For those of you who played Command and Conquer: Generals (which I guess has to be about all of you, given that this is an expansion pack), Zero Hour doesn’t bring a whole lot that’s new to the game. What it does offer is pretty much what you would expect from an expansion pack – more units and some new solo player missions. Given the little over a week that it took me to run through it all, I feel that this expansion pack is about average. It contains a few little tweaks that improve the game mechanics noticeably, though some of the more basic problems with C&C:G continue to shine through. I guess in the end I feel kind of mixed about it, because while still a good game, I think there’s a great game lurking underneath if a patch would only address some of the thornier issues.
Zero Hour is an RTS based in three groups; the Americans, the Chinese, and the GLA terrorists. The three groups have three distinct playing styles, especially the terrorists who use biotoxic weapons, lightly armored forces, and do not need to worry about power plants to run their buildings. In Zero Hour, the Chinese have added a mammoth helicopter (much like a flying mammoth tank) that now gives the previous American air superiority a run for its money. The Americans have responded with the stealth bomber, a humvee-like, lightly-armored vehicle that shoots mid-range cruise missiles, an autonomous defense drone armed with a chain gun, and a microwave unit that can disable other units and buildings. The GLA have gained the addition of a motorcycle, which are easily the fastest units in the game and can travel over just about any terrain they come across, but are so lightly armored that I never sent one out on a mission that didn’t turn out to be essentially reconnaissance/suicide. The GLA also now has the hijacker, who can steal any vehicle. There are some additional buildings as well: an Internet building for the Chinese, which breeds hackers, and a heavy base defense platform for the Americans. Did the GLA get a new building? I can’t think of one offhand, though many of their buildings now have increased camouflage capabilities.
The biggest problem that I saw in C&C:G hasn’t been addressed at all in Zero Hour – namely, there is no effective way to produce formations of mixed units and hold them together. Do you want your tanks to have some kind of air cover? Clearly you should stick a few antiaircraft vehicles into the formation. The problem is that the antiaircraft units are fast, and they quickly leave the tanks in the dust, unless you spend a lot of time separating the various groups and micro-clicking your advance across the map to keep them in proper placement. The alternative is the antiaircraft zipping ahead and getting chewed up by the defense, because they may be fast, but they’re lightly armored, and then the tanks are forced to advance without the air cover. This effect is really at its worst when to trying to group anything with tanks, but other unit combinations also have a tendency to fan out on the battlefield so they are unable to complement one another effectively in combat. Due to the lack of formations and the inability to effectively mix units, I still found myself essentially using packs of all the same type of units, and so didn’t play much with the new ones, but perhaps that’s just my playing style.
Another big problem with C&C:G, that also persists in Zero Hour, is one of balance. The Chinese, especially with the addition of the mammoth helicopter, can build a defense that is pretty much uncrackable, and a damned fine offense as well. The GLA scud storm, which destroys a wide swath of land and buildings, is far more powerful than either the American beam weapon or the Chinese nuke. Of the three, the Americans remain weak, churning out flimsy high-tech stuff like drones and combat jets that are easily destroyed by antiaircraft fire. They do have the strength of total vision using satellites, but this is outweighed by the lack of sufficient offense to do anything about it. The new units and buildings have, if anything, increased the imbalance issue, IMHO, and the multiplayer games that I’ve been a part of have been relatively one-sided affairs.
The single player game consists of 15 missions split five between each side. The story that they tell is again a somewhat unpleasant one given the state of world affairs, though at least it doesn’t end with the detonation of a biotoxic warhead over an American city as the last game did. The missions are a very mixed bag, some of them quite long, and some of the very, very short and easy. A few of them are so heavily scripted that, while they don’t have a single path to the solution, the path on the script is about 100 times easier than any other you can think up. If you find a mission in the game particularly difficult, it might mean that you’re not solving it the way the designer envisioned. In any case, the 15 missions will take ten hours or less to complete, if you’re even halfway competent like I am, though they do get quite difficult on the harder settings.
So what can you do once you’ve dispensed with the single player campaigns? The game supports a simple skirmish mode, online or LAN, and that adds a little. However, another single player mode called Challenge has been added as well. In Challenge, you select a general and a specialty, such as a toxin GLA general that has toxin shells for all units, or an armor Chinese general, who gets armor unit bonuses. There are a total of nine such specialties (three per general), and this is the only place that such specialties appear in the game, which is unfortunate because I think they would add some replay factor to the single player games. You then pit this general against six other generals, one at a time, chosen at random, though you are told what general you are against before the match actually begins. I’m sorry to say that the opponent general starts with a completely built up base, while you start with just a command center, builder, and a load of cash, but the opponent goes easy on you for the first several minutes of play, and it allows you to tailor your base layout depending on the general you’re going up against. It would have been more fun to have you both start on a level playing field, but this new mode of play adds quite a bit of value to the game.
Some harped on the graphics of the original game; saw them as blocky or grainy. They were a little bit, and they remain so in the expansion pack, which I don’t believe changed the graphics at all. Still, I like the graphics, not so much for the crispness, which they do kind of lack, as the little details, such as the dust kicked up by vehicles and the machine gunners on the back of GLA pickups hammering at them as though jammed. Good weapons effects; explosions, clouds of toxins – I’m satisfied. The sound effects are even better, and many of the units have funny little sayings that, given the pretty large number of units in the game, take quite a while to get old.
It’s an expansion pack. Whaddaya want? It doesn’t correct several of the flaws of the original game, but it adds significantly more playtime to it. In my head I’m trying to compare this to other RTS expansion packs I’ve seen recently, such as Age of Mythology: The Titans and Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. Compared to those titles, Zero Hour rates fairly, if does nothing to really distinguish itself from the typical expansion pack expectations.