I am occasionally forced to think that someone is having a laugh at my expense. "Please review the last ten years of the Command & Conquer franchise (enclosed)." Ten years? So that's five games and about as many expansion packs? And I still get paid the same rate, right? Right.
Damn, well at least I was paying attention to something over the last decade. Imagine if I'd been into football or something. Christ.
Perhaps I should ring up that amphetamine addict I used know, but he's an insurance salesman now. Speed-induced psychoses clash with those Burton two-piece suits, or so he claims. No good. I guess I'll just have to start installing the blighters and begin that long haul review. I say goodbye to my loved ones, microwave my mobile phone and set the dog free into a nearby landfill.
But what is the method? Do I start at the beginning, play that first C&C game and go forward? Do I bow to the obviousness of chronological order? Do I simply rig up all the spare part PCs I have lying about and attempt to play ten games at once like some child genius defeating ten grandmasters at chess? I will tank-rush a dozen AI constructs simultaneously!
No. I shall play them backwards. Start with Generals and regress. Like some grotesque hypnotherapy session, I begin in the now and float backwards to where all these memories come from, surfing the present into deepest, darkest hours lost to gaming... times best left forgotten.
Installation. Whirring DVD.
How's this for nostalgia: installation begins with you having to type in a decade's worth of serial keys. That's right, they couldn't be bothered to come up with a one-key-fits all, no you have to manually type in one hundred and fifty digits before you can even install.
Ah, but with installation motoring there's time enough to make a cup of tea, tidy my desk, and explain to Kieron what 'RTFM' means. Then, as planned, I begin lurching onwards into the recent past.
Command & Conquer Generals is a 3D RTS as slick as a glob of engine grease, and about as intellectually attractive. This is no Total War, in fact it's barely anything above what we'd demand from an RTS in 2006. Button pushing, repetitious but disgustingly compulsive. Hell, the explosions are ace and you've gotta build 'em all. You just have to; and you know how to. This is the rich top layer of sediment in our site of gaming archaeology. Recent but decomposing matter. Fertile stuff, but ultimately dead.
There's an interesting story attached to my own recollections of this game, since the early press versions weren't quite the same as the version that landed on the shelves, (or so the journo hive-mind reminds me). The difference was that the retail version didn't have the level where you drive around exterminating mobs of innocent people with jets of poisonous sludge. Was this entertainment gone wrong? Had Generals really gone further than all the other destruction and massacre and terrorist campaigns of the previous C&C games? After all, the tradition of Soviet vengeance and counter-culture death-mongers in these games had set a fair precedent for silly violence against the weak.
The shrieking, half-laughing, half-horrified reviewer in the office I was working in at the time of the original reviews certainly thought so, and so did EA, who were wise enough not to publish the fateful level in the version the cellophane folks got hold of. Of course these recollections are nothing to do with what you actually get in this box, but the memory of general indignation at a game turned nasty sticks with me like contact poison, and so I share it with you.
Generals, of course, is still bubbling away below the surface of current point 'n' build gaming, and doesn't look that old, or play too shabbily, but I suspect the real joys are further into the past, in the beasts that walked the Earth before the 3D RTS wars. In these polygonal times there's a near-essential absurdity of extra features amongst what your units can do and what hi-tech toys (and they really look like toys) you can deploy against your foe: it's almost too much to stomach - like eating the aforementioned compost of ideas. And I realise that this, right here, is where I lost interest in C&C. I suspect others did too. By now the primordial flame of RTS action was little more than a standardised logo. Others have taken the lead, and taken us into more interesting territory.
Back, back. And to Red Alert 2. The last bastion of the isometric master-games. Suddenly all sense of nostalgia is gone and I'm back in the processes that made RTS games so exquisite. Westwood had mastered its art, and had made the mastery of your art as a casual tactician (click, click, kill and gather) all too easy, and far too compulsive. Colourful, regularly silly, and possessed of a puzzle-perfect tactical challenge. It wasn't quite as exquisitely formed as its predecessor, but that didn't stop the RTS folks playing until their bones began to change. It's still loads of fun. It's still non-stop, relentless and oddly indulgent.
Command & Conquer: Renegade. Hahahaha! Did you actually play this? The first-person shooter of the RTS... No, no, NO. I'm getting queasy just thinking about it. Going back and playing it, well, again, no. This is an appalling atrocity of gaming craft. This is one of those games where the idea, the pitch - of playing as the Commando on the cartoonish field of C&C war - was genius, and the reality something more like the dreams of a starving hobo clown. Move on!
1999. "Less like a date, more like a number we resort to in emergency..." says bearded genius Alan Moore. But the me of 1999 doesn't expect millennial doom because he is contentedly sedated and duly distracted with techno-conflicts of our possible future. At that time I live in a smoky university tenement with a crusty Dell Pentium and a copy of Tiberian Sun. Despite the weirdness of controlling tiberium monster things, and the possibilities for robots, and the years and years of wonder created the mech-combat trailer that came with the original C&C game, there was something missing from this game. Playing again now gives me the same gnawing sense that Tiberian Sun was just trying too hard, and missing the mark. Nevertheless it consumes an afternoon without even trying. The missions often miss a beat, but the production values are so high that the chunky pixels of yesterday seem almost like a retro-experiment gone wrong when seen on the screens of today. I never thought I'd be back here. And can barely entertain the fact that I'm enjoying it... weird. Wrong.
But there's further to go. Back to Red Alert.
When this arrived it was clear that Command & Conquer was unstoppable. The alternate-reality universe of Soviet Super-bloc versus Western Allies was even more compelling, even more vibrant than its predecessor. The base-building, unit pumping, objective-based game had reached a mature stage where it flew around stinging your senses until you were completely paralysed. Then it laid eggs in your brain.
Few people can look back on Red Alert without nodding quietly and remembering the days that seemed to vanish. It was the C&C where everything was in proportion, where the challenges were genuinely mixed and compelled you to find out what needed to be done to win. It was an exploration of gaming terrain, as well as blocky, pixelly terrain. Games are still trying to articulate that kind of gaming experience, albeit with graphics a billion times as complex.
And now it is 1995. Something is wrong with my hormones and I am in love with the girl with blonde hair and strong feminist principles. I am attached, via yellowed keyboard and ancient horizontal desktop computer to the original C&C game. It is a revolution. The revolution.
Point and click and they move. It's like Dune 2, only more militaristic. I am transfixed by the objective-based missions. Truly. This. Is. War. (In Real Time, not that cheapo incremental stuff we were palmed off with before.) Using the commando to explore what could be done with a single unit is a delight.
A pantomime of 'terrorism' plays out in front of my eyes. The pixel memories of protagonist factions GDI and NOD, dancing around each other for the first time. And then it comes to me: the entire world is living a dream of Command & Conquer. The all-encompassing terrorist threat is right here, seed-like in the comic ramblings of anti-Freedom mega-threat, Kaine. Perhaps he's really behind it all - stepping out of fiction to fool us all into thinking we need global death squads to keep the unfree in line.
I control a tiny commando. I am my own Pentagon. Cartoon point 'n' click carnage.
Ten years at the helm. No wonder our minds have changed.
And now, for just forty quid, you can know the whole of the past under one DVD, with no driver issues or boot discs and all that jazz.
I lean back in my chair and, in a moment of grim lucidity I realise: all of these games are already in a cardboard box in the shed. That means something. I just can't decide what.
Ah, I know: