Nuclear, Chemical and Psychological Warfare
Okay, it's like this. They're making some, uh, some changes to Command & Conquer. Relax. Don't get upset - remember, we have a Contract. Just listen to me for a second, here. And breathe.
It's game-design chic for developers to lean back with their Mountain Dew Code Red and talk about lofty concepts like the "contract with the player," the notion that once a game enters the gaming community and becomes popular, it belongs to the players as well as to the creators. It's a great notion, truly a noble notion...but the instant you bring it up, it makes gamers nervous, because it sounds like you're about to start dicking around with norms and mechanics we've come to think of as ours, dammit.
Remember how your average Joe Couch-Denter reacted the first time he got wind of "New Coke?" Got that image fixed and enhanced? Now, make him a computer gamer, the kind of guy who verges on blubbering if you alter his Counterstrike settings without asking. Then, tell him you're making a few "changes" to Command & Conquer. Do you really want a piece of that geek-jerky?
Or, to put it another way: Don't make us nervous. You wouldn't LIKE us when we're nervous.
As if to smooth out the collective stress lines of geeks nationwide, EA and Westwood invited some of us down to the EA Pacific offices to check things out, like so many edgy UN weapons inspectors visiting a suburban Baghdad weapons depot.
Then they unloaded on us.
The C&C world we knew is gone, at least for the moment, evaporated, ffffpt!, fugeddabouddit. No Kane. No Brotherhood of Nod. No Tiberium. No Orcas, no Yuris, no goofy FMV clips, no alternate-Russia timeline, no Tanya, if you please. Command & Conquer: Generals casts off C&C's comic-book stylings and sprite-based visuals in favor of a new, extremely-detailed 3D approach and a world much closer to one you could conceivably watch on CNN.
Generals lets players command near-future American, Chinese and terrorist Global Liberation Army forces through a linear series of missions that showcase the most interactive and downright satisfying environments and mechanics that the C&C world (indeed, the RTS genre) has seen to date. Combat now takes place on a fully-realized 3D battlefield that can be scaled and freely rotated, and the functional detail is pleasantly surprising.
In only a few hours of direct hands-on time, we saw airborne chopper-assault troops scuttle down cables to take enemy buildings, witnessed autonomous bands of civilians flee a marketplace as enemy tanks rolled in, and watched aghast as a Chinese tac-nuke flattened an entire forest of individually-reacting trees. As long as the EA guys were showing off, they treated us to the spectacle of a US tank shooting up a tall building until said structure toppled, crashing down into another nearby...which crashed down into another...and so forth, down a line of six or seven, until the final domino in the line came a-crumblin' down onto another tank (!). By now, many C&C fans have seen or heard about the dam which, when destroyed, sends forth a deluge that wipes out an entire village, but they may have not seen the aftermath - a deep, formerly-empty gorge now filled to the brim!
Nervous, yes - but we were starting to feel a little better. Despite the considerable differences in mechanics and visuals, Generals still feels reassuringly familiar. The interface, too, has seen some changes. Gone is the ever-present side-bar, replaced with a semi-transparent production GUI at the bottom which can be made to go away completely if the need arises. Also, combat units can be fitted with upgrades such as the neato Combat Drone, a sort of hovering auto-gun that flies sentry duty over certain units like the main American battle tank.
Except for this small bit of science-fictionish hardware (and the orbital particle cannon), C&C Generals feels decidedly more grounded in the real world. Despite the playable presence of units designated as "terrorist" (the GLA, complete with, yes, suicide bombers), the designers have taken care to be neither too flip nor too heavy-handed with such subject matter. In fact, why not hear it straight from the source?
Still, coincidence rears its wild-eyed head from time to time...as we saw during one mission depicting a full-scale ground invasion of Baghdad. It was already in there before the recent turn of events, of course, and hey - it's a good scenario. At least EA has had the guts, so far, to leave it unchanged.
The heart of any RTS is multiplay, of course, and Generals has an added twist to the already varied three-factioned nature of the game. In fact, it's this scheme that give the game its name: Generals - a way to further increase the diversity of multiplayer confrontations. For each of the game's three "factions," there are three further operational distinctions which subdivide any given player's true abilities; Army, Air Force and Special Forces Generals each offer added benefits not available to other subdivisions of the same faction. Playing as the Americans, you might select the Air Force General, who can utilize special airborne attacks such as the napalm strike or the famed "Daisy Cutter" air-fuel bomb.
The whole 'Generals' scheme essentially means that simply knowing which of the three factions another player has chosen does not necessarily prepare one to confront them. Starcraft veterans know what I'm talking about. The 'generals' feature is another way of adding a layer of depth and variety to a game that's already trying hard to keep things fresh.
Ever serious about that "contract" with the player, the EA designers seem sincerely concerned with delivering the most enjoyable game experience possible. In addition to the planned pre-launch release of their so-named Worldbuilder scenario editor/scripting package (the real deal, the same package they use to create missions) aimed at eliciting kick-ass maps from the C&C community, they are already hard at work developing a dynamic ranking/balance system to facilitate patches, should they, Yog forbid, become necessary. Once in place, this system will allow the designers to retrieve data from online players and see, on a daily basis, which units and/or factions within the game seem to be particularly overpowered, underpowered or in any way debilitating to proper game balance.
Still, let's hope this just-in-case talk of patches simply isn't necessary. Once again, such talk makes us nervous. I mean, we were nervous enough roaming EA's Irvine offices where in-game voice talent like this guy were allowed free run of the hallways. And I think he ate part of my lunch when I wasn't looking. Seriously.
Command & Conquer Generals is looking good, solid and daring enough to be immensely enjoyable, without messing around with the C&C Secret Sauce too much. Gamers like what they like, and "new" isn't necessarily better. Remember, EA, you've got that Contract with us, which will be considered valid come January of next year.
Although, from the way that final Normandy-style amphibious mission they let us play was going by the time they kicked us out, perhaps it's more like a Contract on us. See what you can do about increasing the range on those Tomahawks, EA. I'm still angry about that mission. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry...