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Welcome Back Commander: A C&C Retrospective - Generals

Illustration for article titled Welcome Back Commander: A iCC/i Retrospective - iGenerals/i

After Renegade failed to meet EA’s expectations, and with the closure of Westwood Studios, the future of the Command & Conquer series seemed uncertain. Times were changing and if the series were to survive, it would have to change with it. EA Pacific, formerly known as Westwood Pacific, was put in charge of the title in the franchise, and let’s be honest, it’s not like there were many other options. That was the team that gave the world Red Alert 2 and Yuri’s Revenge, and I can hardly think of more qualified people for the job. But the deck was definitely stacked against them: the next game had the ungrateful task of revitalizing the franchise in EA’s eyes, compensate for Renegade’s failure, bring the series to the next generation, and somehow keep up with the recently released (and critically acclaimed) Warcraft III. A tall order, and on everyone’s minds one question remained: could they deliver? It wouldn’t be long until we get our answer. In February 2003, just a year after Renegade, we received Command & Conquer: Generals.

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And it changed everything.

As usual, the good folks over CNCNZ got the installation process covered, but there are a few things I’d like to point out. First, I highly recommend you install the GenTool application for a better experience, especially for multiplayer. This game doesn’t support widescreen, so do mind the resolution if you try to stretch it to play in 1080p or above. If you’re getting a DirectX 8 error, first delete any “d3d8help.dll” files in the game’s folder. If that doesn’t fix it, then open “options.ini” and edit the game to run at a resolution that would be available at the time. 1024 × 768 should do just fine, you can then edit the resolution in-game to whatever you desire. If you alt-tab, the game will probably crash. And whatever you do, do not try to remove the 30 FPS cap. The game speed is tied to the FPS and unlocking it will make the game go faster than intended. And with that out the way...

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Welcome Back, General.

New Engine, Who Dis?

Generals marked a new beginning for the franchise. Not only was this the first 3D RTS of the franchise, but it also came out at a time when the old formula was perceived to be, well, exactly that. An old formula. If the series was to survive, the first step was bringing in a new engine in order to make the leap to 3D. For that, a modified version of Westwood’s W3D engine was created and dubbed SAGE (Strategy Action Game Engine), an engine that would stick around for every future installment of the franchise. Admittedly, the sprite work of previous games stood the test of time way better than any early 3D title ever could, but credit where it’s due, Generals doesn’t look bad at all. Compared to other RTS games from the same period, it’s actually one of the prettiest around. Not only that, but the engine handles the chaos on screen magnificently. When you consider there’s no unit cap, and that every unit explodes or melts in one way or another, Generals is a technical achievement.

I can’t be the only one who loves how cheesy this one is.

But Generals got more than just a new coat of paint. When I say the game marked a new beginning for the franchise, I mean it. More than just a reboot or a sequel, Generals takes place in a new universe, where neither Tiberium nor time travel happened. The series always took inspiration from real-life events for their games, albeit with a personal twist added. The original Tiberian Dawn was born out of a desire to represent modern war in a game, but without all the drama associated with it. Red Alert took it a step further, depicting alternate versions of WWII and the Cold War. But those events always felt distant, in part thanks to the obviously impossible technology that allowed them to happen in the first place, and partly because of the campy tone of the games.

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And what was more relevant in the geopolitical landscape of 2003 than the War on Terror. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Generals is here to tell you that “man in turban bad”, this is still very much a campy and cheesy endeavor that only C&C could pull off. But considering that the Iraq war had just started that same year and that the whole War on Terror never really ended to this day, Generals feels closer to reality than any of the previous games, even 17 years after its initial release.

I say close, but put some massive quotation marks on that word. Generals is set in the now past mid-2010s. China and the USA are the world’s two biggest superpowers and the only ones who can oppose the borderless terrorist force known as the Global Liberation Army, whose goals are only slightly less vague than its backstory. And that’s the backdrop, the frontdrop and the drop of the plot. Seriously, right off the bat Generals commits a cardinal sin against their franchise: it has no story. Or rather, it has a series of excuses for its story. There are no characters, no FMV cutscenes, and barely any cohesion in between missions.

