Summary: It took us a bit longer than we expected, but we made sure to play the game online when everyone else had to game too, and boy did a few things about Generals surprise Jakub! With all the effort he put into the game, he says he's got the definitive C&C Generals review? Care to read it and see if (for once -ed.) Jake has the cajones to back his talk up?
I’m in command
The Commander and Conquer games have certainly had their ups and downs throughout the years. We can all remember the high points like Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert… and we’d rather not remember Tiberian Sun. Red Alert II, the last game in the series, was definitely an improvement though it was clear that the days of C&C challenging the Blizzard games for online popularity were coming to an end.
Generals promised to reverse that trend. EA Pacific, who also developed RA2, took a ground-up approach to the game. No more building on past engines, everything would start fresh. As with any complete overhaul, there were great risks involved. Generals might have lost its C&C identity and alienated the hardcore C&C fans, or the new design decisions might conflict with each other. The more established a franchise, the more difficult the changes become – but when it’s obvious that the key axiom in the old “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” adage doesn’t hold, those changes must be made.
The most plainly obvious change is of course the graphics engine. There is nothing, absolutely nothing left of the old C&C here. The full-3D engine comes complete with all the goodies gamers have come to expect in modern games. High-resolution textures, great particle effects, smooth animations and polygons out the ying-yang are all here.
The interface has been updated as well. Gone is the old right-hand relic that adorned previous games and in its place is a traditional bottom bar. This means that production is also queued up at the buildings, rather than with the interface bar at the right.
Gameplay has had a few key changes as well. There are no engineers, so the annoying engineer cheese is a thing of the past, but buildings can now be captured by upgraded riflemen. The familiar rocket soldier is back in various forms, and each side has its special infantry types (like hackers and hijackers.) Aircraft have undergone a substantial reform as well, but we’ll get to that later.
What’s stayed the same?
Surprisingly, for all the massive visual changes, the actual style of play hasn’t been affected all that much. Units are still distinctly command and conquer-ish; tanks, light vehicles and infantry behave much as they have before. They are still relatively frail compared to WarCraft III, combat is always ranged since there are no melee units.
Units still fall into relatively convenient classes. Each side has an answer to another’s weapon, though obviously the GLA won’t have a completely equivalent unit to China’s Overlord tank.
SIDEBAR: The new Mazda RX-8 is pretty damn sexy.
Generals has some truly amazing graphics. Although Age of Mythology could brag that its 3D was so smooth and the animations so great that it looked 2D, Generals is the game that took full advantage of having a 3D engine. In fact, the game has some truly spectacular scripted events in the singleplayer campaign, such as the blowing up of a dam and the rushing flood of water afterwards!
Unit and weapon shadows, particles, extremely impressive explosion and smoke effects – these are standard fare. From the vapor trails of a rocket buggy’s expended ordinance to a massive, screen-encompassing nuclear explosion, Generals’ special effects are nothing short of spectacular. Even the units themselves traverse the terrain in a believable fashion, as the turrets swivel into position and unleash their fury.
Of course, all this comes at a price. The 2GHz review system with 512MB of RAM and a GF4 4200 stuttered here and there at full detail. We’re not quite sure why, since others experiences with a comparable box have been more positive. However, multiplayer is noticeable slower even at the lowest settings. Netcode restrictions may be part of the reason – and Generals has some very odd multiplayer restrictions. Namely, a Quick Match cannot be started unless the client is in 800x600 resolution, even though resolution changes don’t reveal more of the map as they have in the 2D C&C games of yore.
The sound effects in Generals complement the graphics perfectly. At first there is some disappointment with the timid small-arms and even cannon fire, but when the nuke cannon or super weapons go off – it all comes into perspective. Like those quiet moments in a symphony which lead up to an orchestral explosion, Generals’ timid effects are there for a reason.
Music is definitely matched well with the game, if a little generic and boring. It’s simply a series of military orchestra tracks with American, Chinese or Arabic themes. They’re good enough to appear in any Tom Clancy movie, but they also don’t inspire any great response – certainly unworthy of a C&C game.
800MHz or better CPU
128MB of RAM
GF2/Radeon 7500 or better
256MB of RAM
Generals has had some massive interface overhauls to bring the C&C games into the new millennium, but some old standby C&C ‘features’ still remain. For example, while there is a status bar down at the bottom now, it doesn’t list what units you have selected, never mind their health and condition. What really flies in the face of common sense is that the giant window just stays empty when a group is selected.
More problems come when we get to the mouse. The sickly old dog known as the left-click interface is still present. Instead of adopting an Ensemble or Blizzard style, EA Pacific stuck with this primitive design despite suggestions that they at least include the option for various control schemes. C&C’s basic problem is that the right mouse button is not just useless, it’s counter-productive since it de-selects the group. Any of a dozen keys on the keyboard could be programmed to do that, so could the middle button or other optional buttons on a mouse. If the right button at least did attack-move by default… This is really developer pride at its worst; there is no reason why Ensemble, Blizzard and EA Pacific couldn’t provide control rebinding.
The multiplayer lobby interface certainly does not improve the situation. For a game that can be safely assumed to sell 500,000 copies worldwide, does it really make sense to prevent people from creating their own chat rooms? Up until the recent patches, there were only three lobbies – China, USA and GLA – to spread the players around in. Now there are a dozen lobbies, but they’re all named either ‘China’, ‘USA’ or ‘GLA’. How ingenious.
On a bright note, the now-standard Blizzard-style production queues and building methods have been adopted. Units are queued up in the specific building they’re coming from, no longer in the right-hand-side interface. This makes managing multiple bases possible, and now even necessary, thanks to the multi-base strategies that have evolved.
