Thursday, 18 June 2020

Franchise Familiariser: Command & Conquer

After a decade of quiet, the venerable Command & Conquer franchise has risen from the ashes like a phoenix, thanks to the release of a remaster of the first two games in the series. But what if you are a stranger to this series? What do you conquer and who do you command? Who is the sinister bald man in all the videos? Relax as we have you covered.

The Basics

Command & Conquer is a video game franchise created by Westwood Studios in the early 1990s and published by Electronic Arts between 1995 and 2009. Eight main games in three distinct sub-series were released, along with a myriad of expansions and spin-offs.

The core games are based around the idea of constructing a base (consisting of several buildings dedicated to constructing vehicles, training infantry and gathering resources), assembling an army and then fighting the enemy on the battlefield to achieve strategic objectives. These may range from simply destroying all enemy forces to escaping to a certain location, escorting a friendly or safeguarding a location from enemy assault. The three distinct sub-series all feature dramatically varying factions, tones and background lore.

The Tiberian series, often referred to as the core Command & Conquer series, is set in the near future and revolves around a substance called Tiberium, which falls to Earth in a meteor shower. Tiberium, when harvested, provides massive amounts of energy and minerals for very low-intensive mining, allowing it to be used to construct weapons of war very rapidly. A semi-mystical religious cult turned paramilitary organisation, the Brotherhood of Nod, led by the charismatic Kane, has sworn to exploit Tiberium for its own end, but its measures are ruthless and brutal. The Global Defence Initiative (GDI) is founded by the United Nations to secure Tiberium for the betterment of mankind, but soon becomes the UN’s de facto military wing in the war against Nod. Later games in the series reveal that Tiberium is an energy source developed by an alien race known as the Scrin. A Scrin harvesting force later invades Earth to reclaim the Tiberium, widening the scope of the conflict.

The Red Alert series is an alternate-history series set in a splinter timeline, created when Albert Einstein travels from the 1950s to 1924 to assassinate Adolf Hitler and avert World War II. Although the plan is successful, the changes to the timeline are unpredictable. In the new timeline, Josef Stalin instead launches a massive invasion of Europe, resulting in a devastating conflict. In the 1970s the conflict widens to include an assault on the mainland United States. Attempts to use time travel again to prevent this new conflict cause history to further spin off its axis, resulting in the creation of a technologically-advanced Japanese empire which also attempts to conquer the world. The Red Alert series was originally intended to be a more direct prequel to the Tiberian series (hence the otherwise inexplicable presence of Kane in the first game), but evolved into its own storyline and universe. This series is noteworthy for the increasingly camp, humorous and self-referential tone it adopts through the games.

The Generals series is the shortest-lived of the three sub-series, consisting of just one game and an expansion. It was created when Electronic Arts diverted what was supposed to be a new Tiberian game to a more “realistic” take on the War on Terror, focusing on a three-way conflict between the United States, China and a global terrorist organisation.

The Canon

To date, the Command & Conquer series has solely almost consisted of video games and their accompanying soundtracks. There was a single book, a novelisation of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars by Keith R.A. DeCandido in 2007, but it was extremely poorly received.

Tiberian Series
  • Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn (1995)
    • Command & Conquer: The Covert Operations (1996)
  • Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun (1999)
    • Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun – Firestorm (2000)
  • Command & Conquer: Renegade (2002)
  • Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007)
    • Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars – Kane’s Wrath (2008)
  • Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010) 

Red Alert Series
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert – Counterstrike (1997)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert – The Aftermath (1997)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert – Retaliation (1998)
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (2000)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 – Yuri’s Revenge (2001)
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (2008)
    • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 – Uprising (2009) 

Generals Series
  • Command & Conquer: Generals (2003)
    • Command & Conquer: Generals – Zero Hour (2003) 

Remastered Series
  • Command & Conquer Remastered: Tiberian Dawn & Red Alert (2020) 

The Tiberian Series

The Tiberian Series opens in 1995, shortly after a large interstellar asteroid or comet breaks up over the Earth, showering it with strange crystals. The substance becomes known as “Tiberium,” apparently from the first investigation site near the Tiber River in Italy (although this is disputed by the Brotherhood of Nod, which claims to have named it after Julius Caesar Augustus Tiberius). Tiberium contains huge amounts of energy and also acts in a strange “leech” fashion, drawing up valuable mineral deposits from the surrounding area into a form convenient for collection. Tiberium spreads through soil and through physical structures. It also emits low levels of radiation that will kill or mutate unshielded lifeforms over time.

