Disposable Heroes

Disposable Heroes: Commandos 2: Men Of Courage and XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Death becomes us.

By Drew Toal • February 26, 2013

In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.

I was pretty bummed out when Jim Brown didn’t make it out of that Nazi chateau. Long before his star turn in Mars Attacks!, the eight-time NFL rushing champion was part of Lee Marvin’s ragtag group of suicide commandos in the 1967 war classic, The Dirty Dozen. He wasn’t the only casualty. We also lost Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, and Donald Sutherland. Sure, Charles Bronson and Marvin escaped, but that hardly comes as a surprise. (The stars of Canadian mountie opera Death Hunt would never succumb to something as trifling as a few dozen heavily armed Germans.)

I had grown attached to those unshaven miscreants, all parts of a single, cohesive unit, each with their own part to play. The characters in 2001’s Commandos 2: Men Of Courage are no different. The main characters are a potpourri of nationalities and handy skill sets, and you play with a rotating combination of spies, sappers, fighters, and drivers hailing from Allied World War II countries. The game employs every Hollywood war movie conceit imaginable. The settings for most levels are built around cinematic staples like Saving Private Ryan and The Bridge On The River Kwai.

The level entitled “The Guns Of Savo Island,” for instance, is a variation on The Guns Of Navarone. This time, it’s a Japanese artillery installation, but the principles are the same. Your Australian marine (the underwater murder expert) swims around, taking out sharks and enemy divers. The British explosive guys blows some stuff up. The Irish pugilist pugilizes guys. If they work together as a team, the guns get taken out. Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn couldn’t have done any better.

Each member of your commando team has a fleshed-out bio strewn with archetypical flourishes. We’re told, for instance, that Irishman Jack “Tiny” O’Hara was sentenced to 14 years hard labor after punching out a superior officer. Yet the text hastens to add the O’Hara was later reinstated and promoted following an operation “where after being shot in the arm, isolated from his unit, and without using a single firearm, he sneaked into a bunker and killed the 16 enemy soldiers inside before returning to the Allied front line.”

The other seven team members have equally hilarious CVs. There is, of course, the cool-as-a-cucumber British aristocrat sniper, Sir Francis T. “Duke” Woolridge (of the Sheffield Woolridges), and Russian femme fatale/nickname expert Natasha “Seductress” Nikochevski. The Commandos must be mixed and matched effectively to sabotage the Axis war effort. Each skill is essential, to the point that the mission can’t be completed if you lose even one of your fellows. “Leave no man behind” is the ironbound law of Commandos 2.

Not all strategy games put such a premium on a soldier’s life. From the very beginning of last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, players are made violently aware of their own mortality. The training mission sends your team to investigate sketchy reports of alien activity on Earth, and only one of the original four makes it out of that scrape alive.

The lone survivor is told that the XCOM project is a multinational concern activated in the event of a hostile alien invasion. (If not some combination of Nazis or zombies, you knew the apocalypse was going to involve aliens.) At the massive underground facility from which this war is waged, scientists, engineers, and soldiers work in concert to counter the aliens and adapt their superior technology for humanity’s use. In order to acquire test subjects and extraterrestrial materials, though, strike teams must be sent to global hotspots like abduction sites and crashed UFOs. And the aliens aren’t giving up their internal organs and anal probes without a fight.

Unlike Commandos, which occurs in “real time,” XCOM progresses by turns. Leaving your soldier exposed by moving too fast might—when your turn ends—result in a gaping chest wound. If you fail to position him behind proper cover, your heavy weapons expert is liable to be dismembered by cyborg arachnids that turn human corpses into walking zombies. (Even dead aliens can be deadly, as some bodies dissolve into a poison gas.) Unlike the precisely constructed maps of Commandos 2, much of the XCOM terrain is randomly generated. Beyond the fundamental principle of getting the aliens before they get you, there’s no “right” way to play each mission, and therefore no guaranteed safe passage.

