The past year has been kind to fans of Real-Time Strategy, with two of the biggest franchises in the genre receiving fantastic updates - namely WarCraft, whose third incarnation saw the welcome addition of an impressive 3D engine and RPG elements, and Age of Empires, whose reappearance as Age of Mythology also heralded a move into 3D, more focus on storyline in the single-player game and solid, well-implemented, traditional RTS gameplay.
For many strategy fans, however, the shadow of one game has fallen over everything else released last year - namely Command & Conquer, the franchise which really started the RTS ball rolling. After the disappointing Tiberian Sun, which promised a brand new start for the series but delivered deeply unimpressive voxel graphics technology and a mediocre, poorly balanced game, the team at Westwood saw something of a return to form with Red Alert 2 - which refined C&C gameplay to a fine art, and had one of the slickest user interfaces of any RTS game ever made.
The question since then has been whether the next iteration in the franchise, Command & Conquer Generals, can bring the series into 3D, invent a brand new timeline for it, and still retain the polish and quality which Red Alert 2 displayed; and perhaps more importantly, whether it can stand up to the magnificent titles we saw from Blizzard and Ensemble last year.
The first thing that will strike anyone who plays C&C Generals is that it's a very good-looking game indeed. Although it lacks the detail and character of WarCraft III, it is much more ambitious with its graphics - aiming to recreate bustling cities and villages full of buildings which can be occupied or destroyed, and civilians who can be rolled over in your mighty tanks (assuming they're not clever enough to run away screaming). The game does lack the variety of earlier C&C titles, however, being set almost entirely in dusty cities and villages in Asia - with the range of missions mostly covering the land between Baghdad and Tibet.
The units themselves are nicely detailed and quite imaginative in places, although the focus is very heavily on land units - naval combat is practically non-existent and air units are for the most part painfully simplistic. Again, however, there's a singular lack of ambition in terms of what the game can do; whereas titles from several years ago such as the hugely underrated Dark Reign 2 let you get right up close to your troops and watch them battle it out with the enemy from ground level, C&C Generals is very much focused on giving you the same perspective as you've always had in C&C, but making it 3D and letting you rotate it. It's a valid approach to making a 3D strategy game, certainly, but it's a little unimaginative.
EA Pacific, the developers behind the game (no, not the late lamented Westwood - and it shows, as I'll explain in a moment) have also chosen to ditch the traditional C&C live action cut scenes and full motion video, opting instead for in-engine cut scenes to set up the plot of each section. While this does highlight the graphics in a good way - the explosions, in particular, are wonderfully realised - it also removes much of the character that was apparent in earlier games, and in places it serves to highlight the limitations of in-game graphics as much as their potential.
Same old story
Generals makes the bold step of dropping both previous C&C timelines, setting the game instead in the near future with an all-too-realistic wartime situation featuring three sides - the Americans, the Chinese and a rogue Arabic element called the Global Liberation Army, or GLA. The original plan for the game was to have nine different generals for the player to choose from at the beginning of the game, offering significantly more variety to the game; in the final release, this has been ditched in favour of beefing up the experience system seen in earlier C&C games. Unit experience is much more important in Generals than it was previously, with experienced units being seriously powerful on a battlefield, while your overall experience in the game allows you to purchase special attacks and unit upgrades using your experience points.
Each of the three sides in the game has unique strengths and weaknesses, and in fact that aspect of the game is strangely more similar to WarCraft than it is to any previous C&C title. The Chinese are the most conventional side in the game, with strong ground units and artillery, while the Americans have air superiority on their side and the ability to call in supplies from off the map. The GLA are unusual, however; although their units aren't as powerful as the other forces in the game, and they lack air support, their buildings regenerate if destroyed, they don't need to generate electricity to keep things running and they can steal supplies from destroyed enemy vehicles.
This variety is welcome, and seems quite balanced - although the Americans are certainly the easiest side to play as in multi-player games, it's certainly not as unbalanced as Tiberian Sun was and we expect to see this tweaked in patches. However, with the exception of occasional special attacks, the fact is that the game is very heavily oriented around tank rushes - and the majority of multi-player or skirmish games end in a farce, as both sides race to manufacture as many cheap tanks as possible. Most other RTS games grew out of this habit years ago, and we're disappointed to see it re-emerge in Generals.