The arrival of Tiberium was exploited by the Brotherhood of Nod, a quasi-religious cult which claims it was founded circa 1800 BC in ancient Babylon. The Brotherhood’s ideology promotes the notion of peace, unity and eternal brotherhood in which humanity is unified to face the struggles of life as one people. The Brotherhood also believed that the world had come to be dominated by corrupt superpowers only at the expense of the world’s poorer nations. The arrival of Tiberium allowed smaller nations to gain excess to cheap energy and also allowed the Brotherhood to quickly build up a military machine to rival that of the traditional superpowers, a process it dubbed “peace through power.” After going public in the early 1990s, the Brotherhood won the allegiance of numerous countries through Asia (most notably China), the Middle East and Africa and began waging war against what it regarded as the imperialist and colonialist powers of Europe and the United States.

Key to the Brotherhood’s success is its charismatic leader, Kane. Despite his American accent, outlandish sources claim that Kane is the actual Biblical Caine, brother of Abel and is over 6,000 years old. Some of Kane’s utterances also suggest he is not human at all. However, Kane’s mystical background and alleged alien origins are possibly an attempt at myth-making to give him greater credence than would otherwise be possible. The only thing that is clear is that he has greater knowledge of Tiberium than anyone else and he appears to not age at all, or very slowly.

Opposed to Nod and Kane is the Global Defence Initiative (GDI), a military force funded by the United Nations to secure Tiberium resources and work to defeat those who would turn it against the population. As a military force beyond the control of any one nation, the GDI is controversial and it faces numerous funding battles through its existence.

The original Command & Conquer (1995), later renamed Tiberian Dawn, is set in the late 1990s and depicts the First Tiberium War, a struggle between GDI and Nod for control of global Tiberium resources. The game is split into two campaigns, with a Nod campaign seeing Nod fighting a war for control of Africa. The GDI campaign sees a new and untested GDI commander fighting Nod for control of Europe, culminating in a massive battle at the Nod Temple Prime in Sarajevo. The expansion, Covert Operations (1996), features missions that take place during the original game. The First Tiberium War ends with Kane’s apparent death and the destruction of the Nod Temple by GDI’s orbital ion cannon weapon.

Tiberian Sun (1999) is set in 2030 and reveals that Tiberium has overrun most of the Earth’s surface, destroying major cities and displacing hundreds of millions of people, with agricultural regions and wildlife habitats devastated. GDI, now commanded from an orbital space station known as the Philadelphia, has neutralised Nod by helping a moderate rise to power, Hassan, and take control of the Brotherhood to use it as a force for good (at least as defined by GDI). However, Kane unexpectedly announces his return and Hassan is executed. The Brotherhood reverts to its former ways, building a powerful war machine, and GDI is forced into an unexpected conflict. Loyalists within the Brotherhood have spent thirty years building up a new war machine and developing CABAL, a powerful AI to help coordinate the Brotherhood’s plans. The game heavily revolves around the Tacitus, a computer system found in a wrecked alien spacecraft, which holds the key to understanding Tiberium. In the game’s GDI campaign, which is considered canonical, GDI overcomes initial setbacks to defeat Kane’s army in a massive battle outside Cairo. In the Nod campaign, Kane succeeds launching his Tiberium missiles from Cairo which completely saturate the world with Tiberium and bring about his “ascension” to a higher plane, and the forced evolution of humanity into an unknown form.

The game’s expansion, Firestorm (2000), depicts the aftermath of the war with Nod regrouping under General Slavik. However, CABAL rebels against Nod and goes rogue, posing a threat to all of humanity. The Brotherhood and GDI reluctantly join forces to defeat and destroy CABAL. At the end of this conflict is revealed that CABAL has saved Kane’s life and is bringing about his restoration.
Command & Conquer: Renegade (2002) is a spin-off from the main series. It is a first-person shooter set during the closing days of the First Tiberian War and focuses on a GDI commando sent behind enemy lines to rescue some captured scientists.

