389th played so farCommand_&_Conquer_1995_coverGenre: Strategy
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1995
Developer: Westwood Studios
Publisher: Virgin Interactive, Sega, Nintendo, Electronic Arts

Woo, Command & Conquer! Taking the gameplay found in Dune II, which turned out to be fun, Westwood continued to create another game like it, but now not using a licensed property.

One of the big things I remember from these days is that Command & Conquer was in competition with Warcraft II at the time. The two series widely diverged afterwards, but looking at it, this is where the RTS genre really kicked off. Time to take a look at one of the originators.

Our Thoughts

As much as this was originally a landmark game, playing Command & Conquer now really feels like we’re playing an inbetween game in the development of the genre. You can select an arbitrary number of units to send around using context-sensitive commands, building being a quite simple process. At the same time, you can’t queue build orders, with no real upgrades (beyond building other buildings).

The result is that the game feels a lot less building- and economy-dependent than the Warcraft series, instead allowing you to focus on building large armies (the aforementioned lack of queueing being the only thing standing in your way). It’s easy to send in fifty troops of varying types, making your success mostly based on selecting the right ones and getting the cash to be able to afford it.

The last part is the focus of the story. A new substance called Tiberium has appeared on Earth. It gathers minerals and other valuables, making it worth selling and controlling. In the game, it means that you need to harvest it to pay for your buildings, while in the story, it’s what the GDI (army) and Children of Nod (terrorists) want to control and get it to serve their own needs beyond the war they’re fighting, and use it to control the world.

This last part also explains the level select screen. You get a map of Europe (for GDI) or Africa (for Nod) showing which territories each side controls, with arrows to indicate where you attack next. There are often a few options available, each direction having a different mission, giving you some extra options if you can’t finish one – another might be easier or suit you better.

In a way, this is really Dune with the serial numbers filed off – tiberium instead of spice, Earth instead of Dune‘s titular planet. The interface certainly fills different though, as well as all the other trappings, feeling more modern and army-like, befitting the real life setting. This comes through in the story as well. The basics are quite simple – two factions in opposition – but it has its own style.

Command & Conquer was released at an interesting point for story telling. With the rise of CD-ROMs, more space was available for video and graphics, and the options had increased. At the same time, 3D models and graphics were not advanced enough or available enough to use (most of the game’s graphics are sprite based). For storytelling, models might give a vague indication of who and what, but they were too static and rough to show emotion or add anything to what’s being said. Because of this combination, using real actors, often standing in front of blue-screened photos or early 3D renders, were used more often. We recently saw this with Gabriel Knight, The 7th Guest was the first to do it and we’ll see more of it in the Myst series. C&C, too, uses video cutscenes, often with a minimum of actors and mostly talking heads. Clearly, they wanted to keep costs down – a lot of the actors seemed to have been Westwood employees doing other work on the game. A number of them stuck around though – Kane, the leader of Nod, is in all the games, as well as a number of games in the spin-off series Red Alert (which we’ll describe further at the time), and is always played by Joseph D. Kucan. He is now apparently the longest recurring actor in any videogame franchise.

It’s still a tricky game, and graphically hasn’t aged well, but aside from being the blueprint many others following, Command & Conquer provides its own improved experience that made it far more compelling than earlier RTS games did. If Warcraft is where you went for the story, this is where you went for the interface and pure strategy.

Final Thoughts

When you compare it to the games that follow it, Command & Conquer feels incredibly bland. Even so, though, there’s something exciting about the feeling of sitting down in front of a computer and playing a game that, to the best of its ability, try to sell you being the godlike commander of an army, from the installer to changing the GUI when you get disowned by your faction.

Plenty of it feels a bit low budget, especially the acting, but the mix is that of a game confident in doing what it feels it needs to. A great example of the strategy game, stripped down to the bare basics that started the entire genre, it shows why an RTS is so compelling.

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