The storied history of Command & Conquer began at Westwood Studios with the release of the original game back in 1995 - and across three universes - Tiberium, Red Alert, and Generals - we've seen regular releases ever since. When EA closed down Westwood Studios development was resumed at EA Los Angeles, who gave it their best until Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010), when EA decided they wanted to create a new studio - Victory Games - tasked with creating the future of the C&C franchise. There is much to be said of the past - but for now, let's focus on the future. And that feature is more than just a game, it's a service.
When Command & Conquer (2013) was first announced it was called Command & Conquer: Generals 2 and was believed to be much like the previous chapters in the series. The Generals universe, debuted back in 2003, had been left to its own devices and fans had really begun clamouring for a sequel after almost a decade of inactivity. While it has most of the basics in common with its C&C siblings (Red Alert and Tiberium) it does have a more toned down, sober tone of fiction, and the General abilities give the gameplay a slight twist.
At some point Command & Conquer: Generals 2 was reconfigured to the free-to-play service we were given hands-on time with, and it still features a Generals setting with the GLA (Global Liberation Army), joined by EU and the Asian-Pacific Alliance (APA). As you'd expect GLA are an improvised force, with EU being the technologically advanced counterpart, and APA having the sheer numbers to throw at their enemy. When speaking to Victory Games' Tim Morten he reveals that the game was actually initially thought up with the free-to-play model in mind, later reimagined as Command & Conquer: Generals 2 just to switch back to the original concept last year. Sound complicated? Well, at least the gameplay is the meat and potatoes of C&C you'd expect.
There was an outcry from fans when C&C: Generals 2 was rejigged as a free-to-play game, the reason being it wouldn't have any story component to it - no campaign. And that is a major issue - even if the real-time strategy genre has a strong foundation in multiplayer matches - the C&C franchise has always had a strong following of fans who cared about the over-the-top science fiction antics the live action cutscenes famously told.
"We might do story later on as we see there's demand," says Tim Morten. "Maybe mini-campaigns or something."
Maybe later. Oh well. The idea is that what we were presented with on this day - three factions, four game modes (two PvP, two PvE) is a base upon which more can be built over time. The well drilled PR pitch spoke of four pillars - the Frostbite Engine, AAA RTS Quality, Live Service, and the C&C heritage of core mechanics.
I'm no fan of bullet points, but let's examine the Frostbite one as it's the one that will most likely have the most shock value here. Command & Conquer - a free-to-play real-time strategy offering is making use of the most sophicasted engine at EA's disposal - and it shows. There's some beautiful destruction taking place on the maps, and even if this game is by no means pushing the engine to its limits - it is encouraging to know there's room to improve further and the fact that the game is using EA's in-house choice for next-gen development bodes well for the longterm support.
As usual when presented with a free-to-play game we get to hear the all too familiar sounding reassurances that this certainly won't be a "pay to win" model. Of course, what they mean by this is that paying won't make up for a lack of skills on the battlefield, however money will help you gain xp faster or simply add customisation options. It's hard to tell what kind of effect xp boost may have on the game, but if there's solid matchmaking there's at least a solid chance it won't affect things negatively.
Having played 45 minutes or so of singleplayer skirmish, while witnessing a couple of developers waging a proxy war puppeteering a couple of fellow journalists next to me in multiplayer. I'm confident Victory Games are going to deliver a game (or service) worthy of the franchise. They're not really pushing the envelop with this initial batch of content, but hopefully if it takes off they will be allowed to expand on things and add more innovative factions, units and mechanics as time goes by.
The map I sampled in Skirmish provided me with plenty of strategic (base building) and tactical (choke points, flank options) choices. Playing as the GLA against the EU I used a lot of heavy tanks and helicopters to slowly grind down the opposition. Chasing that lone last unit down brought back a lot of memories.
The Skirmish is one of two PvE modes - with Onslaught a wave based co-operative mode being the other one. This sounds interesting and Victory Games claim to have several new takes on RTS game modes in development for later roll out (based on player feedback as to what they want, naturally). Multiplayer (PvP) sees your standard deathmatch paired up with domination.
Perhaps fans will warm up to the idea of an on going Command & Conquer service rather than standalone games. And it does seem like the developer is looking forward to adding story and new chapters to the lore. Tim Morten even mentioned the possibility of adding a fourth universe - but it sounded like more Generals factions was first on the list.