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007) picks up the story in 2047. After helping defeat CABAL, the Brotherhood went to ground and vanished for seventeen years. The GDI has successfully established safe “Blue Zone” cities which can resist the spread of Tiberium and a new way of life has emerged, but this focus on nation-building and massive infrastructure construction has shifted attention away from its military and intelligence divisions. As a result, GDI is caught by surprise when Kane announces (again) his return with a nuclear missile strike on the Philadelphia, decapitating both the military and civilian leadership of the organisation in one swift move. Nod succeed in overrunning much of GDI’s territory, but a successful counter-offensive stalls their advance, forcing them to switch to developing weapons of mass destruction, including a liquid Tiberium bomb. GDI discover the bomb’s existence and use an ion cannon strike to neutralise it; however, the interaction of the ion cannon and the resulting bomb explosion send a massive signal across the solar system. The Scrin, the aliens who originally sent Tiberium to Earth, realise that the substance is ready for harvesting and send an invasion force to claim it. However, rather than the entire planet being overrun with Tiberium as they expect, they find the human race still extant and capable of defending itself. With their superior technology, the Scrin establish several invasion beachheads but faced stiff resistance from both GDI and Nod forces and their vastly superior numbers. With insufficient forces to defeat all of humanity, the Scrin set about building massive towers, possibly wormhole gateways to allow them to bring in reinforcements from their homeworld. Kane wants one of these gateways captured intact to allow him to “ascend,” but GDI thwart his plans by destroying all of the gateways and wiping out the last remnants of the Scrin invaders. Nod, once again, go to ground.

Tiberium Wars’ expansion pack, Kane’s Wrath (2008), depicts three military campaigns. The first is set in 2034 and depicts the struggle for power in the Brotherhood after the events of Tiberian Sun and Firestorm. The second is set before and during the Third Tiberium War and focuses on internal Nod struggles. The third is set in 2052 and sees the Brotherhood finally reclaim the alien Tacitus databank, which Kane plans to use to bring about his plan to ascend.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010) is set in 2077 and depicts a world in which the Brotherhood of Nod and GDI have formed an uneasy alliance, Nod using the data from the Tacitus to bring Tiberium under control and GDI providing the enormous resources needed to stop it overrunning the last of the Blue Zones. In secret, Nod has been working to reactivate one of the destroyed Scrin towers to bring about ascension, but this is not general knowledge within the Brotherhood. One of Kane’s followers, Gideon, betrays him by denouncing the alliance with GDI. 

GDI and Nod fight a devastating war against Gideon’s Brotherhood forces, but GDI discovers Kane’s own betrayal and race to stop him reactivating the tower, fearing it will allow the Scrin to invade the planet. They fail, and Kane steps through the portal and vanishes, taking most of the Brotherhood with him. The expected Scrin counter-attack never materialises, and GDI is able to use the information left behind in the Tacitus to actually outright eradicate most of the Tiberium from the Earth, and begin the process of rebuilding. Kane’s ultimate fate is unknown.

This is the “core” Command & Conquer series and is noteworthy for its shifting tone, from a near-future, semi-realistic military conflict to a much more overtly science fictional, post-apocalyptic story featuring an alien invasion of the planet. This sub-series features the franchise’s most iconic character, the villainous Kane (played by Joe Kucan). The series is noteworthy for its FMV (full motion video) cutscenes, featuring actors including Michael Biehn, James Earl Jones, Tricia Helfer, Josh Holloway, Michael Ironside, Billy Dee Williams, Grace Park, Keith Szarabajka and Carl Lumbly. It’s also unusual in that the primary story arc begun in the first game had in fact been planned out by the writers ahead of time as a trilogy (who had announced Tiberian Dawn, Tiberian Sun and Tiberian Twilight as the three game titles as early as 1996) and this story was more or less executed to completion, although the events of Tiberium Wars had been inserted to expand the franchise.

Although fondly regarded for its foundational role in the RTS genre, the Tiberian series has a more mixed critical reception. Tiberian Dawn was considered revolutionary at the time but was quickly superseded in unit and level design by Red Alert. Tiberian Sun was heavily criticised for a poor unit selection (mostly revolving around walkers rather than tanks) and a very slow pace of gameplay compared to earlier titles in the series, as well as not being on a par with competitor games like Total Annihilation and StarCraft. Command & Conquer 3 was very warmly received in 2007 and was praised for getting the match of story, units and gameplay just right. However, Command & Conquer 4 attempted to break away from the core gameplay loop of the series by abandoning base-building and traditional resource gathering and was heavily criticised as the worst C&C game of them all, despite bringing the overall storyline to a (more or less) coherent conclusion. C&C4’s critical drubbing and commercial underperformance is held responsible for the demise of the franchise.

The Red Alert Series

The Red Alert series opens in 1946 in New Mexico, with Albert Einstein putting the finishing touches to the Chronosphere, a device capable of travelling through time. Einstein transports himself to 1924, just outside Landsberg, Germany, where Adolf Hitler is being released from prison following his role in the Munich Putsch of 1923. Einstein shakes Hitler’s hand, apparently vapourising him with energy, before he is pulled back to his own time.

A new timeline is created, one where Germany was not taken over by the Nazi Party and World War II did not take place. However, in this alternate timeline there is no check to the advance of the Soviet Union, which begins expanding into Eastern Europe in the 1940s. By the early 1950s a new equivalent to NATO, the Alliance, has been founded, consisting of the UK, Germany, France, Greece, Italy and several other European powers, although the United States (still isolationist, since its global economic dominance resulting from WWII did not come to pass) is reluctant to join. The Allies form a powerful military to act as a counterbalance to the Soviets, but this not enough to stop Stalin ordering an invasion of Europe. A devastating war erupts, eventually becoming more destructive than the “real” World War II.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996) chronicles this alternative Second World War (assumed to begin in 1952, before Stalin’s death of natural causes, although it may be that in this alternate timeline and with the removal of the stress of the heavy losses in WWII, Stalin would have lived much longer). Red Alert was originally designed as a prequel to Tiberian Dawn, with the plan being that the Allied victory would be canonical, with the Allies eventually founding the GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod arising from the ashes of the Soviet Union and unifying its forces (this would explain why Russia goes unmentioned in Tiberian Dawn). This also explains why Kane cameos as a Soviet advisor. However, Westwood changed its mind and decided to divorce the two timelines. Further expansions – Counterstrike and The Aftermath (both 1997) – expand the conflict with new missions and units, whilst Retaliation (1998) combines the two packs with new cut scenes for console release.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (2000) is set in the early 1970s and assumes an Allied victory in the first game. It reveals that after the war devastated Europe, the United States stepped in and helped both the Allies and the Russians rebuild after the conflict. Russia has been a key ally of the United States ever since, but it is revealed that this is a ruse and Russia has been rebuilding its military in secret, plotting a massive invasion of North America via forces secretly assembled in Mexico and Alaska. The reborn Soviet Union executes the invasion with the help of Yuri, a mysterious man who has developed extensive psychic powers. The invasion is a success, with Washington, DC falling to the invaders and Yuri using his psychic powers to compel the US surrender, but the military mostly ignores the order and continues fighting. US Special Forces also eliminate the short-range Russian nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe, which allows the Allies to invade the Soviet Union itself whilst the bulk of its forces are fighting in North America. The Soviets are eventually defeated. The Soviet campaign depicts the USSR as being victorious in both America and Europe, but then switches to an internal struggle between the Russian commander (the player) and Yuri.

Yuri’s Revenge (2001) is the expansion to Red Alert 2 and depicts a renewed conflict, with Yuri using his “psychic dominators” to take control of two-thirds of the world’s population and launch a renewed invasion of the United States. Unable to fight off the invasion, the US uses Einstein’s Chronosphere to travel back in time to the events of the previous war and disrupt Yuri’s plans. Yuri is defeated once and for all. Yuri’s Revenge is notable as the first Command & Conquer game to feature three factions rather than two (as also later seen in the Generals series and Command & Conquer 3) and also the last game in the series to use 2D graphics.

Red Alert 3 (2008) opens during the closing moments of Red Alert 2, with the Allies closing in on Moscow. In desperation, the Soviets trigger a secret time machine they have been building in imitation of the Chronosphere and successfully travel back to 1927. They kill Einstein after he killed Hitler – resulting in the creation of the new timeline in the first place – but before he could develop much of the Allied weapon technology (including nukes). Returning to their home time, they find the Soviet Union victorious in its conquest of both North America and Europe, but vulnerable to a sneak attack by the Empire of the Rising Sun, a superpower centred in Asia and led by Japan (in the former timeline, Japan was simply a member of the Allies). In the resulting chaos the Allies and Soviets form a reluctant alliance which breaks the back of the Empire and sees Japan occupied. An attempt by the Soviets to betray the Allies is thwarted and the Soviet leadership is imprisoned.

Uprising (2009) is Red Alert 3’s expansion. It deals with the aftermath of the previous conflict, with both the USSR and the Empire of the Rising Sun attempting to reestablish themselves and both facing internal and external conflicts. In the canonical ending, the Allies are victorious once again. The USSR and the Empire both collapse, with the resulting free nations joining the Allies in becoming democratic powers. However, a wild card is left unresolved in the form of Yuriko Omega, a young Japanese woman with formidable psionic powers created through experimentation.

The Red Alert series is seen as the campy, self-aware and increasingly ludicrous antidote to the more serious Tiberian series. The series plays on Cold War and WWII tropes turned up to eleven and features an even heavier emphasis on larger-than-life characters (culminating in what mostpeople would agree to be the single most ridiculous line of dialogue uttered inthe history of human fiction). The series cast includes Kari Wuhrer, Ray Wise, Barry Corbin, J.K. Simmons, Jonathan Pryce, David Hasselhoff, Gemma Atkinson, Jenny McCarthy, Tim Curry, Peter Stormare, Gina Carano, Ric Flair, Malcolm McDowell, Holly Valance and George Takei as the Emperor of Japan.

The Red Alert series, although a spin-off, is widely regarded as the strongest sequence of games in the franchise, with Red Alert having a better unit balance and mission design than Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert 2 often being cited as the best individual game in the entire Command & Conquer canon. Red Alert 3 attracted significant criticism for its incredibly OTT tone, though, and its mission and unit design was considered disappointing following Command & Conquer 3. Red Alert 3’s mixed reception may have driven the decision to make Command & Conquer 4 a completely different style of game, further alienating fans.

The Generals Series

Command & Conquer: Generals (2003) is set in 2013 and depicts a more realistic world than either the Tiberian or Red Alert series. The story opens with a Middle Eastern terrorist organisation called the Global Liberation Army launching a surprise nuclear attack on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and attempting to trigger a global nuclear war between the United States and China. The game depicts attempts by both the USA and China to destroy the GLA, with them occasionally coming to blows as their forces are operating in the same territory. Eventually they succeed and the GLA is driven out of Asia and the Middle East altogether. C&C Generals is notable as being the first game in the franchise’s history to not have FMV briefings, and also the first to use a full 3D game engine.

The game’s expansion pack, Zero Hour (also 2003), sees the war renewed with the GLA regrouping in Europe. After a lengthy campaign, China invades Europe and destroys the GLA altogether, but refuses to leave, preferring to establish the “Eurasian Unity League” in Europe, hinting at a future conflict between the League and the United States.

The Generals series is the shortest in the franchise’s history, and was never really supposed to exist. Instead, the game started life as C&C3 but was repurposed in development to “cash in” on the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq. On release, the game’s story was heavily criticised for sensationalising real-life events, including terrorist attacks on civilian targets and the use of units such as suicide bombers, although the move to full 3D was generally praised as being successful.

However, the game was redeemed by the release of Zero Hour, which added a huge amount of new content to the game (much of it meant to be in the original title but cut for time reasons), including specialist generals and the uncapped use of superweapons. It also dramatically adjusted the tone from the grim and serious nature of the original game to a more knowing and somewhat lighter tone. Particularly praised was a new showdown mode where each specialist general faced down each of the others in a conflict that had absolutely nothing to do with real life conflicts and was cheesier and more enjoyable as a result. As a result, Zero Hour arguably challenges Red Alert 2 for the title of best game in the entire C&C franchise.

The Command & Conquer series began as a spiritual successor to Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (1992), the game that popularised the modern RTS genre.

Development History

Westwood Studios began life in the mid-1980s as a games development studio based in Las Vegas. They worked with SSI (Strategic Simulations, Inc.) on their late 1980s Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying games, which set them in good stead to create their own RPG series, the first two games in the well-received Eye of the Beholder trilogy (1991-92) and then using the same engine for their own IP, the Lands of Lore trilogy (1993-99). They also developed the Legend of Kyrandia trilogy (1992-94), an adventure game influenced by LucasArts and Sierra titles.

