Command & Conquer: The First Decade PC Review

It’s amazing to think 10 years have passed since we first played the Command & Conquer series, and what a journey it has been. The First Decade comes on a single DVD and contains 6 full games and 6 expansion packs, spanning 3 different universes: Tiberian, Red Alert and Generals. Here’s a retrospective look over the past 10 years of Command & Conquer history.

Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn

After many years in development, 1995 saw the release of Westwood’s Command & Conquer, now referred to as Tiberian Dawn. Back then RTS (Real Time Strategy) was a new idea and everyone was used to Civilization-style turn-based strategy games. Westwood brought RTS into the mainstream and the game was heralded by critics everywhere.

Tiberian Dawn’s story was set in a futuristic environment where the Global Defence Initiative (GDI) and the Brotherhood of Nod, an advanced terrorist network led by Kane, are battling for control of our planet. After a meteor landed on Earth, a substance known as Tiberian started to grow, and could be harvested for financial gain; this was central to the plot. Most battles required you to establish a base and build a Tiberian Refinery (complete with large mechanical Harvester) to mine the Tiberian needed to fund further base expansion and armies.

Single player missions were interspersed with entertaining movie sequences in which you would receive your mission briefing. The pre-game and in-game environments were so impressive – the detailed terrain was genuinely exciting to explore and building a new base was always fun. The soundtrack is sublime and for me it’s one of the best in gaming history. To this day the Tiberian Dawn story remains one of the most impressive settings for a game, with two diametrically opposed teams and wonderful weapons such as the Obelisk of Light and the Ion Cannon.

In the following year an expansion pack entitled The Covert Operations was released, featuring harder missions. Even today there are days of enjoyment to be found in Tiberian Dawn and you always feel as though you’re re-experiencing gaming history in the making.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert

Initially planned as an expansion pack to the original game, Westwood decided Red Alert had so much going for it they decided to make it into a stand-alone title using the original’s game engine. In 1996, amazingly only a year after the release of Tiberian Dawn, Red Alert broke sales records and went down as a phenomenon in the world of gaming.

This time the story centred on Einstein travelling back in time to 1926, disposing of Adolf Hitler before he had a chance to decimate the world in World War II. Einstein’s intentions were good but as he knew, only time would show what effect his actions would have. We then fast-forward decades later to a world where, in Hitler’s absence, Joseph Stalin is trying to conquer the world. Instead of GDI vs. Nod we found ourselves in the centre of an Allied vs. Soviet conflict. Without a doubt this was a stunning way to begin the second Command & Conquer game and ensured the captivation of gamers everywhere. This was typified by the quite frankly amazing intro music entitled Hell March.

In place of Tiberian, players had to harvest Ore, which unlike Tiberian was not poisonous to ground troops. Red Alert saw the introduction of player-controlled water units, such as the Allied cruiser and Soviet submarine. The weaponry in Red Alert is less futuristic but still carries on the ‘weird-science’ nature of the Einstein story. Such inventions as the Tesla Coil, a defensive tower capable of shooting bolts of lightning, was a fantastic addition; proving to be one of the most satisfying and memorable elements of the Red Alert universe. As expected, the single player campaigns were strong, but this time there was a much greater emphasis on multiplayer skirmish games. A favourite of mine was fighting it out with friends on the map Marooned II, with each of us building a base in a corner of the map. On one occasion I remember winning an epic battle with 50 Mammoth Tanks on each side. To this day Red Alert allowed for some of my finest gaming experiences.

The year following the release of Red Alert saw the further release of two expansion packs: The Aftermath and Counterstrike. These brought new single player campaigns, multiplayer maps and new units such as the Tesla Tank. Red Alert built upon Command & Conquer’s place in the history books and firmly established a massive online community of fans.

Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun

In 1998 Electronic Arts purchased Westwood and oversaw the game’s release, although much of the developmental work for Tiberian Sun had been done prior to this. By 1999 the face of gaming had well and truly changed, the industry had grown and had become even more commercial. People expected bigger and better games, and Westwood had seen the need to develop a new game engine; a bi-product of which was to present Command & Conquer action from an isometric perspective. I was a big fan of the original games’ 2D bird’s eye view and never really adjusted to the new camera angle, but I admit it did allow for more graphical detail.

Tiberian Sun carried on the tale of GDI and Nod, adding exciting weapons, new ideas and more gameplay depth. There was a much greater focus on the different tactical natures of the two sides; GDI went for brute force whereas Nod made use of stealth, giving the gameplay a new level of depth.

Tiberian Sun had a largely good reception and is still highly playable today. By now online gameplay was common and Tiberian Sun took full advantage of this, allowing long time fans to easily play against each other. In 2000 Westwood released the Firestorm expansion pack that added more units, maps and introduced CABAL, a new AI enemy to battle against in the single player campaigns.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2

Later in 2000, using the same game engine as Tiberian Sun, Red Alert 2 marked the return of the Allies vs. Soviet conflict. In Stalin’s absence the new Soviet leader Alexander Romanov, aided by his mysterious advisor Yuri, launches a mass invasion of the United States. The Soviet reliance on brute force was much more of an issue this time around, whereas the Allies relied on higher levels of technology.

For the first time we see the level of humour significantly increase – the story sequences are over the top and purposely cheesy. This was quite entertaining at the time, but looking back, this undermined the untouchable magic of the C&C series. I also disliked the slightly ‘cartooney’ look of the game structures, and although they grew on me after a while, I always felt Tiberian Sun’s artistic style looked graphically superior. Despite these negative aspects there was no question that Red Alert 2 offered highly entertaining and balanced gameplay. Much emphasis was put on the online multiplayer features and you were able to choose a specific country within the Allied and Soviet sides. This added yet more depth as you could choose England to get a special sniper unit, France to get a huge Grand Cannon defensive structure, Russia for the Tesla Tank, and so on.

The following year saw the release of the impressive Yuri’s Revenge expansion pack. This introduced a standalone Yuri faction, whose specialty was mind control, and so came complete with a whole army of psychic-based units and structures. By now there were so many possible methods of attack, so in one respect the game was more unpredictable, but in a way the tactical use of tanks was replaced with the use of vastly varied units that had to be countered in a certain way. Personally speaking I preferred the more grounded approach of the original Red Alert, where in a tank battle it came down to micromanagement and more skill-based tactics. Some may disagree with me but when an army of flying saucers came and decimated your army of tanks, you couldn’t help but wish you were back in the original Red Alert where things felt more real. This, along with the comic nature of the movie sequences, typifies my slight dislike of Red Alert 2. On balance it’s still a great game and a favourite of many in the community, but part of that underlying C&C magic has been lost in the transition. If you can overlook the issues I’ve mentioned there’s a lot to like about Red Alert 2.

Renegade

In February 2002 Westwood tried something completely different, bringing the world of C&C to the FPS (First Person Shooter) genre; with the GDI Commando (Havoc) as the main protagonist. The first mission sees one of the original game’s levels recreated in 3D and it really is a sight to behold, especially when you’re in the middle of the NOD base during an Ion Cannon attack.

Renegade’s attraction to fans was the ability to do things like climb inside a Mammoth Tank, pilot an Orca helicopter, see what’s actually inside the War Factory or stand in a field of Tiberian to poison yourself. To this day, few other games effectively combined this use of troops, vehicles and buildings as well as Renegade did.

Westwood developed their own FPS engine for Renegade, something that today many choose not to do. It was largely a good choice as all gameplay aspects felt pretty much spot on especially climbing ladders; a basic task that most FPS games fail to carry out in a convincingly simplistic way. The in-game graphics were pretty average and a bit plain. The units, structures and infantry are modelled well, but the terrain is always bland. Four years after release I can run the game with maximum details on a resolution of 1600×1200, which helps make Renegade stand up pretty well by today’s standards. Unlike in previous C&C games the cut scenes were pre-rendered using in-game style graphics, and to be honest it was a big mistake as the film-quality movies we have come to expect from C&C games are one of the high points.

