Command & Conquer: Generals
Command & Conquer: Generals (C&C:G) is the latest addition to the venerable C&C line of games. To be honest from the outset, I was never impressed with the original C&C, and I haven't thought much of the other games in the series as well. I'm not sure why, really, but they just didn't strike ms as being all that interesting or fun to play. The first real-time-strategy (RTS) game I ever played was Starcraft, and maybe that just set such a high standard that I couldn't get into the C&C way of doing things. I don't know. What I do know is that C&C:G has reversed that trend. Read onward to discover why.
Holy details, Batman! That's exactly what Robin would say were he and the Dark Knight trapped in a tight spot such that only by playing C&C:G could they escape. On a more serious note, this is the most visually impressive RTS game of all time, hands down. I don't know how the developers were able to build such a super-competent engine, but the results are indisputable. It renders hordes of enemies on screen in more detail than any other RTS game, and this is at the same time it is rendering the most beautifully detailed environments in which to play as well.
The modeling is absolutely first rate for the most part. The only units I find lacking, really, are the infantry. They look rather blocky in a triangular fashion when viewed at even moderate zoom. But everything else looks fabulous. Tanks, trucks, planes, buildings, and everything else are very intricately designed and detailed. My comments are the same about the texturing as well. Everything except the infantry units is utterly phenomenal. The infantry units, by comparison, look overly gaudy and kind of fake. Heck, with as good as their animation is, however, and their overall scale, it would probably be too much to ask with present-day technology. In short, I doubt that the developers could have done any better and maintained any kind of realistic frame rates.
Where C&C:G really shines, though, is in its effects. As I said previously, I don't normally use the term 'movie' to refer to scenes implemented using the in-game engine; rather, I typically use the phrase "in-game cut-scene" or something similar. C&C:G brings near-cinema-quality special effects to the game, though, and that really makes the in-game sequences worthy to be called movies. The effects are simply spectacular. And I mean all the effects.
The fire of the Chinese pyro tanks looks realistic, as does the nasty incandescent green goo of the GLA. The explosions look great, from the initial blinding flashes that they produce to the lingering smoke. But these are only the most obvious effects. The engine also supports fading from black and white to color, a motion blur effect while zooming in or out, and several other transition effects worth noting. In short, C&C:G breaks new ground in terms of game visuals for the effects that it offers, and I have no substantive complaints in this department.
The audio in C&C:G is good, but I would have to say that it is overshadowed by the video. That's not a complaint, mind you, it's simply my way of saying that I was so blown away by the visuals that it was hard to get too hung up on the audio. Nevertheless, there are some things that simply must be said.
First, the choice of Bill Brown for music composer is a good one. Granted, I happen to like that guy's stuff so much that he is my favorite game-music composer. Even so, I think his work arguably brings a level of quality to the in-game music that other games just can't meet. I doubt you will be unhappy with the score to C&C:G, and I highly recommend Bill Brown's work to others looking for a good composer. Heck, I just keep hoping that the man will someday put a CD of his game soundtracks together. They're that good.
Second, all of the audible cues not only sound good, many of them are really entertaining as well. While playing as the GLA, for example, some of the comments by the units are laugh-out-loud funny. The first time a peasant asked me if he could please have some shoes, I thought I was going to bust a gut. I don't know why, really, but there was something about the delivery of the line that cracked me up. Many of the units feature more "punny" comments, but the workers' simple laments were the ones that keep me coming back for more.
Third, it all works well together. In some games, the individual sound samples are good, but they tend to get in each other's way, or their balance is wrong, etc. Overall, I would have to say that the audio in C&C:G is about as polished as it gets in terms of production values. I have no substantive complaints in this department either.
The interface is a bit spotty in several respects. First, I have the darndest time selecting some units. I could swear that I've clicked on infantry units on several occasions, only to discover that, in fact, they didn't get selected. Further, the double-click and keyboard shortcut for selecting all other units of the currently selected kind seems to work intermittently. Too often I find myself fighting to select just the units I want to select, and that's not helpful—particularly in the middle of a big battle.
Second, the game lacks any way of scrolling the display by using the keyboard. No doubt most folk will be inclined to wonder: why is this idiot trying to scroll the map with the keyboard? That's what the mouse is for! Well, I like to use my Microsoft Sidewinder Strategic Commander (MSSC) with RTS games. I find it very useful to be able to scroll, rotate, zoom, and issue commands with my left hand while working the mouse with my right. C&C:G has keys for rotation and zooming, but it has none for scrolling; as such, my use of the MSSC is crippled. I sure hope they add hotkeys for scrolling in a future patch.