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And this was far from the only deviation from the formula this game would make.

“I’ll Build Anywhere”

When this game was released there was a divide amongst the fan base about whether Generals deserved to have the C&C moniker. A discussion that would probably still be going on to this day, had Tiberian Twilight not lowered that bar so deep into the Earth’s core that it effectively destroyed the franchise. And for once, I think both sides of this argument have valid points. Generals made a lot of changes to the core mechanics of the franchise, some of which stuck around for future titles, but also kept a lot of the heart especially when it comes to unit design.

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The first thing I believe it’s worth addressing is the fact Generals plays very differently from previous C&C games. Starting with the removal of one of the series’ most iconic features: the sidebar. That, in and of itself, changes the entire macro of the game, making it play much more akin to a traditional RTS, likely in an attempt to make the game more appealing. Production facilities now have their own individual queues, making it optimal to have multiples, especially if you want mass air units. You now must pay fully for an item instead of having the cash be continuously drained while it builds (that applies to buildings too, that now must be built by construction units gradually, rather than popping instantly from a Con Yard), and for the first time in the series, upgrades are available for research.

Illustration for article titled Welcome Back Commander: A iCC/i Retrospective - iGenerals/i
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Resources are now finite, but every faction has a way of generating them by mid-game, making economic victories harder to obtain. Having a horizontal command card this time allowed them to give certain units more than one special ability or alternate fire mode, something that greatly adds to the strategic depth. Another interesting change is how the garrison function was expanded. Now any infantry can garrison buildings. To counter that newfound strength, every faction now has a way to instantly clear a garrison, be it flames or toxins. No more engineers either, buildings must now be captured by basic infantry and the process is no longer instantaneous. It’s also important to note that naval warfare was downgraded to nonexistence in this game, replaced with a bigger emphasis on more realistic tanks and aircraft. It makes sense, considering the setting keeps us confined to the Eurasia region, but it’s still a bummer.

Last and certainly not least, there’s the Promotion System. As you fight, you gain XP and get promoted, from a 1-star general to a 5-star top dog. As you do, you gain points to unlock special powers that can be anything from unlocking a new unit, to dropping the mother of all bombs on top of your enemies. These are very powerful tools that will shape your strategy, and getting familiar with the powers that best reinforce your faction’s strategy is key to victory. Speaking of them...

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Two And A Half Superpowers

All the factions in Generals are so satirical that it is impossible to take them seriously. The game makes heavy use of stereotypes for its units and playstyles, which is not only entertaining but is something that is at the very heart of the series. Starting with the USA, probably the least satirical of them all. They are the most technologically advanced of the three, with powerful but expensive units. Sporting the strongest and deadliest air force in the game while still fielding some decent armor, and with the ability to locate weak spots on your defenses thanks to strong intelligence support powers, the USA is especially adept at invading your borders and causing terrible, terrible damage. By the way, their commando unit is straight-up Rambo, complete with an oversized minigun.

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The People’s Republic of China, on the other hand, likes to solve their problems by force. Not only do they have the strongest tanks in the game, but they also have numbers to spare, being able to field a shit load of units. So much so that their units gain a fire rate bonus when in groups of 5 or more. Should they need money they hack it from the internet, and if frontline support is what the doctor ordered, they can mount propaganda speakers on top of their biggest tank, and the inspiring speech will literally heal any units in range. If all else fails, they can always appeal to the power of splitting atoms with their nuclear silos and depleted uranium shells as a late-game upgrade for their main tanks. If that doesn’t burn you, the napalm from their Dragon Tanks and MiGs will. China does not fuck around.

Illustration for article titled Welcome Back Commander: A iCC/i Retrospective - iGenerals/i
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Lastly, and most likely to get someone offended, is the GLA. They’re pseudo-religious terrorists, using outdated tech they stole from old weapon caches, suicide bombers, slave labor, and generous portions of chemical weapons. What they lack in modern tech, they make up for in hit-and-run and guerilla tactics that are extremely effective in annoying the ever-living shit out of me. Their tunnel networks allow them to move troops extremely fast (and fun fact, units heal while inside the network) and they can salvage parts from destroyed enemy vehicles to upgrade their own on the spot. So always remember the wise words of the prophet: true hell is an angry mob armed with AK-47s.

