Perpetually Cool: White Death

By Tim Stone on July 11th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Tim Stone remembers the war. The Commandos 2 war. Well, one level of it, at least.

I suspect I’m not alone in using games as climatic counterweights. In the depths of winter, I like to thumb my dripping nose at rapacious energy companies by relying on digitized deserts and jungles for background warmth. In the midst of blacktop-softening summer heatwaves, I’m often to be found skimming Alpine glaciers, trudging behind snow-caked Tiger tanks, or – courtesy of brilliant Commandos 2 level ‘White Death’ – artfully strewing fag packets on achingly artistic Arctic pack ice.

For the benefit of those readers who don’t have to trim nasal hair yet or scroll the ‘year of birth’ list in online forms, Commandos 2: Men of Courage was an example of a strategy sub-genre that slipped ashore by moonlight in 1998 and, after memorable visits to the Old West, Sherwood Forest and various far-flung corners of WW2, paddled back to a waiting submarine circa 2006. Tragically short-lived, fiendishly tricky and often improbably pretty, this close-knit family of games combined hand-painted isometric backdrops with stealth-orientated tactical thrills. Using a small team of scurrying specialists you tiptoed your way across maps, creating diversions, eliminating guards, and rifling bodies. Disaster was always one mistimed sprint or poorly concealed corpse away; often you played with one finger hovering over the ‘hurl dagger’ key and another poised above the ‘quickload’ key.

While, on reflection, Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive was, thanks to its more sophisticated orders system and sharper AI, probably a better game than Commandos 2: Men of Courage, the atmosphere and intricacy of Pyro Studios’ 2001 hit still takes my breath away whenever I return. ‘White Death’, C2′s blizzard-blasted third map, is one of my very favourite game levels.

Like a diorama crafted by an endearingly over-enthusiastic military modeller, this pocket- handkerchief level is cluttered with the eye-catching and the extraordinary. Wherever you look, there’s the promise of adventure. Your lone starting character begins in the belly of a British submarine, that, damaged by depth charges, has been forced to punch its way to the surface through Arctic ice. A snowball’s throw from the captured sub is a frost-rimed Kriegsmarine destroyer and a makeshift polar camp of huts and tents. Guards are everywhere, watching, patrolling, pausing to chat besides doorways or watch as walruses frolic in frigid pools. The Brueghelian spectacle is topped off with a Fieseler Storch ski plane parked to the North and an observation balloon tethered in the East. If Gonzo Suárez had got one of his artists to scrawl ‘THIS IS A BALLY EXOTIC/EXCITING PLACE TO BE!!’ in the snow next to the sub’s gang-plank, he couldn’t have made his intentions any clearer.

And the excitement doesn’t take long to arrive. Within seconds of leaving his hiding place, Fins, the C2 diver, is peering warily through hatches, chucking his faithful dagger the length of gloomy compartments, and noiselessly plundering store cupboards and lockers. Enemies tumble over tripwires, emit muffled shouts of indignation through hastily applied gags, and turn just in time to level Lugers and MP 40s at an intruder intent on murder.

By the time Fins escapes the fetid interior of the sub, he’s sure to have a few quickloads behind him; his backpack is bound to be bulging with handy distraction devices and pilfered weaponry. Moving from the sentry-sentinelled deck to the shelter where Fireman, the Sapper, is hiding, is one of C2′s most challenging sections. Almost every inch of the ice between the sub and the destroyer is covered by bootprints and the pivoting vision cones of watchful Germans. Careful observation, split-second timing, and imaginative use of diversions, is essential if progress to be made. Attempt to rush and frustration and repetition is guaranteed. Take things slowly – think twice before placing that cigarette packet or drugged wine bottle – and the satisfaction that comes from efficiently dismantling the carefully overlapped defences can be immense.

Once Fins has rendezvoused with Sapper and Butcher (the beefy ‘Green Beret’) your choice of cunning takedown methods expands considerably. Stealth gaming really doesn’t get any better than ordering Butcher to drop a box of Lucky Strikes then to quickly bury himself in a self-dug snow-hole…

One click and the massive Irishman emerges like a trapdoor spider behind a pleased-as-Punch sentry. Another click and a swift Fairbairn-Sykes coup-de-grace sends watching penguins (zoological realism wasn’t one of C2′s strengths) into a frenzy.

