‘Command & Conquer Remastered’ Review: An Imperfect Game, Remastered Perfectly
If you were a PC gamer in the '90s and early '00s then you likely played a Command & Conquer game. It was one of the biggest series around in what was, at the time, one of the biggest genres on computer: real-time strategy. While the competition between Warcraft, Command & Conquer, and Age of Empires died down after 2005, those series remain fixed in many gamers' hearts.
Command & Conquer Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert, released in 1995 and 1996 respectively, are classic real-time strategy games from Westwood Studios, the team that arguably invented the genre with 1992's Dune II. Command & Conquer Remastered is a loving renovation of those seminal games. Both Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert now have 4k resolution assets, high-quality audio mixes for game sounds and score, and new multiplayer infrastructure so you can play online more easily than even when they originally launched. It's everything a remaster should do.
Stuffed in among the well-known battles between NATO-like GDI and terrorist organisation Brotherhood of Nod, and the Allies and Soviets, are behind-the-scenes extras, like the recording sessions for both games' kitsch cutscenes. The jukebox returns so you can listen to Frank Klepacki's excellent remastered soundtracks. And every one of the game's cutscenes has been upscaled to look better than ever on modern monitors.
A particular treat is that you can tap the spacebar at any point to switch between the original assets and the newly detailed and redesigned models. While you can now also zoom in and out from the battlefield to admire these soldiers, there's a real joy to be found in playing the game in its original look.
What's also clear is that the team at Petroglyph Games - made up of the games' original developers and new collaborators - has decided what a remaster shouldn't do. The team hasn't fixed these games. One of my major gripes with Command & Conquer Tiberian Dawn's campaign is that most missions devolve into the same grind of building up as large an army as you can, throwing it at the enemy's front gates and praying this is the time you can take out their barracks and construction yard. But, this isn't a new criticism, it's one that was leveled at the game when it launched back in 1995.
In fact, all the old problems remain. The AI's path-finding will send units on circuitous routes to their targets, your troops will often not defend themselves when an enemy gets too close, and missions frequently end with you searching out the one soldier still hiding somewhere on the map.
All of these problems can be frustrating and lead to missions dragging on longer than they need to - like the final hours of Monopoly, when the winner is clear but every player is being ground down into bankruptcy. But, should they be removed? Is it the job of a remaster to fix the problems of the original game, or simply to make the game playable again so audiences can see what the original was like?
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The first PC game I ever played was Westwood Studios' Dune II. It was the team's first real-time strategy game and what put them on the path to Command & Conquer. Back then, you couldn't drag a box over units to select them, nor were there context-sensitive mouse commands. To send your units to attack the enemy base you had to select each one individually, click the attack button on the side-panel, and click your target. Your army would charge off in a staggered conga line, their spacing determined by how quickly you could click the commands. It was clunky and you likely wouldn't make a game like that now, but if that game was ever remastered and that was changed, we'd lose both the sense of what the game was when it came out and the marker it represents for the progress of games that followed.
Throughout the '90s, real-time strategy games were one of the most popular genres on the PC and one of the most rapidly developing. Every year developers were improving on what came before. The Command & Conquer Remastered collection actually gives a fantastic example of this. Released just a year after Tiberian Dawn, in Red Alert Westwood solved so many of the problems present in their 1995 game. For instance, when you destroy the enemy AI's core buildings, effectively ending its ability to stay in the game, it will sell all its remaining buildings and send all its units against your base. This wraps the game up faster and means missions often end in a final, exciting ditch defense.
In this remaster, the developers could have rolled the improvements of Red Alert back into Tiberian Dawn. But, if they had, they would have erased a significant part of the gaming history these two titles represent. This gaming double bill captures the pace of the game industry in the mid '90s, and that's something special.
The team has also released the source code for both Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert, so modders will be free to tinker and patch these games, making them more modern if they want. But the commercial package, as you buy it, treats those original games as artifacts that deserve to be played as they were.
I cherish the memory of playing Command & Conquer 25 years ago, and yet was surprised to find myself getting frustrated at the slog of completing some of the missions in the first game's campaign. But, given the choice, I still wouldn't change a thing about this remaster.
Command & Conquer Remastered is out on June 5th for PC. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: EA Games