For a game with an almost cartoonish art style, Commandos 2: Men of Courage happens to be one of the most visceral and realistic recreations of the Second World War. Unlike the legions of gung-ho WW2 shoot-em-ups that have you blasting through waves of identikit baddies, the Commandos series rewards stealth, cunning, and guile. Instead of a one-man army, you get a crack squad of artfully differentiated commandos whose strengths and weaknesses contribute real depth to the gameplay. The explosives expert is slow and deliberate, the reformed thief is sprightly and agile, and the big muscly dude can take a lot of damage. Those traits are both visually apparent and functionally important, and they make each protagonist feel organic and real.

Unlike legions of gung-ho WW2 shoot-em-ups, 'Commandos' rewards stealth, cunning, and guile

Pyro Studios already had a very good game on its hands with the original Commandos and the excellent Beyond the Call of Duty expansion, but 2001’s Men of Courage marked the pinnacle of the company’s output. It perfected the balance of fiendish gameplay and rewarding puzzles, sharpened up the visual presentation, and wove a beautifully detailed narrative through a series of variegated missions that never felt repetitive or stale. That’s unless you count the very many times you will die before completing even the tutorial mission. Whichever game you pick up in the Commandos trilogy — the arc of awesomeness of which is similar to the Godfather trifecta’s — your wits, foresight, and attention to detail will be challenged enormously.

At its core, Commandos is a puzzle game. You have to disentangle the complex overlaps and interdependencies of the Nazi defense in order to infiltrate a target location. How do you pull out one brick — in most cases, a patrolling guard in need of a smoke — without the whole structure collapsing into guttural screeches of "Alarm! Alarm!"? Neutralizing an enemy is another tricky task: kill him and you run a higher risk of being detected, but show mercy and he might be brought back into action. It’s these agonizing choice that can determine the eventual outcome of a mission, and they engender a real sense of accomplishment in the successful Commandos player.

The exposition is dripping with gravitas and dread, but 'Commandos 2' never loses its sense of humor

In between missions, a solemn British voice informs you of the Allied resistance’s increasing desperation, a reality reflected in the ever-growing difficulty of the sabotages you’re asked to undertake. Though this exposition is dripping with gravitas and dread, Commandos 2 never loses its sense of humor and maintains a perfectly pitched undertone of self-parody. Many of the mini-plots within missions are "borrowed" from famous wartime movies, while the exaggerated stereotypes on screen reflect a long tradition of tongue-in-cheek comedy that’s as British as the bulldog spirit.

Commandos 2 is a game that defies expectations. It plays with old tropes, yet makes them feel wholly fresh again. It successfully experiments with real-time tactical gameplay in a fashion that has yet to be matched, and — after many hours of failure and frustration — it leaves you smiling, having finally conquered the Nazi war machine. Gaming satisfaction at its very finest.