Commandeering the balloon isn’t strictly necessary, but floating around the map in its one-man basket is fine way to savour the skill of Pyro’s talented art team.

Francisco Javier Soler Fas, Marcos Matías Martínez Carvajal, Fernando Huélamo, Daniel Estival Hernández, Jorge Fernández Meléndez… all gods in my eyes. Their attention to detail – the way they streak rust, trample snow, and crack ice makes equivalent landscapes in games like Men of War and CoH2 seem positively primitive.

Within the extensively modelled interior of the ship and sub, the use of a conventional 3D engine (Outside spaces are viewable from four fixed angles) means the scenery is less crisp, but there’s still ambience to be savoured and fun to be had.

Once the sub crew and the remaining commandos have been freed from their makeshift prison in the bilgey bowels of the destroyer, an Enigma machine must be recovered from the bridge, then various engines and turrets sabotaged before the team can make their escape via Storch and sub. Crowded with tars and sentries, the spacious, multi-level engine room is a particularly tricky tactical nut to crack tidily. I tend to rely on the Spy during this phase. His ability to use stolen uniforms, and persuade foes to accompany him into dark corners is perfect for creating gaps in enemy ranks – opportunities for consummate killers like Fins and Butcher to ply their deadly craft. If push comes to shove and a plan starts to unravel then his poison-filled syringe will occasionally save the day.

As captivating and beautifully constructed as White Death is, you can’t play it regularly without wishing Pyro had done a few small things differently. There’s an exposure mechanism that means anyone moving about outside without suitable protective clothing will quickly freeze to death. Great idea, but the level designers seem scared to let the feature stretch its frostbitten legs; warm togs can be found virtually everywhere and dips in the ocean have no effect on body temperature.

Flawed AI also undermines a little of the level designer’s excellent handiwork. Less thorough in their searches than Desperados’ goons, and less patient, even at the ‘Very Hard’ difficulty setting C2′s foes sometimes don’t punish clumsiness and clamour as effectively as they should. Early on, SMG, pistol and grenade use really should be a potentially disastrous last resort for a player, not the time-saving shortcut it sometimes is.

And obviously, White Death would have benefited from a splash of Whiskey and Spike. The fiendly bull terrier (who almost certainly should have got his own spin-off game) and the tame rat that assist the team elsewhere in C2, are absent from this Arctic adventure meaning you don’t get to see the tear-jerking spectacle of a plucky pooch protecting its wounded master from a marauding walrus, or a specially-trained rodent scuttling along an anchor chain with an Enigma machine cog lashed to its back. Missed opportunities.

None of which means I won’t be returning to the wonderful White Death when the mercury is high and the roads are melting, next summer.

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52 Comments »

  1. pakoito says:

    Spaniards, AHOY!

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      Javier says:

      HOLLOA!

      • heyjou says:

        Spaniard here.

        One of the very best games made here, with commandos 1 / 1.5 and blade: the edge of darkness.

        The first commandos was great because its gameplay was new and fresh for me, this second was the astonishing ambience and detail. I think gameplay looked easier in second than first, but because second had more ways to win.

        Loved when planning a move, do it and fail caused by patrol time and vision cones wrong coordinated. Then do a test of “what if I move…” and luckily do it well, then quicksave, all nervous, and celebrating like a victory a damn 10 meters advance of your squad.

        • mhcastrillon says:

          SPAIN REPRAZENT!
          We used to have some awesome game studios. Nowadays, it’s MercurySteam, Péndulo and a few scattered indies.
          SO SAD.

        • Crazy Hippo says:

          Commandos was an ace series of games until they changed the formula in 3 onwards. as for Blade edge of darkness heyjou, i think it was called severance blade of darkness in the UK and was as you say a brilliant game.

          i might have to get playing commandos this weekend :)

      • Zanchito says:

        Buenas, por aquí andamos. :)

  2. Kaira- says:

    Well, I guess this solves what I’ll be (re)installing and doing this weekend. Thanks, Tim. Thim.

    Anyhow, I always felt that Commandos and co was much more a puzzle game than tactics game or anything of that sort. And I guess that’s what makes them so compelling and unique. Shame there isn’t many more of these. How’s Commandos 3, if someone’s played it?

