Command & Conquer
|Game Name:||Command & Conquer|
|Genre(s):||Real Time Strategy|
When Command & Conquer was released, it was snarkily referred to as Dune III. This got so pervasive that Westwood even had to refute this directly in the documentation. To this day, writers of walkthroughs and forum posts still refer to C&C’s refineries as “spice factories” out of pure spite. I suppose the allegation is that Westwood ripped the ideas from its successful Dune II, added a few story missions a la competitor Warcraft, and made up its own property with only a handful of effort required. I think this is nonsense, but I’ll really leave that for others to judge (and myself, later, as I see the exact quality of the total story in future reviews). What matters is that Command & Conquer marks the beginning of Westwood’s bread-and-butter franchise, and starts to really do some interesting things with the RTS genre.
The first Command & Conquer (later subtitled “Tiberian Dawn”) begins the series’ alternate universe featuring two basic parts of an overall story. The first is the emergence of Tiberium, a poisonous, extraterrestrial crystal that is spreading across the Earth like a virus. Research has shown it to be valuable, putting new and previously unimaginable wealth in the hands of enterprising and science-savvy terrorists. The second aspect follows the exploits of the Global Defense Initiative as they battle politically and militarily with the Brotherhood of NOD; a tiberium-funded and extremely plot-convenient coalition of every terrorist organization in the world (they’re not just the bad guy, they’re every bad guy!). The two factions grapple for the hearts and minds of the citizens of their territories, which you will watch as media breaks between missions. You, however, will be solely concerned with picking which faction you wish to command and guiding them to… er… conquer.
No matter what side you choose, the basic challenges will be the same. Battles for territory are fought as microcosms of medium-sized maps with accelerated build times and (generally) only the units you’re able to produce and deploy yourself. Supply lines are represented by your harvesters and the tiberium they must refine to fund your war. You can easily invite defeat by overextending yourself, or by sucking up all the tiberium near your base and being forced to send your unarmed harvesters out into unsecured territory.
Units have been given specific specialties, and the two sides benefit from many more unique weapons and advantages than you had in Dune II. GDI has exclusive superiority over the air. NOD has exclusive flame units, which are excellent at killing mobs of infantry. GDI has lumbering, twin-barreled Mammoth Tanks that can shrug off most attacks. NOD has stealth tanks which can turn invisible and sneak behind enemy lines. NOD has a few cheap, light, quickly-built units that are fast but lightly armored, giving them an advantage in scouting. GDI builds stronger units more slowly, making them weak in the beginning and nearly unstoppable once fully deployed. You will have the same goals and methods as either faction – harvest, build a strong base, build a massive strike force, smash your opponent’s base – but you do have these special units that help define your tactics in a way suited to each faction; military strength for GDI, subterfuge for NOD.
The single player campaign gives a storyline that unfolds across 15 levels for GDI and 13 for NOD. GDI chronicles your success across Europe, while NOD places its missions in Africa, allowing for two official storylines no matter who wins. FMV cutscenes relay unfolding events, and provide your briefing for the next mission. Your mission objectives further reflect the mentality of the faction you’ve chosen. GDI missions involve lots of reinforcing bases under siege or rescuing spies and scientists. NOD has assassinations, village slaughters, and prison breaks. While it’s not fair to say that NOD has all the fun, playing as NOD was one of the more unique experiences and I’ve had playing an RTS, and their viewpoint and missions were generally more interesting than stuffy old GDI. And the NOD ending is about eight times more awesome, but I’ll say no more.
The plot is relayed well for either side, though a few disconnected, incoherent videos do pop up from time to time. They look like they were made for plot twists or missions that got scrapped in the final cut, but were included anyway for filler or tone-setting. Fair enough. Westwood clearly spent some money on having unique FMV for every single between-mission break, and I can’t blame them for wanting to use it all. While much of it looks cheesy by today’s standards, there’s still some solid acting and some impressive battles.