Oh yeah, Generals is an incredible quotable game. This is something the series always lacked up until Yuri’s Revenge when every unit was given a voice and personality of its own. Here, the dial is turned up way past 11: the voice acting on display is some of the best the genre has to offer, standing tall and proud with games like Dawn of War, Age of Empires II and Star/WarCraft, depending on your preferences. It’s not just that they have funny or memorable lines, but the sheer number of them is impressive. They even have specific lines for when specific upgrades are completed, sometimes more than one! The first time I heard a suicide bomber say “I love a crowd” made me pause the game to laugh for five straight minutes.

Try not to laugh. Go ahead, I dare you.

Overall, despite being grounded in reality (for the most part anyway), the factions in this game manage to feel distinct from each other, and they all play off the strength of the stereotypes they’re based on, giving an air of levity to what would otherwise be a somewhat serious affair. It’s the type of RTS that makes me feel comfortable selecting random in skirmish mode, and that’s a rare feat. Which is good, because the campaign mode is… Pretty fucking underwhelming.

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Geneva? What’s That?

The campaign mode for Generals is definitely its weakest part, which for a C&C game is a major red flag. And I don’t understand why. The series never really had deep plots, but they were always entertaining to watch. In Generals, the plot is not only lacking, but there’s a lack of it. I already mentioned how the game doesn’t feature any FMV cutscenes so let’s elaborate on that. Before every mission, you get a briefing during the loading screen. It’s basically a disembodied voice talking to you over a satellite image à la Modern Warfare. They’re short and to the point too, with no room for the wacky antics of previous games. Maybe to help alleviate that, every mission now has an opening cutscene done in-game, and to be fair, they did a lot with the tools they had. Since they have a fully functional 3D game, the camera moves, spins, zooms and even does the Matrix’s “freeze-frame and spin 360 degrees” thing. Coupled with the aforementioned voice acting, it gives everything a cinematic flair, even if some models look positively awful up close.

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This time all three campaigns tell one sequential story, although you would not be able to tell by simply picking one at random. It starts with the Chinese campaign, as the GLA mailman delivers a goddamn nuke right at the center of Beijing, and it ends with the USA and China in a joint operation to take out GLA’s capital. I think. Listen, I’m writing this just as I finish the final mission and I couldn’t tell you how the plot got there. All missions are disjointed and since there are no characters to serve as our POV into the plot, the whole experience becomes incredibly unremarkable. The plot of a C&C game should not require a trip to the wiki or VaatiVidya’s channel. By the way, you can’t skip the cutscenes, so for the love of God, save at the start of each mission.

Funny enough, the exception to this is the GLA, if only for their blatant disregard for the Geneva Convention. They start their campaign by dropping a goddamn dam on top of their enemies and end it by launching a Soyuz rocket full of biological weapons at some random, nameless city in Europe or China? I think it was China. At one point, the Chinese supply nukes to a splinter faction of the GLA that rebelled (don’t question it), so you steal those nukes and use them against the traitors. But perhaps the icing on that cake is the mission where the GLA raids civilian villages to steal the humanitarian aid sent by the UN. In any other game, that last one would be treated with all the gravitas in the world, but here, it’s a throwaway mission that barely takes 10 minutes.

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And that is my second major issue with the campaign: it has the pacing issues of a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie. Each campaign is only seven missions long, and half of them are too easy and end far too quickly, and the other half is a drastic difficulty spike. Hell, I know for a fact the third GLA mission can be done in less than 5 minutes because that’s what I did. Mind you, it’s been years since I played this game, I barely remembered anything, and I still crushed it, even on hard difficulty.

Although the campaign is weak, it does serve as an introduction to the factions and their general game plan. Do you know what else it introduces? That goddamn soundtrack.

