Command & Conquer Remastered Collection: Welcome Back, Commander.

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 gaming memories.

Command & 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.

The C&C 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.

The difference between the original graphics (left) and the remastered 4K graphics (right) is stark, yet still remains true to the spirit and visual style of the game.

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 Definition Audio”.  

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.

As well as the graphics, the construction menus have been given some tweaks too.

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.

The FMV scenes have been given a remaster as well, but are still only around 640p resolution – apparently due to the original master recordings being lost.

Red 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.

Good luck getting an engineer into my construction yard now, Kane.

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.

As the intro says: Welcome back, Commander.

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