You also don’t see much of Kane in this version – Joe Kucan’s charismatic and fairly ruthless NOD leader. I haven’t even played any C&C before this one, but I’ve still heard about how “totally fuckin’ badass” Kane is. As NOD, you get half of your briefings from some whiny-ass lackey named Seth (who’s all “Oh… looks like you’re Kane’s favorite soldier now… waaaaahhh!”). As GDI, you occasionally get Kane disrupting your “command feed” to taunt you. I think Kucan has the character down already – when he’s seen, he’s certainly everything that has been described, he’s just not a star of the show yet. At the very least, I’m curious to see more of his dastardly plans and revolutionary speeches, so the start is a good one. And his entrance in the NOD campaign is the stuff of legend.
Missions can be broken down into two basic types: build a base, or accomplish your goal using only a handful of units provided at the start. I can’t say that I really had a favorite. You can play it faster and looser when you’re able to build a base, but you’re still given all the resources you need and more in the limited “strike force” missions. I admittedly had my worst and angriest moments with the game during the initial phase of trying to create a working base. You’re incredibly vulnerable during this time, and though the AI never sends a critical mass of soldiers for a coup de grace, the constant harassment against your limited force and pitiful defense can be endlessly frustrating.
It’s also a tiny bit unfair, because your opponent never has to build their base. You’ll always be playing as the invader against a pre-built scenario. This allows the computer to cheat heavily and do things you cannot; like starting with giant reserves of cash, repair or build structures on land not connected to their base, and start with a fresh force of goons on defense. You can shunt this somewhat as many units won’t activate until you reveal them or come within firing distance; so by keeping to yourself, you keep the streams of enemy scouts to a trickle. This suggests that the intent is not so much to hunt you down and take you out early, but to populate their base to prevent you from overrunning it in the first five minutes.
However, since you’re always up against an opponent with a head start, it means doing any of the missions right will take time. If you can’t destroy the enemy’s construction center in your attack, the computer will readily repair any damage you cause. So, you build a massive invasion force worthy of Xerxes. On average, it took me about 2 hours (including any needed reloads) after the first few, easier missions. While that’s not absurd, it’s still a fair amount of time for poor saps that have to work for a living. Beating Kane’s final base took me six hours. Granted, I probably went a little overboard on the production, and it was the last mission, but I’d still eaten an entire Sunday afternoon on one rotten level in a video game.
There is at least one beautiful unit who can speed this whole process up for you, and will be your best friend from the moment you can produce him: the Engineer. This little devil can capture enemy buildings instantly and put them under your control, provided he can get close enough to enter them. GDI can load APCs full of Engineers, drive into NOD’s base, and unload havoc. NOD can distract base defenses by using some of its cheap, fast units as bullet sponges, allowing their engineers to slip in while the bullets fly elsewhere. If one of your engineers captures the enemy’s construction center, then you’ve won the battle and all that’s left are the details. Not only will you have cauterized the necks of the hydra, you can then use that center to build and plant turrets inside the enemy’s own base to destroy it from within. Cheap? Maybe. Lazy? Probably. Badass? Oh, so badass.
It still takes time to secure a victory, and that would be my major complaint. Single missions take a surprising amount of hours doing mundane tasks and army building. A big reason is that this first game is focused on the ground war, and overly paranoid about air power. NOD has no air units to speak of, so I understand that an especially one-sided advantage needs to be watched carefully. Still, GDI’s air units cannot lift the fog of war, are miserable at destroying buildings, must chase many ground units to hit them, and are incredibly fragile to SAM sites or bazooka men. You occasionally get access to transport helicopters, but you can never build them yourself in single player. Super weapons like the Air Strike or Orbital Strike (available if you smash all the enemy anti-air sites) sport 10+ minute recharges and are intentionally weak against buildings. In short, you will have to steamroll bases, up close and from the ground.