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The Sound of War

Unlike every other title in the franchise, Frank Klepacki did not compose the music for Generals, something that is apparent from the intro alone. Instead of the hard-rocking tunes that we’re so familiar with, the music here goes for a more nuanced approach, full of orchestral instruments and a style exclusive to each faction. The USA music is full of that heroic sound you’d expect to hear in movies like Rescuing Private Ryan, and when their metal themes do kick in, it’s appropriately kickass. China, on the other hand, brings a lot of drums and traditional flutes for a soundtrack that is every bit as soothing as it is imposing, like an ancient dragon ready to strike. Last and certainly not least, GLA’s music is ripe with traditional Eastern instruments, making heavy use of oboes, riqs (a type of tambourine), ouds and chants to give their tracks that unmistakable Middle East sound.

“Tides of Wrath” is the name of the song.

The music in this game is honestly fantastic, and each style represents their culture so phenomenally well you wouldn’t be able to tell this is music composed for an RTS. In fact, I’ve seen Generals music being used for war documentaries, and I know I didn’t imagine that cause the internet backs me up on this one. The reason this music is so distinct comes from the background of the two composers: Bill Brown and Mikael Sandgren. Especially Bill, since he has on his resume a shit ton of Tom Clancy’s games, Quake III Arena and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. This man knows what a military game should sound like, and it shows in every track. If I have one problem with this music, is that only half of them are named, and I only discovered that after I went after more information on the net. I hate this so much. Imagine if Hell March was simply called Theme 1 or something. It would suck huh?

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Overall, Generals was a well-received game. I can’t find any reliable sales figures, but at least critically it performed splendidly. It obviously wasn’t perfect and you can definitely tell they needed a couple more months to polish it up and improve it. Unsurprisingly, only seven months after the original release, in September 2003 we got the Zero Hour expansion. And this is where the money’s at!

Zero Hour

This expansion pack is a major improvement, and it honestly makes the base game irrelevant by comparison. Zero Hour brought some much-needed changes and quality of life features, and since this write-up is already 3000 words long, lets rapid-fire this baby!

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For starters, they brought back the FMVs for the campaign. The plot is delivered by a reporter belonging to each faction, and they are clearly biased as fuck towards their motherlands. Their usage of in-game assets for cutscenes is on another level! Dynamic and creative angles coupled with a much better choreography makes those scenes much better than anything in the base game. The plot is also a lot more functional, with very clear continuity between missions, even if there are only 5 per faction this time. But they compensate by making the objectives a lot more interesting. It also ramps up in difficulty really fucking fast, which I guess it’s to be expected.

The biggest improvement by far was the addition of the different Generals. This was a feature that was cut from the base game, and they basically work as sub-factions that each specializes in one aspect of warfare, like infantry or air force. Each faction gets 3 and in addition to their normal base selves, making for a total of 12 play styles. This variety is appreciated. Also, your super weapon now has a dedicated shortcut like the rest of your General Powers, and I say about fucking time.

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There’s a new single-player mode called Commander’s Challenge, where you fight against the other generals in increasingly difficult ordeals. It’s good fun up until the moment you get hit by 3 superweapons at the same time. Yikes.

The game is slightly more balanced, thanks to bug fixes, tweaks, and new units. This is also good. Humvees with Snipers inside are still broken tho, and that’s bad. They gave the Chinese a dedicated place to put their hackers in, instead of having to leave them out in the open for a sniper to pick them off. Oh also, whoever designed the stealth general, I hate you.

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So yeah, better campaign, better gameplay, and more music. Go play Zero Hour.

The Great Hiatus

Generals was a lot of fun. It was a great game then, and it still holds up in 2020, even if it does have some problems. It’s a different experience, but one that is worthy of the C&C moniker, and a great game to spearhead the series into the future. But unbeknownst to us, that future was far away. Before releasing Zero Hour, EA Pacific was merged with the Los Angeles branch, prompting many to leave and go form Petroglyph Games. The studio would then spend the next few years working on the Medal of Honor and the Battle For Middle Earth series.

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For the first time, a new year didn’t bring with it a new title in the franchise. And thus, a great silence befell the series. Many other projects were either canceled or never left the blueprint stage, leaving fans orphaned for almost four years. Finally, in 2007, the wait was over.

And it was worth every second.

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