Once upon a time, I was really very good at Command & Conquer. At 24 I’m a bit young to have been properly good at the games during what many would argue was their heyday, but at the EA Los Angeles-developed entries in the series, Tiberium and Red Alert 3, I was great.
In my university years I spent more time online battling than I strictly speaking should’ve, and even hit the top 50 worldwide in RA3 - and before that, I was obsessive about the campaigns of the older games - even when I was playing the original C&C on the questionable N64 port.
As such I was massively excited to see what had become of Command & Conquer after the planned sequel to the awesome Generals was rebooted and twisted into a free-to-play based game. The words ‘free to play’ have a connotation with ruined games with ‘pay to win’ models - and I was hoping C&C could maintain some competitive chops. It may not have a chance at unseating Starcraft, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try, after all.
The ‘Generals’ based structure the full disc release would have had is still in place in the title, and getting ready to play I got to pick from six different generals. Each of them belongs to one of the three base factions of the game (The tech-based Europe, brute-force Asia and guerrilla GLA) but in addition to that also provides three unique units and a unique special ability.
The generals are over-the-top in style, and while it doesn’t appear there’ll be any awesomely-terrible live action video in this game the design and styling behind the generals recalls that 90s FMV attitude in a positive way.
One thing I was keen to do before the game began was poke around menus. I was looking for horrible free-to-play elements - the ability to buy double resources, or powered up units, or something like that. Thankfully, there was nothing -- and EA promised there wouldn’t be anything of that kind.
What will be for sale are things like additional Generals (and it’s safe to assume EA will add more over time), experience boosts and decal items to add an additional touch of individuality to your army - but nothing that will outright, absolutely aid in winning. Even the general specific units seemed well-balanced, and their abilities are subject to hefty cool-downs. In the end it should come down to skill and reactions - as it always did. It’s a full RTS spin on the League of Legends business model, essentially.
Being initially conceived as a successor to Generals means that the core controlling mechanic of the game, resource gathering, is more like that game than other C&C titles. There’s no Tiberium or Ore but supplies and oil, supplies needed to build just about everything and oil needed to build mechanical stuff. The similarity to Starcraft’s Minerals & Gas model is obvious - and a good thing.
Once in the game, it feels like an RTS and feels like Command & Conquer Generals, which is pretty much all you can ask for. DICE’s Frostbite 3 engine is in full effect, and goes a long way to make this a particularly pretty title for an RTS.
Strategies that I remember from my C&C3 and RA3 days were clearly still viable, as I found garrisoning buildings, early scouting and resource harassment to be as important as ever. I was soon churning out vast numbers of troops from my barracks and war factory, setting them to hot keys and setting up flanking manoeuvres - and this was merely against the computer.
Broadly speaking, it felt like home to me, a blast from the past at a time when I haven’t really played an RTS competitively for years, driven off by how fiercely competitive Starcraft is. I was only playing against the computer - and I found them easy to smash - but it definitely got the blood pumping again as the previous games did.
Command & Conquer will in the end be made or broken by exactly how well its transaction-based features are implemented in the final version. The important thing to know for now is that the core of the game is damn good fun - so here’s hoping EA get the business side right.
The game is due to enter full beta and fully launch before the end of the year.