Unlike in the RTS genre where Command & Conquer was king, the field of FPS was littered with dozens of big titles such as Unreal Tournament, Quake and Half-Life. In retrospect people really shouldn’t have expected a game capable of outshining established FPS games like this; but this was the level of quality expected from a C&C game, and unsurprisingly many were disappointed. Renegade’s single player mode is quite average and came under a lot of criticism, but I ask this: How many other FPS games have such a good single player campaign? Games like Quake III and Unreal Tournament had no single player other than deathmatch, yet this goes un-criticised. Considering Renegade is primarily a multiplayer game, having solo missions should be seen as a bonus. I’m not excusing the slightly disappointing missions but people should get some real perspective and compare it with other multiplayer-focused FPS games. Nevertheless Renegade has stood the test of time; 4 years later it still has a strong online community and you will often find big games with 30 people fighting it out. Considering the number of people in multiplayer games the game copes surprisingly well and there is minimal lag.

Command & Conquer: Generals

In 2003, what was once Westwood was merged into EALA, with some high profile staff leaving in the process. If people regarded Tiberian Sun and Red Alert 2 as slightly too far removed from the original C&C formula, they were in for a big shock. Generals signalled a new era by going fully 3D and pitted modern super-powers USA and China against the GLA (Global Liberation Army) terrorist faction. It was great to give the player the choice of three totally different teams, mirroring the three team setup created in Yuri’s Revenge. USA are similar to the Allies from Red Alert, China comparable to the Soviets in terms of brute force, whilst the GLA were something entirely new; offering players the weaponry of a huge terrorist network, ranging from the use of suicide bombers to chemical weapons.

Instead of wacky stories and technology we saw a more realistic and back to basics approach in Generals. Most cut-scenes were in-game and the story is told from the perspective of reporters from the three sides. Set in the modern ‘war against terrorism’ era, and adding the potential new ‘cold war’ relationship between USA and China, many fans longed for the C&C fun-factor feel that they had been accustomed to in previous titles. Another change we saw was the lack of an organically growing resource to harvest, instead supply depots were on the map for us to acquire money from. To me this felt a bit contrived and it’s a big shame as sending out and protecting your harvester was one of the defining elements of the C&C universe, and the fact it was a constantly growing substance helped suck you into the living environment.

In addition, the flashy 3D graphics in Generals meant people needed a modern computer to play, unlike the older games that would run on pretty much anything. The game’s soundtrack is unmemorable and totally forgettable in comparison to the music found in the original games. Because of the aforementioned points, Generals came under fire from certain members of the C&C community. Yet critics in the media and others in the community really took well to the game, quite simply because of the fantastic gameplay, which in my opinion is perhaps the best seen in any RTS game to date. Although the 3D terrain can sometimes hamper your troop movement, everything else is spot on. The planes fly and land realistically, there’s a great variety of sensible units on offer and the gameplay balancing is extremely good. The single player modes are quite average and lack any real magic, but in multiplayer, Generals is supreme. Huge numbers of people play it online, creating an almost professional circuit of Generals players, such is the dedication of fans to its multiplayer mode. If you’re interested in watching some replays of pro players in action you can do so at GameReplays.org.

The Zero Hour expansion pack was released later in the same year and added a key new feature to Generals – the ability to select one of three specific generals for each of the three sides. For example, if you want to play as USA you can choose between the Air Force General, Super Weapon General or Laser General, each of whom offered unique units. You could also choose the standard ‘vanilla’ version of your faction. Unlike the single special unit offered to you in Red Alert 2, you now had real variety within the three sides that led to extremely deep gameplay.

It’s a shame that the C&C styling was removed from the game, but at the same time I think it’s good to keep adding new ideas into the mix. Generals was definitely a success and I’ve been playing it since its release 3 years ago. If anyone’s interested we have some regular DarkZero community matches of Zero Hour, arranged on the Gaming board of our forum.