    • XhomeB says:

      I was incredibly disappointed with C3, it’s easily the worst game in the series (let’s forget about Strike Force), feels like an alpha version of an expansion to C2 that got pushed out the door before it was actually done. The mission areas are incredibly small, the mission themselves – short, often with a time limit and really poorly designed – for example, while it was fun and worth it to explore the interiors in C2, there’s no point whatsoever to do this in C3 (no secrets, no items or gear, 95% of the rooms are empty), certain abilities of our commandos which made sense in C2 are totally useless, the list goes on.

      It’s such a shame, because the cutscenes are AMAZING and the music equally so. It feels like a downgrade compared to C1, even.

      • HothMonster says:

        I also seem to remember it having absolute shit loading times. So every mistake was twice as painful because the reload hotkey meant 5 minutes staring into space. Pretty sure I didn’t make it through 3

        . I do remember some cool levels though, wasn’t 3 the one were you are in Berlin trying to infiltrate some nazi headquarters while guards patrolled in groups of ten?

        • Ringwraith says:

          That mission is wonderfully brutal, especially due to the Gestapo officers around who are not fooled by any level of disguise, regardless of their own rank, making the old exploitable Spy tactics not so exploitable. You also get a nice array of ways to finish it, you basically only need to kill one guy after retrieving a tool to kill him with, these being a disguise, sniper rifle or explosives, then escape. Each of those items is in its own heavily-guard area, so you only need to solve one of those deathtraps to actually succeed.

    • Malleus says:

      Commandos 3 is abysmal, complete garbage, avoid.

    • Master Realtor Marklew says:

      They basically tried to turn Commandos 3 into an action game, with timed missions, and in most missions you can’t take your time to skulk aroud taking down the enemies and exploring every inch of the scenario.
      Can’t reccomend the first two enough, though!

  3. Soulstrider says:

    Ah the Commandos death, how nostalgic, I played Beyond the Call of Duty to death.

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      Vandelay says:

      Beyond the Call of Duty was an amazing expansion. The first level was one of the hardest things I have played and it just got harder from there.

      I recall playing the 2nd mission with a friend over a LAN and we spent about 20 minutes using the spy to slowly nudge an officer in charge of a firing squad behind a wall, so we could quietly inject him. I don’t think we ever figured out how you we actually meant to do that level, but our way worked just as well! (albeit much slower.)

      The second game is certainly the best in the series, as it was a little more open in how you could actually approach the levels, but this did make a fair bit easier. It was still harder than the majority of games around (remember, this was back when games where actually meant to be a challange,) but it did lose a little something.

      • EOT says:

        I don’t remember ever getting past the first mission. Twelve year old me was very out of his depth.

        • Graerth says:

          I’m not sure if i ever finished the whole game. Had a pirated version in which saving didn’t work.

          Fuck that shit was hard when you couldn’t save at any point of a mission.

  4. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Great games.. but I always found myself to be too incompetent at them to figure out exactly what to do. Or whether I simply wasn’t patient enough.

  5. kestwool says:

    I played Commandos, but never did play the 2nd and 3rd installments. How convenient that they’re 75% off on Steam for the next day or so!

    • XhomeB says:

      I’d recommend getting them from GOG, the Steam version might require some additional tinkering, the GOG version work, um, straight out of the (digital) box.

  6. Inglourious Badger says:

    Ah the memories. Commandos 2 was ace. Very quick-save/quick-load heavy, but still a brilliant example of stealth games where there’s more than one way of achieving your objective (and about 1 million ways to fail).

  7. Monkeh says:

    I’ve actually never got into Commandos 2 and 3, even though I bought on release.

    Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines/Beyond the Call of Duty on the other hand, I’ve played through numerous times and still play either one from time to time. Also, on a graphic-whorish note, IMO the sequels look ugly with their 3D engines, while the first and 1.5 so to say (Beyond the Call of Duty) still look pretty nice with their 2D graphics.

    • XhomeB says:

      But… only the interiors and characters (really nicely animated, too) were done in 3D. The backgrounds in 2 were done in stunning 2D, AND you could rotate the camera through 90 degrees.

      C3 might have looked worse, because the highest resolution it offered was 800×600 – compare that to 1024×768 in C2 and even C1 (!). Like I said, C3 was totally unfinished and obviously rushed.

