which can be sent out to distract enemies. Again, Mimimi Games have implemented this idea much more consistently and successfully.
Other ideas pioneered by Commandos 2 have largely not been taken forward. The use of interiors, multiple camera views, and an inventory system were all rejected by other studios - likely because they increase the complexity of gameplay. The success of Mimimi’s revival of the genre arguably rests on their knack for streamlining and simplification, which leaves no room for these more finicky features.
The most important legacy of Commandos 2 is in its superlative level design. Pyro’s work set a standard for missions which are both sprawling and rich with detail - painstakingly crafted worlds in miniature. Despite its evident flaws, Commandos 2 remains an essential, methodical masterpiece of real-time stealth tactics.
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.