The dawn of strategy games, the twilight of real war


Command & Conquer (1995)

All young boys have had army man fantasies, and judging by that airsoft fad we had a number of years ago, not to mention the amount of stag parties that go paintballing, there’s still a whole load of manchildren out there willing to take up the flecktarn. It’s well and good noscoping people in Battlefield and reckoning you could do the same in real life, but they never seem to realise that modern war just isn’t like that.

It’s all remote control slaughter these days, video game players sending in drones from base. Or, even if they’ve had to scramble and mobilise, they’ll be nailing hapless enemies from impossible distances away without them even knowing that there was a chopper in their midst. If ever it came down to an actual frontline rammy, things would change pretty quickly. There you are, swanning along the frontlines, all square-jawed and well-hung. Then suddenly you get your head taken off from a dozen miles away by some laughing, smart-alec sniper.

No, I’d rather take the luxurious route to soldiering, by being the commanding officer. Then I could come over all fierce and bald and short of breath. Siegfried Sassoon would write poems about me, and General Melchett would invite me to keep wicket for the local XI. Better to be the forbidding, untouchable general, leading men, women and dogs to their grisly deaths, than being out there being cannon fodder at best and choking down Sarin gas at worst, right?

War’s all about strategy, see, and it’s a lot easier to be strategic from a cushy office than out in the field where it’s 900 decibels, dark and foggy and watch out, there’s a ton of shrapnel coming at you, but luckily you were able to deflect the blow with a 14-year-old ensign’s body.

The dearly departed Westwood Studios knew all this when they created Command & Conquer. They had already made great strides for the Real-Time Strategy genre with Dune II. Why don’t you get great strategy games based on sci-fi anymore? I remember I picked up a Star Wars game for PC that was almost entirely a reskin of Age of Empires 2, with the Imperial March blasting as the first background song – now that was more like it.

But even before that, we had this, the first game in the Command & Conquer series, fan-named Tiberian Dawn because obviously the fans know best. This is what you call a proper PC game, from the days of having two separate speakers, the old Microsoft logos, the Windows 95 startup chime, compact discs being the brand new thing and a CRT monitor that weighed a ton.

Now, I’ve never particularly been a PC gamer. I’ve played much more ROMs and emulators and even flash games on PC than I have played actual PC games. I’m hardly ever on Steam, so I’m moreorless immune to their constant sales. The only games I ever play on PC are games that simply don’t translate well to consoles, usually real-time strategies like Age of Empires, and C&C.

So I’m a bit uneducated on the history of PC gaming, not a member of the master race. But what I will say is that as far as I’m concerned, PC gaming up until this point was, at best, primitive. I just saw it as a blaze of discoloured purple and blue graphics, with not a single sound effect to enjoy, and all pushing whatever the hell DOS was to its absolute limits. Think an infinity of Commander Keen games, or those rubbish Mega Man games.

In 1995, Command & Conquer seemed to change all that and dragged PC games kicking and screaming into some sort of modernity. Boy, talk about an incentive to keep you playing – before and after every mission, whether you choose the United Nations-backed GDI side or the insurrectionist NOD faction, you’re treated to compelling full-motion videos, with acting done by many of the game’s developers.

It’s green-screen done well, probably because the resolution of the original game would have been, I don’t know, 244×240 or something ridiculous, but it doesn’t look bad at all. The other CG scenes that booked the missions are a bit more like the hokier parts of Toy Story, I suppose, but that just makes the whole package more charming. They’d remind you of the little cutscenes from another Westwood classic, their rendition of Monopoly. The absence of limitations is the enemy of art, and all that.

As you progress further into the campaign, you’ll unlock more music tracks for the playlist as well, and this game’s soundtrack is definitely one of the most iconic in all of gaming. Hell March didn’t come until the next game, but one of gaming’s classic and most memorable moments comes when you embark on the GDI campaign and one of your ships is firing missiles onto the beachhead as Act on Instinct plays. This gets followed by Just Do It Up, and everyone remembers the Mechanical Man.

Boy, talk about incentivising you to keep playing. I should say though, that the single-player campaign for both factions is pretty tricky, in some cases a bit frustrating to go back to. I can’t say I ever made a huge amount of progress on it when I first played this as a kid either, but it’s a difficult prospect for any gamer. I suppose part of this is due to the fact that each of the missions is less an exercise in your strategic knowhow, and more a puzzle, a challenge for you to find the one and only way of winning.

This in turn might be because the computer AI isn’t really an AI at all – it just makes money, builds expensive units and occasionally throws them at you. If you attack its Harvester, its main moneymaker, it throws the kitchen sink at you. And famously, if you put sandbags or concrete walls in its way, it simply won’t know what to do.

The worst missions are the ones where you don’t get to build up your base and train units; rather you have to keep certain units alive. If they get capped, you fail. Makes sense, but it’s not too easy to prevent their grisly death when you have to move them slowly and carefully through the fog of war, hoping they don’t get burned to a crisp by a laser blast from the best structure in real-time strategy games, the Obelisk of Light.

Yes, better than the Tesla Coil, and I’ll take no argument on that. Anyway, this all means that your only real strategy on those missions is to save every three seconds as you progress. Not particularly fun, it has to be said, but we can forgive them – it was early days for the genre, after all.

Unfotuately, you were stuck with the single-player campaign unless you got some LAN play going because this edition lacked a Skirmish mode that would let you have a random battle against the AI. Such a mode was later added to the Remastered version of the game, which also comes with Red Alert and can be had from Steam for a twenty-spot. I’d say it’s worth it, if you have twenty lying around, but keep in mind that both these games are definitely aged now.

Aged, but still well worth playing, if only as a history lesson. If you want to check out Command & Conquer aged badly, you should try the ill-advised ports to PS1 and Nintendo 64 they did of this game. Actually, to be fair, I do have fond memories of playing against pals with two PlayStations wired up and connected to each other.

God, the things we did before online play. That’s why there ain’t as much war in this day and age, did you know that? Us warmongering boys have a way of actually playing out our little wargames now. Unfortunately, mine tend to end in my grisly demise by way of a tank rush, and I get my ass blown off the map. Looks like I’m not cut out for the fat general’s life after all.

28 April 2023

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