Unit AI is quite awful. Units don’t respond to attacks that exceed their own weapons range, unless they are in guard mode. Guard mode is to be used at all times, since without it the units are quite honestly dumber than bricks. Attack-move is great, except if your units encounter buildings which they will skip entirely. Some units seem to have a longer active-search range in attack-move, meaning that they’ll peel off from the battle group to attack an enemy which their comrades won’t. This highlights they key problem with the AI in Generals – units on the same side are completely unaware of each others’ existence. Two tanks can sit side-by-side as one is fighting for its life and the other will sit idly by until it is its turn to get gang-raped.
SIDEBAR: It is with great shame that I admit I watched, and even enjoyed, the last episode of Joe Millionaire. My money is that they broke up after a while, otherwise Fox wouldn’t call the next episode a ‘reunion’.
Working for a living
The concept of leading battles as various personas of a General has been abandoned, in favor of an easier-to-balance roleplaying model. The GLA, USA and China each have one general, who gains experience and levels through combat. With these levels he purchases various abilities which come in three tiers. Tier 2 unlocks when the General reaches level 3, and tier 3 with the ‘ultimate’ ability is achieved with level 5 which is incidentally the highest level.
Even though the game has undergone such massive changes, the combat still remains distinctly Command and Conquer. The units are still relatively brittle and can die all too quickly even in a regular engagement, never mind one where nuke cannons, artillery strikes or level bombing runs are involved. Generals’ economy will be familiar to fans of the series, with a single resource distributed across the map in limited qualities and oil wells that will provide a steady stream of income.
The oil wells have a serious problem. Since their locations are fixed and visible by default, and they can be destroyed permanently, the long-range special abilities each side is equipped with make short work of them during mid-late game. Although it hasn’t occurred to the author personally, stalemates where each side runs out of actual units to throw into combat have been a real possibility. More than once, a multiplayer match was won with judicious use of an A-10 air strike against select defensive emplacements, since the regular army was too poorly armed to pull it off and resources had been exhausted.
Engineer cheese rushes may be a thing of the past, but rebel uprisings are not. The rebel uprising is a GLA special ability, where they summon a number of regular infantry anywhere on the map. If the capture building ability has been upgraded, this small force (or horde, depending on the level of ability) of infantry can capture a whole base. China is generally immune to such a tactic, since chaingun emplacements make mincemeat of all infantry, but the USA and GLA, with Patriot battery or Stinger defensive structures have serious problems. USA is particularly weak against infantry, with no dedicated infantry mauling vehicles (such as the chaingun tank, dragon tank, quad cannon or toxin tractor.) The strategy is easily defeated with smart deployment of Rangers who have the Flashbang upgrade, but it doesn’t change the fact that cheese still exists.
Generals’ balance is surprisingly good. The weekly stats show a fairly even win percentage for each side. Our own personal experiences suggest that China is the most potent foe, since neither the USA nor the GLA can win a pitched battle against an equal number of Chinese forces. However, China’s lack of speed is a serious detriment. Rocket buggies and Tomahawk Launchers are excellent at slow a Chinese ground force. Air power is less effective, as any China player will build considerable numbers of chaingun tanks, which are remarkably potent against light vehicles.
Sadly, with Generals we seem to be saying goodbye to the days of hokey full-motion video sequences between and during missions. Having once reached such lofty peaks as hiring movie stars like James Earl Jones, the games once famous for their video sequences now have none. Well, there are useless little briefings which vaguely center on one remote location or another, but they don’t really do much to tie the game together.
And that unfortunate fact composes one half of the huge problem that ails Generals’ singleplayer campaign. Nobody could care less about what’s going on in the game. The missions, though strung together with ever-increasing weapons options, don’t have anything tying them in with what’s going on. The funky Red Alert maps which showed Soviet and Allied advancements would be extremely welcome. The brief mission introductions (which regrettably can’t be skipped) don’t really add a sense of place or reason to the campaign, only set up the current situation.
The other half of the problem are the missions themselves. Most are fairly interesting and innovative as far as RTS design goes. The liberal use of the powerful game engine for cinematics really helps Generals impress, though no mission is nearly as fun the second time around.
The problem with the missions themselves is the difficulty. On even Brutal difficulty, the China campaign, for examplem, is quite easy and rarely does a mission require more than two or three tries. Yet the last mission is infuriatingly difficult even on Normal, the easiest difficulty level. To suggest there’s a difficulty balance and play-testing problem with Generals is like saying that Mortyr sucked hairy, sweaty donkey balls. Both are major understatements of a criminal nature.
When you get right down to it though, Generals has an intriguing and satisfying singleplayer experience. The campaigns could be longer and be interconnected, though after playing ORB we concede that short and sweet is better than tedious and drawn-out.
SIDEBAR: I want an NSX. Like really badly. Preferably the 6spd 3.2L model, no t-roofs, in black, with the popup headlights rather than the new funky ones. Donations gladly accepted.
SIDEBAR: Although, in a pinch, I guess I’d settle for an NSX-T
Before the last two patches, Generals was aiming at a low 70s score. The disastrous state of the lobby was completely unbearable. The addition of new lobbies, even if they don’t solve the problem, has ameliorated it enough to make finding a buddy in a chat room tolerable.
The interface problems, with the help of poor unit AI and netcode, are the key reasons for our frustration with Generals otherwise outstanding gameplay. The game seems to be designed with multiplayer in mind, but it will take a few patches to bring it to the level the designers hoped. The Command and Conquer series underwent a huge overhaul with Generals, and while it didn’t go as smoothly as possible, the developers could have done a lot worse but instead delivered a solid game.
SIDEBAR: How do you like our C&C Generals review? What about Generals, got any affection for the game itself? Was Jakub lying to us when he said it would be the definitive review on the web? Let him know about it!
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