Spit and polish
In fact, tank rushing isn't the only spectre of the unpleasant past to rear its ugly head in Generals. It's painfully obvious in places that this isn't the same team that spent the best part of a decade refining Command & Conquer, because while we applaud their efforts in throwing out many of the conventions of old C&C and introducing new gameplay, the simple fact is that the baby is lying out in the middle of the yard along with the bathwater. Gone is the polished user interface; welcome back crap pathing, stupid harvester syndrome, and so many of the annoying features of RTS games - which had been sorted out by the time Red Alert 2 arrived.
Formation move is gone. In fact, formations of all kinds are gone; you can't even make basic formations by assigning light tanks to defend artillery, for example, because the defensive behaviours are gone, replaced with a next to useless system that sets a unit guarding a small area of the map in the most ineffectual way possible. Indeed, control over your units is poorer than it's ever been; you cannot set aggression levels or pursuit distances, and in general your troops will stand still and be slaughtered by anything outside their range of fire.
The useful lines which told you what a unit was doing at any given time are gone, so when you encounter an air unit buzzing around the middle of the map, it's anyone's guess where it thinks it's going. This might be acceptable if the pathing of troops was good; it's not as bad as it was in some earlier C&C games, but it's still woeful, with armoured units wandering halfway around the map for sport in order to get to a location a few blocks away in a city. Units consistently get stuck on buildings and give up, although at least they now have the sense to move out of each other's way in narrow spaces.
To make matters worse, basic functionality that's been in C&C since the outset is gone. You can't rebind your keys (or at least, if you can, it's a bloody well hidden option - we haven't been supplied with a manual for the game, so if anyone does know where keys can be redefined, please let us know!) and simple things like cursor key move have disappeared, which is deeply annoying since every other RTS game in history gets that one right. To add to this annoyance, there are many painfully simple bugs in evidence; like single-player missions you can't finish because there's one cloaked stealth bomber circling around an airbase you destroyed ten minutes ago, or American helicopter harvesters which get stuck off the top of the map after exhausting a supply dump and can't be selected any more, effectively rendering them lost.
On the Offensive
The huge flaws in C&C Generals are difficult to forgive, especially given the fact that the single-player game is very short indeed (only seven missions on each side) and the skirmish mode is painfully crap - displaying some of the worst AI we've ever seen in an RTS game, and to make matters worse, cheating like hell to make up for it. Skirmish AI enemies are utterly, utterly stupid, but are given vast amounts of cash to make up for it, resulting in a game which is boring and far too easy on easy difficulty settings, and practically impossible on hard settings - for all the wrong reasons.
Multi-player games are more promising, and it's nice to see a C&C game at last which has decent network code for LAN play. However, we did also note that multi-player matches, even over a 100MBit LAN, seem to lag quite badly - almost to the point of unplayability in places. We're not sure what causes this, but a little experimentation suggests that the game is restricted by the speed of the slowest machine playing - which would be more forgivable if it weren't for the fact that neither Age of Mythology nor WarCraft III suffered from the same problems on the same network.
All in all, C&C Generals is a hugely disappointing game; but there's one further element of it, which represents the final nail in the coffin for many, and that is the fact that the game is pretty offensive in places. The first American mission is the liberation of Baghdad, featuring Arabic enemies who drop anthrax-filled Scud missiles on busy market squares in the city to keep you out; early GLA missions include one in which you must destroy UN humanitarian aid convoys in order to steal their supplies, and then destroy villages where people take the aid for themselves, followed by a mission in which you must kill at least 300 civilians with chemical and biological weapons. Oh, and your weapons of choice include suicide bombers, tractors loaded up with evil chemical sprays and anthrax bombs.
Yes, we know that this isn't much worse than what the forces of NOD used to get up to in Command & Conquer - but this time it's not the forces of NOD we're talking about. C&C's new real-world setting should bring with it a slightly more responsible attitude, but it doesn't - instead we get propaganda by medium of videogames. Perhaps this will go down well in the USA, but for us, it's left a bitter taste in our mouths. Videogames are no place for political statements.
When reviewing Real-Time Strategy games like Age of Mythology, one of the phrases we've employed a lot is "worthy update". Sadly, that's not a phrase we could possibly use to describe Generals, a game which is poorer than its immediate predecessor in every way other than its graphics. Ultimately, we might be more taken with Generals were it not for the fact that there are quite a few significantly better RTS games on the shelves right now. As it stands, the dull gameplay, horrible interface flaws and cringe-worthy political message of the game mark it out as a wasted opportunity, and a very black mark on the copybook of the C&C franchise.
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