O tempora: Command & Conquer series, as a story

O tempora is a series of retrospective posts where I play games from ages before to see if they stood the test of time.

People who read me for a while now know that I tend to preface my strategy game post with clearly outlining that I absolutely irredeemably suck at those. Yet, there are several franchises that I love, even if I play on easiest difficulties or outright cheat while playing them, just for the sake of their stories, their worlds, the music the style and everything that isn’t gameplay I just fail to be interested in. And for a while I planned to revisit one of the most influential and creative franchises that are no longer with us, because EA. Anyway, I just wanted to take a look at how the series evolved in style and story, with few mentions of gameplay, through its 3 separate sub-series with One Vision, One Purpose.

Westwood Studios created Real Time Strategy as we know it. It’s far from the only thing they ever did, even delving into Sierra and LucasArts kingdom of point and click adventures with flawed but interesting Kyrandia series, for which I personally always had a soft spot for. But then there was Dune II. Loosely based on the Frank Herbert’s classic Sci-Fi book series and the strange but critically panned movie by David Lynch, and itself a mostly unrelated sequel to a previous game by a different company (to which it wasn’t even supposed to be a sequel to, bad had to due to the license rights, as you can listen to about here at around 1:15). Where the first game by Cryo Interactive, was an interesting attempt to merge adventure and strategy gameplay, it was Dune II (also known with subtitle Battle for Arrakis) that started the RTS boom. No turns, no waiting, realtime decisions with base and unit building and resource gathering on a dangerous planet, where a dune sandworm can pop up and eat your bases and units at any point (unless you strengthen the base) and raw exciting strategy action. With… selecting… one… unit… at… a… time… Yeah, we’ve come a long way since then.

But what Dune II was at it’s core is a much more symmetrical RTS in terms of powers then what Westwood would do later. A lot of low level units differed in colour with only super-weapon units being unique to each of the three factions. And, as it later happened with early Blizzard titles where units at least looked unique per faction, a lot of gameplay was more 1-1 with less rock-paper-scissor gameplay Westwood games would be known for later.

Later – when they decided to make their own unique game world called Command and Conquer. The basic principles were the same, even the concept of a special world-changing resource is here – extraterrestrial (possibly) mineral called Tiberium, that one day landed on Earth with a meteorite, instead of Dune’s Spice. And it needs to be gathered with Harvesters, just like in Dune II. But the conflict and the sides of it is where the difference lies.

The original C&C establishes 2 main factions – a seemingly benevolent, but evoking police state imagery, Global Defense Initiative, that grew out of a United Nations initiative into its own state, and the Brotherhood of Nod, an almost religious extremist organization led by a mysterious person known as Kane. And in this backstory difference lies a gameplay difference as well. Unlike Dune II, GDI and Nod have their own strengths and weaknesses, apart from the “superweapons”. For the basic example – in the first game NOD has usually faster, but less armored mechanized units, some of which even have stealth technology, while GDI has stronger, but slower tanks, and in addition the single-player story constantly implies that Nod has stronger air presence, while GDI has strong fleet. And as the series, in all of the iterations progressed, these differences became more and more pronounced. It might feel natural today, years after the surge of StarCraft popularity, in which every faction behaved very differently and, especially in multiplayer matches, required a very different strategic approach, but back when C&C was first released, this felt like a true evolution of the emerging genre.

But back to stuff I don’t suck at. It’s incredibly interesting to see which things worked in C&C from the start in terms of world building and story, and which did not. For example, the GDI campaign remained incredibly boring story-wise throughout it’s all entirety with only fun bits being those that concerned the growing threat of tiberium and those that featured Kane. On the Nod side, on the other hand things were fun from start to finish, with Joseph D. Kucan, originally hired as a voice acting director but later becoming the director of all the cutscenes in the series, giving the franchise the face and the voice. From his original appearance with a bang (literally), until the very end, the Nod campaign tells about the growing dangers of tiberium from a very different, both captivating and frightening, standpoint. Of necessary evils and necessary change. Which is probably why the rest of the main Tiberium universe games focused on Kane so much, with GDI side never really living up to being even nearly as interesting. Even when bringing in some very high profile actors.

But before that happened, C&C did a strange diversion in creating a prequel game – Red Alert. Envisioned as a game that would show why the C&C universe is so different from our own, it was a strange mix of hammy pulp of Evil Soviet Union versus the Western Allies. The characters and cutscenes still remain mostly restricted to smaller “war rooms”, with little to no camera cuts, and the characterization of both sides being quite similar to GDI vs NOD. Yet, there’s more character to both sides. Kane is still there, since Red Alert was meant to be the prequel to the main series, but the rest of the cast, doublecrossing paranoid soviet agents and shellshocked revenge driven allies, are actually pretty fun to look at.

But then things changed quite a lot with Tiberian Sun. We get famous actors, we get a lot more different scenes and places for cutscenes to be filmed in, a lot more varied camerawork. And a surprising switch to a very dystopian, very post-apocalyptic vision of the world. Tiberium got out of control, there are mutants and almost Dune-like vistas, futuristic robots, and aerial units… And all of that is a bit too serious for the minimal story we get. Sure, previous entries felt more camp, but they usually managed to establish and tell more, while Tiberian Sun, only when pared with the Firestorm expansion, feels like a complete and actually interesting story.

I think, Westwood felt the same, since Red Alert 2 tries to get back to the mood and feel of the original games in terms of tone and story. It gets more camp, unfortunately (?), but it’s also full of interesting characters and events, now told in a way, that tries to balance the war room restrictions of the originals with a more action cameras of the Tiberian Sun. It was also originally meant to have a strong connection with the main series, but that was somewhat lost with later games in the series.

