I picked up a copy of the Command & Conquer compilation The First Decade mainly because I wanted access to all the good stuff outside of EA’s Origin launcher, where I’d sampled them previously. We only ever had vanilla Tiberian Sun and Red Alert II back in the day, you see, and last time was before I discovered that eBay exists and is actually a fairly reliable place to find games of a… certain age… that are still factory-sealed. The First Decade stops at Generals but, eh, C&C3 and beyond are where things got wobbly anyway.
When I went through the Tiberium franchise last time, I didn’t actually play the original original game, because I figured it would be “too old” even for me! But these days I’m a slightly more adventurous rube, so I decided to go for it.
(Spoiler: it feels very old.)
Command & Conquer
Actually I was also hoping that by picking up a physical release, even a compilation, that they’d have somehow preserved the old Westwood installers — which often gave you nice lore warm-ups while the games copied themselves onto your hard drive. Alas, no, you get a compacted InstallShield experience, which still manages to include having to type in seven independent CD keys. Seven! All of the pain and not a single whiff of the gain! Boo hiss!
Okay, enough griping about the compilation, let’s start griping about the game. Because, hoo-eee, it’s fascinating to walk through a living fossil…
As I’m beginning to see is something of a trend for old RTSes, C&C is so very tiny. That’s not to say missions are fast — not even close — but the maps are hilariously miniscule. We’re talking 4×4 monitor-size blocks at most (that is, 640×400 monitor-sized blocks), and frequently only 2×2. This means that the soldiers are even smaller, so in the early missions before you get to clearly differentiated tanks, it can be quite hard to tell what you’ve got in any particular battle group. In one mission I didn’t realise I had been given two engineers as well as actual troops before I accidentally took over a Refinery. Not the worst outcome, but still — it’s moments like this you can really feel the ambition straining against the limitations of the hardware at the time.
The other grotty part of this is down to Tiberium itself. Unlike, say the Gold Mines of the Warcraft franchise, which are singular focal points, Tiberium forms large mats across the landscape. That means that it needs space. That means that the small maps don’t really have enough space to offer plentiful supplies of Tiberium and still fit in… well, everything else. Naturally there’s always a convenient patch not far from your start point, but as missions drag on your harvesters start having to cross the map to find any leftover bits and unit production slows to a crawl. (The Tiberium-spouting trees are often present to replenish some patches, but they are not fast enough to be much of a help.)
Things don’t get any easier when you actually start ordering your little ants around.
Basic conveniences like drag-selection are present, but you can’t shift and drag-select to expand a selection. Troops can only be loaded into APCs and transport helicopters one by one. Aircraft cannot be selected at all while they are in flight (except through pre-assigned command groups). Units will walk down dead ends before turning back to go to their intended destinations, wasting time or blundering into enemy fortifications.
Maybe the most fun part is that new buildings must be placed exactly adjacent to existing buildings, not just in a limited radius around them. Which means that, yes, if you want to build a defensive emplacement at a chokepoint, then you have to… snake a wall of sandbags all the way over, then sell the intervening parts off to open the way up again. A part of me kinda loves this because it’s smack in the middle of that cute/absurd zone that can only arise emergently from a very rigid ruleset, but honestly, the original Warcraft‘s solution, where buildings can only be placed against open roads, feels like a much more elegant way to contain sprawl without getting too silly.
Mind you, there are some enhancements that I’d swear disappeared from future games. The iconic C&C right-hand sidebar, for example, gets minimised away in missions where you don’t have any buildings, giving you more screen space with which to get your bearings. Even once you’ve deployed your MCV and start using it, you can toggle it in and out. Sometimes it’s nice to just forget about building stuff and enjoy the fireworks.
And ahhhh, so much is already here. Tanks can roll over infantry for devastating instant kills. Sold or destroyed structures spawn a few extra soldiers or a useless but fun Technician. The best way to win most matches is still to charge an APC full of engineers into the enemy base to steal ‘n’ sell their Construction Yard.
Narratively, there isn’t a lot going on, and the missions themselves definitely suffer for it. Almost every scenario has the same objective: you must wipe every single enemy unit off the map. Yes, that includes the one soldier standing in the bottom-left corner for no particular reason, or the SAM Site hidden behind trees in that patch of fog you didn’t quite clear.
Sometimes the puzzle-crawl format is exercised with a Commando or a small group and no base building, sometimes you are encouraged to go in by a back door, but mostly, once you’ve started a mission with a minor gimmick it quickly settles into the same old formula. For all you get the lovely CGI intros and live-action briefings, these never intrude on the actual gameplay, so it’s quite possible to forget what sub-objective is even preventing you from winning the map as time grinds on.
There’s one particular example in the GDI campaign where you can see the more modern flexible objective approach straining to break free from the bonds of kill-everything melee. You are tasked with destroying a Nod convoy as it travels down an exposed valley; the implication being that you should line your troops up along the ridge and rain fire upon them as they pass through.
In practice, though, there’s no penalty for missing one; they just start wandering around, and there are some scattered pre-placed troops in the forests on the other side of the map anyway. Imagine the same scenario today — you’d have a counter of how many units are incoming, how many you’ve destroyed, barks from mission control when you let one slip… Alas, this is 1995, and since the convoy includes stealth tanks you weren’t warned about, you can be left with a seemingly empty map and absolutely no feedback about what to do next.
(Okay, fine, the modern equivalent I just posited would probably be annoying for going too far the other way and mollycoddling you, but you know what I mean.)
With all these complaints, you might very well ask why I didn’t buy the actual remaster to get a more palatable experience.
The answer is that I’m interested in archeology — I want to play the game as it was, not as anyone wants to remember how it might have been. Warts and all, for better and for worse. I believe that games, like all pieces of art, are products of a particular time and place, a particular set of people, circumstances and limitations, and to revisit that is an impossible task because no past situation can ever be recaptured; even by the original team as older people, let alone a different team entirely. That means that any up-scaled or rebuilt assets will inevitably drift from the original vision and produce different results, and that is why I oppose remasters. If I wanted something different, I’d play a different game.
(I am happy to accept bug and compatibility fixes, though. Even on Windows XP, I had to install a fan patch to stop C&C crashing all the time.)
Yes, the chances are I will never revisit Command & Conquer again, will never dream of it the same way I idolise its direct sequel, but it’s still been a fascinating experience. This was the RTS genre struggling to be born and as a game developer that’s incredibly interesting to explore even if my time spent there was not entirely… fun.
It has a surprisingly bangin’ soundtrack, if nothing else.