    • squareking says:

      They are downright gorgeous. I only really played the first, but I spent hours poring over all the beautiful details. I thought Baldur’s Gate was pretty at the time, but once I found Commandos, I realized the full potential of lovingly detailed scenes. The fact that Project Eternity is shaping up to be a fine mix of those two makes me really happy.

      Also White Death made me think of Thurston Moore’s Black Weeds / White Death, which you should all hear.

  8. NathanH says:

    What I particularly love about this series is that you start a mission, look over the map and think “there is no conceivable way that this mission can be completed.”

    Well, I also particularly love the Commandos 2 “training missions”, which are harder than most *games*.

    • XhomeB says:

      I honestly consider C2 one of the best games ever made and one of the finest examples of how to make a sequel that improves upon the original in every possible way. One could argue those improvements made C2 easier than C1, but that didn’t hurt the game at all in my book.

  9. Ephant says:

    Does anyone remember the 8 minute long gameplay trailer of C2? Greatest thing ever.

    • Tusque D'Ivoire says:

      yes! I remember drooling over every bit of news about commandos 2, and that was basically a whole mission. Having played C1 a lot (of course never finishing it, i was way too young, anxious and couldn’t concentrate), I watched everything unfold, understood every action (I remember as if it was slightly put in scene, not pure gameplay) and filled in the blanks in my mind.

  10. shagohad says:

    I thought “Butcher” was Tiny, did they change that in C2? I thought he was Tiny in that too

  11. wodin says:

    Silent Storm and it’s engine was never used enough…no turn based game yet at 1:1 scale has worked aswell, loved it and the animations..just a shame about the sci fi aspect..

    I’d be more than happy to see that engine brought back to life..

    I found the commandos series more like puzzle games than a tactics game.

  12. TheMick says:

    I got the series on steam, and the games ran at warp speed I assume due to my modern hardware. I had no luck getting the game down to playable speed at that time, might have to dust off that search again. Anyone have any particular tips on that one?

  13. DarkMalice says:

    C2 is that good I’ve never uninstalled it (save for new OS), brilliant game.

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    AlwaysRight says:

    Instabought! I had Commandos bundled with my first ever PC (if you don’t count Atari STs and Amigas).
    I never completed a single level. But now I’m better, stonger, sexier. Now I will prevail.

  15. NotToBeLiked says:

    I still remember drawing maps with tactics about how to perfectly play some missions during boring lessons in school.
    Turns out sitting in the back scribbling weird schemes does not make you popular with other teenagers! (or any good at the game for that matter)

  16. Eddy9000 says:

    I loved desperadoes, particularly that if you fluffed a plan you could often shoot your way out, but it wasn’t as satisfying as laying traps and using items of scenery to progress. You wanted to use the more complex tactics because they felt more fun rather than having to reload just cos you messed up. Reloading is the worst thing in videogames, I’m surprised more developers haven’t tried to find alternatives; would be nice if the new thief game includes escape mechanisms rather than having to reload every time you get caught.

  17. beatdarwin says:

    I did a double take when I saw the pic of the inventory management UI. I thought you’d accidentally linked to a screen cap from my favorite game in waiting, (and it might *just* be a thing hanging around RPS HQ these days), Sir, You Are Being Hunted! ;-)

    Loved C2 back in the day. Thanks for the bring-back! Loading now…

  18. Colej_uk says:

    I also have fond memories of C2. I actually played the whole thing through in co-op with a friend, and it’s still one of my most cherished co-op experiences.

    This is a franchise that needs reviving.

  19. SominiTheCommenter says:

    I remember reading in a Portuguese magazine the devs themselves have never completed the second game on the hardest difficulty. Someone in the forums has, so it was probably just some clever advertising.
    I played Strike Force a while ago and found it surprisingly good. It’s Hitman(Spy), COD(Green Beret) and Sniper(Sniper) all rolled into one.

  20. SystemiK says:

    Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines was the first PC game that I ever owned. I don’t even have words to describe how I loved that game (and still do). Commandos 2 was just as well received. It was very much a puzzle game in my mind, with every single enemy a delightful (yet sometimes maddening) riddle to solve. I simply could not leave a level behind until every last soldier had been subdued.

    If anyone were to bring a faithful representation of either of those games to market, I would gladly open my bank account to them. I’d happily pay $150 for any game that could equal C2. It was nearly perfect. Such a shame that they let the Commandos franchise wither and die…

  21. digby5000 says:

    This game was brutal…

    Keep up the good work Tim. Brilliant article.

