Does Pyro Studios’ WWII RTS Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines still set the world of gaming on fire as it did in the late 90ies?
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines (PC)
(Spain 1998, developer: Pyro Studios, publishers: Eidos Interactive (now defunct)/Kalypso Media Digital, platforms: PC, Sega Mega Drive)
An allied officer takes control of a group of six commandos during WWII in order to bring the war to an end in Europe and Africa.
The cutscenes with real video and photo footage from the war period as well as briefings that give an overview of the ongoing conflict make it clear from the start that the game wants to be as historically accurate as possible. One feels drawn into a war that might have involved the lives of many soldiers and thus have been bigger than the six men, but their work of sabotage, assassination, and rescuing turns out to be all the more important for the cause.
Anyone expecting deep characterizations of the individual commandos will be disappointed, as there aren’t any dialogues or interactions between them. The same holds true for the overall storyline, as the missions are simply built around historical events. While this certainly won’t make the plot or the characters memorable, it doesn’t really matter, because the main focus is on the challenging gameplay itself.
Using a template that titles like Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive or Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun would later adapt and perfect, the game gives the player the freedom to complete missions with the unique abilities of the six commandos in mind: Marine Fins swims underwater and uses an inflatable boat to bring the others across; driver Brooklyn takes control of various vehicles like trucks or even tanks; sniper Duke uses his rifle to shoot from afar; green beret Tiny disposes of opponents with his knife while being strong enough to carry people and other objects; sapper Fireman cuts through wired fences and plants explosives; spy Frenchy can wear German uniforms, distract enemies of lower ranks and kill them with a lethal injection.
Each commando requires different strategies and the missions are designed so that coordination is essential to survive. But it soon becomes clear that the green beret and spy are the most useful characters, because they can both silently kill and carry away or rather hide enemies. It’s telling that some of the missions that don’t feature either of them are much tougher to beat.
With a clear emphasis on the historical background of the real commandos, it’s obvious that sabotage plays a big role in the game. But this means mission objectives become repetitive, as they usually involve destroying buildings and getting away via various vehicles. With 20 missions and a playtime of 20-25 hours, a bit more variety would have made them more interesting, especially since one spends a lot of time on slowly decimating the overwhelming numbers of enemies, which often results in retries and reloads.
Unfortunately only a few levels deviate from the norm, e.g. eliminating a high official without raising the alarm, rescuing an allied spy or disarming four bombs attached to a bridge almost simultaneously, i.e. killing those who can activate them, which is no easy feat with so many enemies around.
Trial and error with control issues
One has to pay close attention to both the mission briefing that gives an overview of the level and useful hints that help complete objectives. Despite the map marking targets, how to achieve these goals isn’t always clear, so one often falls back on trial and error. This is especially true when it comes to destroying buildings with explosive cans. The green beret is the only one who can carry them around, but the succeeding chain reaction when shooting at one of them requires pixel perfect positioning.
What makes matters more difficult are the controls, with characters moving rather slowly at times. Driving vehicles is also a pain, as it takes too much time to steer them around obstacles or simply turn in another direction. It’s a shame, because using a tank and clearing out an enemy base is quite satisfying. The controls often let the gameplay down, as can be seen with the marine’s boat in which not all commandos fit, making it impossible to reach the shore with everyone in one go.
At the end of each mission one receives a performance rating with the number of stars depending on how long it took to complete the level, how many buildings one destroyed and enemies were killed, in addition to other categories. The better the rating is, the higher the chance for promotion becomes. But as this doesn’t have any bearing on the overall story and doesn’t provide any perks for the next mission, the rating system can be neglected. Only the password that is provided for the next mission is important, as one can’t select the individual levels from the start menu.
Seeing and hearing history
The game’s background graphics are still nice to look at with many little details and impressive explosions, adding to the realism of the serious subject matter, which can also be seen in the various cutscenes. These aren’t of the best quality due to their low resolution, but as historical documents, in addition to the mission briefing photos, they do their part for historical accuracy.
The militaristic soundtrack is great, but only during briefings which feature some surprisingly good voice acting. The missions themselves don’t have any music, except for the first few seconds, while the sound effects only focus on gunfire, explosions and the commandos’ or enemies’ rather repetitive shouting. So ambient-wise there’s not a lot going on, but one barely notices it.
Making the game run on modern computers is a frustrating experience, as there are constant sound problems during briefings, i.e. the voice acting either abruptly stops or is missing completely. This can be rectified by reducing multiple core processors in one’s OS settings, but it doesn’t work everytime. Another problem is that the photos with explanations during the mission briefings stay for too long before the next ones follow. A few crashes and unstable savegames are another annoying issue.
A classic but not flawless war game
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines is without a doubt a very important title for the strategy genre, but after playing Desperados III or Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, it’s difficult to go back without their refined controls and better storytelling. As it doesn’t run that well on modern PCs, it’s even tougher to play.
The lack of plot and character development can be dismissed, though, because one always feels part of important historical events. If one doesn’t shy away from the punishing difficulty, one will be rewarded with a very tense and realistic WWII experience that sets itself apart from other strategy titles with its character ability-driven gameplay, even if the levels offer more or less the same objectives.
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