Coming on the heels of a span of crappy games longer than it seems I can remember (though keep in mind that I took plenty of recreational drugs in college as you digest that fact), Command and Conquer: Generals finds itself in an enviable position. Against the likes of Lord of the Rings, Arx Fatalis and such, almost any game offering even meager entertainment value would seem like the ambrosia of the gods, and would be a shoe-in for a favorable review. Of course the possibility exists that now I’m bitter, and like an audience hostile to a stand up comedian that absolutely refuses to laugh, perhaps I’m even harder to entertain now. Then again, maybe I’m so thirsting for a good game, like a man crawling across the burning desert on callused hands and scabbed knees, that any game that is the thematic equivalent of a half cup of warm yak piss would be received gladly with tears of gratitude. Or maybe I’m conscious of the fact that I’m an easy audience, and so will grade C&C:G more harshly than if I had played it in a vacuum, so to speak. So, what have learned, except that I’m more or less a completely conflicted emotional basket case? Probably nothing, except that yak piss has a long, hard advertising campaign ahead of it if it ever wants to be thought of as the thirst-quencher of champions.
But dammit, all psychological (and scatological) ruminations aside, I like C&C:G, and I think there are only two things that keep it from a Gamer’s Choice award, which I’ll get to in just a second. Like the whole rest of the C&C empire of games, this go round is a nuts and bolts RTS played on a 3D field. Collect the gold, which in this case takes the form of piles of supply boxes as well as oil wells that can be captured and literally pump out money, build the buildings, raise the army, go raise hell. There are three sides to this conflict: the Chinese, the GLA, and the USA, and they have a good, varied collection of units between them, though there are some unit balance issues that are being addressed by various patches probably even as I type this. A SCUD storm does more damage to buildings than a nuclear bomb unlikely. Incidentally, mammoth tanks are now truly mammoth, as they can be upgraded with a gattling gun, propaganda tower (a form of group healing), or a bunker than can hold soldiers. That’s a big tank!
I really like the graphics of this one. They’re not perfect, and can be kind of blocky at times, but the little touches on the units are really nice. The GLA has a pickup truck with a tripod-mounted machinegun in the back, and the guy on the gun hammers at it occasionally like it’s jammed. Soldiers entering an area contaminated with anthrax writhe and fall to their knees before dying. There’s smoke, and shell casings fly from gattling guns, and the nuclear bomb blast and subsequent expanding pressure wave look great. There’s a really nice effect of a dam bursting and the water washing away units and buildings downstream. In the cities, crowds of people wander around and shop, and then run screaming when your tanks roll in. Very Mogadishu. Sound effects are a little less perfect. Combat effects are good explosions, gunfire, and whatnot. Voice acting is kind of poor the Chinese especially use a goofy pigeon English that went out with the old Charlie Chan movies. “I have many burrets!” and “They will die in a hair of gunfire!” A hair of gunfire?
So what are the two things I don’t like? The first thing that bugs me, and that stands out as a big flaw almost immediately, is that units under fire from an enemy unit that is out of their range invokes no response at all. So, a group of tanks hit by something with longer range, like a SCUD launcher or the GLA rocket buggy, will just stand there, neither advancing to attack or retreating out of the fire line, until they are destroyed. If you’re holding positions in a bunch of different areas, you end up jumping from spot to spot as your units are attacked and you have to order them to attack back. That’s really unforgivable. To a lesser extent I also found some pathing difficulties, with units getting hung up on buildings and in narrow passes, especially the Chinese mammoth tank, which seems to have a lot of problems maneuvering down a street in groups. But then again, maybe that’s realistic you just can’t fit a column of 10 tanks down the average single-lane dirt road. On the other side of the coin I thought that the enemy AI, especially on ‘brutal,’ to be quite intelligent, rarely throwing vast numbers of units away on a base defense that it could not crack and instead seeking an alternate attack. Though sometimes they would drop a SCUD storm or nuke onto a cluster of units or buildings in the middle of your base as if they had some god’s eye view of the whole battlefield, whereas you can only drop such attacks against areas that you can see. That kind of cheating by the AI always pisses me off.
The other failing I see is that the single player game is nowhere near long enough not by a long shot. It consists of 21 missions, 7 as each side. At least 10 of these missions are kind of introductory, allowing you to use only a subset of all the units ultimately available, and take 5 minutes or less. The remaining 11 missions can handily be completed in five or six hours, even on the ‘brutal’ game setting. Really, I’m just starting to get a taste for the mechanics of the game and the strengths and weaknesses of the various units, and I’m done. I will add that, while there is no overarching plotline to these 21 missions, the individual scenarios are, tired as the phrase is, ripped from today’s headlines. Especially the GLA missions, which are about spreading terror, and in one mission anthrax, in an American city (complete with a little game-engine movie of fires and people in that city dying in the streets when you succeed). Call me a squeamish dork pansy (my wife does), but I found even the short movie-let a little difficult to watch. Unpleasant, but memorable. Multiplayer extends the playtime beyond the single player missions, but thus far at least the multiplayer game is limited to simple free-for-all or teams battling each other. I’m sure fan mods are in the works.
Is C&C:G new and different, or even particularly innovative? Only in small touches. Most of the units in this game appeared in the very first C&C game, but there are a couple of new ones. Units gain experience as they fight, become better fighters, but that’s been done elsewhere. Soldiers can garrison any empty building and use it for cover to fight from I can’t offhand think of anywhere that’s been done before. As you run the mission you gain general’s stars that are used to get specific general powers, like artillery attacks, paratroopers, or veteran units. It’s all these little things together that create a game that is just different enough to separate it from the RTS pack, if only a little. It’s reasonably polished, fun to play, and a solid addition to the C&C dynasty.