Right after that, however, Westwood made a very unexpected choice and made a unique mix of strategy and FPS – Renegade. Now, story-wise, it’s mostly trash. It’s a story set during the events of the very first game from the eyes of the typical action hero Commando. But here’s where I need to mention the gameplay again, as the game tried to mix the feeling of playing a usual RTS, except from the eyes of one of the units. Which was further enhanced via the unique multiplayer modes that allowed both RTS and FPS views, something that hasn’t really been attempted since then much, apart from very few exceptions like Nuclear Dawn, Natural Selection and to some extent something like Savage. By the way, the game also has a free multiplayer-only version in development by fans, if you want to see how that plays out.

O tempora, Command & Conquer, retrospective, story, ретроспектива, история

But then, EA was happening in full force to the studio. Before the closure of Westwood in 2003, 3 known big projects were in different stages of development. All of which were cancelled. Renegade 2 had two main proposals, one involved the explanation of why the events of Red Alert 2 happened, another was to explore what happened after the Red Alert 2 expansion. Continuum was to be a MMORPG about the post Tiberian Sun world, a game full of pretty interesting innovative ideas, since then appearing in different other online projects, and was a title to tie Tiberian Sun with the next planned main game in the series – Tiberian Incursion (also sometimes called Tiberian Twilight). It was to finally properly explore all the story points that were hinted ever since the very first game, with the inclusion of an alien faction Scrin and maybe even a time traveling episode to explain Red Alert 2 (just like what was proposed for Renegade 2). But the studio was officially closed and reformed into a different studio, first under the EA Pacific and later under the EA Los Angeles banner (though some left, with the most famous ex-Westwood studio being Petroglyph). EA Los Angeles, by the way, already existed and was made up of DreamWorks Interactive people, who were well known for the Medal Of Honor series, which could mean some interesting potential for the series. They were also responsible for The Neverhood, and that’s also a mix with C&C I’d want to see.

The first project of EA Pacific/EA Los Angeles team of ex-Westwood people was yet another spin-off in the C&C series – Generals. It’s the only spin-off that wasn’t connected to the main series and wasn’t meant to be one. It’s more of an alternate reality take on modern combat, with 3 opposing factions of USA, China and Global Liberation Army, and while it had cutscenes and story, it was considerably more “realistic” and down to earth chronicle of a conflict, rather than the usual C&C character driven story. It also had a very different set of base mechanics, compared to the more “classic RTS” of the previous C&C entries. This game were later to get a proper sequel, however that project was first re-purposed into a free 2 play game, which was then completely shut down and cancelled after bad impressions it left during the alpha testing phase in 2013.

Meanwhile, the next main series C&C was in development, redoing a lot of the ideas of the cancelled Tiberian Incursion mentioned above – Tiberium Wars. This game returned to the older cutscenes style approach, with most of the action in them happening in just one room with little to no cuts in action. Kane was back in action and as charismatic as ever, GDI got their own batch of interesting characters played by, yet again, famous actors and the third faction of Scrin… existed. Despite their importance for the plot, they felt handled in a surprisingly disappointing way and were quite boring. The main story, however, despite clear changes during the development and rather weird feeling that this, much more “normal” world is supposed to be the future of the very dystopian cyber world of Tiberian Sun, was pretty fun to follow, even more interesting in the expansion, that explained the years in between the games.

After this, however, two bizarre releases followed. Red Alert 3 was a very different approach to the RTS, clearly focused on coop (to the point, where even in single-player you always have an AI partner) and completely ditching both the attempts to tie the story with the Tiberium universe, and all semblance of seriousness. The story is pointless bollocks, but damn if it’s not a completely over the top silly pointless bollocks. I mean, look at this line Tim Curry reads while not trying to laugh. Sadly, for this reason, it’s almost preferable to just watch the collection of cutscenes and ridiculous themes from the game (Soviet March has nothing on Hell March in terms of awesomeness, but wow, the lyrics are gold).

Then, after a weird attempt to make a Tiberium universe FPS that isn’t Renegade, but rather a pure “cinematic shooter” title called, well, Tiberium, and quickly cancelling it because it didn’t “meet the quality standards” the final game of the series was released – Tiberian Twilight. And wow that game was complete trash that became the final nail in the coffin of the entire franchise. This is another point where I just cannot not bring up the gameplay, because it was a completely terrible grindy mess that was all about constant state of stalemate between two factions until the war of attrition gets one, preferably by you. And all about unlocking units by grinding the levels or playing multiplayer (with limited units, since unlocks are global for singleplayer and multiplayer). Sadly, the story parts were no better. Instead of having several factions you play as, you play as the same person, who just has to choose at a specific point to go with either one side or the other, both of the choices, by the way, barely doing anything for the story. And the story itself just ending without any interesting resolution to everything that was building up until then.

And that’s the story of how Command and Conquer died – as usual for EA studios, not with a bang but with a whimper. After setting standards, inventing and reinventing the genre and being one of the very few games to actually attempt making good mix of FMV and CGI even in later years, when FMV games fell out of favor, the franchise was just slowly drained out of everything that made it fun and killed off. Kane will remain one of the more memorable villains in gaming, of course, you will still find a lot of moments and cutscenes memorable if you decide to play the games for the first time today. And damn if Frank Klepacki’s soundtracks weren’t absolutely kickass. Then again – they still are, now that he’s working with Petroglyph. And at least some of the magic of C&C and Westwood lives with that studio. And hell, people are still playing the original C&C games, or their fan made free engine conversions. So Command and Conquer might be dead, but Command and Conquer lives in death.

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