Developer: Victory Games / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Platform: PC / Release Date: TBA 2013
Remember that Command & Conquer: Generals 2 trailer that played during the 2011 VGAs?
Well… things have changed a bit since then.
There is still a new Command & Conquer game coming in 2013, and the Frostbite 2 engine is expectedly humming away underneath the hood. However, the BioWare studio label is gone, as BioWare Victory has gone to the current Victory Games studio name. Based at the EA Los Angeles campus, Victory has done away with the Generals 2 suffix, although the name change is more of a streamlining effort than anything else. And, as was confirmed this past August, Command & Conquer is now a free to play title.
Victory and EA are effectively combining all the Command & Conquer franchises into one online portal. The new gateway will have all the comforts of Battlefield 3’s Battlelog, including group and private chat, social feeds, stats and user data, and a missions-for-experience system. There are several features that won’t be available at launch, including clan support, tournament systems, and a spectator mode.
EA is employing a three point free-to-play plan for C&C, which takes cues from the likes of League of Legends and Tribes: Ascend. Gameplay enhancements (like buying a new general and his/her special weapons) can heavily impact the game, but other aesthetic customizations – skins and avatars – do not. Convenience acts as the great equalizer, allowing players with less time to buy XP boosts in order to keep pace with the more hardcore players.
Everything in Command & Conquer can be purchased with two types of currency: Victory points and Command points (we’re told the names are not final). Command points are earned, banked by completing missions and achievements, while Victory points can be bought with the credit card of your choice. None of what’s buyable is needed to play Command & Conquer, but it all offers a level of aesthetic pleasure and quick progress that will be attractive to some. It’s about time versus money, and EA is banking on those with less time to spend more money.
The first batch of content is loosely based on the Generals universe established back in 2003. Other content based on the Tiberium and Red Alert storylines will come later, but still go for the low, low price of zero dollars. There’s no word yet on if the different canons will collide in some sort of Chronosphere-related catastrophe, but all three major Command & Conquer stories will eventually live under one roof.
The Generals content for Command & Conquer consists of three factions: the high-tech European Union (EU), the oh-crap-the-terrorists-are-organized Global Liberation Army (GLA), and a third power of the Eastern variety that we’re not allowed to talk about just yet. Each faction has a very distinct flavor, with the EU going the bleeding-edge-of-technology route. Railguns, orbital cannons via your General, and high-tech APC’s make the EU powerful, but a bit big and clumsy as well. The GLA is the Mad Max of the Generals universe, relying on tried-and-true RPG units, cobbled together black market vehicles from the Cold War era, and large groups of poorly-armed angry mobs.
Much like the marquee RTS games before it, this iteration of Command & Conquer is all about unit balance, from the front lines down to how each faction gathers resources. The GLA’s Angry Mob units might be poorly equipped and easier to kill, but they’re incredibly cheap, giving them a Zergling rush vibe. The low tech of the GLA also means no need for power plants, while the EU uses Protoss Pylon-style plants to connect every asset. However, that power handicap bears fruit with higher-power units, as one EU Railgun Tank can make quick work of a GLA Black Market Tank. Virtually every unit in C&C is upgradeable, too, so your Angry Mob can start throwing Molotov cocktails while the Railgun tank nets damage buffs and EMP attacks.
The units included in the preview are the foundation for each faction, complete with infantry, armor, and some air units. Sadly, the naval units and assets found in most other Command & Conquer titles were nowhere to be found, and Victory has no plans to include any by launch. What’s an army without a nuclear sub backing it up?
A few Skirmish rounds against the AI with each faction shows that one isn’t already dominating the others, although I’m sure the hardcore fanbase will disprove that rather quickly in beta or at release. The effort in balancing within a faction and amongst all three is plainly present, which is perhaps the most important aspect of any RTS.
When playing against the computer, our options were 1v1 Skirmish and a 2v1 Onslaught mode, which pits two humans against the AI in a kind of RTS Horde Mode. While destroying wave after wave of AI baddies is the foundation of Onslaught, the timed missions are mixed as you progress, with search and destroy and escort objectives peppered in. Deathmatch versus the AI is where most of our time was spent, and this is where the cracks started to show.
The alpha-stage AI acted like half its brain was turned off, which led to some equally hilarious and frustrating moments. In one instance, the EU attack group would flawlessly execute basic flanking maneuvers between the two entrances at the front of my main base, but it would be followed by my GLA resource miners walking around in small circles next to the supply depot for five minutes straight. It’s like someone combined General Patton and Beetle Bailey, and you never knew which would show up. Granted, these impressions are based on an alpha build, but the AI needs some work before shipping.
The level design in Command & Conquer hasn’t progressed much since the Red Alert 3 days, either. The levels aren’t poorly-designed, mind you, but there’s no wow factor when looking at the foliage or buildings. The saving grace is the Frostbite 2 engine, which made for some fantastic building demolitions and vehicle damage. Victory says it has “made some significant amount of tech improvements” in regards to the engine, and if that claim is fulfilled, the battle damage in Command & Conquer will be best-in-class, without a doubt.
Two critical omissions threaten to derail EA’s latest C&C effort. Most importantly, there’s no campaign, which means no real story to follow, no classic live-action movie clips, and no offline play whatsoever. Additionally, there are no concrete plans to add one later on, be it for the Generals content or the other storylines. While multiplayer in Red Alert 2 and beyond was and is a crucial component, the campaign was the drawing force for many a-gamer – taking it away is like removing the engine from a Ferrari and hoping no one notices.
And for the competitive gamers in the audience: Command & Conquer won’t have any eSports feature set at launch. Clan support, spectator mode, and the tournament system are all planned features for post-launch, but their non-presence at the start is going to seriously handicap C&C in competitive circles. If EA hopes to siphon some competitive gaming spotlight away from the likes of Blizzard and Riot Games, these features absolutely need to be present on day one. There are no plans to offer a level editor of any kind, either, due to “the complexities of the Frostbite engine.” Sound familiar, Battlefield 3 fans? We thought so.
What we’ve seen of Command & Conquer so far – the attention to unit balance, flashes of brilliance from the AI, the Frostbite 2 engine, and the free to play model – should make for a worthwhile RTS experience. The methods are different, but Command & Conquer still boils down to resource and expansion war, like most games in the RTS space. But the lack of a campaign and the missing competitive/community features could prove to be fatal flaws in a genre that’s dominated by games that embrace organized competition.