NB: Since this review was written, I've discovered that holding down the Ctrl key while using the regular arrow keys will scroll the map. I've since updated my MSSC profile, and it works wonderfully. For the record, however, EA Games has responded (stupidly) to my request for support with this by sending me all sorts of "helpful" tips on configuring my video card. It really makes me wonder if they even read the user's question.
Third, the campaign menu system is less useful than it could be. In Starcraft, for example, selecting a given campaign takes you back to the last mission you left automatically. In C&C:G, in contrast, clicking the button for a given campaign will always drop you into the first mission in that campaign. Sure, you can always go load a game, but it's not as nice in my estimation. I do have to give the developers points, however, for that amazingly detailed battle sequence that plays out behind the main menus. That's the coolest background sequence I've seen to date in any game.
In my view, the game mechanics are somewhat weak. Granted, the developers have stuck with a tried and tested adaptation of the rock-scissors-paper model. I'm just kind of tired of that model by now. You know how it goes. Heavy vehicles are tough on buildings and other vehicles. Rocket-troops are tough on vehicles and buildings. Infantry are tough on other infantry. And so forth. I'm sure it was done for game-balance reasons, but I find it quite silly that infantry can withstand several rounds from the main gun of a tank! Sheesh. Maybe I should develop my own RTS game; I just can't help feeling that more realistic mechanics could really work well in this genre.
A nice addition to the fray, compared to other C&C titles as I understand it, is the series of generals' abilities that can be selected. What I find most interesting about them is that their implementation flies in the face of the role-playing-game (RPG) genre elements being added to other such games (e.g., Warcraft III). That is, you earn a number of points based on your promotion level, but you get to re-select which bonuses you desire at the start of each mission. I found that very refreshing, as it let me tailor my selections to the situation at hand. This was particularly effective, for example, in the GLA missions that required me to gather some set number of resources, because I could opt to receive bonus money for the destruction of every enemy unit.
Save for my general complaint about the rock-scissors-paper model, the game mechanics in C&C:G are quite good overall. The three factions have a genuinely different feel, and they seem to have a useful variety of units. I'm a bit concerned about balance issues, particularly with the Chinese, but I'm hoping that the developers will fix this with a future patch.
This is definitely the weakest aspect to C&C:G. The game does contain story elements, which are revealed through the in-game movies, as well as through the narration given at the start of each mission. But it just doesn't ever come together as a cohesive whole. In my estimation, this is because there are no central characters around whom some plot can revolve. Starcraft, for example, had the whole Kerrigan-driven story arc, just as Warcraft III had the rise and fall of Prince Arthus. Heck, even Earth: 2150, a great RTS game without much of a story, had the whole we-must-escape-the-blue-planet backdrop to tie it all together. In contrast, C&C:G just doesn't have any central plot elements. It has the feel of something cooked up solely to provide an excuse for military might to be exercised.
When you buy C&C:G, you buy a fair amount of game. I'm starting to get the impression that I play through games more quickly than most, so maybe my readers should take my complaints about length with a grain of salt. As recent games go, C&C:G is better than average in terms of its length. Each campaign delivers seven solid missions, which may be played at various difficulty levels for an additional challenge during a second (and subsequent) run-throughs. Still, I finished the entire Chinese campaign in less than a handful of hours of play. The GLA campaign went even more quickly. The entire thing provides about fifteen hours of single-player gaming, maybe a bit more if you're slower than I am.
Fortunately, what is there is pretty good. During that time you'll fight in a number of different areas and environments. You'll face a number of different mission goals. You'll have the opportunity to work with a good variety of units and capabilities. And you'll be able to acquire and use a host of different generals' abilities. The variety in the missions helps keep them fresh every time. The only time I felt like I was getting bored, in fact, was in the early few GLA missions, which are concerned almost solely with gathering resources.
There is another flaw worth mentioning, however, and that's the artificial intelligence (AI) that drives those units. In some respects, the AI of C&C:G seems quite good. I particularly like the intelligence shown by units guarding some point. They seem to me to engage the enemy intelligently as a group, then return to the area they're supposed to be guarding when finished. That feature alone helped me a lot throughout the game, and it's one of the best implementations of a guarding behavior I've ever seen.
