I have a long, personal history with the Command and Conquer franchise. In fact, Red Alert was the very first game I ever played on our first PC. I played it so much back then that I would force myself to go to bed at night, only to dream about completing my missions, I kid you not. I have a deep love for many of the games in this series, especially Tiberium Dawn and Red Alert, and now the Command and Conquer Remastered collection lets me replay these epic games in HD.
When launching Red Alert this week and watching that intro video with the iconic Hell March playing in the background, I cannot describe the intense excitement that welled up in me. I smiled stupidly at my screen like a kid waiting to get a chocolate chip cookie. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for this long-running series. After the original developers, Westwood was acquired by EA, things started to get rocky. I’ve already written an article going into the Fall of Command and Conquer, and I urge you to give it a read if you’re interested to see what happened to the previous King of Strategy.
But today, we look at Command and Conquer Remastered, a bundle featuring reworked versions of both Tiberium Dawn and Red Alert along with their expansion packs. This collection was developed by Petroglyph Studios who consists of many of the original team from Westwood and assisted by Lemon Sky Studios. Due to my history, I went into this review incredibly biased, but as you’ll see, this did not make me blind towards the many flaws I found. Below you will read my absolute best attempt to give you a clear report of this remastered collection and whether or not it’s worth the roughly $20 price tag.
WHAT IS COMMAND AND CONQUER
If, by some freak sequence of events, you are unfamiliar with the Command and Conquer franchise, here’s a quick rundown. Command and Conquer was created by Westwood Studios and introduced the world to some of the first real-time strategy games back in the mid-’90s. It used the classic formula of harvesting resources, building a base, training an army, and annihilating your enemies. Simple and to the point.
Years of playing modern, competitive RTS games meant that I had to adjust my playstyle a bit as my initial thought is to create a great number of harvesters and production buildings so I can pump out as many units as possible. That is not the way these older games worked though, and I’ve had to slow my pace and play more strategically.
Each game had its own unique story of good vs evil that would play out through a long series of games. The Tiberium universe featured the Global Defense Initiative defending the world against the clutches of the Brotherhood of NOD, an underground, cult-like faction with great military strength, led by the infamous Kane. This series would later see the introduction of an alien race known as the Skrin, but that’s a story for another day. Red Alert didn’t have aliens but instead introduced time travel and depicted what would happen if Albert Einstein went back in time and removed Adolf Hitler from history. This resulted in the USSR rising up instead of Nazi Germany.
Command and Conquer wasn’t the first RTS game but one could argue that it was more influential than it’s competitors and had a bigger hand in sculpting this genre. This series well known for the use of live-action video cutscenes instead of animations, and some of the most incredible soundtracks ever created. I played the Command and Conquer games again as recently as last year, and despite their advanced age, I still found immense enjoyment in them. My experience this week with the remastered versions have given me more of that satisfaction.
WHAT REMAINS OF THE OLD GAMES
I love that the Westwood intro is still included when launching the games despite the company not existing anymore. Petroglyph has done its best to bring improvements to these games while not losing the essence of the originals. They succeeded but that doesn’t come without its drawbacks.
The factions, units, maps, missions, and user interface, will be familiar to anyone who’s played Command and Conquer in the past. That said, it also clearly shows the flaws of classic RTS games compared to their modern counterparts. The biggest and most glaring issue that was inherited from the originals is the deeply flawed AI. The units really don’t know what to do unless you give them clear and specific orders. An enemy will fire on them and they’ll just sit there and take the hits until you tell them it’s okay to fight back. They also won’t get out of the way when you’re trying to place a building on the spot they’re currently occupying or if they’re in the way of another unit that needs to get past.
The worst of this though is the broken pathfinding mechanics. You can order a group of units to the same point and each one of them will find a different path there, often leading to them moving through undiscovered territory or through an enemy base. Their communication tools also seem to be stuck in a previous era because I too often had to issue an order 2, 3, or even 4 times before it was obeyed.
Balance was a foreign concept back then and was only included in later games in the series. Playing through the campaign you’ll find yourself flying through some missions while frustratingly replaying others several times. The imbalance was also deeply embedded in the factions and certain units just had no real use. Infantry specifically was almost worthless once you have vehicles because even though they could dish out a lot of damage in groups, it just took one vehicle to run them all over.
The fog of war in these games also worked differently. Instead of getting a clear picture of the map layout with your vision only stretching through the areas you currently occupy, these games covered the entire map in complete blackness. Once you explore each area, you have full vision there for the remainder of the game. This often led to you playing missions at least twice, first to explore the map and the second time to use your scouting knowledge to form a winning strategy.
Furthermore, if your mission is to destroy all units and structures, you have to do exactly that, find every single enemy unit on the map, and clear them out, even when they have no possible way of rebuilding their base. Failing to do so will not complete the mission and you could find yourself searching for minutes to find that stray infantry hiding behind a tree. The game is currently missing LAN support, but this was not an oversight by the developers but rather a delay caused by the global pandemic. They decided to keep to the original launch date, rather than delay the release for a feature that probably wouldn’t be used with the current emphasis on social-distancing.
