There's a reason why Command & Conquer is considered a sacred cow in many an RTS circle. Westwood Studio's Dune II put down all the groundwork, but the first C&C (known in some territories as Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn) had the real-world-ish setting needed to make a more mainstream splash. The original's gameplay, while primitive by today's oh-so-cultured standards, was a strategy tour de force that sent ripples through the industry that we're still feeling to this day.
It certainly helped that Westwood could build on the success of Tiberian Dawn a year later with Red Alert, the follow-up that took the fledgeling series in a new direction, added map editing tools, and took the FMV silliness to the next level. Command & Conquer has always worn its slightly camp heart on its sleeve, and that rich heritage of not taking itself too seriously no doubt helped establish the series as one of the core strategy franchises around the turn of the millennium. Then, despite innovative new features, a boatload of sequels, continued FMV zaniness (including an appearance from Tim Curry), the series just... drifted.
But it's back now, and in the era of remasters and remakes, what better series to revisit than the one that defined the genre. That's what EA's Jim Vessella joined us to discuss this month when we got a closer look at the work that has gone into restoring Westwood's RTS double bill. And what better studio to handle the work than Petroglyph (with a key contribution from art specialist Lemon Sky Studios, it should be noted), the developer that you could say rose from the ashes of Westwood Studios after it was merged into oblivion following its acquisition by EA.
First up, Vessella had some basic housekeeping to attend to, so that's where we'll start, too. Command & Conquer Remastered Collection is the painstakingly updated versions of the first two games in the series - Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert - and they're being bundled together (with no microtransactions) and released on PC on June 5. It'll cost a modest 20 bucks, and it'll be out on both Origin and Steam. So far, so good.
Community is a big part of the project and that has been the case since the start. In fact, they announced the game in 2018 before starting work on it in order to get the community on-board before development had started in earnest. Working with a small group of die-hard fans referred to as the 'Community Council', there has been an open dialogue between the developers and players for the last year-and-a-half, and they've been involved heavily and providing feedback in what Vessella called "an amazing collaborative back and forth."
The development team is leaning heavily into the community to the extent that they're contributing to the game itself. For example, The Tiberian Sons, a community band, will provide music for the game. Meanwhile, the box design was inspired by art created by a member of the community.
"We've tried to find every opportunity to pour passion into the project," Vessella told us, explaining how they've tried to capture the spirit of the original but blend that with a few subtle, modern touches. For example, the team has completely rebuilt multiplayer and created a new UI, and the whole thing has been enriched with a bonus gallery complete with behind the scenes footage and developer notes, yet the whole thing looks reverent to the original and it sounds like every effort has been made to keep the experience feeling authentic.
We then got to see some gameplay, first taking a look at one of our favourite games of the '90s: Command & Conquer: Red Alert. While they've tried to keep things essentially the same, now everything can be experienced in high definition, although you can toggle between the new and old if you want to see the difference (only in campaign, not in multiplayer). What's more, the music and sound effects have been remastered, too, with seven hours of Frank Klepacki tunes brought up-to-date, including half a dozen tracks that have never been heard before.
The gameplay demo was plucked from the start of the Red Alert campaign, with our old pal Tanya wielding her dual pistols and playing her role as the tip of the sword to perfection. Cha-ching! During the demo, we were told how the original source code has been used as the baseline when creating this remaster. The rebuilding has been extensive, especially in terms of art, but the upside of that is that you can now zoom out and get a much better overview of the battlefield. Zooming in, however, allows you to more closely inspect those subtle changes that make it feel refreshed throughout. While it looks retro and how your mind's eye remembers it, when you compare the versions you can see how much effort has gone into creating something that feels authentic without looking archaic.
In terms of the new UI, they've created a new title screen and now offer some post-match analysis, but in-game they've also rebuilt the entire sidebar (apparently it was the community's first major request). Simply put, they wanted it to align with the UIs we see in more modern games, and now it comes with 18 slots, as well as both hotkeys and tooltips. There's even unit queueing. What's more, the team has paid attention to the in-game explosions; some were extended (like the nuke and the ion cannon) to give them a bit more impact, if you'll pardon the pun.
Petroglyph and its collaborators have also tried to find the right balance when it comes to gameplay. While they have added unit queueing, the big quality of life change that many will notice is absent is 'attack move', which is not in the remaster. Just being able to send a mob of units over en masse made it too easy as the AI couldn't cope (FYI the Red Alert AI has been implemented across both versions), so they didn't add that feature. Therefore, you have to target your units, just like you had to all the way back in 1995.
Not everything is the same in terms of gameplay, however. There are now new control options including variable game speed, and there's a choice between legacy and modern inputs (so if you want to play with a left-click instead of a more modern right, you can). However, one thing that should stay fairly true to the original is multiplayer; Petroglyph didn't alter too much in terms of balance as changes made for multiplayer can have a knock-on effect in single-player.
After the Red Alert demo, we got a look at Tiberian Dawn - the game that started it all 25 years ago. All the missions are there ("we have fixed a few bugs"), including variants when the campaign splits, plus all expansion missions are in there, too. New for the collection is the aforementioned mission select screen, which now tracks your progress, and console missions from the N64 and PS1 versions are going to be playable on PC for the first time. Tiberian Dawn is also benefitting from a couple of Red Alert improvements, with the difficulty selector brought over from sequel to original, and TD is getting four-player Skirmishes.
FMVs (or full-motion videos, if you prefer) are a huge part of the C&C charm, and there have been improvements on this front, too. The team found an archive of old videotapes and while in their original form they were too low definition, the community helped create an algorithm that has helped them improve the image and audio quality (there are no legacy FMVs in the collection, just the remastered stuff). Behind-the-scenes footage is going to unlock as you complete missions, and apparently, there are over four hours of footage to share, making for a potential treasure trove of insider information for long-time fans.
Finally, we have arrived at the topic of mod support, which should come via the rebuilt map editor included in the collection, although we were told that there's more to unveil on this front. Beyond that, whether there'll be fresh content, new games, or even an esports scene built around these remasters (the developers concede that it might be too old-school for that, but who knows), will come down to whether or not there's enough interest in the series after these remasters have landed. That's scheduled to happen on June 5, at which point we'll find out whether Command & Conquer can still mix it with the big boys, or whether this once-proud franchise will stay lost in the wilderness, little more than a memory of a bygone age.