XCOM’s character situation is more akin to Oregon Trail than it is to Commandos. Rather than saddling you with premade occupational saboteurs, it allows you to recruit, cultivate, and customize your own forces (including names). It’s a good thing, too; post-invasion earth is a scary-ass place. Even the best tactician is going to lose some troops. Fair-to-middling tacticians will be forced to call up a steady stream of replacements as humans try to close the interstellar military-industrial gap. Frailty, thy name is heavily armed super soldier.


Because of their extreme expendability, I found myself developing a much stronger attachment to my XCOM forces than I ever did with those pesky Commandos. When a Commando dies, the level restarts from the last save point with no penalty. With each death, you learn a little more about that particular map’s intricacies, and you get that much closer to clearing it. When soldiers are killed in XCOM, on the other hand, they are gone forever, remembered only with a spot on the ever-expanding memorial wall. And if, like me, you name your soldiers after friends and acquaintances, the losses are all the more agitating.

Since I was threatened with sudden termination, I’m not going to disclose exactly how many Gameological brethren were lost in my XCOM campaign. Let’s just say that if it wasn’t for the brave leadership of Col. Kodner and Maj. Gerardi, things would’ve gotten ugly. My girlfriend must never know that she was killed by friendly fire after having her mind warped by alien psionicists. Baby, I had no choice.

The fact that you can lose characters and not lose the game raises the stakes of XCOM in significant ways. If Commandos followed a similar set of rules, I can say with some certainty that Sir Francis would be sipping tea in hell before the end of the first mission. And he wouldn’t be alone. But each Commando is irreplaceable, and the trick isn’t keeping them alive so much as it is learning the best ways to apply their unique abilities in concert. XCOM’s characters are surprisingly disposable; you can spend half the game promoting and upgrading a Dutch assault trooper or a Chinese sniper, and one wrong step in some burnt-out, Muton-infested favela in Brazil will render all that invested time moot.

Commandos 2

Unconsciously (at first), I found myself filling the front lines with soldiers named after people to whom I was, let’s say, less attached than others. “So-and-so didn’t call me on my birthday. Let’s see if sending them into this ominously silent office building jogs their memory.” And, likewise, I tried to protect those whose loss would trouble me the most. I’m convinced you don’t really know how you feel about someone until you face an army of rampaging UFO kill-bots. It’s jarring, the personal realizations that emerge once you have to decide who among your friends lives and who gets iced.

Having your best friend die from dysentery or drowning on the Oregon Trail was morbidly thrilling, but at least you could properly remember them through an epitaph riddled with poop jokes. There is no such personal remembrance for XCOM’s fallen, beyond the residual guilt I feel when flipping through the contact list on my phone. Sorry, bros.

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88 Responses to “Disposable Heroes: Commandos 2: Men Of Courage and XCOM: Enemy Unknown

  1. Cloks says:

    I’d contest that XCOM has a personal remembrance thing because of the memorial in the base where you can see all the names of your fallen soldiers. You don’t really get to customize much of it but it’s at least a list of those you’ve lost.
    I’m one of those people who grows really attached to video game characters that I create – so much so that when I lost my best team in XCOM in one foul fuckup of a mission, I couldn’t play it for a while. It was even worse because all my team members were named after characters from The Wire and I knew that they weren’t supposed to die like that. I care a lot less about losing a named character in a game because they weren’t a character that I placed into the game – they have a chance of dying in that universe. To have McNutty be killed by aliens seems perverse because he wouldn’t be offed like that in his own universe so why should he die like that here?

    • Drew Toal says:

      Yeah that occurred to me (the memorial list), but it just seemed to exist outside the game for me—unlike, say, the wall on the Normandy in ME3. But you’re right, of course. So long as they’re remembered somewhere, they’ll not be forgotten.

      • Bad Horse says:

        I always periodically visit the wall and salute the fallen, as a reminder of my solemn command responsibility. Because I am a dork.

    • fieldafar says:

      I know the feeling. When I lost a kick-ass female Australian sniper in a shocker of a mission, I just quit playing XCOM for a while. I don’t know why, but that had such a powerful effect on me.

      • I stopped naming my guys in the original X-Com. I was running out of names as they were dying too often. I eventually finished it with a squad of randomly generated men but it would have been much sweeter if they were named after the members of 90’s grunge bands like the soldiers before them.

