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Command & Conquer Generals

First Impressions - Kristan gets to grips with the latest instalment in the long running C&C series

Can it really be ten years since Westwood released the wonderful Dune II? Apparently it is, and that makes both the writer of this feature and the real-time strategy genre really quite old. But some things age rather nicely, and we were unusually excited when the postie turned up with the latest in the ageing Command & Conquer series.

Including the various stop gap releases, this is actually Westwood's eighth RTS title (and no, we're not counting Earth & Beyond, or the numerous C&C/Red Alert mission packs), which is a fair number of stabs at getting things right. For far too long the series has been stuck in the mid '90s - at least on a visual level, with the sprite based 2D isometric viewpoint well and truly in need of an overhaul. Although this was always a good thing for PC owners with low spec machines, the increasingly tired looking series was in danger of losing its grip as the best selling RTS if things didn't change.

At last... a good looking C&C title

Clearly Westwood and EA knew this too, and thus we're finally treated to a 3D makeover, and rather nice it is too. EA claims "real-time strategy never looked so sharp" - certainly C&C never looked so sharp (after all, the new Total War shots push that claim a little). Using its "state-of-the-art" 'SAGE' engine, everything looks an order of magnitude more impressive than any previous C&C related title. Even at the lowest resolution (800x600), the terrain, buildings and units sport a pleasing amount of detail, complete with an array of lush particle and lighting effects that finally drag the series kicking and screaming into the modern PC era. Thank the lord.

Not only are the visuals finally as impressive as the competition, but the trademark Westwood design is still recognisably intact despite the polygon transition, with the usual collection of imaginatively improbable attack and defence units at your disposal. There is a downside for all this eye candy - as you'd expect - with the system requirements taking a fairly dramatic hike. To run the game on full detail on the lowest resolution (which to be fair makes hardly any difference) it's well worth checking that your PC can cope. We had few problems running it on our 1.3 GHz Athlon system, but the game noticeably performed far better on a GeForce4, versus a Radeon 9700 PRO. However, we fully expect these issues to be ironed out for the final build. Bear in mind, though, that turning off the detail is very ugly indeed, and you'll not be happy to run the game without its visual splendour.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Generals' visual grace is the use of the game engine to introduce levels. Rather than the hammily acted FMV nonsense of old, we're treated to spectacular combat scenes that neatly introduce why you're there, and what the situation is. In one instance thus far, the game even broke off mid level while a dam burst, flooding an entire village. Touches like this are far more impressive than anything the previous games in the series offered, and help give the game a heightened immersiveness - not to mention just being damned good fun to watch.

But is it any good?

But let's stop banging on about the graphics for a moment and tell you about the actual game. This time around players get to become a General, with armies to choose from and ranks to climb. Players have three armies to choose from: the US, Chinese and the Global Liberation Army, but despite dispensing with the traditional Nod versus GDI premise, it's business as usual in C&C Generals in most other respects. We plumped for a three hour single player session as the Chinese to get a flavour for the game, and so far we're cautiously impressed. Cautious not to get carried away with what in the early stages appears to be essentially a makeover of the past, as with Sim City 4 and so many of EA's titles, but quietly confident from what we've seen so far that it delivers the most refined edition of the series to date.

Of course, the basic core of the game remains the same as ever; build up a mighty arsenal of progressively more powerful units, gather whatever resources required, gradually circumvent the heavily guarded enemy defence and take out their base piece by piece. Rather worryingly for the old school, the basic tank rush attack still seemed to be the best route to victory, but we're expecting the CPU AI to ramp up very quickly. Even so, there's something peculiarly immersive about resource juggling combined with sending out your minions to do your business. The continual upgrade/promotion system is managed nicely too, with the ability to subtly improve elements of your arsenal as you work your way through. It's hard to gauge with very little documentation supplied exactly how this works, or when to expect a promotion, but it's a nice touch that will supply you with a useful improvement to your weapons of mass destruction often mid level, rather than at the start of a new one.

It'll keep you busy

With 27 single player missions spread out between the three sides there's a good 30 to 40 hours of intense warmongering to fight through, which is more than can be said for most console games we encounter. Add to that the obligatory multi-player mode, (which we intend to put through its paces in the next two weeks) and it's easy to see that this is another C&C game that will fly off the shelves. It doesn't do anything revolutionary from the little we've seen of it so far, but anyone who even vaguely liked the previous versions won't want to miss it, which is probably the news they wanted to hear. Look out for a more informed opinion just before the title's February 14th release date.

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