In the middle of this period they were offered the chance to work on the Dune IP. Virgin Interactive, who owned the video game rights, were developing an adventure/strategy hybrid with Cryo Interactive and wanted to expand the IP with another game in a different genre. The team at Virgin were inspired by a Sega Megadrive (Genesis in the US) game called Herzog Zwei (1989), which allowed players to control multiple units from a top-down perspective. They held a brainstorming session with Westwood where some of the staff proposed creating a fast-paced wargame which looked a bit like Civilization or SimCity, but where the action unfolded in real-time. The genre wasn’t completely new to Westwood, who’d worked on BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge (1990) which was notable as one of the first games that allowed players to order entire units into battle simultaneously. A key development of the new game was the mouse and keyboard interface, which allowed for much greater, more precise control than Herzog Zwei.

The game was developed relatively quickly, with an internal competition at Virgin to see if Cryo or Virgin could get their game out first. Cryo won the race and their game reached the market first as Dune in early 1992, with Westwood’s game released as Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (the much punchier The Battle for Arrakis in Europe) just a few months later.

Dune II was the much-better received of the two games and attracted high review scores, as well as an energetic multiplayer scene. The game was showered with praise and sold a huge number of copies. The team at Westwood were pleased, although they also noted fan feedback that having to click on each unit and send it into battle individually was laborious. Having to tap a button (“Attack” or “Move”) and then a destination was also not particularly fun. For the Megadrive port in 1993, they added the ability to select several units at once and also a context-sensitive controller, so clicking on open land would cause the selected unit to move there and, on an enemy, would make them attack.

A small team at Westwood began developing a “spiritual sequel” to Dune II that would expand on the same ideas but in a new IP which they owned themselves. They also developed new ideas, such as using the “bandboxing” technique from the new generation of operating systems to select multiple units easily and quickly. With the advent of the CD-ROM format, they also decided to have elaborate mission briefings performed by actors, with fully-rendered CG cutscenes. Despite the game’s ambition, the budget was tight so they saved money by using some of the developers as actors for the cutscenes. Their dialogue and cutscene director, Joe Kucan, agreed to play the game’s villain, Kane. The writing of the game took on a contemporary feel, referencing locations in the news such as Sarajevo and Bosnia, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union the writers decided to make the enemy a global terrorist organisation.

Westwood were feeling confident about the new game, which they dubbed Command & Conquer, but they felt upstaged when another developer, Blizzard Interactive, beat them to market by ten months with their own real-time strategy game, WarCraft: Orcs and Humans, released in late 1994. Fortunately, although WarCraft picked up good reviews and modest sales, it failed to make a huge impact and lacked some of Command & Conquer’s innovations, such as bandbox selecting.
Command & Conquer was a huge success by both Westwood’s standards and the strategy genre overall, selling over a million copies in under a year (almost four times WarCraft’s sales). The developers had mapped out a storyline unfolding over three games, with the sequels to be called Tiberian Sun and Tiberian Twilight (with the first game retroactively named Tiberian Dawn, in a similar fashion to the rebranding of the original Star Wars as A New Hope), each featuring a new engine and substantial improvements to gameplay and design. However, the developers wanted to get a new game out quickly by repurposing their existing engine and decided to start work on a WWII-themed prequel. This evolved into Command & Conquer: Red Alert.

Red Alert was released in November 1996, just thirteen months after the original game, and won even greater critical acclaim and even bigger sales. Both Command & Conquer and Red Alert were also ported to the Sony PlayStation in 1996 and 1997, winning acclaim for the quality of the ports and bringing the strategy genre to the console space. In addition, Westwood ported Dune II to the new engine (complete with brand new FMV cutscenes), releasing it as an early example of a video game remake as Dune 2000 in 1999.

Development of Command & Conquer 2: Tiberian Sun (the “2” was later omitted to encourage more newcomers to the franchise to try out the game) began in 1997, but faced heavy delays. The company was acquired by Electronic Arts in 1998, with the resulting financial and business complexities slowing development down. In addition, there was considerable internal debate about whether to move to a new engine and if the company should be pursuing a 3D model. Eventually it was decided to stay in 2D but to use voxels (three-dimensional pixels) to represent units, for improved performance. They also decided to switch from a top-down to an isometric viewpoint. This “2.5D” approach felt fresh in 1997, but somewhat dated by the time the game was released in late 1999.