        Farewell Stone Temple Pilots, taken out by an enemy explosive in one swoop before you’d even left the dropship.

      • Bad Horse says:

        The first time I got a squad wipe, I couldn’t play for a few days. It was in the alien base and I went in completely unprepared and saw my elite team go down one by one, mostly to Chrysalids, and bringing up the combat reticle so my last heavy could blast my second-to-last guy in his zombified face was a legitimately disturbing moment that stuck with me a lot harder than most things in games stick with me.

    • JudgeReinhold says:

      This is why when I played games I used to just give my created characters ridiculous or profane names. 

      If I ever had time to play XCom (which I’d love to, since I loved the original), I’d have a memorial wall for soldiers like Scrumptious T. Buttocks, Barrister von Turdloaf (of the West Rhineland von Turdloafs!), and Theo Retical. 

      I’m an adult!

      • George_Liquor says:

        The short, tragic military career of Rufus J. Kittenstomper.

      • GerradDowns says:

        Do the West Rhineland von Turdloafs have any relation to the East Rhineland von Turdloafs?

        • JudgeReinhold says:

          I believe if you trace the family line far enough back on the maternal side, there is a relation. Frau Uberdeutsche von Turdloaf was quite fertile.

    • David White says:

      I ended up giving my team members names like “Sniper1,” “Sniper2,” “Assault1,” “Heavy1,” etc. I needed to have that reminder of their roles to keep from accidentally moving someone into the wrong position in the middle of a fight. The emotional attachment wasn’t there, but it was kinda sobering when I reached the end of the game and realized all my squad members were numbered in the 20s. (Except “Sniper3.” He was a total badass.)

  2. Merve says:

    That was a fantastic read. Definitely one of the funniest pieces on the site.

  3. Morning_Wodehouse says:

    One thing XCOM pointed out to me was how few friends I had. I killed most of my close friends pretty fast. Then it was my family – then my pets. After that I went with the names of presidents. RIP William Henry Harrison – you also lasted just 30 days.

    • Drew Toal says:

      Bertie Wooster never had a chance.

      • Ardney says:

        Well of course not. He just wanted to be left alone in his club! But Aunt Agatha insisted he go out and handle the alien menace for her and what’s a chap to do, after all?

    • zoltan2357 says:

      I did the presidents thing too! Went through every one of them – it was funny when George “Dubya” Bush ended up being my best psychic.

      I ended up trying to protect presidents I liked more and was super bummed when Lincoln got killed.

  4. Enkidum says:

    I’ve never been much of one for exhaustively preparing characters in most games, but a lot of my friends are. I know that I was a left winger on my friend Dave’s dream NHL ’06 team, down to facial features that looked passably like me, and apparently had a pretty decent season. 

    But I do know the feeling of attachment, although really I’ll feel it for just about anything down to chess pieces. I’ll replay levels on many different games ad infinitum in order to avoid losing a single piece – I basically refuse to progress in Tower Defence style games unless I’ve got a perfect score, for example. I suppose this just means I’m anal retentive rather than anything else.

  5. PaganPoet says:

    Why is “Natasha” the go-to name for Russian femme fatales? Why can’t we have a sexy-but-dangerous Ludmila or Yekaterina??

    • Ardney says:

      Natasha Fatale of ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle Show’ fame. No seriously, that’s my guess. If you aren’t familiar with something you grab the handiest stereotype. Because why not?

      [edit] I’m sure ‘stereotype isn’t exactly the word I’m looking for here but it’s late and I’m having trouble thinking so cut me some slack :P

    • valondar says:

       It’s the one name everyone knows and it’s both easy to pronounce and spell. I mean the real name of Elizabeth Jennings, the Russian wife on FX’s The Americans, is Nadezhda, and I had to double-check to make sure I spelt that right.

    • Olga isn’t a sexy name. 

      • Girard says:

        It was weird when I moved to Russia and actually encountered people with that (very common) name, who weren’t, like, refrigerator-sized cartoon barbarians with unibrows, or whatever my American pop-culture experience had convinced me was what an ‘Olga’ looked like.

