Remembering… Command & Conquer
Watch any Command & Conquer video on YouTube and you’ll end up thinking EA bashing is a meme. Apparently the series has lost its magic and creativity since they bought Westwood. It’s understandable. It still gets positive reviews from critics, but the series has been riding its brand in a good, but increasingly indistinguishable series of real-time strategy games especially compared to its first release in 1995. The original’s user-accessible interface, modern warfare storyline and introduction of online gaming set it apart significantly from other RTS contemporaries. Although Westwood had experience with Dune, C&C was a pivotal breakthrough in the RTS genre that could let it be taken seriously. Nowadays, it’s hard to wonder how the series can set another new standard in an increasingly risk-averse climate.
C&C is set in a believable but somewhat distorted parallel universe. An ancient sect known as the Brotherhood of Nod becomes a powerful player in global markets when they reveal how they control half of the world’s Tiberium, a resource found following a meteor crash near River Tiber in Italy and subsequently named after it. Its unique ability to leech nearby metals makes it an internationally sought after commodity, but it’s revealed to be extremely toxic and destructive. Kane, Nod’s leader, exploited this position to pursue world domination, provoking the United Nations to set up the Global Defence Initiative, peace-makers from the Western World who were set to combat Nod in an inevitable world war.
Like most RTSs, a base needs setting up so units can be built to blow the opponent off the map. This can’t be done without any resources, so tiberium needs to be found and harvested to generate the necessary cash. C&C introduced the opportunity to take charge of either side, with whatever advantages and drawbacks they carry. NOD’s strengths lie on the use of lightweight, hit and run weaponry mixed with stealth units, but their sneaky tactics will fall to GDI’s heavy brute force should all else be equal. Strip GDI of their power plants and they will be left stranded, leaving NOD to move in for the kill.
What C&C introduced was a level of dynamism and usability unheard of before and still is as functional now. All available options are compiled neatly on a sidebar. The ability to sell and repair structures is available here, and new buildings and battle unit options are arrayed in two columns. Availability depends on game progress and what’s already built. There are no soldiers without a barracks and there won’t be many other buildings available without a power plant and refinery either. Once a communications centre is up and running a map is displayed, and power is indicated in a gauge. As inadequate power shuts down certain base defences, radar and cripples construction speed it’s worth keeping on top of.
C&C is a tough game to beat with varying mission scenarios. Usually base needs setting up and the opponent eliminated, but sometimes units will have to be escorted through a battle zone to a destination, either finding a village, destroying a target or locating a dilapidated base (with no construction yard) and getting it back up and running. However, as maps get bigger, so do the available units to both sides, and improving technology means new strategies of overcoming it. Nod introduces mid-game a deadly obelisk of light that can singlehandedly annihilate any raid, whilst their camouflaging stealth tasks can frustrate isolated tanks and harvesters. Henceforth its important to target areas that will prevent the enemy from bouncing back from attacks, such as the construction yard, otherwise a heavy onslaught can prove pointless. The two sides may not be an exact opposite of the other but there are enough differences to make it a fair contest.
For a game made sixteen years ago this has aged very well. The individual unit responses remain timeless, be it “Yes, Sir” and “Affirmative” to the Commando’s unforgettable ”I’ve got a present for you!” as he nukes a building, and if that wasn’t enough he emphasises how “ that was left-handed.” The then-luxury CD-audio soundtrack remains absolutely fantastic today. Heavy electronic beats send an adrenalin rush, while some sombre melodies mean serious action.
Cracks have meerged over the years though. The graphics are functional enough, but a zoom function would’ve been nice, as would the ability to exceed VGA resolution (although an unofficial patch can fix that). Inter-mission full motion sequences look atrocious with fake interlacing, but they still deliver the storyline effectively with a few twists on the way. Acting scenes are mixed with CG renditions of the battlefield action, unthinkable to play with that kind of graphical quality then. The AI’s limitations are far more apparent, as it’s difficult to assign complex strategies to various groups, especially when trying to circumnavigate an enemy battle zone or a toxic tiberium field. Sending in a large number of tanks is frequently the easiest and best strategy against the computer. To the game’s credit, being able to build and simultaneously control any army at any time with no slowdown is impressive for a primitive game engine.
Command & Conquer remains a classic for a reason. Its simplicity has led many to yearn for the original approach used compared to the conservative attempts taken to milk the franchise. Everything in C&C works, and smoothly at that. The top-down view gives the best visibility of the action, unit production is efficient, harvester mining is reliable and units don’t have to be prodded with what to do all the time (although that’s sometimes for the worse). Of course, having the right preparations in place also helps, and it is good to be wary of any potential onslaughts by the enemy. It’s a challenging game to beat, and you’ll have racked up lots of saved games as you attempt to plan strategies from a certain point or try new tactics to fend off an attack that keeps happening. This is a pivotal entry for the genre and PC gaming as a whole and as the game’s now available as freeware, it’s a must-have.