Yet on the other hand, it seems to me like some of the unit AI is downright stupid. On several occasions, I've caught my troops just standing around while they're being fired at. Call me silly, but I expect soldiers to shoot back. This makes it very difficult for you to divide your attention when playing the game. You can't just tell your troops to go attack something on the assumption that they'll move on to destroy the nearby buildings when finished. Instead, you really have to manage your troops in the field to keep them alive and fighting. Hopefully, these kinds of problems might get addressed in a later patch—particularly because of how badly they screw up multi-player gaming.
To be honest, I haven't played enough of the multi-player game to have a good feel for how it's going to work out in the long run. My initial impressions, however, are that the game needs some balance tweaks. And to be more specific, it seems like the Chinese have all the advantages right now. The horde bonus coupled with the generally strong, cheap, and functional units make them a serious force to be reckoned with. Of course, I harbor a strong suspicion that the GLA's ability to move troops across the map in almost zero time (thanks to their tunnel networks) might be able to offset this somehow. I just haven't had the experience to be able to say yet.
What I can say with confidence at present is that the multi-player aspect has some big drawbacks. First, to play a "quick match", you have to change your resolution to 800 x 600! That's bent as far as I'm concerned, for the game just looks "chunky" and pixellated at that resolution. When are gaming companies going to stop worrying about whether it's "fair" for the guy with the 486 CPU, and recognize that anybody can buy a better computer for a pittance these days? Frankly, it isn't "fair" that I'm more dextrous than most gamers I run into either, in terms of in-game advantage, but I don't see anybody trying to equalize for that. Sheesh. Give it a rest and let us use our bloody computers to the max. It's why we pony up the money for the big hardware.
Worse, the game speed can't be changed. This wouldn't be such a big deal were it not for the fact that the default is set somewhere between wake-me-when-it's-over and the-next-ice-age-is-already-here. Seriously, the default speed setting practically puts me to sleep. Virtually every other RTS game I've played on-line allows players to change this sort of thing. I think it's bloody ridiculous that C&C:G doesn't.
Further, the stupidity of the AI, which was merely annoying in the single-player campaign, is positively awful in multi-player games. The first three matches I played with a good friend were over within minutes, all because of the stupidity of the AI. We played on a pretty simple map, and I kept seizing the high ground. The most egregious failure of the AI came when a bunker with a lone GLA rebel fighter in it destroyed a half a dozen "high tech" US vehicles, simply because they stupidly refused to move to the high ground where they could shoot back—so much for "high tech", eh? My friend had told them to attack, you see, and then turned his attention elsewhere. He didn't count on the AI's complete lack of anything resembling even artificial intelligence, however, and he lost badly. Other terrible examples included my scud launchers blowing my own troops to bits, units stupidly refusing to fire back when fired upon, and so forth.
Finally, there are a host of "minor" problems as well. The game has some kind of really severe memory leakage problem, I think, because it eats upwards of 600 MB of physical memory on my system after I've been on-line for a while. My system has a full 1 GB of physical RAM, and it's obvious that C&C:G is a pig from watching the system resources monitor. After I exit the game, as much as 600+ MB of physical RAM and 400 - 500 MB of paging file reverts back to the system. Call me silly, but I don't think that any video game these days should be eating over 1 GB of combined memory storage. That's just bloody ridiculous. Suffice it to say that C&C:G is about half-baked in terms of multi-player features; we've already made it to v1.04 with patches, and I can only hope that the developer/publisher will make it right.
Overall, C&C:G is a good game. I don't think it's a fabulous game, and I don't think it's going to be on my hard drive five years later (as Starcraft still is). It is, however, a fun and engaging game in the genre, and I can recommend it to most gamers. The only people to whom I can't recommend it are those who are die-hard C&C veterans—you know the type: people who won't buy the game simply because it deviates in any way from the previous titles in the series. I also can't recommend it to people without pretty beefy machines. It runs fine on my system, but I have a pretty high-end rig. I have a hard time believing that it will run that well on anything less than a very fast system. To all others, though, it's a lot of fun to play, and the visuals are so good, you'll cackle with glee just at the way it looks and plays, despite the various minor issues.
Reviewed by Phileosophos