        It actually seemed like whenever a male Western teacher started a relationship with a Russian girlfriend, 4 times out of 5, she was an Olga (and typically very nice/pretty/whatever).

        I guess what I’m saying is, we need some brave game to take back the name Olga. I’m not quite sure why this is what I’m saying.

    • The most important female character in the most important Russian Novel (War & Peace) is named Natasha. Blame Tolstoy.

    • duwease says:

      In the age before Internet slash-fiction existed as a creative outlet, young boys tantalized by Natasha Fatale’s ample cleavage had to squeeze her into more mainstream output to live out their fantasies.

      That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

  6. Staggering Stew Bum says:

    The lack of a mention of Private John “Johnny Boy” Teti playing an instrumental role in repelling the alien invasion suggests a less than glorious end for our beloved leader. I’d like to think that the aliens kidnapped him and took advantage of his self proclaimed Stud Fiend status to produce a race of alien-human hybrid super soldiers, because as the X-Files possibly taught us, an alien race with far superior technology will wipe out all humans by making a whole bunch more humans, only better, faster and stronger.

    I’d totally watch a Gameological version of Season 8 X-Files. Drew Toal stars as Agent John Doggett, searching for the missing Fox Mulder, played by Teti, after he was abducted by those damn aliens. Picking up the Dana Scully role would be the similarly red headed Soupy Comment Cat. Jason Reich could be Agent Reyes because they almost have the same surname. Steve Heisler is jazz cigarette smoking man. Joe Keiser would make a fine Krycek. And Skinner is the role Arthur M. Gameological III was born to play. I demand that this be acted out in the next Digest.

    • HobbesMkii says:

      Don’t Stud Fiends have to adopt?

      • Moonside_Malcontent says:

        Nah, Stud Fiend adoption was passed in the Senate but failed in the House after a Republican filibuster.

        • HobbesMkii says:

          I don’t want to deflate your joke by puncturing it full of reality (I gave it a like), but only the Senate has filibuster rules and there’s generally no reason to filibuster if you have the majority. You could say the Republicans killed the bill in committee, though.

        • Moonside_Malcontent says:

          D’oh, I went and transposed my branches of U.S. Legislative Bodies.  Well, they’re equally useless anyway, so I suppose it’s hardly important.

    • Halloween_Jack says:

      Dibs on one of the Lone Gunmen. Any of them would do, although I’d prefer the one that looks like Garth.

  7. Kai Kennedy says:

    “Baby, I had no choice.”

    Women just don’t understand. You had to make a call, God damn it!

    • Staggering Stew Bum says:

      Yeah, and with the line “My girlfriend must never know that she was killed by friendly fire after having her mind warped by alien psionicists” Drew has just thrown a bone to the Oscar Pistorious legal defence.

      • HobbesMkii says:

        I don’t think that’s a reasonable excuse. To date, I have only killed one possessed soldier (the first time it happened). Usually I either kill the alien possessing them or wait for it to wear off by moving my team to better positions. Ruthlessly killing a possessed teammate indicates a violent personality, in my opinion, who probably had ulterior motives for doing so.

        • JudgeReinhold says:

          The aliens have gotten to him! 

          *fires headshot at @HobbesMkii:disqus *

          It’s cool, everyone. He’s dead. As dead as that $40,000 gambling debt I owed him that was totally unrelated to my motives for shooting him. 

  8. Colonel says:

    Skyrim goes to lengths to protect your followers but occasionally they can die.  Usually when they do I restart the cave because I just can’t let go, damn it!  However, one time I had an old Orc follower I brought along from the Dawnguard.  He had lost three of his wives to vampires and wanted to go out killing as many as them as he possibly could.  We were out and about looking for an Elder Scroll when he succumbed to a Falmer’s poison.  Instead of restarting, I killed the remaining enemies in a blind rage, found his body (didn’t even loot it!), dragged it to a fire pit and left him on there, vowing his death would not be in vain.

    I hope he gets to chill with his wives and Malacath in the Ashpits.  That’ll do, Orc, that’ll do.

