#45: Command & Conquer
Designed for: Personal Computer
Developed by: Westwood Studios
Published by: Virgin Interactive
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Year Released: 1995
The venerable grandfather of all RTS games and the last of its genre on my top 50 list.
Command & Conquer (pronounced “See – n – See” by any respectable computer-chair general of the ’90s) was Westwood’s spiritual successor to Dune II, a 1992 title with which they basically invented the format that these games still follow twenty years later. Not content to just churn out a sequel to it (Dune II-2?), the studio managed to quickly and impressively prove out their new formula with a drastic change of setting. Instead of a licensed franchise driving their design, this time they created a completely original plot, and rather than keep its roots in deep-space sci-fi, they shifted the action to a (marginally) realistic modern day setting. It sported conventional troops, countries and forces (casting the villains as international terrorists), and peppered in a smidge of sci-fi tech, for reasons no more complicated than ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’.
And it was ‘cool’, and ‘rad’, and ‘tubular’, or any other of those perfect ’90s descriptors. It was so cool, in fact, that a good friend of mine in grade school just had to show me this awesome new game he had gotten, and that’s how I found out about it in the first place. Looking back, it’s no wonder my friend (and then I) was so affected by it–it really was the perfect game to appeal to a kid of the ‘90s. It’s got lots of slick simulated computer interfaces complete with cheesy rotating CGI graphics and female AI assistants mechanically updating you on the battle at hand. There are gobs of impressive-for-the-time FMV and CG cutscenes, and the soundtrack consists mostly of silly rock and hilariously dated faux hip-hop. But most importantly, it is very violent. Characters get executed in cutscenes, civilians are slaughtered left and right and every single soldier on the killing fields dies with their own grisly stock-audio scream. It’s not pretty, and the aforementioned computer voice makes a point of noting every single casualty (“UNIT, LOST”).
I have to say, I appreciate the effort to not make the violence seem cartoonish. I feel like Westwood was mindful that they were essentially in the business of marketing war to children, and it strikes me as markedly more responsible to present that subject’s horrors more realistically rather than try to sidestep them altogether. Personally, I was already into some fairly gruesome stuff at this point, despite my tender age, but I do remember being a bit shocked by some of the frankness of the game’s presentation in that regard, and I think that’s a good thing.
Aside from helping to convince me that hey, war is heck, man, C&C had an important impact on my development as both a gamer and a person because of one specific feature–playing as the villains.
I can’t be 100% sure, but I am fairly certain that C&C was the first game I ever played that encouraged me to take the other side in the whole save-the-world-from-evil thing. I can recall being genuinely surprised at the option to choose my allegiance at the game’s outset. (Interestingly, the player is effectively presented with this choice immediately upon opening up the jewel case, where they’ll find a separate logo-emblazoned disc for each side.) After briefly trying out the stodgy and boring (to me) good guys–the Global Defense Initiative–I eagerly switched over and was introduced to the FUCKING AWESOME baddies, THE BROTHERHOOD OF NOD.
Getting the chance to play as the bad guys wouldn’t have been nearly as big of a deal to me if they hadn’t been done as well as they were. They had cooler characters, cooler units and machines–even their buildings were righteous as hell…no, especially their buildings. NOD was all about black and red and fire and scorpions and lasers…I mean, really. I was 12 years old. It was like poetry to me.
Getting into the meat of NOD’s campaign proved equally enriching. For the first half of the game, you learn the basics of NOD’s philosophy and strategy from your mission commander, Seth. He’s kind of a sniveling little turd who bosses you around while occasionally referring to the enigmatic (and always-unseen) man at the top, Kane. Seth makes it clear that Kane is a big deal (“From God, to Kane, to Seth”) and therefore doesn’t have time for a scrub like you. After several victories for the NOD forces under your command, Seth starts getting pretty jealous and then develops some funny ideas.
Now THAT is a FUCKING ENTRANCE.
With the build-up of seven missions worth of reverent mentions immediately followed by one absolutely classic display of how shit gets done, Kane was forever cemented in the annals of badass video game villain history. There is a good reason that he is the only character to still be in these games, 15 years later.
Incomparably played by the game’s casting and FMV director, Joe Kucan, Kane had such a sly gravitas and presence that he just ended up stealing the whole show. When comparing him to the bland GDI characters, the plot point of the Brotherhood using charisma and manipulating the media to sway good people over to their clearly evil side suddenly started to make a lot of sense.
So how did playing as the cool villains in Command & Conquer affect me? Well, I’d say that both this experience and being a big fan of Batman (more specifically, his infinitely interesting rogues’ gallery) started me down a long path of always finding the villains a lot more compelling than the heroes. Nowadays, I just kind of take it for granted that I will usually be much more drawn to the baddies–or at least the antiheroes–in any given piece of media, but this is where it started. Be it the Judge Magisters in Final Fantasy XII, Alec Trevelyan A.K.A. 006 in the (movie) Goldeneye, or the fictional version of George Hearst in David Milch’s Deadwood–a great villain will always strike a chord with me that a good hero can’t, and I think that I have Kucan, Westwood, and Kane to thank for that, at least in part.
So, you might be wondering if I ever actually got around to playing the game or if I just watched the cutscenes again and again while I pored over the instruction book. No, the gameplay is timeless and great too, of course.
I really like how, unlike some other games in the genre, the units in C&C are quite small on the screen. You get a great sense of scale and because there is (gloriously) no upper limit to the amount of units you can make, you can end up getting some pretty epically-sized armies going on. They did some quality work with the sprites, too, so even though everything’s pretty tiny, the graphics ended up being both realistic and expressive.
The mechanics of the game remain very solid. The weapons have a real weight and I appreciate how fast your troops can get ripped through if you don’t have the right support or you get into a fight unprepared. I remember being pretty shocked when I realized that heavy vehicles could JUST RUN OVER soldiers, killing them instantly. Of course, I had to learn this the hard way, when a GDI tank intelligently met a marauding platoon of my best gunners treads first.
There was a lot of great detail put into the structures and the environments, too. The levels never seemed cobbled together, and civilian buildings and even trees could be destroyed to clear paths or just to wreak havoc (something The Brotherhood encourages, obviously). A solid variety of units made it all more enjoyable, too. More fun than just…shooting at stuff with normal rifles. FLAME TANKS, SUCKA.
So, yeah. As I mentioned in my entry on StarCraft, I had and have very little interest in strategy games, and I really only ended up loving that particular other one because it was a logical progression of what I liked about Command & Conquer in the first place. Since then, I feel like the genre has just gotten more complicated, and the things I used to like about them–plot, characters, colorful units and a fun setting–have been made secondary to the gameplay. And that’s great! I’m sure true, seasoned fans of RTSs love that evolution, and more power to them. I’m happy with the couple simple ones that I used to play, and they can have their newfangled ones. They deserve progress.
Brotherhood, Unity and Peace are enough for me.
IF THEY MADE THIS GAME TODAY: Well, they kind of have. Command & Conquer 4 came out not too long ago, and it has kind of completed the slow slide into lameness that the series has been taking over the years. The games are now really, really marketed (EA bought Westwood a while ago) and the once charmingly-silly FMV briefings are now stocked with celebrities and come out either too serious, or wayyyyy too winking and campy. It’s too bad, too, because the original managed to find a great balance between those particular extremes. Oh, well.