THE WASHINGTON POST – There was a brief moment as Command & Conquer booted up that triggered a flood of memories. The game flashed screens, scrolling through graphics settings that begin with “VGA” and an array of now-obsolete sound cards, and I could remember exactly where I was when I first played the two titles included in the remastered collection: Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn and Command & Conquer: Red Alert. I recalled the gray linoleum floor under the computer desk, the CD-ROM tray that popped out from the chassis of my Dell 486. I immediately remembered the joy of completing the campaign modes, despite frequent interruptions from my parents reminding me to finish my homework.
The feeling was familiar and warm. It was also fleeting.
First introduced in the mid-1990s, Command & Conquer breathed new life into the real-time strategy genre. Since then, the genre has only become flashier and more intricate. As a result, the remastered versions of Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert, released recently by Electronic Arts, feel a bit spare in this day and age. Players still command different infantry types and mobilise vehicles ranging from Humvees to helicopters. They launch forays to reveal the map hidden beneath a black shroud. They build fortresses that serve to further the mission at hand, whether it be a task in the campaign or dominating a human or AI adversary.
The graphics are sharper, the controls and interface slightly tweaked, but at the core the remaster is just two games treading the same ground they broke years ago.
Back then, the game was good, if not revolutionary. The point-and-click interface made it simple to execute your strategies. Click the building you want to build, click where you want to build it, and presto: Construction begins. Click the unit you wish to create, click where you want it to go, click whom or what you want it to shoot, and voilà: It carries out your commands. All of that is still present in the remaster, which is fine.
But fine isn’t good, and I was left wondering why the remaster was made at all. The bundle includes the game’s first two titles along with three expansion packs (one for Tiberian Dawn and two for Red Alert), and it incorporated several missions from the console version of the game (PlayStation and Nintendo 64) previously unavailable on PC. But beyond that … what’s really new?
Some games that were revolutionary when first released have since been ported to more modern platforms to render their worlds in stunning new ways. That doesn’t really apply here. The remastered Command & Conquer just files down the rough edges of a previously pixelated game. The new images are sharper, but that’s it. The update doesn’t really advance the experience I had 25 years ago. It just allows me to have the same experience now with somewhat more palatable visuals.
And there are limits. As the Command & Conquer Remastered intro plays out, the “upscaled” cutscene graphics, which incorporate both animations and full-motion video, still seem outdated, their content hopelessly silly. A few missions into the campaign, a pilot lets the player know they’ve crossed the border into “Bell-AIR-is,” an egregious mispronunciation of “Belarus.” Rewards for completing campaign missions are often plotless animations that, through four missions, have not been altered in any notable way from the original game. (If you’ve ever been curious about the limits of “upscaling” – improving a lower-resolution medium for high-resolution hardware – the remastered Command & Conquer provides a clear answer. In several such scenes, it’s as though the pixels have been smoothed over with a layer of Vaseline).
The game provides amusement and a way to revisit some fond memories, but not much that’s worthy of serious investment. Sure, the soap opera-like storyline is enjoyable for its campy qualities. Hearing General Sheppard (not to be confused with that General Shepherd) or Electronic Video Agent provide briefings on the latest dastardly doings by the Brotherhood of Nod was fun for a while, but it grew stale after a few missions. The ability to play as the baddies under the command of Kane is fun, but hardly novel. Unlike other remasters (The Last of Us, for example) there isn’t anything in the story that’s truly worth revisiting.
Remastered Command & Conquer is like the slice of wedding cake you kept in your freezer for your first anniversary. You pull it out and wax nostalgic about the memories. When you consume it, though, it’s familiar but no longer particularly enjoyable. When you first saw the cake, you’d smash it in your face. Now, you’re content just eating enough to be polite.
The gameplay is a bit sweeter than its trappings, however. The first two campaign missions are almost impossible to lose, but eventually you’re forced to formulate a winning strategy that goes beyond overwhelming force. To that end, you’ll need to rely on the specialties of different infantry, vehicle and building classes. For veterans of the original games, it’s an easy transition back into the real-time strategy battlefield. Even if that feels more like returning to a simple amusement park from your youth, rather than your favourite vacation spot.
For those more interested in testing their wits than savouring the plot (this reviewer is raising his hand), the introduction of a mission select function is a welcome addition, allowing players to jump from skirmish to skirmish.
The head-to-head mode remains the highlight of both remastered editions of C&C, putting the game’s full arsenal at your finger tips as you compete against a human or computer foe on maps of various layouts and sizes. It’s a nice touch that the AI foes will troll you through chat, too.
For the hardcore players, perhaps the most encouraging part of the return of Command & Conquer is Electronic Arts making the game’s source code available to encourage modders to iterate on the original property. That’s in addition to the map creator/editor that comes with the game. This notion intrigues me the most. The game has a clear opportunity to evolve from the familiar framework of the past, it just doesn’t do it in the base remastered version. Perhaps the fan community can carry the game forward.
As it stands, Command & Conquer definitely rekindled fond memories, but it doesn’t make me want to relive them for hours on end.