In addition, the RTS genre had developed with remarkable speed in the meantime. WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness had been released just a couple of months after Command & Conquer and won immense acclaim for featuring innovations beyond Westwood’s model (such as limited unit queuing, allowing multiple units to be built simultaneously and a heavier narrative focus, with “hero” units on the battlefield). Total Annihilation, released in September 1997 by Cavedog Entertainment, won even greater critical acclaim for its full 3D engine (albeit viewed from a fixed perspective), unique resource gathering system and its ability to render far larger armies than C&C could manage. The biggest success of the period was StarCraft, released in early 1998 by Blizzard. The game had begun as a space opera reskin of WarCraft, but had been redeveloped into a much more original game, also using an isometric viewpoint. The game featured fully-rendered CG cutscenes that were light-years beyond Westwood’s abilities and a truly compelling balance between three distinct factions that was very finely tuned. StarCraft went on to become the biggest-selling RTS game of all time, with almost 20 million copies sold to date and establishing a strong presence in South Korea, where the game became a staple of Internet cafes and multiplayer matches were even covered on sports channels.

Against this backdrop, Tiberian Sun arrived in late 1999 feeling very late to a party its own creators had started, not helped by a slower style of gameplay and an uninspired unit selection that dispensed with fan favourites from the first two games in favour of identikit robots. Despite a mixed critical reception and complaints that the game had failed to innovate compared to the competition, the game sold quite well, but failed to match the speed of success of the first two games in the series.
The developers decided to repeat the pattern from the original game, by using the same engine to develop Red Alert 2. Responding to the complaints of fans, Red Alert 2 hewed much closer to its forebear than Tiberian Sun had, with stronger focus on unit variety and side balance. The result was the best-received game of the series, with a lack of innovation largely forgiven for how playable and fun it was.

Westwood turned its attention to the future and began developing a 3D engine to use in the third and (at that time) final set of Command & Conquer games. Due to the sales success of Dune 2000, they decided to prototype the new engine in that franchise first, with the result being Emperor: Battle for Dune, released in early 2001. The game was moderately well-received, although the 3D engine was somewhat primitive compared to those seen in the likes of Homeworld (1999) and Ground Control (2000).

During the development of Red Alert 2, a new studio called Westwood Pacific had been opened in Los Angeles. Westwood Pacific had undertaken the bulk of development on Red Alert 2 and, after the shipping of the Yuri’s Revenge expansion, used the Emperor engine to begin development on the third C&C game in the Tiberian universe. Westwood Las Vegas wanted to lead development on this game, but had been side-tracked into working on the FPS Command & Conquer: Renegade (released in 2002 to indifference) and the MMORPG Earth and Beyond (2002), which had an expensive development process.

Due to overrunning cost issues and the distinct failure of Earth and Beyond to make much impact on the MMORPG scene, EA decided to shutter Westwood Las Vegas in January 2003. Some of the team transferred to EA Pacific, whilst others formed a new company, Petroglyph, and secured a licence to work on a Star Wars RTS (which became Empire at War).

Early during the development of Command & Conquer 3, EA decided to redirect it from being a Tiberian game to focusing on contemporary issues, such as the War on Terror and the impending invasion of Iraq. This resulted in Command & Conquer: Generals and its expansion Zero Hour. Despite distaste in some quarters for the exploitative subject matter, the game was highly playable and praised for being a more convincing move into 3D than Emperor had been.

EA Pacific rebranded as EA Los Angeles, a much larger studio with multiple games in different genres in development. An FPS team worked on additions to the Medal of Honor franchise whilst the RTS team developed both the Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth franchise and further Command & Conquer games. This resulted in Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars in 2007 and Red Alert 3 in 2008. Both were well-received, especially given that the RTS genre had fallen out of favour in recent years and the games were relatively rare releases in the field.

Unfortunately, the RTS genre had been dealt a serious blow by the advent of the MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) genre in 2003 with Defense of the Ancients (DotA). A heavily-modified map from WarCraft III, DotA concentrated the gameplay loop into a much smaller amount of territory with a more focused objective. The changes to the genre most notable reduced the focus to a single field of engagement, unlike an RTS where large and small battles might be happening simultaneously across a much larger map. This change was important to improve the viability of MOBAs as a spectator sport, making the action easier to follow.

