Saturday, July 4, 2009

Finding New Ways to Command & Conquer

Franchises can pass into irrelevance. It’s as natural as dying of old age, really. This came to me while walking into the Rehoboth Beach, Del. Kmart, itself way past natural expiration. In 1999, I braved Hurricane Floyd to drive here and buy Command & Conquer: Tiberium Sun, sequel to 1995’s genre-establishing Command & Conquer. Previews and screenshots showed a game poised to advance the field, as its predecessor did.

It did not.

Nor has it three games later – Red Alert 2, C&C 3: Tiberium Wars and Red Alert 3, while successful and fun in their own right, did nothing to change the core formula. While there’s merit to ain’t-broke-don’t-etc, it is now 2009, and the RTS genre is itself in danger of irrelevance; you can’t waggle, shake or hop with it, and despite the modest success of Halo Wars, you can’t play the damned thing on a console.

In an age that demands innovation, how can Command & Conquer survive?

Necessary background: Command & Conquer was (is still, really) an isometric RTS built around resource gathering, unit production and the overwhelming application of those units against a foe. Recent twists in the formula helped keep the franchise alive; 2000’s Red Alert 2 made the game smaller, faster and infinitely more fun than the plodding Tiberium Sun; 2007’s C&C 3 moved the franchise into 3D. EA is pretty good about giving the games worthwhile expansion packs – Kane’s Wrath for C&C 3, Uprising for RA3 – and tweaking the game with patches and fixes.

Problem is, Command & Conquer has yet to surmount the “Build a ton of shit and hurl it at the enemy” routine. Other games have managed to at least subvert it by eliminating the military-industrial complex altogether – I’m thinking of World in Conflict, where resource points are gained by enemy kills and can only be spent on airstrikes and new units, not base buildings. C&C 3, despite its incredibly well-manicured and thoughtfully designed campaign, still requires you to build a ton of shit, etc.

RTS philosophers may say that the build-toss process is, in fact, insurmountable; that it’s as much a part of the genre as harvesting more Tiberium and building more supply depots. I’ll give them that. What is war, after all, but having more boom-boom than the other guy? My little brother is an NROTC cadet, and he says it’s Navy strategic policy to maintain a 5:1 ratio against the enemy (you can imagine what a round of Supreme Commander is like when playing against Midshipman Third Class Phillip W. Kunzig). Still, games find ways to change or at least cleverly disguise the grind; right now, Blizzard designers are working (we hope) to make sure the units in Starcraft II play against each other in a unique, ingenious way.

For Command & Conquer, the path to revolution may rest in the most unlikely source: Command & Conquer: Renegade, a 2002 first person shooter that attempted to recreate the C&C experience from behind the gun of a commando. The Battlezone franchise tried to meld FPS action with RTS pacing and strategy, and to resounding success, in this writer’s opinion. It showed that one could build units, place turrets and attack the enemy from a boots-on-the ground level. It was a shocking invigoration of the grind, and in Renegade, we see shades of that brilliance. The multiplayer mode, for example, allows players to build Mammoth Tanks, take their helm and drive them into the enemy base. Watching guard towers turn their defenses on you, instead of your unit, is pants-shittingly fun.

Renegade wasn’t a bad idea – it was simply a bad game, flawed in ways that aren’t worth enumerating here. EA had another C&C shooter in the works, titled simply Tiberium, but they axed it around a year ago; it was a squad-based shooter anyway, something more along the lines of Republic Commando or Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. Their current plans to advance the franchise involve porting it to the iPhone. Instead of rolling my eyes, I simply advise the C&C team, buried deep within EA’s bowels, to return to a noble experiment. Give it another crack, and make the franchise relevant once more.