Command and Conquer: The rise and fall of an RTS classic, part 1

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The first of a three-part series which breaks down one of the defining game series of our generation

The Command and Conquer franchise exploded onto our tiny Windows 95 computer screens in 1995, a brilliant example of how an RTS game should be done and the template for many others that would follow in its wake. Developed out of an earlier Westwood creation, Dune 2, the game was an instant success and in its 18+ year lifespan the franchise has undergone countless evolutions in an effort to preserve its status as a fan favourite, a gripping collection of stories and an awesome strategical challenge. The latest instalment has unfortunately fallen by the wayside, but my ill-fated attempts to gain access to the now defunct alpha testing program have prompted me to  reflect on what made the games so great over the years, and what has subsequently gone so wrong along the way.

Command & Conquer and the Covert Operations: 31/08/1995

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Humanity’s foray  into the C&C wilderness saw us enter a not-too-distant future world where a mysterious alien life-form known as Tiberium sinks its roots into the earth and begins to suck it dry, ravaging civilian populations and mutating indigenous wildlife. The UN-backed Global Defence Initiative (GDI), under General Shepherd, mounts a campaign to protect human life and contain the spread of the deadly Tiberium, whilst a quasi-religious terrorist organisation known as the Brotherhood of Nod, with the enigmatic and elusive Kane as their leader, seek to exploit the valuable minerals it brings to the surface and proliferate its spread in order to bring about a new world order. C&C 95 has subsequently taken on a number of additional names, such as “Tiberian Dawn” or “Command and Conquer Gold”, what matters is that it produced a gripping storyline, challenging levels and, of course, a fantastic soundtrack courtesy of Frank Klepachi. The cut-scenes added real depth and intrigue to the characters, and the now slightly dodgy looking computer animations really got you excited about trying out that new flame tank, or learning more about toxic Tiberium spores. Even now, almost two decades after its initial release, this game still offers an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

The Covert Operations expansion pack added a wealth of new levels and scenarios, as well as a couple of extra units.  In an age that saw the first Jurassic Park films hit the cinemas, who could forget the dinosaur park challenges? Never before had gamers enjoyed the privilege of pitting a mammoth tank against a T-Rex, and it’s something I’ll never forget. I do wonder though how, in the final missions, the dinosaurs manage to construct a comprehensive, grammatically correct briefing paper in English to outline their objectives to the human commander, but hey…

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There was an online service offered with the game through the optional Westwood Chat program, but considering I was only 7 at the time, and the family computer was powered by our budgie running round a hamster wheel, this particular aspect of the game was never something I really explored. Westwood studios no longer exists, but there are third party programs which will allow you to play the game online against your friends, something I would dearly love to try – anyone up for a game?

 

Command and Conquer: Red Alert: 31/10/1996

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Albert Einstein invents a time machine called the Chronosphere, and uses it to erase Hitler from human history…good move right? Well not exactly, as any science fiction fan will tell you, you can’t just mess around with the past and expect everything in the future to go on as it was…or would be, or…whatever.

Released in 1996, Red Alert sees us enter an alternate reality where the absence of the Third Reich has left Europe vulnerable to a Soviet invasion. To make things worse, Mr Stalin’s scientists have been playing around with some of Nicola Tesla’s inventions, and the results are, to put things lightly, “shocking”. I’ll give you a moment to get over that terrible pun, then go on to explain that whilst this game clearly shares a great deal with its predecessor (including a wealth of units), the story is altogether different and perhaps a little more light-hearted/ridiculous (although it isn’t without its dark moments).

Generally speaking, players are granted earlier access to higher tech levels than in the first game, a good thing for those who want to play with some of the crazier toys without first jumping through a series of hoops with the poorly armoured and often self-destructive infantry. Although far less foreboding, the story was just as gripping, Klepachi’s musical contributions were as epic as in the first game and you could spend hours on end using one of the most in depth/user-friendly level editors I’ve encountered in any game ever. The wacky Chronosphere also allowed you to conduct your own time-warping experiments, albeit at your own risk. Remember the Chrono-vortex?  An unexplained phenomenon that occurred with approximately one in every five uses of the device, and ripped through the battlefield destroying everything in its wake.

The Counterstrike and Aftermath expansion disks again added a wealth of new levels, units and challenges, and diversified an already completely mental unit base. Westwood Chat was again offered as a means of playing with friends online and getting technical support, but these were still early days for online gaming, and I suspect most multiplayer matches were conducted via LAN connections until the advent of the aforementioned third party multiplayer programs.

Red Alert was a masterpiece in creativity and madness, and a great way to learn an evil Russian villain accent along with a very suspect interpretation of 20th century history. There was also the opportunity to battle against a horde of giant, heavily armoured and highly destructive ants in secret levels accessed via the counterstrike disc  just in case you didn’t get your crazy fix from Tesla Coils, Chrono-Tanks and the mysterious invulnerability-inducing Iron Curtain.

 

Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun and Firestorm: 27/08/1999

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GDI’s efforts to contain the Tiberium infestation have failed, and 1999’s Tiberian Sun sees us enter an apocalyptic world ravaged by years of extra-terrestrial leeching and transformation, not to mention a seemingly perpetual struggle to suppress the Brotherhood of Nod. Despite numerous assassination attempts, Kane is alive and well, and seems not to have aged a day since the initial conflict. This game showcases a great leap into the technological future, featuring an array of suspiciously Star Wars-like walkers and laser weaponry, along with the results of Nod’s Tiberium-based experiments on humans: cyborgs capable of surviving having their legs cut off and healing themselves in the deadly Tiberium fields.

Many long-time C&C fans consider Tiberian Sun to be the crowning glory of the franchise: the storyline was a little troubling but certainly gripping, the units were diverse and versatile, the levels could be moulded/shaped by the battles that took place on them (as well as bearing the scars of Tiberium infestation) and players would encounter an array of Tiberium mutants. With the addition of the Firestorm expansion pack, players would also experience for the first time the novelty of having a third faction to battle against in the shape of CABAL: Nod’s central intelligence computer that becomes self aware and mounts a campaign to exterminate the human race. Tiberian Sun boasted a great storyline, intriguing (and interactive) environments and a well-balanced multiplayer rewarding innovative and creative play.

 

Featured image: SkarNL via Flickr. Inset images: Hot Grill via Flickr, gamefaqs.com.

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