    • Effigy_Power says:

      The insurance payment you get via courier helps ease the pain a little.

    • From what I can tell, followers in Skyrim (and New Vegas) can only die from friendly fire, so…

      YOU DID THIS, @Col_Roy_Campbell:disqus !  IT WAS YOUUUU

      • George_Liquor says:

        Skyrim followers can indeed be killed by enemies. Lydia fought a valiant fight against overwhelming odds, but eventually succumbed to her injuries… after I got sick of hearing her snarky “I’m sworn to carry your burdens” and I sent her ass in alone to clear out a cave full of falmers.

        • The_Juggernaut_Bitch says:

           Not without mods.  Normally, the followers are tagged Essential, and so will just drop to a knee if the enemy kills them.  However, if you then, say, throw an ice storm in their direction while they’re down like that… yeah, that’ll kill them.

        • George_Liquor says:

          Well something killed that toothsome wench, and it wasn’t me. Maybe a stalactite hit her on the head or something.

        • Colonel says:

          Only followers that still have a quest tied to them are flagged as essential.  Normally, they take a knee and sit out the battle (no longer taking damage) but some things (like friendly fire and poison) can bypass their semi-invulnerability.

    • Fluka says:

      I am sworn to mention this Rock Paper Shotgun post about the sad and vaguely undignified death of Lydia in Skyrim.

      *Pours out a decanter of the finest Honningbrew Mead for our lost and/or accidentally murdered followers.*

      • HobbesMkii says:

        I do not understand the Lydia fascination. I do not find her interesting in the least. Whenever I have her as a follower and she dies, I just shrug, loot her corpse, and move on with my life.

        • Fluka says:

          I’d guess that it’s because she’s one of the few characters that a large fraction of players have spent some time with and can recognize.  In a world populated by grumpy automatons, she’s *their* grumpy automaton.  That, and she’s a laaay-deeee.

        • Effigy_Power says:

          She’s no Mjoll, that’s for sure…
          Oh Mjoll… -daydreams-

        • Merve says:

          @Fluka:disqus: If you’re not doing your best Dennis DeYoung impression right now, I’m afraid we can’t be friends anymore.

  9. caspiancomic says:

    I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this, Commander Toal, but you’re really quite charming and handsome. And funny. I like that colour on you, too… have you done something with your hair? Oh God, don’t send me to the frontlines! Send Eff! She was making chitterlings out of alien windpipes before the war even started!

    Seriously though, the way different SRPGs handle death is a pretty interesting topic. My first true SRPG was Shining Force, which as a series really has the kiddie gloves on, especially considering it cribbed a few notes from Fire Emblem, the perma-death capital of the SRPG peninsula.

    Speaking of forming bizarrely strong bonds with essentially randomly generated goons, though, I’ve been kicking around an idea for an article that would focus on the blanks from Final Fantasy Tactics. FFT’s story is famously knotty and involved, but I’ve always felt more emotionally invested in the off camera rises and falls of my band of interchangeable nobodies. I always imagine that while Ramza and Agrias and Mustadio and whoever else are wringing their hands over being branded heretics and worrying about the political machinations of the Beoulve family, that the blanks have their own little clique, like they weren’t invited to the real plot and so have their own little hangout sessions and watch the plot unfold from a distance. I always imagine that they secretly kind of resent Ramza for giving them no major responsibilities in the plot department, but still expecting them to fight and die for him. The same way that, at the end of the day I actually kind of prefer Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to Hamlet, whenever I play Final Fantasy Tactics I’m always excited to have a new batch of faceless suckers to invest myself in.

    • Mercadier says:

      The Story of the Blanks is absolutely brilliant. I can’t hammer the Like button enough. Plus did Ramza ever put in the hours to become your Calculator? Of course not! CT5Holy

    • I never grew too attached to my mercs in FFT. But in FFT Advance, it really felt like my squad members had personality. Even my poor dispatch slaves.  

    • Effigy_Power says:

      Goulash. It was goulash.