GDI’s air power really doesn’t help when NOD so fucking good at killing ground units. Flame guys and fire tanks can kill up to 16 soldiers with one blast. The Obelisk of Light can blow apart any tank in 3 shots or less. You would have to combine your air and land attacks to get any usefulness, which is good in theory, but if I’ve surrounded the base and destroyed most of their units, isn’t it time for the level to be over? Since I can’t use helicopters to scout, if I’m able to aim the Orbital Strike it means that I’ve had to get someone close enough to the construction center to see it – so can’t I just go ahead and destroy it in one shot? Especially considering that I can do exactly that and more with an engineer on the ground? If they’re worried about the air advantage, then give NOD some air units too. I see from my “The First Decade” manual on the desk here that both sides get control of the skies in Red Alert, so it will be interesting to see if I’m right about all this.
All the standard AI troubles are present here, though the interface has been streamlined. You can now order units to move and attack with a single left click. You can select units as a group and deselect with the right mouse button. You can assign units to squads and recall them with the number keys. It’s definitely easier to control your army than it was in Dune II or Warcraft, and much easier to break them into forces to be deployed at specific times – tanks for base defenses, then send in the infantry, followed by the engineers, etc. Pathfinding is still a problem though, and large groups are guaranteed to break up around obstacles like trees or plateaus.
In terms of challenge, the AI offers a mostly static challenge. The computer has the resources to wipe you off the map, but never deploys them properly, making every base assault like trying to smash through a wall. The wall will get repaired to its original status, but it will never move or upgrade its defenses. Once you can overwhelm the defenders, the base is yours, leaving a unique and tougher challenge for multiplayer. You can also get away with damn near anything, including blowing a hole in their back wall and sneaking in, so long as you don’t attack a building or a harvester. The AI goes absolutely ripshit if you attack a harvester.
If you can track it down, the Gold or Win95 edition is the way to go. The original DOS version looks impressive (though fuzzy), but the SVGA update looks fantastic with high-resolution, detailed terrain and an expanded viewing area. Pieces do get overused, and every location in Africa or Europe will look like every other location in that country. Units are tiny, but still manage to show some individual characteristics. Vehicles smoke when severely damaged, machine guns track and rotate atop humvees, fire erupts from launching cannons, smoke trails behind launched missiles, and infantry flies about in dramatic, bloody deaths. Colors again are the main differentiation between the factions (tan vs. grey), but you’ll also never mistake a unique unit for another – there’s never any question when a Mammoth Tank is rolling at you. FMV of either pre-rendered battle scenes or live-action “talking heads” are shown with scanlines, but decent detail.
Sound effects are about average. Both sides overuse the same voice for “yes sir!” and “moving out!” kinds of reports from your units, and they’re quickly ignored after the first few missions. Explosions and gunfire sound satisfying, while soldier death screams are way over the top. Music is handled interestingly with a large selection of synthesized tracks. A CD-style “player” sits in the option menu, where you can select your track and turn on shuffle and repeat options. If you prefer to focus on the sounds of battle, you can turn the music volume down or off.
So what’s great about Command & Conquer? You’ve got a story that’s not particularly brilliant or unique, but it’s a lot of fun. You’ve got units with specialized roles and two competing armies with noticeably different styles. You’ve got a wide variety of special missions, especially under NOD, that break up the routine of building your base and smashing the enemy’s. It learns lessons from Dune II, nicks a few ideas from Warcraft, and adds a few refinements of its own for a reasonably thorough and entertaining experience. While clunky by today’s standards, it’s still aged surprisingly well and doesn’t feel as overhyped as you might suspect.
Fantastic alternative to Warcraft. Factions and units are generally well-matched. Some really neat missions for NOD, a more average, but still fun game for GDI. Excellent graphics for the Win95 re-release.
Interface and AI aren’t perfect, storyline can be a bit silly. Later base-busting missions take an awful lot of time to conquer.