When Command & Conquer was released, it was snarkily referred to as Dune III. This got so pervasive that Westwood even had to refute this directly in the documentation. To this day, writers of walkthroughs and forum posts still refer to C&C’s refineries as “spice factories” out of pure spite. I suppose the allegation is that Westwood ripped the ideas from its successful Dune II, added a few story missions a la competitor Warcraft, and made up a new property with only a handful of effort required. I think this is nonsense, but I’ll really leave that for others to judge (and myself, later, as I see the exact quality of the total story in future reviews). What matters is that Command & Conquer marks the beginning of Westwood’s bread-and-butter franchise, and starts to really do some interesting things with the RTS genre.
The first Command & Conquer (later subtitled “Tiberian Dawn”) begins the series’ alternate universe featuring two key parts of an overall story. The first is the emergence of Tiberium, a poisonous, extraterrestrial crystal that is spreading across the Earth like a virus. It’s also a valuable power source, putting new and previously unimaginable wealth in the hands of enterprising and science-savvy terrorists.
The second follows the exploits of the Global Defense Initiative as they battle politically and militarily with the Brotherhood of NOD; a tiberium-funded and extremely plot-convenient coalition of every terrorist organization in the world (they’re not just the bad guy, they’re every bad guy!). The two factions grapple for the hearts and minds of the citizens of their territories, which you will watch as media breaks between missions. You, however, will be solely concerned with picking which faction you wish to command and guiding them to… errm… conquer.
No matter what side you choose, the basic challenges will be the same. Battles are all fought on medium-sized maps with accelerated build times and (generally) only the units you’re able to produce and deploy yourself. Your army is funded by mining fixed tiberium deposits placed on the map. On the other side of the map, your enemy is doing the same. You can easily invite defeat by overextending yourself, or by sucking up all the tiberium near your base and being forced to send your unarmed harvesters out into unsecured territory.
Units have been given some specific specialties, and the two sides benefit from many more unique weapons and advantages than you had in Dune II. GDI has exclusive superiority over the air. NOD has exclusive flame units for efficiently dropping mobs of infantry. GDI has lumbering, twin-barreled Mammoth Tanks that can shrug off most attacks. NOD has invisible stealth tanks that can sneak behind enemy lines. NOD has a few cheap, fast units that are lightly armored, giving them an advantage in scouting. GDI builds stronger units more slowly, making them weak in the beginning and nearly unstoppable once fully deployed. These special units that help define your tactics in a way suited to each faction; military strength for GDI, subterfuge for NOD.
The single player campaign gives a storyline that unfolds across 15 levels for GDI and 13 for NOD. GDI chronicles your success across Europe, while NOD places its missions in Africa, allowing for two official storylines no matter who wins. FMV or CG cutscenes relay unfolding events, and provide your briefing for the next mission. You’ll even see results of certain missions affect missions on the other side, if you choose to go back to play the other faction. Destroying a village as NOD and framing the GDI for the slaughter is one such example.
Your objectives further reflect the mentality of the faction you’ve chosen. GDI missions involve lots of reinforcing bases under siege or rescuing spies and scientists. NOD has assassinations, village slaughters, and prison breaks. While it’s not fair to say that NOD has all the fun, playing as NOD was one of the more unique experiences I’ve had in an RTS, and their viewpoint and missions were generally more interesting than stuffy old GDI. Plus, the NOD ending is about eight times more awesome, but I’ll say no more.
The plot is relayed well for either side, though a few disconnected, incoherent videos do pop up from time to time. They look like they were made for plot twists or missions that got scrapped in the final cut, but were included anyway for filler or tone-setting. Fair enough. You also don’t see much of Kane in this version – Joe Kucan’s charismatic and fairly ruthless NOD leader. I haven’t even played a C&C before this one, but I’ve still heard about how “totally badass” Kane is. As NOD, you get half of your briefings from a lackey named Seth. As GDI, you occasionally get Kane disrupting your “command feed” to taunt you. His appearances are enjoyable (and his entrance into the NOD campaign is legendary) but he’s not the star of the show yet.
Missions can be broken down into two basic types: build a base, or accomplish your goal using only a handful of units provided at the start. I can’t say that I really had a favorite. You can play it faster and looser when you’re able to build a base, but you’re still given all the resources you need and more in the limited “strike force” missions. I admittedly had my worst and angriest moments with the game during the initial phase of trying to create a working base. You’re incredibly vulnerable during this time, and though the AI never sends a critical mass of soldiers for a coup de grace, the constant harassment against your limited force and pitiful defense can be endlessly frustrating.
