Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn

Command & Conquer is a series I have never really dabbled in. I have always been more of a turn-based strategy fan; only making exceptions for the occasional fantasy game like Warcraft 2 or Battle for Middle-Earth.Still, its contributions to the genre and impressive legacy are not to be understated. Command & Conquer is one of the legends of this genre. Having found myself in a bit of a sci-fi mood lately, I decided to finally check it out.

Set in a futuristic version of our world, Command & Conquer revolves around a conflict between two powerful factions. The GDI, Global Defense Initiative, is basically a unified army for the entire world. Sponsored by the UN and utilizing the most advanced weaponry science can produce, they fight battles to uphold peace and civilization around the globe. Their mortal enemy is the Brotherhood of Nod. A powerful cult revolving around the enigmatic messiah figure Kane. Their ruthlessness is matched only by their mastery of propaganda, turning the world against the GDI through false flags and misleading news items. All the while becoming incredibly rich off the back of their economic activities.

Their current conflict revolves around the appearance of a mysterious new resource called Tiberium. These green crystals emerge from the Earth and can be harvested for their rare properties. In individual battles, this is how you gain currency to build constructions and units with. In the larger scheme of things, Tiberium is a mystery that confounds scientists and makes those who possess it fabulously rich. It might also give you terrible diseases, so… beware of that.

Both factions have their own campaign with about 15 missions each. Though I feel like the designers intended for players to do the GDI campaign first, as it does a far better job of easing you into the mechanics. Each campaign also has a number of alternate paths where you play the same mission on a totally different map—providing extra replay value. Of course, there are also skirmish battles against AI or other people.

Gameplay builds on the achievements of earlier strategy games and refines it to a point that will feel familiar even to modern gamers. Most missions will start you with a base or a vehicle that turns into your base once you have placed it. You then get access to a menu with tabs for buildings, units, and vehicles, which reveal more options as you expand your base. You can click on anything to start constructing it, which will take some time. Once it’s done, you can then place that building somewhere and it pops up right away. No need for builder units or watching your construction slowly come together. You wait for the timer and then spawn it instantly. The only condition being that it needs to be within a certain proximity to any other building you already have. You can’t just spawn turrets in an enemy base.

Units will spawn outside their corresponding buildings and can then be selected with either drag-to-select or keyboard shortcuts. The controls are efficient and quick to get the hang off, though there are some advanced things you can do if you’re willing to dig that deep into the game’s controls.

The game’s missions are also very entertaining. The GDI campaign takes you through a number of levels of increasing difficulty which somewhat mirror your typical skirmish matches. Most will require you to build up a base and wipe out any NOD presence on the map, with new buildings and units becoming available as you progress. There are some gimmick stages mixed in there, like one where you control a lone commando, but these are rare. The NOD campaign is quite the opposite. Most of its missions require you to get creative, often omitting basebuilding entirely. You’ll have to use engineers to seize GDI buildings or make do with only the units the game starts you out with. Their objectives also tend to be more creative and evil. Like destroying neutral villages or assassinating VIP targets.

I do have some issues with the campaigns though. GDI missions frequently sizzle out towards the end, as you’re not allowed to move until EVERY enemy unit is destroyed. If there is a single turret or watchtower anywhere, or a lone unit hiding somewhere, you have to seek them out. Even if there’s no reasonable way for that 1 unit to ever eke out a victory. It would have been nicer if a match was instead considered won once you have blown up every building that produces or generates resources.

The NOD missions, meanwhile, often led to annoyance due to their odd objectives. You are constantly in an underdog position and one wrong move can damn your chances entirely. Some missions are entirely dependent on you making 1 exact move or keeping a specific unit alive, which can fail in an unlucky instant. Sometimes the game doesn’t even tell you that you just got yourself into an unwinnable scenario. I lost count of how many missions I failed just because an enemy vehicle randomly plowed through all my infantry and I literally don’t have a base to get new units from.

Even when they are sometimes frustrating, the missions are made extra entertaining by the cutscenes. You get briefings before every mission in the form of FMV video sequences. Though the plot has some dark moments to it, these sequences are kept deliberately cheesy. Actors ham up their performances and the production quality feels deliberately amateurish. These are very fun to watch and certainly feel like the team had fun making them as well. At the same time, the characters do make an impression. Kane especially is delightfully villainous, making it well worth to play through the NOD campaign even when it keeps kicking your ass.

I had an overall great time with Command & Conquer. Even without the conveniences and visual upgrade of the HD remaster, it’s a game that has aged terrifically. The only MAJOR issue that you need to be able to cope with is the game’s pathfinding. Your own units can’t pass through each other, which leads to traffic jams in some narrower maps or across bridges. When this happens, some units may decide that they will instead circumnavigate the entire map. Harvesters also frequently had problems reaching their refineries, forcing me to manually control every single one.

The lack of an attack-move also causes several problems. If you command your units to go to a fixed location, they will move there while ignoring any enemies along the way. If you target an enemy instead, your units will specifically only attack that exact enemy. If that enemy is killed, chaos ensues. Units that were still moving towards the target will stop where they stand, rather form up with the rest of your army. Some units will auto-attack other nearby foes, while others will stand still as they get shot at. Their lack of self-perseverance makes it very annoying to push an offensive. You keep having to reel units back into the fight as stragglers fall behind or run off due to pathfinding issues. You need to micro what units are attacking what, readjusting their targets almost every other second as enemies go down quickly. It gets so intensive that it becomes tempting to just select everything instead and siccing it at whatever you need gone the most. It’s horrifically inefficient but you need an insane amount of skill to keep everybody fighting otherwise.

Really, the ideal solution would be if units just fought back when they or any ally within a reasonable perception range is shot at. Few things are as annoying as losing your entire army because your tanks weren’t doing anything or your APCs drove off into the sunset because their path was obstructed for a second. Or the many times that artillery drove within range of the turrets they were supposed to be taking out. It’s a blemish on an otherwise fantastic RTS. I am curious to see how later entries in the franchise addressed it.

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