davidn: (prince)
My exploration through Westwood's seminal RTS series continues with the original Command and Conquer, later renamed Tiberian Dawn!


Before, I hadn't realized just how closely related to Dune 2 this game was, but the premise and a lot of the mechanics are so close as to be essentially Dune fanfiction. Instead of a struggle for melange on a distant planet, they brought the same scenario back to Earth with the arrival of a mysterious substance called Tiberium, a miracle fuel with the unfortunate side effect of not really getting on with any carbon-based life. Just like Dune 2, your goal is (usually) to build up a base with a Construction Yard at its heart, sending out Harvesters to gather the dangerous economy-driving mineral of the day, keeping your base's power at sufficient levels, building barracks and so on and building units to destroy the opponents' base. Instead of sandworms lurking among the spice, your infantry units will lose health and eventually explode into flames just by being near it.

For the RTS that typified the genre, it's pretty incredible how many mechanics this got right and how familiar it feels. The controls have improved dramatically from Dune 2 - you can select multiple units now and even assign them to groups for quick selection, which is vital given the number of different units and the difference in their roles. Winning by sheer force of numbers is possible but you'll often find that if you build up an army of just one unit type you'll be frustrated at how quickly you can be minced - you really have to learn the units and what their strengths and weaknesses are. (This may also have been true of Dune 2 and I missed it, but I'm not sure.)

There are various attack types - bullets, grenades, shells and rockets - and each of them have different effectiveness on different units. For example, infantry are weak to bullets and being run over by heavy vehicles, but can just about defeat a large tank single-handedly if they're armed with a rocket launcher because they can duck and cover from shell fire. The two warring sides - GDI and NOD - only share a few buildings and units between them, so you have to adapt your play style to fit them (especially compared to something like Warcraft II where if I'm not mistaken, every unit was a direct equivalent of one of the other side's units).

I was also surprised that many of the missions weren't the standard "build a base and destroy the enemy" - often you'll be given more creative objectives like clearing out a mountain pass with a limited number of units, or being able to build no unit-generating buildings because of budget restrictions and having to use your starting units and a crumbling repair bay to see you through.

There is a major interface difference from more modern RTS games, though I remember that this didn't feel at all weird at the time - once again there are no worker units, and all your construction options are consolidated into two lists on the sidebar. You use this to construct new buildings, which pop up out of the ground with a delightful animation - just like Dune 2, you can only build next to existing buildings. Units are also on here, and because you don't have separate build queues for each structure, you can only build one of each type of unit at a time (infantry, vehicles, etc) no matter how many buildings you have - having multiple copies of a building will simply speed up your build rate for the units they produce.

I remember playing this when I was much younger, but never getting very far - the major thing that helped me through this time was realizing just how powerful the Engineer was. This is an expensive infantry unit with no means of defence but the incredible property of capturing a building and changing it over to your side instantly (I had somehow been convinced that you had to reduce the building's health into the red first but it works even on a pristine building)! This means that if you can get a fast APC full of them past the opponent's defences and into the heart of the base, you can wreak absolute mayhem by taking over their buildings, selling them off, building your own barracks and defences and eating the base from the inside. But the NOD doesn't have the APC, so if you've relied on that tactic too hard during the GDI campaign, you have to adapt dramatically when you switch sides.

The AI is... present and good enough to be annoying but it definitely has exploitable holes. It very obviously has no concept of how to construct a base beyond its starting layout in each mission, and will only ever replace buildings you've destroyed with new identical buildings in exactly the same place if it can. As far as attack goes, its most obvious deficiency is its severe allergy to sandbags. It doesn't really know how to handle any wall-like structures so it's quite possible to box yourself in and get on with building up an army while the enemy tanks have disagreements with each other about how to proceed.


And how can I write about this game without mentioning the FMVs? The game came out at the start of the era where developers were realizing what the storage capacity of CDs allowed them to do, and I'm so glad that they did because they're absolute gems - seeing actual actors give you your mission briefings was incredible at the time, and the videos have now become wonderfully, hilarously stylized looking back on them. NOD mission 8 is probably the highlight - and it's also really interesting how the game throws in some wordless storytelling in the couple of missions previous to this as well, with your commanding officer Seth giving you increasingly bad starting units and inaccurate mission briefings in an unacknowledged attempt to curtail your rise to his boss's favour.

It's still amazing today, honestly. It's been released as freeware and made available on archive.org.

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