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.