An overdue promotion.
Hardcore gamers will tell you with utmost confidence that real-time strategy gaming started back in 1992 with Dune II. Even geekier geeks will claim that it REALLY began in 1990 with Herzog Zwei. A select few will even try to trace it back to 1980's fantastic Sea Battle on the Intellivision, though anyone with that kind of gaming gusto probably has a wedgie pulled up to their neckline and should stop thinking so much (note: I am in this group).
The fact of the matter is that RTS gaming truly took form and shape in the mid-90's with the release of the original WarCraft and the original Command & Conquer. Both were revolutionary, laying the groundwork for every single RTS that followed. They were also just great fun.
Fast-forward nearly a decade and the WarCraft series has proved its staying power with a terrific third iteration and a nearly flawless track record. Having suffered from a few missteps over the years, the C&C franchise knew it had to take some drastic steps to keep up with Blizzard's behemoth.
The folks at Westwood named that step Command & Conquer: Generals, the first fully 3D strategy take on the C&C universe and one of the most anticipated PC releases in quite some time. And while it definitely recaptures some of the glory of the franchise's heyday, it can't quite live up to its enormous hype.
Right from the start, it's clear that this isn't just a retread of the C&C we've all come to know and love, as the ever-quarreling GDI and NOD are both MIA. Rather, the game is set against a much more realistic backdrop featuring three distinct sides.
The story is straight out of modern day CNN. It seems the world is being threatened by the GLA (Global Liberation Army), a terrorist organization that likes to blow up stuff. The Chinese and the Americans are apparently the only ones concerned, each attempting to secure the safety of the world by taking out the GLA. Sound familiar? That's because you basically watched it on TV last night.
Though it might up the ante in terms of eerie realism, the story is not supported adequately by the game's main Campaign mode. Each side features 7 or 8 missions, but unlike other C&C games, there is no branching. It's a strictly linear go for each one.
Additionally, the designers felt that to keep up the realism, they had to forgo what is considered a hallmark of the series - live video. There are no actors or FMV segments at all to help flesh out the story. Instead, you are given a quick voice briefing before each mission and then an introductory in-engine cutscene to set the stage. I hope Kane has a day job.
The result might keep the feel consistent without jarring you back and forth between gameplay and video, but it also does very little to give the story any arc. The Campaign feels like just a series of missions strung together loosely. Despite having completed all three, I couldn't tell you the overarching story if I tried.
While they dropped the ball with the plot, they definitely pick it up again when it comes to the brand new 3D 'Sage' game engine. Say goodbye to the sprites of old - all vehicles are polygonal and the maps feature fully 3D terrain. Great texture work and terrific explosions breathe new life into the franchise. You can rotate and zoom with ease to get different takes on the conflict. Though the infantry look a little cheesy, watching them get blown into the air after a particularly nasty barrage lends a palpable sense of mayhem. By all accounts, this is a very pretty game.
This cool new engine comes at a price, though, as C&C Generals requires a lot of power to run smoothly. Lower-end systems will chug along with options turned way down. But to be fair, you can't ask for a burly new graphics system without expecting some resource hogging, so it's not a big deal.
The three sides are balanced nicely. The technology of the U.S. is superior, the Chinese rely on mass numbers, and the GLA makes up for its basic unit deficiencies with sneaky tactics and devastating weapons. Civilian car bomb, anyone? And when it comes to ubers, the GLA's Scud Storm and China's Nuclear Missile are much nastier than the US Ion Beam.
The units add distinct flavor to each side. The Chinese Overlord tank, for instance, can be outfitted with a gattling gun (good against infantry), soldier bunker or propaganda tower (heals nearby friendly units). U.S. spy drones can open up the map to airstrikes. The GLA can build tunnel networks to be even stealthier. If there's one thing C&C does well, it's unit creativity.
What it doesn't do so well is handle veterans. Units gain up to three veteran ranks by killing the enemy, and vets gain abilities like self-healing and higher damage. Plus, downed pilots can be placed in normal vehicles to add veteran points to that unit, making them quite useful indeed.
But in a bizarre design decision, veterans do not carry over in the Campaign. Despite keeping a three-star unit alive, he's gone when you win the map. Doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose of veteran units altogether? By the end of a map you're attacking with Nukes and waves of tanks, rendering the veteran advantage nil. How about letting me choose a few vets to take with me? Vets would come in handy by giving you a start advantage; the inability to carry them over is just frustrating.
As laid out in our recent preview, Generals was so named because you were supposed to choose to play as one of nine generals, thereby giving you access to certain special abilities. I guess this turned out to be awkward in the play testing, because the concept has been changed. Instead, you gain 'General points' by completing mysterious requirements during battle. You can then use those points to buy General abilities (which only last for one battle). These include various levels of airstrikes and a quick repair option, as well as side-specific choices like the Chinese ability to crank out veteran infantry immediately or the GLA's ability to collect cash from downed enemies. It might not be as cool as they originally planned, but the 'Generals' idea works well and adds some more fuel to the strategy fire.
And when you get right down to it, Generals excels in its gameplay. It's a much slower-paced affair than most other recent RTS games like WarCraft 3 and Impossible Creatures, but the slower movement makes for a more strategic game. Building, upgrading, and taking out a heavily fortified enemy with a well-placed nuke is as fun as addictive as ever.
Gone is that frisky tiberium, replaced with a vague 'supplies' resource. Each side has a different means of collection, though the games rarely turn into the classic 'war of attrition' model that dominated earlier C&C games. Plus, the Chinese have a 'hacker' soldier that can illegally download cash from the Internet in case you run out of supplies. Hmmm...sounds like a new business model for GR...
But despite its thoroughly updated look and features, Generals falls into old habits with some annoying AI. Your units have an amazing tolerance for pain, as evidenced by the fact that they do not move or even fire back on their own if they're being attacked from even a smidgen outside their range. You'll watch in vain as a GLA missile launcher takes out three tanks and ten infantry because they didn't have the intelligence to fire back or even move out of the way after the first two missiles. You have to keep a close watch over every single battle.
Additionally, you cannot set up formations, which can spell disaster in a 3D RTS. Tanks often have a hard time figuring out how to get through certain areas and will instead take 'the long way home'. Setting up waypoints is impossible, and advanced unit controls (like making a group of infantry 'scatter' before being bulldozed by a tank) are absent.
When you tire of the single-player experience, you can hop into Generals multiplayer. The game definitely works better here as the AI range issue isn't as noticeable. Up to 8 players can go at it at once, and the matching system is very handy.
To sweeten the deal, Generals lets you watch an instant replay of any battle - single or multiplayer - to find out where you went wrong. It's a great feature that's long overdue in the RTS genre.
And speaking of long overdue, it's about time the C&C universe got a real update. Though Generals isn't without its design faults, it serves up enough RTS goodness to please fans of the genre and acts as a fitting swan song for Westwood and EA Pacific.