Bonus Features

The First Decade comes with a Bonus DVD to celebrate the 10 years of C&C. Upon inserting the disk you are presented with a very stylish menu screen – easily one of the best I’ve seen, demonstrating that EA has put some effort into producing the DVD. The highlight is a fast paced yet lengthy interview with Louis Castle (Co-founder of Westwood and currently Vice President of Creative Development at EA) and a documentary about the C&C series with staff and fans, covering things such as why people like it and their early C&C memories. There’s also lots of interesting footage, focusing heavily on the movie sequences. The last part is a mix of extras, including concept art, a trailer and 6 fan videos that are disappointingly short as you literally only see a few seconds of each clip. But all in all, the bonus DVD was well worth it and most fans will learn something new.

Along with the DVD there is also a two-sided A3 sized poster, which is unfortunately folded up to fit in the box, causing visible crease marks, although it’s still a nice addition. One side shows a firing GDI Ion Cannon from space and on the reverse is a GDI tank. Out of the two, I prefer the Ion Cannon as it’s immediately recognisable, so that will be a permanent feature on my wall for many years to come.

Overall

Members of the C&C community frequently debate their preferred games, and there’s a very even split between Tiberian, Red Alert and Generals. With Red Alert, some missed the Tiberian universe and they were later rewarded with Tiberian Sun, before Westwood continued on with Red Alert 2. Now we have Generals, and when you consider the C&C series as a whole there is definitely something for everyone. Despite its flaws, Renegade was a also nice addition to the series as it brought in a type of gameplay experience C&C fans would never have dreamed of experiencing within the C&C universe. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to appreciate every single one of the C&C games. Most of us older gamers regard the originals as the best as that’s when the C&C success story started, but C&C has picked up thousands of new fans with its later releases.

I couldn’t write a review of the C&C series without touching on one of its best assets – the music, which only really applies to the first two games. The music tracks in the early C&C games are at times quite excellent, and this is down to Frank Klepacki, whose brilliant tunes gave life to the games. Unfortunately he wasn’t part of the team working on Generals, but I’d like to think he still has a future working on C&C games. If not I’d like to see future soundtracks bring the same energy to the game as his music did. For the record, my favourite Frank Klepacki tracks include: Act On Instinct, C&C Thang, Industrial, Just Do It Up, Target aka Mechanical Man (all from C&C), Hell March (Red Alert), Hell March 2 (Red Alert 2) and Sneak Attack (Renegade). You can listen to all of his music, including the above, at FrankKlepacki.com.

But it’s not all good news with the re-release of the original C&C and Red Alert. Some people have reported trouble with some movies in the original games, and multiplayer modes have not been re-implemented for us to play out of the box. EA have promised to look into these shortcomings, which really shouldn’t have made it into the final release, I can only hope they release an easy-to-install patch before too long. Fortunately a multiplayer patch has been released by the C&C community; please refer to one of the recommended C&C fan sites above to find out more. Hopefully these issues will be fixed and I can later modify this paragraph, but until then all we can do is wait. What we’d all like to see is full multiplayer support for each and every game in the C&C series.

The release of the Decade Pack gives newer gamers the chance to experience the classic originals, and for those of us who have bought all of the games over the years it means we’ve got the entire collection on a single DVD, along with an entertaining bonus disk.

So there we have it, a brief 10 year history of Command & Conquer. Even with all of the games available on the market today, C&C is still going strong and in my opinion only the legendary Total Annihilation has come close to rivalling its greatness. It’s hard to come up with a fair score for a series as a whole, but I believe the one below is a fair reflection on what the C&C series has brought into the world of gaming, and it’s a credit to the original games that they remain so entertaining and playable today. If you’ve yet to do so, then go and buy Command & Conquer: The First Decade, I cannot recommend it more. It should sustain your interest up to the release of C&C 3 and beyond.

Everyone with a PC should own this classic collection.

9.2 out of 10

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