  22. Jason Lutes says:

    Great piece, Tim. The incredible craftsmanship that went into Pyro’s line of puzzle games deserves this high praise and commemoration. I played them all, and they were all beautiful. Desperadoes and Robin Hood were great too — Spellbound seemed to pick up the Pyro torch there for a while. But Chicago 1930 was kind of suck.

  23. skraeling says:

    Fantastic. I love articles where the writer just celebrates the joyful experience of deeply playing great games. Even though I’ve never played Commandos 2, this article reminds me of my own “White Death” levels in other games whose construction and design just make me feel good when I play them.

  24. Low Life says:

    The first time I played Commandos 2, it took me about a week of playing the first level to figure out that I was able to rotate the camera. After I got past that initial hurdle, the game itself was quite an experience. Someone needs to kickstart a (spiritual) sequel.

  25. Assaf says:

    wow guys… this gives me a HUGE appetite for a commandos-spiritual-successor kickstarter. can’t wait.

  26. blandbutgreasy says:

    I thought the level in Desperadoes where you played the army and the bandits off against each other was genius. And the monkey.

  27. Jams O'Donnell says:

    Commandos 2 is an amazing, amazing game. I doubt it will ever drop out of my personal top 5.

    My favourite story from it is from the daytime sub pen mission (mission 2, I think), where after a couple of hours of carefully knocking guards out and tying them up I managed to alert a guard that I’d somehow missed (I honestly think he was the last untied guard in the level), and he ran around the entire level untying everyone. I then basically had to start over, knocking everyone out and tying them up and this time STABBING THEM WHEN THEY WERE DOWN TO MAKE SURE THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN AGAIN. ARGH!

    (zoological realism wasn’t one of C2′s strengths)

    Brilliantly, the manual addressed that. I think it was pretty much “Yeah, we know penguins aren’t in the arctic and that piranhas are meant to be in South America, but we like them and wanted to include them so there!”

    aside: I’ve never played Desperados or Robin Hood. Do they really compare favourably with Commandos 2? Which should I play first?

    • n. says:

      The first Desperados is a brilliant game. Robin Hood is just ok.

      • Jason Lutes says:

        Agreed. Desperados is truly fun and memorable. There are levels of that game with so much atmosphere and intensity that they’re burned into my brain for all time. Robin Hood has great stuff like swashbuckling moves and awesome setting, but the “manage your Merry Men” aspect (though innovative for this kind of game) starts to get tedious after a while.

  28. RedWurm says:

    Hm, I should dig out the discs for this. I only really played the original on my first ever computer, me and a friend scrolling around the maps, trying to unravel the fiendish chain of sight lines and patrol paths.

    Only ever completed one mission, but many, many happy hours of stabbing nonetheless.

  29. PedroBraz says:

    Played them all.
    1 Had the tightest errormargin. Only 1 or 2 ways to do things.
    2 was easier but still good fun.
    3 was not fun, but had the best music.

    the first level of Strike force feels very much like 1 only in 3d, but thats where it ends. It is sort of a poor mans Hidden & Dangerous. Decent WW2 fps, Commandoss game not so much.

    Best theme from all the games:

  30. wotingbudong says:

    Agree with all the comments here regarding Commandos 2. FYI there is an mod, Commandos 2: Destination Paris. A bunch of guys from all over the world have taken the original game and made it even more awesome.
    For updates on the latest mod (1.42) and more have a look at this: http://forums.revora.net/topic/85903-commandos-2-destination-paris-update-142/
    You can also download C2:DP 1.41, which is super cool version, much harder than C2 and includes a bunch of fan made levels too.
    Really excellent game, hope we can get a new one soon

  31. Smi says:

    I’ve been catching up with “articles wot I have pocketed” from the past and came across this gem. Thanks, Tim – wonderfully written.

    It’s also reminded me just how wonderful Desperados was. That was a game that truly grasped me, one that I truly fell in love with. It still had its quirks, the ups and downs. The levels slanted so far against your favour that the only method was to ‘game’ the AI a bit. Nonetheless, it was a brilliant, detailed, interesting and difficult game. I absolutely adore it. To bits!

    I’ve never really made much headway with the Commandos series – but having read this, I will. Commando, away!