I have been an avid fan of real-time strategy games ever since the first time I played Dune II on my old Pentium 90 back in 1993 up through the now-legendary StarCraft. Building up a base, gathering resources, building and mobilizing armies and the rapid pace at which you have to make decisions in a tough, competitive match can be a real adrenaline rush.
I remember back in 1998 when StarCraft first came out that we would play it on the LAN in our office every evening when work was done for the day. Some of the games went late into the night and would be pretty heated. The best times were our 4 vs 4 games. These were the real battles. The rivalries and competitive drive would rival that of cross-town baseball teams. There would be shit-talking, name-calling, teasing, gloating etc. And we loved every bit of it.
Well, that is almost ten years ago, and while some may disagree with me, I have to say the genre has become stagnant over the last 6-7 years with most of the new titles being released either being a) shitty or b) minor upgrade/re-skin of an older title. Then you had good franchises that had a good title, but the factions were poorly balanced like in Red Alert 2: Yuri’s Revenge. No one can tell me with a straight face that Yuri’s faction was balanced.
Enter Command & Conquer 3. C&C3 was released this past spring, but due to my ill-conceived assumptions that it would suck I did not get around to buying it until recently. In fact, if not for a trip to the Apple store and seeing it on the shelf I might not have tried it. But being that I am a happy Mac user who is experimenting with Mac gaming (improving but still has a long way to go) I decided to buy it for the hell of it.
Needless to say I was pleased. The game is fun. The artificial intelligence seems to be a HUGE improvement over previous titles in the franchise. And as far as graphics go this one is probably the biggest leap forward in an RTS game to date. In fact even on my Macbook Pro with it’s substantial specs, setting all the graphics options to full slowed the game down enough to be noticeable.
First thing I did was fire up some skirmish games to get a feel for it. Set up some games with me and three computer teammates versus four computer opponents. A cocky decision – I set the AI for my opponents to “brutal” – in Red Alert 2 I could man-handle brutal computer opponents even out-numbered. In Command & Conquer 3 I got curb-stomped pretty hard.
I had a base in the corner of the map with a substantial defensive setup and the AI was smart enough the find the one hole I had and exploit the hell out of it. I quickly learned that the artificial intelligence is not the same inept AI as in the past. No longer would they repeatedly zerg my most fortified points. At one point they even somehow managed to sneak this massive artillery unit into the thin strip of land behind my base on the border of the map to bombard the hell out of my power plants which brought my defensive systems down and enabled them to hit me from the front of my base as well. I pretty much got my ass handed to me.
Another cool option when setting up a skirmish game is that not only can you set the level of the AI for the computer opponents, but now you can set their style – ie. they can focus on all-out offensive rush, turtle-like defense, or balanced. Combine these factors with the difficulty, and the new handicap modifier the game has a substantial amount of room to customize the battle. Whether you want a near-impossible scenario, or a game where you fire it up and just romp all over the computer you can pretty much do it all.
As with other real-time strategy games, there are many web sites where you can download custom player-created maps to try out. Some are designed to give you unlimited resources so you can really give it to your opponent while others are designed to make it hard to attack the opposing bases by using landscape to create some natural defenses and choke points.
After a couple of weeks doing skirmishes and playing some online games I have started playing the single-player campaigns. So far so good. This is one of those areas where the Command & Conquer franchise has always done well. The storylines are fun and well-written and make the game feel much more alive. Seeing Michael Ironside and Billy Dee Williams among the actors in the game is kind of like an 80’s flashback, but cool although I must admit that I am somewhat biased since I am a fan of their work.
Between C&C3 and the announced StarCraft 2 it looks like the genre may be experiencing a bit of a renaissance.