    • Cornell_University says:

      that would be an interesting read indeed, and may have post-game storyline implications as it could be interpreted that the blanks didn’t *SPOILER ALERT* all fucking die at the end like the main characters did.

  10. Melancholic_Rodeo_Clown says:

    *Reads mention of XCOM in article title, immediately loses 3 hours of evening playing XCOM.

  11. Ladyfingers says:

    Ah, commandos, what a game. I thought it had been forgotten.

    • valondar says:

       God I had a lot of fun with Commandos, and I haven’t thought about it in years. The fact you couldn’t lose anyone really forced you to be very careful and tactical, which I was sort of used to in WW2 games – like the Close Combat series, which valued careful deployment of men and managing morale – but given that you couldn’t lose ANYONE it was all about carefully managing your different skills, taking out Germans one or two at a time, stealing uniforms… Toal’s also right that the flavour lore had a kind of goofy Hollywood action movie vibe, which I also loved.

      I don’t think I ever played Commands 2, though.

      • Ladyfingers says:

         Commandos 2 was a lot harder, as I recall.

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        I participated in a contest for the original Commandos, where you played co-op online with a couple other people and competed to get the best time on a mission.  I think our team was in the top ten, and won a T-shirt and a copy of the game.  As is the case in most of those types of games, I got frustrated at higher levels and never completed it.

        Hidden and Dangerous was a similar game, except more of a 1st/3rd person shooter.  You could control squadmates directly or give them tactical orders.

      • HobbesMkii says:

        Another game like Commandos is Robin Hood: Legend of Sherwood, for anyone interested. It’s not a great game, but it is enjoyable.

  12. Swadian Knight says:

    I think few games have made me feel as guilty about losing troops as the Fire Emblem series. Each individual soldier under your command has their own backstory and motivations, and the player is encouraged to forge friendships between them for combat bonuses.

    Then, of course, they will die horribly. Whether you screwed up or they just had a bad roll is of no consequence; either way, they deliver a teary-eyed monologue and then they’re gone forever. And then at the end, you get an epilogue telling you what each of your surviving soldiers went on to do with their lives, and a series of title cards with the names of the ones who didn’t make it – to remind you that world you saved was ultimately poorer for the sacrifices you made to save it.

    All of which comes together to make losing a unit in the game enough reason to ragequit it for the rest of the week.

  13. actually the maps in XCom aren’t randomly generated, they’re all predesigned. 

    • Everlasting_Godstabber says:

      I know at least one mission where I restarted a few times, and some of the car and other item positioning and/or enemy unit positioning would change.

    • Bad Horse says:

      The randomness comes from potential spawn points, which contain different enemies at different positions. The geometry may be the same but what you meet in it and where will vary between playthroughs

    • Yeah, but @facebook-664541297:disqus  is right – changing starting positions does not a randomly generated map make. That was actually the one disappointing part of the game for me, in that I was kind of taken aback by how few maps there actually were. I’m not a purist and I think there were a LOT or problems with the original X-COM that a lot of old-school fans don’t acknowledge, but that’s one thing it did head and shoulders better than the newer version.

  14. AmaltheaElanor says:

    I’m not normally one for turn-based (or real-time) strategy games, but articles like this one make me want to try this game.

  15. Kahoutek says:

    The attachment to the characters was much the same in the original X-com.  After a terrible mission, I would reload an earlier saved game.  But a buddy of mine went straight through, saying that the death of his lovingly leveled-up soldiers added to the “epic story” of the game.  That always stuck with me, as if it was a more mature way to play.

  16. His_Space_Holiness says:

    I just finished my second playthrough of XCOM, for which I named all my soldiers after college friends and miraculously managed to avoid losing any officers the whole time. It was only Normal difficulty, and involved the occasional reloaded save (but not very often!), but still, I was very proud of myself for shepherding my friends safely through the alien holocaust.

  17. KidvanDanzig says:

    Interestingly enough, it’s the disposable nature of the troops that most of the spiritual successors to X-Com: UFO Defence overlooked to their severe detriment. The UFO series in particular really fucked up by giving you a limited pool of recruits from which to draw. Any design that incentivizes savescumming is poison for tactical gaming.