The remastered collection is not just a copy/paste job with a higher texture pack, there are a number of noteworthy changes that have improved things greatly. Some of these changes can be enabled in the options menu like using the right mouse button to issue orders instead of the left. Unit selection also has improved options like selecting multiple units when holding CTRL or selecting all of a certain type of unit by double-clicking one.
The UI has received an overhaul with the build menu now split into tabs to separate the units, infantry, vehicles, and superweapons. These tabs also come with a progress indicator so you can see how far production is on each of them. You now have the ability to train a soldier, build a tank, and assemble an aircraft all at the same time, something the original games did not allow. And then there’s unit queueing, what a glorious invention this is. What’s more, after building a resource harvester, they get to work immediately instead of sitting around until you give them orders. I mean, it’s a harvester, what else would you tell it to do?
Further additions include a mission selector, an improved map editor, and the option to watch your and other players’ replays. They’ve also seen fit to release the source code so the modding community can go crazy which should be interesting.
Finally, we come to the bonus content. This pack includes all the missions from the original games and expansions, as well as some that were mischievously hidden like the giant ant missions. You’ll also get some unique missions that were previously only available in the console versions of the game. Add to that the library of photographs and behind-the-scenes footage found in EA’s basement archive, this pack really has an incredible amount of content.
CALL THE EXTERMINATOR
One aspect of the original games that was not ported to the remastered collection is proper QA testing and attention to detail. In the 90’s the Internet was not as widely available as it is today so releasing a patch to fix some bugs in your game was not an easy thing to do, therefore the game had to be thoroughly tested before release. However, with high-speed Internet connections available in most of the world now, developers don’t feel the need to test their game from end to end anymore because we’ll do that for them. As a result, these games are still crawling with bugs of all shapes and sizes. I experienced most of the bugs listed below personally while some are only 2nd hand reports.
- Basic game functions like unit queueing and side-scrolling would stop functioning.
- Your save game files don’t get replaced so you end up with a bunch of save files with the same name.
- Multiplayer chat would censor arbitrary words for no reason.
- The build menu would sometimes not display.
- Longer multiplayer games would crash after about 40 minutes.
- Double tapping a control group to center the screen on those units would instead jump to a random spot on the map.
- Issuing orders on the mini-map would stop working.
- Multiplayer factions wouldn’t receive their unique perks. I noticed this when playing as Ukraine who should benefit from cheaper build cost, but their units and structures cost the same as the rest.
Most of these bugs are relatively minor and can usually be fixed by reloading the game but this last one is important enough to single out. The game’s use of resources needs a serious overhaul since so many players are reporting issues with extreme framerate drops. I first noticed this when playing some of the very first campaign missions, where there were still a small number of units on screen, and it gets exponentially worse in multiplayer. In fact, I would state that multiplayer is very close to unplayable right now. I’ve had occasions in a multiplayer game where things heated up and the game slowed down to the point where it took 3 seconds to register that I clicked on a unit.
Even just sitting in the game’s main menu sometimes had my GPU running at 100% with my CPU jumping between 60% and 85%. EA confirmed that they are already working on fixing this issue, but honestly, this should not have been a problem to start with. How is it possible that they tested the game before release and didn’t pick up that multiplayer is so broken?
AUDIO & VISUAL – RAMP IT UP TO HD
The biggest, and most obvious update, is the improved soundtracks and visual designs. I commend each and every person involved in this process for the phenomenal job they did in Command and Conquer Remastered. Seeing the difference between remastered and legacy graphics can be done by pressing space and it is fantastically satisfying. They didn’t just improve the units and buildings but also the terrain and UI.
When looking to remaster the soundtracks, only one team could possibly be up to the task, that is Frank Klepacki and The Tiberian Sons. Frank was responsible for composing all the music from the original games and his team has done a superb job in remastering those tracks here. You can now also make up a playlist of your favorite tracks with the inclusion of the jukebox feature. The team even went as far as hiring Kia Huntzinger, the announcer’s voice from Tiberium Dawn, to re-record all her lines in HD. Unfortunately, Martin Alper who was the announcer on Red Alert, passed away and instead of replacing him, it was decided to remaster the old audio files to maintain the sentimental value that his voice brings to the game. This was a good decision.
Unfortunately, they were not able to remaster the video cutscenes in the same way. EA has made a lot of effort to document their search of the original video tapes but to our dismay, they seem to have been lost to the sands of time. Their last resort was to use an AI system to sharpen the videos included in the original games which came with mixed results. Some videos don’t look half bad, while others look like the camera lens was smeared with vaseline. Also, the cutscenes in Tiberium Dawn look much better than those from Red Alert for some reason. It was disappointing that they couldn’t remaster the videos in HD, but I believe that reshooting the cutscenes with new actors would have been infinitely worse.