The huge success of MOBAs had led to games developers chasing that success, in particular choosing to embrace more MOBA-like elements in their RTS series. Relic Entertainment decided to incorporate strong MOBA-like gameplay in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (2009), abandoning the game’s RTS roots. Although it wasn’t quite to the same degree, EA also mandated a major change to Command & Conquer 4, particularly abandoning the base-building element altogether in favour of having single mobile command centres which built all of the units themselves. This move was received hugely negatively by fans when it was confirmed, with many fans organising boycotts of the game until base building was re-implemented. In the event it was not.

On release, Command & Conquer 4 (2010) faced the equivalent of a critical drubbing (meaning it got 6 and 7s out of 10s rather than the 9s to 10s the franchise had once almost automatically commanded) for its move away from the classic gameplay style and the overwhelming focus on multiplayer. The decision to “chase the unicorn” of getting lots of new players interested in a 15-year-old franchise at the expense of the millions of existing fans was very heavily criticised, and in fact was shown to be hugely mistaken when StarCraft II, with its very strong retro feel and heavy base-building focus, launched just three months later and was an enormous mega-hit.

The fate of the Command & Conquer series was unclear at this stage, but behind the scenes EA decided to move forward with a new game. With EA Los Angeles winding down, Victory Studios was selected to begin development of a new game which would become Command & Conquer: Generals 2, a direct follow-up to the 2003 game. Generals 2 returned the focus to base-building with a singleplayer campaign and robust multiplayer model. The game was a sequel to Generals but also had a general opening which did not require foreknowledge of the first game. It also used the Frostbite 3 Engine, to give it a visual sheen unmatched by other games in the genre. However, EA seemed to be in some internal dissent over the nature of the game and in August 2012 renamed it just as Command & Conquer (part of a highly annoying trend of giving new games the exact same title as earlier, already-existing games) and manded it drop the single-player component altogether. Instead, it was to be a free-to-play, multiplayer-only game.

Somewhat mercifully, the game was put of its (and prospective players’) misery and cancelled in October 2013. EA did briefly explore moving the game to a new studio in 2014 but could not find a suitable home.

The franchise appeared to be dead in the water, along possibly with the entire real-time strategy genre (even the mega-selling StarCraft II seemed to run out of steam before the release of its second expansion in 2015). Apart from a risible mobile game in 2018 (Command & Conquer: Rivals), the franchise seemed to be no more.

Or so it seemed. In August 2017, Blizzard Entertainment released StarCraft Remastered, a revamped version of the original game which maintained the original gameplay but hugely improved the graphics and UI. A year later, Electronic Arts announced Command & Conquer: The Remastered Collection, which would update and revamp both Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert. Fans were initially highly sceptical, until it was confirmed that the majority of the development team from the original titles had been reunited to work on the project. The game was released in June 2020 to widespread critical acclaim, with the original games updated with surprising skill and finesse to modern standards whilst also retaining the original core gameplay. The remaster also used advanced AI techniques to upscale the original video FMV, revamped all of the music and integrated the console-only missions and FMV into the main game experience for the first time for PC gamers. It went above and beyond the expectations of fans.

The Future

Just a couple of years ago, it looked like Command & Conquer was dead forever, but the success of C&C Remastered has changed that. Given the success of the package, hopefully a second remastered collection will follow, including Tiberian Sun and the best game in the series, Red Alert 2. A new game would also be nice, although it’s unclear what form that might take. C&C4 wrapped up the Tiberian story arc pretty conclusively, but it did leave some room for a sequel and developers might want to still make use of Joe Kucan whilst he still looks convincingly like the Kane of the original game. Generals 2 was in the planning stages at one time and still seems the ripest of the sub-series for further expansion, although at this point a sequel to the most obscure game in the main series might feel like a bit of a stretch. Red Alert 3 took that series as far as it could go in self-referential humour, but there might be a way of making a Red Alert 4 that made sense.

Perhaps more likely is a new sub-series, such as a Command & Conquer set during the actual Second World War, or a wholly new take on contemporary warfare. Somewhat less likely, unfortunately, is a revisiting of the Dune franchise; Funcom picked up the video game rights a few years ago and don’t seem as interested in a revamp of the original games. What is clear is that for the first time in a decade, there is some hope that a new Command & Conquer game is possible, and hopefully one that does better for the series than C&C4. The future is hopeful, commander.

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Marko said...

Concerning that most ridiculous line reference ... you mean the one about "tender nether-regions"? :)

Anonymous said...

"culminating in what most people would agree to be the single most ridiculous line of dialogue uttered in the history of human fiction"