THERE was a time in the world – back when
dinosaurs roamed the Earth, CDs were considered a new invention and mobile
phones were carried in a shoulder bag – that real time strategy games were
still a new and developing concept.
While the first RTS came as we know it is
generally recognised as Dune II: The Battle For Arrakis, it
was 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs and Humans
and 1995’s Command & Conquer that
really cemented the genre into what we recognise today.
It’s no secret I’ve always been a Command & Conquer fan – the “Inspired
by the Gulf War and Yugoslavian Conflict” aesthetic appealed to me more than
the fantasy setting of Warcraft – but
the C&C games have always occupied a particularly special place in my
& Conquer was one of the first PC CD-ROM video
games I reviewed, way back when it released in 1995, and gave it a score of
10/10 in The Christchurch Press. I
loved the game then (I’m a big RTS fan in general) and it’s always had a very
special place in my gaming memories – not just because it was fun, but because
it had a number of innovative elements that worked really well.
games were originally developed by Westwood Studios, who later got bought out
by Electronic Arts and it’s really hard to explain nowadays what it was like
playing a game that had properly acted cutscenes (known as “Full-Motion Video”
or FMV at the time) between missions, an awesome CD-quality soundtrack, and an
install screen that was interesting to watch (rather than the usual Windows
3.11 or Windows 95 programme install bar).
Even back then, I realised I was playing
some that represented a major advance in gaming – and 25 years later, the game
still has its magic.
As if Command
& Conquer wasn’t amazing enough, Westwood followed it up the next year
with Command & Conquer: Red Alert,
which shifted the action to an alternate history scenario where Einstein
travelled back in time to eliminate Hitler and as a result, World War II never
happened, with the Soviet Union (led by Josef Stalin) stepping into the “Let’s
conquer Europe” role and the Allies fighting against them.
Fast forward 25 years and Petroglyph Games and Lemon Sky Studios have given both titles (and their expansion packs) a remaster and released them together (via EA) as the Command & Conquer Remastered Collection on PC (Steam and Origin).
The remaster gives the in-game graphics a
4K update while still remaining faithful to the visual style of the original –
in fact, you can toggle between them with the press of a spacebar. The
excellent soundtracks have also been given a remaster and sound amazing too –
and still as great today as they were at the time (I had copies of the
soundtracks on CD and they were on heavy rotation thanks to their synth-industrial
and proto-techno stylings).
The experience begins right from when you
start the game, with it running through a modified version of the old install
programme – even showing the graphics setting being updated to 4K and declaring
the Port, IRQ and DMA of sound cards “Obsolete” before displaying “High
While the graphics and audio have been
overhauled, and the interface cleaned up, the AI has not been improved and
there have not been any balancing tweaks or adjustments made.
This means all the cheese-tastic tactics I
used to employ as a squeaky-voiced teen – such as sending an APC full of
engineers into an enemy base and watch them scuttle around like Dr Zoidberg as
they captured building after building while the enemy panic – remain valid
against the AI (human players know to build fences or sandbags around critical
buildings to thwart this).
There have been a few concessions to modern
RTS developments, however, notably in the ability to queue unit production and
the option to use a modern control scheme with left click instead of right
click being the “do this or go here” button. The build menu also has shortcuts
for buildings, infantry and vehicles, rather than having to click on the
individual buildings and tell them to make stuff.
Also surprising is the retention of the
low-res cut scenes in the games. I understand why the FMV cut scenes with
actors were retained (the only available videos were in 320p resolution, with
remastering and AI upscaling bringing them up to 640p) but there is no reason
why the CGI cutscenes couldn’t have been redone with modern tech, even if the
developers wanted to keep the mid-90s vibe of the whole thing.
Alert was the very first multiplayer game I ever
played (against a friend on the other side of town via 56k modems which would
disconnect any time our parents or siblings picked up the phone) and it was a
great nostalgic experience to fire it up again and play against my brother via
Steam. The lobby interface was the same as old times
Because the games are fundamentally as they
were in about 1997, it’s worth noting multiplayer has a tendency to ends up in three
ways: SimBase (basically both sides end up with heavily fortified and
impenetrable bases and it all turns into a stalemate), or a short, sharp attack
near the start wiping out the other player’s still underprepared base, or a
protracted death scenario where a lucky air raid or commando strike removes the
other player’s refinery, cutting off their income and essentially bleeding them
out via attrition.
I’ve always been primarily a single-player
gamer and the strength for both games is in their single-player campaigns (four
in total – one each for GDI and the Brotherhood Of Nod in Command & Conquer, one each for the Allies and Soviet Union in Red Alert), and that experience remains
as solid for me now as it did back in the time when I could look forward to
watching Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and Duckman of an evening on a CRT TV.
While the original higher definition
cutscene masters have been lost, there are a lot of greenscreen performance and
behind the scenes footage that has survived and these are unlocked as bonuses
as you play. They offer some fascinating insights into how the game was put
together and are a welcome addition to the collection.
Overall, Petroglyph and Lemon Sky have done an outstanding job of capturing everything that was great about both Command & Conquer and Red Alert circa the mid-late 1990s while still making it playable on a modern system.
While the appeal is mainly for people like
myself who were there the first time around, both Command & Conquer and Red
Alert are milestones in PC gaming so it is great they are available in a
more accessible form to younger or newer gamers.
Given the collection is only $29.95 on
Steam at the moment, if you want a nostalgia hit or any interest in RTS games
or the history of PC gaming, it’s an absolute must-buy.