It’s also a tiny bit unfair, because your opponent never has to build their base. You’ll always be playing as the invader against a pre-built scenario. This allows the computer to cheat mercilessly and do things you cannot; like starting with giant reserves of cash, repair or build structures on land not connected to their base, and start with a fresh force of goons on defense. Luckily, while they have the resources to wipe you off the map, their main forces will just wait politely for you to find and engage them (just don’t attack a harvester!). By keeping to yourself, you keep the streams of enemy scouts to a trickle. The intent is to populate their base enough to prevent you from steamrolling it in the first five minutes – to build a mighty wall that you must then smash through.
However, since you’re always up against an opponent with a head start, it means doing any of the missions right will take time. If you can’t destroy the enemy’s construction center during your attack, don’t bother. The computer will readily repair any damage you cause. So, you set about building a massive invasion force worthy of Xerxes. On average, it took me about 2 hours (including any needed reloads) after the first few, easier missions. While that’s not absurd, it’s still a fair amount of time for poor saps that have to work for a living. Beating Kane’s final base took me six hours. Granted, I probably went a little overboard on the production, and it was the last mission, but I’d still eaten an entire Sunday afternoon on one rotten level in a video game.
There is at least one beautiful unit who can speed this whole process up for you, and will be your best friend from the moment you can produce him: the Engineer. This little devil can capture enemy buildings instantly and put them under your control, provided he can get close enough to enter them. GDI can load APCs full of Engineers, drive into NOD’s base, and virtually ensure at least a few get through. NOD can distract base defenses by using some of its cheap, fast units as bullet sponges, allowing their engineers to slip in while the bullets fly elsewhere. If one of your engineers captures the enemy’s construction center, you’ve won the battle and all that’s left are the details. Not only will you prevent repairs, you can then build turrets within the enemy’s own base to destroy it from within. Cheap? Maybe. Lazy? Probably. Badass? Oh, so badass.
It’s also worth noting that the game is overly paranoid about air power, I almost wish it wasn’t included at all. NOD has no air units to speak of, so I understand that an especially one-sided advantage needs to be watched carefully. Still, GDI’s air units cannot lift the fog of war, are miserable at destroying buildings, are outrun by most ground units, and are incredibly fragile to SAM sites or bazooka men. You occasionally get access to transport helicopters, but you can never build them yourself in single player. Super weapons like the Air Strike or Orbital Strike (available if you smash all the enemy anti-air sites) sport 10+ minute recharges and are intentionally weak against buildings. In short, you will have to take bases from the ground, made tougher when NOD’s flame units and the mighty Obelisk of Light make them so fucking good at zapping soldiers and tanks.
All the standard AI troubles are present here, though the interface has been streamlined. You can now order units to move and attack with a single left click. You can select units as a group and deselect with the right mouse button. You can assign units to squads and recall them with the number keys. It’s definitely easier to control your army than it was in Dune II or Warcraft, and much easier to break them into forces to be deployed at specific times – tanks for base defenses, then send in the infantry, followed by the engineers, etc. Pathfinding is still a problem though, and large groups are guaranteed to break up around obstacles like trees or plateaus.
If you can track it down, the Gold or Win95 edition is the way to go. The original DOS version looks impressive (though fuzzy), but the SVGA update looks fantastic with high-resolution, detailed terrain and an expanded viewing area. Pieces do get overused, and every location in Africa or Europe will look like every other location in that country. Units are tiny, but still manage to show some individual characteristics. Vehicles smoke when severely damaged, machine guns track and rotate atop humvees, fire erupts from launching cannons, smoke trails behind launched missiles, and infantry flies about in dramatic, bloody deaths. Colors again are the main differentiation between the factions (tan vs. grey), but you’ll also never mistake a unique unit for another – there’s never any question when a Mammoth Tank is rolling at you.
Sound effects are about average. Both sides overuse the same voice for “yes sir!” and “moving out!” kinds of reports from your units, and they’re quickly ignored after the first few missions. Explosions and gunfire sound satisfying, while soldier death screams are way over the top. Music is handled interestingly with a large selection of synthesized tracks. A CD-style “player” sits in the option menu, where you can select your track and turn on shuffle and repeat options. If you prefer to focus on the sounds of battle, you can turn the music volume down or off.
So what’s great about Command & Conquer? You’ve got a story that’s not particularly brilliant or unique, but it’s a lot of fun. You’ve got units with specialized roles and two competing armies with noticeably different styles. You’ve got a wide variety of special missions, especially under NOD, that break up the routine of building your base and smashing the enemy’s. It learns lessons from Dune II, nicks a few ideas from Warcraft, and adds a few refinements of its own for a reasonably thorough and entertaining experience. While clunky by today’s standards, it’s still aged surprisingly well and doesn’t feel as overhyped as you might suspect.
Fantastic alternative to Warcraft. Factions and units are generally well-matched. Some really neat missions for NOD, a more average, but still fun game for GDI. Excellent graphics for the Win95 re-release.
Interface and AI aren’t perfect, storyline can be a bit silly. Later base-busting missions take an awful lot of time to conquer.